religious experience

Justification, Truth, and the Skeptic’s Mistake

At age 21, while studying music education at Florida State, a single event changed my life completely. This experience hit me so hard that I completely flipped on one of my most deeply-held beliefs. I moved, in that brief moment, from atheism to Christian theism.

conversion, justification
The Conversion of St. Paul (close up) by Caravaggio, one of my favorite painters.

The event was a “Christian concert.” In between songs, the band talked about how God had changed their lives, and at the end, they invited people to come forward for prayer. Something transcendent happened to me during that invitation, and I went forward, nervously. I was overcome with emotion and the sudden realization that God was real.

The Skeptic’s Mistake

Now, a skeptic might think, “Well, obviously you were impressionable and probably needed something — a sitting duck for emotionally manipulative preaching.” Perhaps you are right. You may then be tempted to dismiss my experience as a delusion or some kind of wish-fulfillment. Fine. But logic simply won’t provide you with a bridge between “that was a delusion” to “you’ve believed something false.” You’ll have to (irrationally) jump for it. (Note: Christians also make this mistake when they tell the atheist, “You’re only an atheist because (fill in the blank).”)

Such a leap commits a fallacy I have elsewhere called the “genetic fallacy,” the “deconstruction fallacy,” and “Bulverism.” Put simply, it confuses the origins or motivations of a belief with the truth of a belief. Even more simply, I think it conflates justification and truth. (In the video, I talk at mainly about the genetic fallacy.)

What Is Justification?

Justification (in philosophy, or more precisely, in epistemology), is what supports a belief and helps make it a “good” belief. Imagine two people named Trey and Emma, who both believe that broccoli is good for you. When you ask them why they believe this, Trey says, “I don’t know. Because it’s green?” But Emma says, “Because broccoli contains vitamins K and C, is a good source of folic acid, potassium, and fiber, all of which are scientifically proven to be good for us.” What makes Emma’s belief better than Trey’s? Well, clearly it isn’t truth. They both believe something true. Justification puts Emma in a far superior position, epistemically speaking.

Image result for kc chiefs super bowl champions 2020"

Another example. Imagine two people named Josiah and Lainey. They both believed that the Chiefs would win the Super Bowl. But when you ask why, Josiah says, “Because I love the Chiefs and I’ve rooted for them since I was little.” Lainey says, “Because their players are more talented, their coach is more experienced, and their defense has given up half as many points as the 49ers defense has this season.” [I made that up.] Then the Chiefs win. Lainey’s belief is better, but not because it’s “truer” than Josiah’s. It’s because she had justification, while Josiah’s belief was motivated by sentiment and wishful thinking.

Justification and Truth

Chemist J. J. Becher proposed the phlogiston theory.

Now, here’s something interesting that you don’t want to miss. Justification doesn’t make a belief true, and the lack of it doesn’t make a belief false. In fact, someone can believe something with tons of justification, and still be wrong. Pundits who predict the outcome of elections and sporting events can have dozens of reasons to support their belief, and still be wrong 50% of the time! But a better example is science. For over a century, scientists believed in a substance called “phlogiston,” and they had a litany of good reasons for this. Of course, the theory turned out to be false. They were, nevertheless, justified in their belief.

I don’t want to give the wrong idea here–there is a relationship between justification and truth. It’s just more like friendship than marriage. Justification usually indicates a higher chance of truth, but doesn’t guarantee it. They aren’t always together.

Genetic Fallacy and Justification

So, I think that the “genetic fallacy” is an attack on someone’s justification gone awry. By pointing out a lack of sound reasoning, or the absence of evidence, or the influence of biases, I am saying, “You lack justification for your belief.” But rather than stop there, we hastily proceed to say, “So, your belief is false.” That’s where I overstep my logic. I could appropriately say, “So, you might want to back up and examine your thought process,” but that’s about all.

Sometimes philosophers call these problems with justification “defeaters.” (Not to be confused with the band, Defeater.) By pointing out that someone’s experience may have been the result of psychological manipulation is to identify an undercutting defeater that calls into question the reliability of the evidence. But when presented with a defeater for my belief, I need not abandon it as false. I can seek out “defeater defeaters.” This is a perfectly legitimate and intellectually honest move.

Hidden Justification


Now, I have to point out that spotting a flaw or hole in someone’s thinking does not automatically mean they lack justification. A child who cannot explain why they believe the earth is round may be justified — the testimony of their science teacher is sufficient evidence. A religious person who cannot offer any arguments for God, but has had a powerful experience of the divine, or relies on a plethora of testimonial evidence, may very well be justified. (To dismiss all religious experiences as misleading evidence, you would first have to prove that there is no God.) But remember, conceding that they are justified does not entail that their beliefs are true.

Having a justification ≠ Giving a justification

Most people hold a belief because somewhere along the way, something convinced them of it. Beliefs don’t often pop out of nowhere. And this “something” may have been reliable testimony, veridical experience, or sound logic (or even “proper functioning“). However, they may draw a blank when you ask them to talk about their justification. Don’t automatically assume they lack good support! You may need to probe further to discern their reasons for the belief.

Another quick point deserves mentioning. People may very well have emotional or social forces backing a belief. Fear, peer pressure, conformity, comfort–all these can come into play. But don’t assume that all disagreement stems from a “phobia.” And even if people are phobic, that doesn’t (logically) make them wrong!


So a take away here is this: if you realize that you (or a friend) came to believe something in a dubious manner, don’t jump to the conclusion that the belief is false. This certainly applies to religious beliefs, but other beliefs as well. What you may realize is that you (or your friend) may need fresh and updated support for your belief. Justifications that worked perfectly well in childhood may no longer be adequate. And if you can’t find fresh support (after a fair and serious attempt), it may be time to let go of that belief. But be careful not to tell yourself or others that a belief is false simply because it has a questionable origin.

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