I. Religion & Virtue Theory > What makes "Religious Luck" an important concept?

Linda Zagzebski, Charlotte Katzoff, and others among our members have explored a concept of "religious luck" and its usefulness in philosophy of religion.

What is religious luck, and what bearing does it have on debates such as those over the rationality of religious belief/commitment?
July 26, 2006 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell
Religious Luck and Credit Theories of Knowledge

Religious luck might be a problem for credit theories of knowledge. If you think that the epistemic agent’s getting the truth p has to be saliently credited to agent for him to know that p, you can have trouble with examples like the Apostle Paul’s acquisition of the truth about the identity of Jesus that Paul narrates in the 26th chapter of Acts of the Apostles. Thus Paul, through no merit of his own, gets a revelation from Jesus about Jesus’ identity, and not only is the “religious information” coming to Paul in a fortuitous manner (from the perspective of Paul’s responsibility), but Paul “irresponsibly” resists accepting the information and has to undergo a religious conversion the salient agent of which is God and not Paul for this information to become Paul’s knowledge. Here is the passage from the Bible (Paul is speaking to King Agrippa):
“Thus I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles — to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me’” (Acts 26.12-18).
Clearly, the Apostle intends this story to explain causally his knowledge that Jesus is Lord, and what it says about that knowledge is that Jesus gets the credit, not Paul. Paul represents himself as “kicking against the goads” (of the evidence? of intimations of conscience? of intuitions that Jesus is actually Lord?). The appearance of Jesus overwhelms Paul and forces him, against his will, to see that Jesus is Lord. It is true that, after the overpowering appearance Paul begins to cooperate cognitively, displaying a bit of epistemically virtuous behavior. “Who are you, Lord?” So he gets a bit of credit. And it’s plausible to suppose that without this modicum of virtuous behavior, Paul would not have known that Jesus is Lord. But lottery cases, and in the case of Smith owns a Ford or Brown is in Barcelona, the epistemic agents also display a modicum of virtuous behavior. Greco’s point is that the primary or salient explanation of how they got their true beliefs is something other than their virtuous behavior, and this is true of Paul’s conversion as well, except that (in the Christian tradition, at least) Paul comes out with knowledge, despite the peripheral character of whatever epistemic credit he may get. Jesus caused Paul’s true belief, and Paul and his virtues had comparatively little to do with it.
So our position would be that religious luck in this sense is a problem for credit theories of knowledge, but that since such religious luck doesn’t rule out knowledge, the problem is in the credit theory and not really a problem for knowledge.

Bob Roberts and Jay Wood
August 6, 2006 | Registered CommenterRobert C. Roberts
Bob and Jay,
Thanks for that. The example of religious luck by way of the story of Paul's religious experience and conversion is nice. I'd love to hear more about the epistemological connections you raise. I can see your point about Paul's knowledge not the epistemological issue to worry about, though I suppose this implies that you take knowledge posession be be pretty much an externalist affair.

Your position is that religious luck as this example shows "is a problem for credit theories of knowledge." Maybe I'm missing the point of your analogy of the religious luck problem to the luck issues involved in lottery problems. But I suppose I'd wonder why the critical implication doesn't work the other way around--that is, why credit theories, and our 'everyday practices' of attributing epistemic credit to agent's don't present a challenge to Paul's--what--intellectual right or responsibility in claiming truth and justification for the belief acquired through his

It seems that to call someone "religiously lucky" implies that there are nearby worlds where the religiously lucky aren't lucky. If so, it would seem that the concern would fall on the individual claiming, or the epistemologist attributing religous luck (and true belief on account of it). So I'm left unclear if on your account consideration concerning religious luck ever can sometimes work against the claims of that individual, rather than against the credit theory? How do we sort out, on your account, when the burden of the argument would fall the one way, impugning credit theories, or the other, impugning the claims made by or on the part of the person?
August 9, 2006 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell
A few brief comments about luck and religious knowledge:
1. The question of luck does not seem to have any bearing on the question regarding the rationality of religious beliefs. *If* mystical experiences (or other religious ones) are a reliable path to true propositions, no less than, say, sense-perception, then they are so regardless of whether having them is a matter of luck or not.
2. According to William James and others, having a religious experience is typically a matter of luck in the sense that it is not within our control. But similarly seeing a bird in the sky is not within my control. In general, acquiring beliefs is not something we freely engage in; we "bump" into them, so to say.
3. Religious luck raises a special problem about God's *goodness*, namely: Assuming that knowledge of God is crucial for human perfection, it seems unfair that the route to this knowledge is not equally open to all, as it is at least partly a matter of luck whether one acquires it or not.
August 18, 2006 | Registered CommenterDaniel Statman
I think I agree with Danny that religious luck is not a special problem for theories of knowledge or rational belief. Granted, much has been written lately on epistemic luck, and religious belief provides more examples of that kind of luck, but the special problem of religious luck, as I see it, arises in the way that Christian doctrines exacerbate moral luck. They do this in at least three ways:
(1) The doctrine of grace is an additional source of moral luck, in addition to the three sources of luck identified by Nagel: luck in constitution, luck in circumstances, and luck in consequences.
(2) The consequences of luck are multiplied to infinity by the doctrines of an eternal heaven and hell.
(3) Epistemic luck is hooked to moral luck because religious belief has consequences for eternal reward and punishment. So epistemic luck IS a form of moral luck.
August 18, 2006 | Registered CommenterLinda Zagzebski
I'd agree with setting the question of religious luck as a special problem for theories of knowledge aside. Why it isn't a special problem for religious rationality seems to me a very different question though. I think of a virtue responsibilist account of rationality as one that links rationality (in at least one fundamental sense) as closely linked with intellectual responsibility, so that if the latter is lacking in what Bob calls the "minimal agency" of the agent in his example, then so will the former.

There are of course various senses of rationality, but I'm unclear what sense of rationality is being appealed to when you say that religous luck doesn't appear as potentially a problem for the rationality of belief?

Don't let this post stop you from talking more about the relation of religious and moral luck, though, which seems to be an interesting and important connection for Danny and Linda, and one that I'd like to hear more about.
August 18, 2006 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell
I want to agree that religious luck may be a problem for religious rationality, but that the problem has to be treated separately from the question of religious knowledge. The passage from Paul illustrates that the notion of knowledge implicit in many biblical texts not only does not impute epistemic rationality to the subject, but functions so as to highlight the primacy and authority of God as against the passivity and submissiveness of the subject.

I am thinking also of the Genesis narratives where God reveals himself to Abraham, as a result of which Abraham learns truths – about God's will, about God's intentions, and about the future. From the perspective of the narrative, these truths constitute knowledge. Not only can Abraham not be epistemically credited for these truths, but in the context of these narratives, to doubt, inquire, or test, would be to his discredit. He exemplifies the religious virtue of obedience and acquiescence.

That the notion of knowledge in these texts is so externalist intensifies the presence of religious luck in them. I don't see religious luck as a problem for the texts, but its prevalence in them may be a problem we want to deal with.
August 21, 2006 | Registered CommenterCharlotte Katzoff
That's quite a broad array of issues raised in first posts on our blog. When Danny says that religious luck raises a special problem about God's *goodness*, and Linda says that the problem of religious luck arises "in the way that Christian doctrines exacerbate moral luck," I'm sure we find strong overlap, and I find also insightful Katzoff's more epistemological point that the notion of knowledge in her examples is "externalist," and that this "intensifies the presence of religious luck in them."

One of the reasons Linda says a problem of religious luck arises in Christian thought is that "The consequences of luck are multiplied to infinity by the doctrines of an eternal heaven and hell." There's a 2006 paper I cam across by Jonathan Barnes, 'Belief is up to us,' that I couldn't make much sense of, but that Linda's point helps me with. I quote it at length just in case it is useful in pointing out the problem:

"The early Christian theologian, Basilides maintained--according to Clement of Alexandria--that beliefs are 'natural', that 'the gift of belief is appropriate to each man's hopes', that 'belief is a natural advantage and not an achievement of the will'. Can you digest those doctrines? That depends upon yout God-given nature. It is not something you can choose or decide to do yourself.
"Basilides was, of course, a heretic; and his notion that beliefs are natural was a heretical doctrine, and a doctrine of appalling consequences. For it Basilides is right, then

'the punishment which awaits non-beleivers will not be just; for they are not responsible-no more than those who believe are responsibile for their beliefs. To those who consider things in this way, none of the peculiarities and differences of beleif and disbelief will be subject to praise or to blame inasmuch as they are predetermined by an omnipotent natural necessity. We are marionettes, a sort of inanimate object, and the voluntary and the involuntary are superfluous.'

"If Balidides is right, then Heaven and Hell are unjust." (end of J. Barnes passage)

Is this the problem, or at least a close cousin to it?
August 22, 2006 | Registered CommenterGuy Axtell
Surely Paul deserves as much credit as one would get in the case of ordinary perceptual knowledge. It might be replied that the latter involves the "virtue" of a well functioning perceptual faculty -- but something like that must be true regarding Paul's capacity to represent (somehow) this divine communication. If God, and not this capacity, gets the credit in Paul's case,parity of reasoning would give "nature" the credit in the other. Of course, nature is not an agent with "virtues" -- but even in God's case, the virtues involved in causing Paul to have this insight are not the kind of ones involved in the acquisition -- but of the transmission of knowledge. Normally, such virtues as the communicator of knowledge may exemplify do not compete with attribution of virtues to the recipient of the communication. Thus, nature's lacking communicative virtues seems irrelevant to a comparison of these cases. It seems to me, then, that Greco's theory is in trouble regarding Paul, but no more so than in any case where perceiving forces one to accept something running contrary to one's initial inclinations.
August 25, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjames montmarquet