Tom Gilson

Is It Rational to Believe in Spiritual Battle? (Part 2)

Polls consistently show that most Americans believe in the existence of a devil. (Though I haven’t checked, I expect that number would be lower in other Western countries.) Belief in a devil is less frequent than belief in a God, and less respectable in many quarters. It’s controversial when a politician attributes some good event to God; how much more if he or she blamed Satan for something bad! There are some very good reasons for this, but there is also a very prominent bad reason floating in and through Western culture.

Some Good Reasons Not To Claim Demonic Involvement
(A.) The first good reason is that the reality of the devil is far, far less important than the reality of God. That’s why no Christian tradition that chooses to pay a whole lot of attention to Satan. Still it is the case that Jesus cast out demons from many, thereby healing them from physical, mental, and spiritual infirmities. Those of us who take Jesus seriously must take demonic activity seriously. I’ll come back to that later in this series.

(B.) It’s usually very difficult to pin responsibility on hostile spiritual forces. They do not announce themselves that clearly, at least not in the Western world. I’ll come back to that later, too.

(C.) Blaming Satan for bad things might just be another instance of irresponsible blame-shifting. “The devil made me do it” is never a good excuse. “The devil did it” is just as bad when it’s used to shirk accountability. We need to take responsibility for what we can do in the world.

(D.) We need to be cautious, too, because we can fall into the error of mis-labeling that which we don’t understand. In this series’ opening article I mentioned epilepsy and “voices in the head” as examples that have fit this category in the past.

These are good reasons not to claim that demons are involved with every bad thing that happens. Unfortunately there’s another prevailing reason people in our culture avoid making that claim, and it’s not a good one.

The Bad Reason
(E.) Our culture is pervaded through and through by an anti-supernatural mood, or atmosphere. It affects Christians almost as much as non-believers. Sure, we believe in God, and many of us believe there’s a devil, but we would be shocked if we ever saw a miracle, stunned if we saw clear evidence that hostile forces actually do anything in the world. We all swim in a scientistic sea, with our assumptions controlled (or at least strongly influenced) by the belief that the world is the kind of place that science can explain through and through, at least someday. It’s embarrassing to be caught in public believing anything but that. Try it, and you’ll be labeled “anti-science” and “irrational,” people will exchange worried glances while excusing themselves uncomfortably from your presence.

So how accurate the “anti-science” and “irrational” labels? Throughout this series I’m arguing that “irrational” doesn’t fit. I think I can deal more quickly with the “anti-science” label. The answer depends on what one means by science.

(E1.) If the term refers to a set of disciplines and approaches for understanding the natural world, then the question of demons has nothing to do with it, for such creatures, if they existed, would not be of the sort that inhabits the natural realm. To believe in demons could not be anti-science in that sense, for they would have nothing to do with what science can competently study. You might as well say it’s anti-geography.

(E2.) We could extend the term science to refer to the body of knowledge obtained through the practice of science. If that is your view, then I say, “That’s fine, but where’s the journal article? Where’s the conference proceeding? Where in the body of scientific knowledge do we see it demonstrated that there are no hostile spiritual forces in all of reality?” There is no such finding. Nothing that has been discovered in any lab, measured by any theory, or enumerated by any equation, has ever contradicted a basic background belief in demons.

(E3.) Some people, though, take science also to include an attitude toward reality in general, such that to be “scientific” is to believe that science is the one reliable route to knowledge, the only method by which we can investigate and understand reality. If that’s your view of science, then you’re bound to conclude that it’s anti-scientific to believe in Satan or demons. But this is nothing better than an assumption. Let’s analyze it so we can see why.

1. Science is the only reliable route to knowledge, the only method by which we can investigate reality,
2. Therefore if there were some truth about reality that was beyond the reach of science, it would be completely and permanently beyond the reach of knowledge.
3. It is irrational to suppose that we could have any meaningful interaction with that which is completely and permanently beyond the reach of knowledge.
4. Spiritual battle purports to be an interaction with that which is beyond the reach of science, and thus beyond the reach of knowledge.
5. Therefore spiritual battle is irrational.

But (1) is a statement of knowledge concerning reality, one that does not proceed from the methods of science. Therefore it defeats itself: if (1) were true, it could never be known to be true; and if (1) can never be known to be true, it falls prey to the principle expressed in (3). It is irrational to suppose that science is the only reliable route to knowledge, the only method by which we can investigate reality.

Additionally, those of us who believe that spiritual battle is real do so on the basis of what we take to be God’s revelation concerning spiritual realities. Points (1) and (2) assume that such revelation is impossible; that if there were some spiritual reality, it would have to be beyond the reach of knowledge just because it is not open to examination by scientific means. But what scientific means is there to prove that if there were a God, he would have to be the kind of God who could not speak to us?

So Reason E scores an F: It is literally illogical to deny the rationality of spiritual battle on account of E. It is irrational to assume that spiritual battle is irrational just because it is “unscientific.” If you care to find some reason to doubt the reality of spiritual battle, you may feel free to try to do that, but if my analysis here is correct, you won’t find it in any box labeled, “Spiritual battle is unscientific.”

That doesn’t diminish the value of A through D. Most of the time there are still good reasons not to conclude that our difficulties have come to us through the direct intentional action of hostile spiritual forces.

As I close the second part of this series, I acknowledge that what I’ve done so far has been mostly negative. There are times and reasons when it’s better not to claim that spiritual battle is going on. There are frequently good reasons to be doubtful about it, but so far we haven’t uncovered any good reason to believe it’s always irrational to believe spiritual battle is going on. But that leaves open the questions of whether there is any positive reason to believe that spiritual battle is a reality, and under what circumstances we could safely conclude that our circumstances are best explained in the light of spiritual battle. I’ll write more on those questions later.

P.S.: Prayer Request
Earlier today while I was writing this draft, our family was hit with another very serious crisis of a sort I can probably explain later, but not today. It adds one more major item to what I wrote at the beginning of the first post in this series. For those of you who don’t doubt its rationality, would you please pray spiritual warfare prayers on our behalf, and pray for our endurance, too? Thank you.

Series Navigation (Spiritual Battle):<<< Is It Rational To Believe In Spiritual Battle? (Part 1)The Rationality of Spiritual Battle: An Irrational Answer >>>The Primitive Belief in Satan and Demons >>>
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1 thought on “Is It Rational to Believe in Spiritual Battle? (Part 2)

  1. Something is bugging me about your syllogism.

    Okay, so #1 is a statement of belief. It is an axiom, and to quote Wikipedia, “an axiom is a logical statement that is assumed to be true.” It cannot be disproven, because it is the starting point from which this hypothetical philosophy is reasoned from.

    A parallel to this might be “the only true form of knowledge is that which is read in a book.” Well, if you didn’t read that statement in a book, is it invalidated?

    For a more formal phrasing, consider Wikipedia’s entry on Classical Logic (link) :

    Classical logic rests upon a foundation of axioms. The axioms of classical logic, are a set of a priori abstractions that humans create, in order to make categorical syllogisms;

    Anyways, enough of the Logic 101 stuff – suffice to say that E is not invalid.

    I don’t think that most people embrace #1, though. I’m not an epistemology buff to know exactly why, but it doesn’t seem quite right to say that the scientific method is the only path to knowledge. I think that’s called “scientism”, is pejorative, and isn’t a mainstream view amongst the atheist/freethinker/agnostic communities.

    I would address #4, though. If spiritual warfare is happening, then there is an effect in the natural world – you indicate yourself that your family is undergoing some tragedy right now, and you suspect spiritual warfare to be the cause of it all. So even though the origin is purported to be beyond scientific knowledge, its *effects* are not, and they may be subject to scrutiny, skepticism, and critical thought.

    My thoughts are with you at this time – I hope that you have a support network that you and your family can draw from.

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