Knowledge and Christian Belief
by alvin plantinga
eerdmans, 141 pages, $16
oes God exist? Is it reasonable to believe in God? A common line of thought holds these two questions to be importantly distinct. Since no one has been able to settle the matter of God’s existence one way or another, it has to be the subject of belief rather than knowledge. But we can still ask whether that belief is reasonable or not. Once the questions are distinguished in this way, it is easy to identify a long line of “modern” thinkers who are agnostic about the reality of God’s existence but think it obvious, or at any rate easy to show, that belief in God is irrational. The writers that Mark Johnston has dubbed “undergraduate atheists”—Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and co.—have attracted a great deal of attention and sold several million books. But they are just the latest wave in a long line. Furthermore, as the title of Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell indicates, this wave makes use of a recurrent idea whose most famous exponents were Marx and Freud—namely, the suspicion that there must be some nonrational driver behind religious belief, since its irrationality so obviously conflicts with its persistence.
Alvin Plantinga, arguably the most brilliant philosopher of religion in half a century or more, has spent many years undermining the assumptions that lie behind this familiar and plausible way of thinking. Plantinga thinks that belief in God is warranted if there really is a God, and unwarranted only if there is not. This may sound like stating the trivially true, but in fact it is an astute and powerful move that owes its origins to two of the greatest Christian theologians—Thomas Aquinas and Calvin. Plantinga argues that if, as the Christian religion holds, the world is indeed God’s creation, then human beings should expect to find themselves believing in him—unless, that is, as Christians also hold, some dysfunctional condition such as sin deflects or corrupts their natural belief. If, on the other hand, human beings are, as scientific naturalists hold, a product of physical and biological forces, then the rational position to occupy will be atheism, and religious belief must indeed be explained as arising from some social or psychological need. In other words, theism and atheism are not rival conclusions drawn from a single body of evidence. Rather, they part company at a deep metaphysical level and thereby inform and structure our interpretation and understanding of human experience. Because the difference between them is deep, there is no “neutral” evidential basis against which the respective epistemological merits of theism and atheism can be tested.
his may read like some version of relativism or Kantian conceptualism, according to which “reality” is determined by the concepts we employ. This is not Plantinga’s position. His point is not that Christians interpret experience through distinctive concepts but that, in epistemological terms, substantial Christian beliefs can be “properly basic.” Faith is not, as is so often supposed, to be contrasted with knowledge. Rather, faith is itself a mode of knowledge, different from, but no less proper than, sense perception or mathematical reasoning. Sense perception generates beliefs in us so well grounded that we are warranted in believing them. This is all that the accolade “knowledge” requires, and it is only some arcane form of philosophical skepticism that ever doubts it.
If this is true, it shifts the burden of proof. If Christian beliefs are properly basic, then they are epistemologically warranted unless someone can point to considerations that decisively defeat them. Plantinga considers three potential “defeaters”—historical biblical criticism, the fact of religious pluralism, and the existence of evil. The last is the most troublesome, but none, in the end, proves decisive.
The conclusion to be drawn is not that Christian belief is true but that, contrary to what very many people suppose, the great battery of arguments brought against it since the Enlightenment—arguments that appeal to rationality, historical investigation, or modern science—achieve none of their advertised goals. Despite the atheists’ rhetoric, Christian belief is not just for children or uneducated people. “Intellectually sophisticated adults in our culture” can subscribe to it, and do so with a philosophically rigorous and epistemologically clear conscience.
his brief summary of Plantinga’s new book is also a summary of arguments conducted at much greater length in his earlier work, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford, 2000). Warranted Christian Belief, rightly, has been the subject of close scrutiny, admiration, and criticism. This new book adds nothing as far as content is concerned, so on that score there is not much more to say. But that is not its point. The aim here is to make the arguments of the earlier one accessible to a new and wider readership, one that includes “general readers and students outside the field of philosophy,” according to the back cover.
Does it succeed? I write as someone very well-versed in this material, admiring of Plantinga and sympathetic to much that he defends. This makes it hard to judge accessibility, but I suspect the answer is no. This book is certainly much shorter than the original version (141 pages as opposed to 528), and a great deal of historical material and technical argument has been omitted. Nevertheless, it still includes passages that are likely to prove daunting for many readers. Here, for instance, is the statement of a contention crucial to the argument: “Now warrant, the property enough of which distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief, is a property or quantity had by a belief if and only if (so I say) that belief is produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly in a congenial epistemic environment according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth.” Now, I know exactly what this means, but I am a professional philosopher with decades of study and teaching behind me. What would the general reader make of it?
Yet those who stick with the book long enough to reach the last three chapters—on biblical criticism, religious pluralism, and evil—will probably find that their interest quickens. Plantinga can be a very engaging writer (though occasionally a little too deliberately whimsical), and these three chapters contain material about which any serious Christian will want to think carefully.
ere, though, I have another doubt, one that other reviewers of Plantinga have sometimes remarked upon. There seems something a shade too easy about his response to critics. In the case of biblical criticism, this may be a consequence of the brevity of his treatment. In the case of religious pluralism, while he has a very important and refreshing take on some common assumptions, he relies quite a lot on relatively clear-cut cases of moral pluralism; people have differed radically over slavery and racial discrimination, for instance, but no one thinks this makes antislavery or antiracism epistemologically egoistic. True, but is the religious case so clearly analogous? In the case of challenges presented by evil, Plantinga (perhaps rightly) defends the rational immunity of a traditional version of Christian belief in a good God. The defense, however, seems insufficiently troubled by some of the horrors that human beings have both caused and encountered. Plantinga might protest: How much can be done in thirty-nine pages (which is all these three chapters run to)? Not a lot, but perhaps that is a reason for not trying to do it.
In 2011, Plantinga published Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. Though not as long as Warranted Christian Belief, it is more than twice as long as Knowledge and Christian Belief. I would say that the reader who wants to grapple with central contemporary debates about the credibility of traditional Christian teaching, and who would like to get some sense of the philosophical style and accomplishments that Alvin Plantinga has brought to those debates, might do better with Where the Conflict Really Lies. Meanwhile, those who want to explore the strengths and problems of “Reformed epistemology” may as well tackle the major work of which this is a greatly shortened version.
Gordon Graham is Henry Luce III Professor of Philosophy and the Arts at Princeton Theological Seminary.