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In the latest issue of Intelligent Life , the quarterly lifestyle and culture magazine from The Economist , Anthony Gottlieb claims that religious believers face a stumbling block in a sixty-five year old horticulture parable :

In 1944 John Wisdom, an aptly named British philosopher, wrote a parable about a garden. It took up just a few paragraphs of an intricate essay in a professional journal, but it seeded a controversy that ran for a good few years before subsiding into the mulch of abandoned philosophical debates. The essay was about religion: the parable raised the question of what meaning, if any, could be given to the idea that the world is watched over by a loving God . . . .

The parable went like this. “Two people return to their long neglected garden and find, among the weeds, that a few of the old plants are surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other, ‘It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these weeds.’ The other disagrees . . . They pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. The believer wonders if there is an invisible gardener, so they patrol with bloodhounds but the bloodhounds never give a cry. Yet the believer . . . insists that the gardener is invisible, has no scent and gives no sound. The sceptic doesn’t agree, and asks how a so-called invisible, intangible, elusive gardener differs from an imaginary gardener, or even no gardener at all.”

It seems that no evidence could make the man who believes in a gardener concede that he was wrong. Come what may, he will hang on to his faith in a guiding hand with green fingers. Wisdom hinted that this dispute seems not to be one about what it is reasonable or correct to believe, but is instead more like a difference in attitudes towards the garden.

Gottlieb concedes that the logical positivists went too far in their claims but that,

[T]he parable of the gardener did raise an unsettlingly powerful point about the nature of faith. If you believe something, shouldn’t it be possible to say what would make that belief true or false? What is the content of your so-called belief in the existence of a God, or of a gardener, if you cannot say what difference his presence or absence would make to the world?

The direction Gottlieb takes next is rather odd and not really worth pursuing. He claims that Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists “have undermined the idea that the state of the world points compellingly to the existence of a God” yet concedes that ” Fundamentalist believers” (including Catholics) aren’t persuaded because the theologically ignorant Dawkins and pals are knocking down strawmen that no one believes. So far, so good, since this is exactly right.

Gottlieb then shifts to a non sequitur about Karen Armstrong that lasts several paragraphs before he concedes that the she is a “puzzlingly eccentric” whose views appear to be shared by no one other than the former nun.

Finally, after that weird detour he ends the piece with by making his primary assertion—that theological speculation should begin with the presumption of atheism: “A wiser response to the apparent inexpressibility of statements about God may be simply not to express them, and just get on with the gardening.”

The fact that Gottlieb was able to get this article published in The Economist likely has more to do with the fact that he is a former executive editor than with any merit to his argument. Yet the question he raises, though never defends, is one that is worth considering: Is a presumption of atheism the natural epistemic state from which we should begin?

The presumption of atheism is the idea that in the perceived absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist. Since atheism is the default position, in this view, the theist is the one who bears the burden of proof in regards to the rationality of their belief in God’s existence. Therefore, since there is an “absence of evidence” for the Christian conception of God (the only form of theism I have any interest in defending) then it is irrational to hold such a belief.

Based on this presumption, I assume that Gottlieb believes in a foundationalist epistemology. Briefly, this is a theory of knowledge that states that all beliefs are either “basic”—immediately justified in themselves—or “nonbasic”—based on a foundation of other beliefs.

Some people might assume that all beliefs are required to be based on “evidence” but this is hardly the case. For example, if I were to say that I believe I have a stomachache I would have no empirically verifiable evidence for this claim. The stomachache is considered to be grounded in my pain but it is not evidence in the technical sense. These types of beliefs that are valid but not rooted in evidence are considered properly basic.

To claim a belief is properly basic means that it is based neither on propositional evidence nor on another belief. While 2+2 = 4 would be a basic belief, 22 x 22 = 484 is considered a nonbasic belief since it is based on a foundation of other beliefs (namely lower level arithmetic). (Evidence based beliefs must ultimately be traced back to a basic belief for their foundation.)

Other examples of basic beliefs would be perceptual beliefs (I see a dog.), memory beliefs (I took out the garbage yesterday.), and beliefs about someone else’s mental states (My wife is mad because I’m spending too much time reading blogs.). All of these experiences are the grounds for the beliefs, but they are not evidence for the beliefs themselves.

I mention this in order to lay the groundwork for a claim made by Reformed epistemologists such as Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, et al, that the theist’s belief that “God exists” is a properly basic belief.

To clarify further, let’s look at a basic belief that atheists and theists have in common. (This line of argument isn’t essential to the claim that “God exists” is a basic belief but I think it will aid in clarifying the point.) One basic belief held by all rational people is the belief in eternal existence. The two variations are that “some are eternal” or “all is eternal” (to claim that “none is eternal” is to make the illogical claim that existence came out of non-existence).

Hinduism is an example of a basic belief that “all is eternal.” Theism and atheism, on the other hand, fall into the “some is eternal” category. Theists believe that a Being, usually given the label “God,” possesses eternal existence. Atheists—at least most of them in the West—consider matter (or whatever other impersonal property that constitutes the universe/multiverse) to be the only thing that exists eternally.

Most reasonable and rational atheists would agree that matter has, in one form or another, always existed, either in this universe or in that great metaphysical speculation posing as a scientific theory, the multiverse. They have no evidence for this belief yet they would contend that they don’t need any. It is a properly basic belief. In much the same way, theists believe that an eternal Being has always existed. Neither the atheist nor the theist can be considered to be in possession of an irrational or improper belief. One or the other may be wrong, of course, but that doesn’t mean they are irrational for holding such views.

Obviously this is a but a brief explanation of a complicated philosophical argument for Reformed epistmology. Not all Christians accept this view of epistemology, of course, nor it is it the only defeater argument against the presumption of atheism. But it is a defeater and a sufficient one to hold up against more rigourous claims that those made in Gottlieb’s article.

We must also be careful not to read too much into this claim. This is not an “argument for the existence of God,” for while theists are justified in having a belief in God, that does not necessarily mean that he actually does, in fact, exist. What this does show, however, is that the belief in the Invisible Gardner—assuming, of course, that the gardner is God—requires neither evidence nor outside justification in order to be considered rational.

Update: My buddy Justin Taylor sent me this parody of the gardener parable by theologian John Frame:

Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle.  A man was there, pulling weeds, applying fertilizer, trimming branches.  The man turned to the explorers and introduced himself as the royal gardener.  One explorer shook his hand and exchanged pleasantries.  The other ignored the gardener and turned away: “There can be no gardener in this part of the jungle,” he said; “this must be some trick.  Someone is trying to discredit our previous findings.” They pitch camp.  Every day the gardener arrives, tends the plot.  Soon the plot is bursting with perfectly arranged blooms.  “He’s only doing it because we’re here-to fool us into thinking this is a royal garden.” The gardener takes them to a royal palace, introduces the explorers to a score of officials who verify the gardener’s status.  Then the sceptic tries a last resort: “Our senses are deceiving us.  There is no gardener, no blooms, no palace, no officials.  It’s still a hoax!” Finally the believer despairs: “But what remains of your original assertion?  Just how does this mirage, as you call it, differ from a real gardener?”

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