• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Philosopher Defends Religion

Sijmen Hendriks
Alvin Plantinga, Utrecht, the Netherlands, 1995


The gulf in outlook between atheists and adherents of the monotheistic religions is profound. We are fortunate to live under a constitutional system and a code of manners that by and large keep it from disturbing the social peace; usually the parties ignore each other. But sometimes the conflict surfaces and heats up into a public debate. The present is such a time.

One of the things atheists tend to believe is that modern science is on their side, whereas theism is in conflict with science: that, for example, belief in miracles is inconsistent with the scientific conception of natural law; faith as a basis of belief is inconsistent with the scientific conception of knowledge; belief that God created man in his own image is inconsistent with scientific explanations provided by the theory of evolution. In his absorbing new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished analytic philosopher known for his contributions to metaphysics and theory of knowledge as well as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its head. His overall claim is that “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” By naturalism he means the view that the world describable by the natural sciences is all that exists, and that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.

Plantinga’s religion is the real thing, not just an intellectual deism that gives God nothing to do in the world. He himself is an evangelical Protestant, but he conducts his argument with respect to a version of Christianity that is the “rough intersection of the great Christian creeds”—ranging from the Apostle’s Creed to the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles—according to which God is a person who not only created and maintains the universe and its laws, but also intervenes specially in the world, with the miracles related in the Bible and in other ways. It is of great interest to be presented with a lucid and sophisticated account of how someone who holds these beliefs understands them to harmonize with and indeed to provide crucial support for the methods and results of the natural sciences.

Plantinga discusses many topics in the course of the book, but his most important claims are epistemological. He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating. However, Plantinga thinks we can reasonably believe that we are the products of evolution provided that we also believe, contrary to naturalism, that the process was in some way guided by God.


I shall return to the claim about naturalism below, but let me first say more about the theistic conception. Plantinga contends, as others have, that it is no accident that the scientific revolution occurred in Christian Europe and nowhere else. Its great figures, such as Copernicus and Newton, believed that God had created a law-governed natural order and created humans in his image, with faculties that allowed them to discover that order by using perception and reason. That use of perception and reason is what defines the empirical sciences. But what about the theistic belief itself? It is obviously not a scientific result. How can it be congruent with a scientific understanding of nature?

Here we must turn to Plantinga’s general theory of knowledge, which is crucial to understanding his position. Any theory of human knowledge must give an account of what he calls “warrant,” i.e., the conditions that a true belief must meet in order to constitute knowledge. Sometimes we know something to be true on the basis of evidence provided by other beliefs, or because we see that it is entailed by our other beliefs. But not every belief can depend on other beliefs. The buck has to stop somewhere, and according to Plantinga this happens when we form beliefs in one of the ways that he calls “basic.”

The basic belief-forming capacities include perception, memory, rational intuition (about logic and arithmetic), induction, and some more specialized faculties, such as the ability to detect the mental states of others. When you look in the refrigerator and see that it contains several bottles of beer, you form that belief immediately without inferring it from any other belief, e.g., a belief about the pattern of shapes and colors in your visual field. When someone asks you whether you have had lunch yet, you can answer immediately because you remember having had lunch, and the memory is a belief not based on any other belief, or on perception, or on logical reasoning.

Beliefs that are formed in the basic way are not infallible: they may have to be given up in the face of contrary evidence. But they do not have to be supported by other evidence in order to be warranted—otherwise knowledge could never get started. And the general reliability of each of these unmediated types of belief-formation cannot be shown by appealing to any of the others:

Rational intuition enables us to know the truths of mathematics and logic, but it can’t tell us whether or not perception is reliable. Nor can we show by rational intuition and perception that memory is reliable, nor (of course) by perception and memory that rational intuition is.

But what then is the warrant for beliefs formed in one of these basic ways? Plantinga holds that the main condition is that they must result from the proper functioning of a faculty that is in fact generally reliable. We cannot prove without circularity that the faculties of perception, memory, or reason are generally reliable, but if they are, then the true beliefs we form when they are functioning properly constitute knowledge unless they are put in doubt by counterevidence.1 Human knowledge is therefore dependent on facts about our relation to the world that we cannot prove from scratch: we can’t prove the existence of the physical world, or the reality of the past, or the existence of logical and mathematical truth; but if our faculties do in fact connect with these aspects of reality, then we can know about them, according to Plantinga’s theory.

For example, if our perceptual beliefs are in general caused by the impact on our senses of objects and events in the environment corresponding to what is believed, and if memories are in general caused by traces in the brain laid down by events in the past corresponding to what those memories represent, then perception and memory are reliable faculties, which can give us knowledge even though we cannot prove they are reliable.

So far we are in the territory of traditional epistemology; but what about faith? Faith, according to Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason, perception, memory, and the others. However, it is

a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in reason.

God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.)2 In addition, God acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of the Gospel.”

If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)

It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements.

Faith adds beliefs to the theist’s base of available evidence that are absent from the atheist’s, and unavailable to him without God’s special action. These differences make different beliefs reasonable given the same shared evidence. An atheist familiar with biology and medicine has no reason to believe the biblical story of the resurrection. But a Christian who believes it by faith should not, according to Plantinga, be dissuaded by general biological evidence. Plantinga compares the difference in justified beliefs to a case where you are accused of a crime on the basis of very convincing evidence, but you know that you didn’t do it. For you, the immediate evidence of your memory is not defeated by the public evidence against you, even though your memory is not available to others. Likewise, the Christian’s faith in the truth of the gospels, though unavailable to the atheist, is not defeated by the secular evidence against the possibility of resurrection.

Of course sometimes contrary evidence may be strong enough to persuade you that your memory is deceiving you. Something analogous can occasionally happen with beliefs based on faith, but it will typically take the form, according to Plantinga, of a change in interpretation of what the Bible means. This tradition of interpreting scripture in light of scientific knowledge goes back to Augustine, who applied it to the “days” of creation. But Plantinga even suggests in a footnote that those whose faith includes, as his does not, the conviction that the biblical chronology of creation is to be taken literally can for that reason regard the evidence to the contrary as systematically misleading. One would think that this is a consequence of his epistemological views that he would hope to avoid.

  1. 1

    The details are complicated, and are set out in Plantinga’s three-volume magnum opus, Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function (both Oxford University Press, 1993) and Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford University Press, 2000). 

  2. 2

    This is often the result of sin, though not necessarily the sin of the unbeliever; see Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, p. 214. 

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print