In response to:

Can Religious Belief Be Tested? from the November 8, 2012 issue

A Philosopher Defends Religion from the September 27, 2012 issue


National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

William Blake: Saint Peter and Saint James with Dante and Beatrice, circa 1824–1827

To the Editors:

Thomas Nagel writes that “whether atheists or theists are right depends on facts about reality that neither of them can prove” [“A Philosopher Defends Religion,” Letters, NYR, November 8]. This is not quite right: it depends on what kind of theists we have to do with. We can, for example, know with certainty that the Christian God does not exist as standardly defined: a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly benevolent. The proof lies in the world, which is full of extraordinary suffering. If someone claims to have a sensus divinitatis that picks up a Christian God, they are deluded. It may be added that genuine belief in such a God, however rare, is profoundly immoral: it shows contempt for the reality of human suffering, or indeed any intense suffering.

Galen Strawson
University of Reading
Reading, United Kingdom
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas

To the Editors:

Pursuing the dialogue between myself and Thomas Nagel [Letters, NYR, November 8] regarding his review of Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism [NYR, September 27]:

To show there’s no extrasensory perception, it suffices to show that there’s no serious evidence of it; no deep philosophical reflection is needed. Similarly, when Plantinga postulates a “sensus divinitatis” (SD), or a special faculty that leads people to believe in God, this is a claim that should be empirically testable. Presumably, the faculty involves more than theists’ beliefs simply turning out to be true, as Nagel suggests, but some special system that could detect Him, as sight can light. Of course, it might be hard to test the SD unless there were also evidence of God, but in my letter I was presuming for the sake of argument that Plantinga provided such evidence—he argues, for example, that our scientific abilities required divine intervention. It should therefore be a matter of empirical research to establish the further psychological claim, which a reasonable theist could deny, that people’s theistic beliefs are the result of some special and reliable SD.

Nagel writes that Plantinga would complain that this demand for evidence is “question-begging.” But how could a demand merely for evidence for a claim beg a question against it? Because, Nagel explains, the claim that belief in God is the product of an SD implanted in us by God “is not, in Plantinga’s view, provable either empirically or by other means. Rather, it is a theological hypothesis,” on a par with belief in the reality of the past.

But this claim about what’s provable is neither theological nor psychological; it is a further epistemological one, that neither a theist nor a believer in an SD need accept (indeed, it’s incompatible with Plantinga’s own recourse to the success of science as evidence of God!). So the original question of the SD is not being begged. Moreover, unlike belief in the past, which it’s hard seriously to imagine being false, and is supported by the vast majority of our other beliefs, belief in God or an SD is quite easily imagined to be false, and is supported by few other beliefs, if any.

Georges Rey
Department of Philosophy
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland

Thomas Nagel replies:

I believe Georges Rey errs in comparing the Calvin/Aquinas claim of a sensus divinitatis to belief in ESP. ESP can be tested by controlled experiments, to see whether its results vary in correspondence with independent variation in the facts supposedly “sensed.” But either God exists or he doesn’t. We cannot conduct controlled experiments to see whether believers detect God when he is present but not when he is absent.

Plantinga’s point is that if God exists and directly causes most people to believe in him, that would be a basic source of knowledge whose authority was independent of other basic sources, like memory, logic, and perception. To demand evidence of a different kind for the reliability of a sensus divinitatis is to beg the question by assuming that it does not have this basic character. The argument is intended to show how faith could be a source of knowledge if God exists; it is not intended to convince atheists to change their minds.

Galen Strawson offers what I believe to be the most powerful argument against the existence of God, the argument from evil. The theistic responses to that argument of which I am aware seem unpersuasive, and I find it hard to understand how belief in an all-good and all-powerful deity can survive in the face of it. Even if a theist supposes that the problem has a solution that we humans are unable to grasp, that would mean that God, who created us with the capacity to discover the laws of nature and to find the world scientifically intelligible, has made us incapable of finding the world morally intelligible. These are powerful reasons for doubt, and they have certainly destroyed the faith of some believers. Still, I would resist Strawson’s conclusion that they rise to the level of proof.

This Issue

December 6, 2012