Plantinga on Science, Naturalism, and Faith

Alvin Plantinga is a highly-respected philosopher, respected even by those who disagree with him.  An evangelical, Reformed Christian, Plantinga has written a new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.

It has received a glowing review from Thomas Nagel, an atheist–in the New York Review of Books, no less–in which he says that Plantinga’s arguments help him to realize that Christians are, in fact, rational.  And that his own side has some explaining to do.

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.

Nagel gives a very clear summary of Plantinga’s epistemology, which emphasizes that there are different kinds of “warrants” for  beliefs.  Faith itself, Plantinga argues, is such a warrant:

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.

via A Philosopher Defends Religion by Thomas Nagel | The New York Review of Books.

Read the whole review.

For the purposes of our discussion, could we make some topics off-limits?  First, please do not dismiss Plantinga as a “theistic evolutionist”; he may be one, but I think that’s too simplistic, and he is also giving some “warrants” for creationism.  Second, let’s not get into the debate here between “evidentialist”  and “presuppositionalist” apologetics.  There is actually some of both here, as Plantinga is supporting the reality of objective evidence as well as the fact–which Lutherans, at least, must not deny–that faith is a gift.  The ultimate cause of atheism, as Plantinga says and as the atheist Nagel admits, is “spiritual blindness.”  Finally, let’s not have any attacks on Plantinga as a Calvinist.  (Comments that violate these terms may be deleted.)

The new new atheists

The old atheists deny that God exists.  The new atheists deny that God is good and that therefore he does not exist.  Now we have what Christopher R. Beha describes as “new new atheists,” atheists who believe God does not exist and are trying to figure out how to live without Him.

In the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, I write about three books by writers I call the “New New Atheists.” The New Atheists—among them Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens—wrote bestselling books in the past decade that fiercely attacked belief in God. The fundamental difference between these polemicists and the next wave of atheist writers is evident in the titles of their books. In place of Dawkins’s The God Delusion, we have Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. In place of Harris’s The End of Faith, we have his follow-up, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. And in place of Hitchens’s god is not Great, we have Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.

The New New Atheists tend not to take up the question of God’s existence, which they take for granted as settled in the negative. Instead, they seek to salvage what is lost when belief erodes, concerning themselves with what atheists ought to believe and do in religion’s stead. Botton, for instance, asks how the benefits of faith—a sense of community, a sense of wonder—might be found in the secular, while Harris addresses what might be the most vexing problem facing atheists: how morality is possible without God. Only Rosenberg—a philosopher at Duke with a predictable commitment to rigor—insists that doing away with religion means doing away with most of what comes with it: a sense of order in the universe, the hope that life has some inherent meaning, even the belief in free will.

via The Literary Response to Radical Atheism—By Christopher R. Beha (Harper’s Magazine).

HT:  Matthew Cantirino

Atheists’ sexual harassment problem

A controversy roiling in the atheist community is the prevalence of sexual harassment and its leadership’s indifference to the problem:

As skeptics, atheists and humanists prepare to gather for their largest meeting in Las Vegas this weekend, attendance by women is expected to be down significantly.

Officials for The Amazing Meeting, or TAM, said Wednesday (July 11) that women would make up 31 percent of the 1,200 conference attendees, down from 40 percent the year before. A month before the conference, pre-registration was only 18 percent women, organizers said.

The explanations are many — the bad economy, that women, as caregivers, are less able to get away, and that more men than women identify as skeptics, whose worldview rejects the supernatural and focuses on science and rationality.

But in the weeks preceding TAM, another possible explanation has roiled the nontheist community. Online forums have crackled with charges of sexism in TAM’s leadership and calls for the ouster of D.J. Grothe, the male president of the James Randi Educational Foundation, TAM’s organizer. In June, Rebecca Watson, a skeptic blogger and speaker, canceled her TAM appearance because, she said on her blog, she does “not feel welcome or safe.”

Other nontheists — both male and female — have shared stories of unwanted sexual attention at nontheist gatherings, including propositions for sex and unwelcome touching. Chatter has ranged from calls for more women to attend nontheist events to personal attacks on prominent female skeptics for discussing harassment. Meanwhile, two more skeptic/feminist bloggers announced they will not attend TAM. . . .

Last year, at another skeptic conference, Watson said she was approached late at night in an elevator by a man she believed was seeking sex. When she blogged about it, the “atheosphere” erupted in comments, both supportive and negative. British biologist Richard Dawkins, the best-selling author of “The God Delusion,” wrote that Watson should “stop whining” and “grow a thicker skin.”

The current hullabaloo can be traced to May’s Women in Secularism Conference, a first-of-its-kind gathering about nontheist women. On a panel examining feminism and nontheism, Jennifer McCreight, an atheist blogger, said women speakers at nontheist events warn each other privately about male speakers who make unwanted sexual advances.

via Religion News Service | Culture | Gender & Sexuality | Do atheists have a sexual harassment problem?.

Why might this be?

Moving an atheism blog

Leah Libresco has been running one of the atheism blogs at the pan-religion site Patheos, hers being entitled Unequally Yoked:  A Geeky Atheist Picks Fights in Good Faith.  Well, now the subtitle has changed to A Geeky Convert Picks Fights in Good Faith.  And Patheos switched her to the Catholicism category, even though she is still taking instruction.  She offers a charming account of her conversion to Christianity:  This is my last post for the Patheos Atheist Portal.

Stalin’s five-year-plan for atheism

Eighty years ago on this day, May 22, 1932, Josef Stalin began his program to eliminate the very memory of the name of God in the Soviet Union within 5 years.  The following account of Stalin’s “atheistic five-year plan” is from a Russian site and is clumsily translated into English, so I’ll edit it slightly:

On Tuesday, there will be 80 years since the Soviet government issued a decree on “atheistic five-year plan.”

Stalin set a goal: the name of God should be forgotten on the territory of the whole country [by] May 1, 1937, the article posted by the Foma website says.

Over 5 million militant atheists were living in the country then. Anti-religious universities – special educational establishments for training people for decisive attack against religion – were organized.

According to the plan on religion liquidation, all churches and prayer houses should have been closed [in] 1932-1933, all religious traditions implanted by literature and family [in] 1933-1934.   It was planned that the country, and firstly, youth would be grasped by total anti-religious propaganda [in] 1934-1935; the last clerics were to be eliminated [in]1935-1936; the very memory about God should have been disappeared from life to 1937.

However, the 1937 census in which  a question about religion was included on Stalin’s instruction puzzled Bolsheviks: 84% of 30 million illiterate USSR citizens aged over 16 said they were believers; the same was reported by 45% of 68.5 million literate citizens.

via Interfax-Religion.

HT:  John Couretas and Joe Carter

How to deal with Christian-baiting

Well-played, San Antonio Christians!  You basically ignored this, making the atheists look bad!

A small group of students at the University of Texas at San Antonio spent two days last week sitting in the middle of campus next to bright red signs covered in large black letters. One said “Free Porn.” The other offered “Smut for Smut.”

The students, all members of Atheist Agenda, hoped to entice their classmates to turn in their Bibles in exchange for pornographic magazines – a provocative offer designed to shock and attract attention.

“The point is not to hand out porn, but rather the primary purpose is to get people to come talk to us so we can get our message out,” Kyle Bush, the group’s president, said. “We want to spread atheism and bring it more to the spotlight. We offer another alternative to people who might not fit in anywhere else.”

The event caused an uproar on campus in 2008 and made headlines around the world. But this year, few students took notice. During the four hours Atheist Agenda members spent next to their signs each day, only about 30 people stopped by to get information about the club or start a debate.

In addition to Bibles, the group offered to collect other religious texts, including the Quran, and any books written by prominent pastors, including Joel Osteen and Rick Warren. During the event, Atheist Agenda collected five Bibles, one Encyclopedia of Islam, and one Quran. The group plans to donate the books to a local library.

Despite the event’s ability in previous years to attract attention for atheism, Bush said the group didn’t have any financial backers outside its student members. The group raised all of the money needed to put on the event themselves, he said. One of the group’s fundraisers included selling popsicles.

“A lot of the money comes from members,” Bush said. “Like if we need posters, somebody will go and buy posters.”

The group purchased 140 pounds of pornographic magazines for $30 from a seller on Craigslist.

via Atheists offer porn in exchange for Bibles | World on Campus: news for college students from a Christian perspective..

In other words, the event fizzled.  The atheists looked pathetic, and the Christians were above the fray.  That’s the way to handle this sort of thing.  The thing is, the general public doesn’t much like it when Christians proselytize, but they don’t like it when atheists do it either!  The atheists are slow to realize that. And there is still shame in pornography, which is why people use it in secret on the internet and why the atheists could buy 140 pounds of pornographic magazines for $30.  Though we can be outraged at the blasphemy, we can note how few takers there were and how the atheists are so clueless about how to get their message across.


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