Alvin Plantinga is an eminence within the Christian apologetic community, but even he can only play the hand he was dealt. He was interviewed by the New York Times and gave three arguments (or sub-arguments) so stupid that a high school student shouldn’t be allowed to get away with them (part 1 here).
One Christian responded to comments to the interview:
It appears that many of the commenters either didn’t read the interview carefully or didn’t understand Plantinga’s arguments. They’re much more sophisticated and formidable than some of the superficial dismissals of the commenters might lead one to believe.
Sophisticated and formidable? That certainly doesn’t apply to these arguments. See what you think.
#2. Moon no longer connected to lunacy
Plantinga’s interviewer asked about the God-of-the-gaps problem: explanation is a zero-sum game, and things that science explains well—like lightning, drought, and disease—no longer need the God hypothesis. The list of things that God could plausibly cause continues to shrink. The interviewer gave evolution as an example of something that science now explains much better than Christianity ever could and asked, “Isn’t a major support for atheism the very fact that we no longer need God to explain the world?”
As a justification of atheism, this is pretty lame. We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified. A-moonism on this ground would be sensible only if the sole ground for belief in the existence of the moon was its explanatory power with respect to lunacy.
Right—we have lots of reasons to believe the moon exists. Drop “Of course the moon exists—how else would you explain lunacy?” and you have more reasons. By contrast, we have pretty much zero reasons to believe God exists, and Plantinga in this article does nothing to change that.
The same thing goes with belief in God: Atheism on this sort of basis would be justified only if the explanatory power of theism were the only reason for belief in God. And even then, agnosticism would be the justified attitude, not atheism.
As we saw in part 1, Plantinga’s definition of an atheist is someone who says, “I’m certain God doesn’t exist” rather than “I have no God belief, but I’m not certain.” I agree that evolution’s explanatory power doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist (and so can’t help atheist #1), but then that’s not my definition. I go where the evidence points (atheist #2), and by explaining the diversity of life on earth by evolution, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” (Richard Dawkins).
Here’s my distillation of Plantinga’s argument: we have many reasons to believe the moon exists, so if one reason goes away, we’re still justified in believing in the moon. No one questions the existence of the moon, in no small measure because can all see it! Contrast that with God: before modern science, Christians explained puzzles in nature with the stock answer, “God did it.” There was no evidence to support this claim, but (in Europe) Christianity was pretty much the only game in town. Now with science explaining things far better than Christianity ever could, Christians have even fewer reasons to accept the Christian claims.
Plantinga tries to salvage his discouraging situation by acknowledging that there are fewer reasons to believe in God now but pointing out that the number of reasons isn’t yet zero.
Let’s return to the opening point, “as a justification of atheism, [God being replaced by science] is pretty lame.” Redefine atheism as most of us see it (lack of god belief), and science’s incredible track record for explaining reality vs. Christianity’s inability to teach us anything new actually makes a powerful argument. Not only does the Bible not pass on any useful science (how about a recipe for soap or an explanation of how to avoid spreading disease?), but many of its claims about nature are wrong.
Imagine someone saying that just because some of the miraculous claims for alchemy are false, that doesn’t make them all false. That’s true, but we now know that they are indeed all false. Christianity has traveled the same road.
Concluded in part 3 with the claim that beliefs provided by evolution are as likely false as true.
but in groups, states, and societies,
it’s the norm.
— Friedrich Neitzche
Image from Marc Arias, CC license