God Among the Philosophers

by Michael D. Beaty

Beaty is associate professor of philosophy at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and editor of Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, June 12-19, 1991, pps. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Atheistic evidentialists conclude that those living in the 20th century who are fairly well educated in matters scientific and philosophical can believe in God only by sacrificing their rationality. Must one sacrifice rationality to believe in God? Using contemporary analytical philosophy, a number of philosophers have develped impressive responses to atheistic evidentialism.

For much of this century, professional philosophers have either shown little interest in religious beliefs and practices or have attacked the Judeo-Christian tradition, contending that it is intellectually and morally bankrupt. During the past couple of decades, however, philosophy of religion and philosophical theology have experienced a rebirth in the British Isles and North America. Among those who identify with this renaissance, there is a growing confidence that traditional theism can be defended against the secularism of both the culture and the academic community. They also are growing more certain of their ability to use the tools of analytic philosophy to deepen the theistic community’s understanding of its faith.

The current revival in philosophy of religion is not limited to the Anglo-American analytical tradition. Interesting developments are also taking place in Continental modes of philosophy, which can be considered a development of Kant’s "critical" philosophical views, embracing the perspectives developed by such thinkers as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and, most recently, Derrida and Foucault. One idea often associated with this tradition is that objective, impersonal knowledge of the ultimate nature of reality is a will-o’-the-wisp. A third tradition is that of process philosophy as derived from Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. Process philosophers complain that the dominant philosophical models used in Christian theology employ static metaphysical categories like "being," "substance" and "attribute" rather than a more dynamic conceptual structure that captures the dynamic character of the Bible’s revelation of God. Process thought refers to concepts congenial to the modern sciences of physics and biology, but its detractors accuse it of being both obscure and dismissive of important Christian beliefs.

Nevertheless, the ferment in the Anglo-American analytic world is most striking since it has dominated professional philosophy in this country since World War II and has been perhaps the most hostile to traditional theism. In the ‘50s and ‘60s philosophers in this tradition fixated on the question of how language is meaningful. Logical positivism suggested that all religious language is meaningless, at least from the cognitive point of view. This created quite a stir in theological circles, and many theologians apparently accepted this position. Even today many academic theologians insist that the Christian faith is nonpropositional. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, as logical positivists found their central doctrines under severe attack by fellow analytic philosophers, epistemological issues emerged as the dominant concern. These discussions influenced theologians’ consideration of the rationality of the theistic point of view. In response some have maintained that religious beliefs fall outside the category of the rational. They are not irrational, but they are nonrational or arational. By and large the analytic philosophers who have led the resurgence of interest in the philosophy of religion have shown little interest in either fideism or the often-skeptical themes of Continental philosophy (they have shown somewhat more interest in process theology). Analytic philosophers, whether theist or atheist, assume that theistic belief has a core that is propositional and rationally assessable—that it is a failure of nerve to insist otherwise.

One evidence of this rebirth of interest and activity in the rationality of theism is Keith Parsons’s recent God and the Burden of Proof: Plantinga, Swinburne, and the Analytic Defense of Theism (Prometheus, 1989). In the foreword, Kai Nielsen, a philosopher frequently critical of religion, notes that "philosophy of religion in Anglo-American contexts has taken a curious turn in the past decade." During much of this century, Nielsen says, many Anglo-American philosophers of the analytic persuasion—those who demand clear, logically precise and empirically grounded arguments—assumed that the intellectual plausibility of theism had been wholly undermined. Nielsen’s tone suggests that he had expected the intellectual support for theism to fade away. Instead, Nielsen concedes, a host of analytic philosophers have arisen to challenge the alleged incredibility of theism.

Parsons’s book is devoted to providing "an introductory examination of recent attempts to defend traditional theism within the contexts of analytic philosophy." The existence of such a book reflects the quantity and quality of books and articles being published in this area. (At least three publishers are establishing new series on philosophy of religion: Cornell University Press’s Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion, the University of Notre Dame Press’s Library of Religious Philosophy, and Indiana University Press’s Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion.) While Parsons is not convinced that the philosophical faithful have made theism plausible, he grants the rigor and acumen of its leading proponents.

One philosopher of religion who has gained high regard is Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga, professor at the University of Notre Dame and recently president of the American Philosophical Association, recently gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen (soon to be published by Oxford University Press in three volumes). Plantinga also directs the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame, which offers a rich program of activities, including a biennial conference that brings together junior and senior members of the discipline to share research and writing.

In the late ‘70s Plantinga, along with William Alston of Syracuse University, helped form the Society of Christian Philosophers. A number of Christian philosophers felt the need for an organization to support and stimulate Christian philosophical reflection. Gathering mailing lists from Wheaton College in Illinois and Notre Dame, the group announced its intentions and invited individuals to join. From its modest beginnings in 1978 as a subgroup within the American Philosophical Association, the SCP has grown to more than 900 members. It continues to meet with the APA and the Canadian Philosophical Association, hosts three regional conferences each year, and sponsors summer seminars. In 1985 the SCP began publishing the journal Faith and Philosophy, which is now well regarded by the philosophical community for its high quality and the diversity of its essays.

So philosophy of religion is alive and apparently well. Some of the best philosophic minds around disagree sharply with the late John Mackie’s ironic remark that "the Christian religion cannot be believed without a miracle by any reasonable person." What kinds of claims about the rationality of religious belief are these philosophers making? We can get a sense by looking at how theists respond to evidentialism. Evidentialism is a view suggested by Hume in the 18th century, articulated forcefully by W. K. Clifford in the 19th century and defended in the 20th by, among others, Anthony Flew, Norwood Hanson, Michael Scriven and, most recently, Parsons. It asserts that there are two fundamental marks of rationality. First, it is always wrong to believe anything on the basis of insufficient evidence. That is, one may rightly believe only those things for which one has sufficient evidence. Second, it is always wrong to believe something with more intensity or strength than the strength of the evidence. That is, one’s degree of belief should match the amount of evidence for the belief. An atheistic evidentialist might thake the following claims:

1. There cannot be sufficient evidence for the central claims of theism because religious language is meaningless.

2. There cannot be sufficient evidence for the central claims of theism because the concept of God is incoherent.

3. Even if both I and 2 are false, all the arguments for

God’s existence are failures, so there is insufficient evidence for the existence of God.

4. Given the existence of evil in the world, its pervasive and troubling character, there is rather decisive evidence that God does not exist.

5. Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and others have shown that religious beliefs grow out of diseased forms of life based on powerful and often subtle tendencies toward self-deception.

The atheistic evidentialist would claim, then, that there are no good arguments for the existence of God, and that there are some good arguments against the existence of God. Many modern evidentialists would also claim that theists have a special burden of proof. Unless they can prove with "sufficient evidence" that God exists, one cannot rationally believe that God exists. The atheist, on the other hand, need not provide sufficient evidence that God does not exist.

These considerations may be taken separately or they may be combined to make an apparently quite powerful cumulative case against the rationality of belief in God. On such grounds, the atheistic evidentialist concludes that those living in the 20th century who are fairly well educated in matters scientific and philosophical (say, readers of the CHRISTIAN CENTURY) can believe in God only by sacrificing their rationality. These assumptions may have led many philosophers who were religious to consign faith to their private, nonprofessional lives or to accept Nielsen’s and Mackie’s view that the theistic tradition is intellectually second-rate.

Using contemporary analytical philosophy, a number of philosophers in America and England have developed impressive responses to atheistic evidentialism. Especially striking is the work of Plantinga and the well-known Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne. Both insist on theism’s rationality and richness, though their arguments differ in important and interesting ways. Swinburne gladly accepts the evidentialist challenge. He agrees that belief in God is rational only if there is sufficient evidence, scientifically demonstrable, of God’s existence. Appealing to confirmation theory and employing Bayes’s Theorem of Probability Calculus, he has developed a cumulative-case argument for God’s existence that he claims inductively justifies the existence of God as the best explanation for a wide variety of well-known data. Indeed, Swinburne treats the existence of God as an explanatory hypothesis superior to its competitors.

While Plantinga denies that theists have a special "burden of proof," he does not acknowledge that there is insufficient evidence for the claim that God exists. Rather, he thinks that belief in God is rational even if none of the arguments (even Swinburne’s) for God’s existence succeeds. To appreciate Plantinga’s approach we might first consider the following passage from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son (Eerdmans, 1987):

When I survey this gigantic intricate world, I cannot believe that it just came about. I do not mean that I have some good arguments for its being made and that I believe in the arguments. I mean that this conviction wells up irresistibly within me when I contemplate the world. The experiment of trying to abolish it does not work. When looking at the heavens, I cannot manage to believe that they do not declare the glory of God. When looking at the earth, I cannot bring off the attempt to believe that it does not display his handiwork.

Plantinga attempts to help us see why believing in God in such circumstances is not irrational. Stated simply, even evidentialists must concede that not all statements require evidence or proof. For if one is to provide evidence for some statements, then there must be a class of statements that provide evidence but for which no evidence is needed. Why can’t statements that assert the existence of God be in that class, the class of properly basic beliefs? For example, I can’t prove that the external world exists or that you have a mind. Nonetheless, surely it is rational for me to accept that there is an external world and that there are other minds. It is entailed by other statements I accept rationally but without additional proof; for example, "I am typing at a keyboard now." Moreover, the conviction that there is a world of objects independent of my perceiving or imagining seems to well up irresistibly within me" as I go about my life. The attempt to prove that there is a universe of objects and forces independent of my subjective awareness will be self-defeating because any evidential statement capable of taking me beyond my Cartesian subjectivity will presuppose that the world exists. Nonetheless, surely I am rational to accept that there is such a world, though neither I nor anyone else can "prove" it to be so. The crux of the issue, according to Plantinga, is that evidentialists— including Swinburne—assume that "belief in God" is an evidence-essential belief. A good bit of Plantinga’s work strives to show that this assumption is not itself philosophically defensible. In doing so he has contributed significantly to discussions of epistemology that interest even those philosophers who are not directly concerned with the status of religious beliefs.

To evidentialists’ claim that one must proportion degree or intensity of belief to strength of evidence, both Swinburne and Plantinga present compelling challenges. Swinburne reminds us, as do many philosophers of science, that the evidence, the empirical data, radically underdetermines the truth of theories and physical object claims. This means that statements about physical objects or statements of scientific theories make claims that go beyond the physical evidence. This kind of consideration has even led some philosophers to urge the acceptance of scientific claims where acceptance involves no belief about the truth or probable truth of the statement itself.

Few of us are able to pull this off— to resist believing in that to which evidence seems to point. As Ian Hacking suggests in Representing and Intervening (Cambridge University Press, 1983), doing "breeds conviction." The confident belief that many practicing scientists have in the reality of electrons (which are not visible) seems inappropriate if evidentialism is true. Thus it seems that this version of evidentialism does not intellectually measure up. It’s too restrictive. Moreover, we might discover that what scientists assume to be adequate evidence for their assumptions are compatible with what counts as good reasons in religious matters. For example, belief in God can be treated as an explanatory hypothesis, like belief in electrons. In both cases, the evidence may be persuasive if not determinant. In both science and religion, tenacity of belief is common and often a good thing. A scientist’s tenacity in a belief, despite paucity of evidence and doubt from peers, may lead her to develop a radically different conception of some aspect of our world, but one that is nonetheless true and significant.

Still, religion more than science prizes a deep confidence and tenacity of belief. Is this justifiable? Two points are worth considering. First, science attempts to make the world predictively intelligible, so explanatory theories are central. The great world religions aim to present a means of redemption or salvation for human beings. Religion, we might say, makes our lives redemptively intelligible by suggesting the possibility of healing, reconciliation or transformation. This is especially true of the theistic tradition. A person’s "lived experience" of healing and transformation leads naturally to a belief about the source of that healing and transformation. That "something like a Person" is the ground and ultimate explanation of the transformation may seem natural and plausible. A person who experiences some kind of healing and attributes it to a God will likely believe in that God with a tenacity that exceeds what is evident to both the believer and the nonbeliever, and will probably trust God with the whole of her life. For her, belief in God will be more than an explanatory hypothesis.

Has evidentialism been vanquished? In philosophy no viewpoint is ever wholly vanquished. In theistic philosophers’ struggle against evidentialism, two central themes have emerged. One is the claim that the theistic tradition is intellectually viable, rationally acceptable and perhaps even rationally preferable to competing alternatives. (See, for example, George Schlesinger’s provocative book New Perspectives on Old-Time Religion [Oxford University Press, 1988], William Charlton’s Philosophy and Christian Belief [Sheed & Ward, 1988], and Diogenes Allen’s Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction [Westminster/John Knox, 1989].) The second theme is that the theistic tradition is intellectually rich and diverse. Properly understood and appropriated, it offers a needed antidote to the modern mind-set, which is dominated by the often stifling assumption that science is omnicompetent—that its methods produce all the knowledge there is about all the things that really matter.