Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1497
First published: New York: Oxford University Press, 2000
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Subgenre(s): Critical analysis; hermeneutics; theology
Core issue(s): Doubt; faith; reason; religion; truth
In the Enlightenment of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there emerged the idea of a religion rationally grounded in the deliverance of reason and experience. This was one of the central theses of the Enlightenment concerning religious belief, which itself was underwritten by the more universal claim that we are under obligation to govern our belief-forming faculties to the end of arriving at truth and avoiding mistake and error. To secure truth and shun falsehood, we must have reason for believing; we must believe or disbelieve as reason dictates. Under the rational ethics of belief, we are not, therefore, exempt from the obligation to govern our assent in the domain of religious beliefs.
Confronted with such a claim about the primacy of rationality in belief retention or rejection, religious believers have two options. Either they can abide by the obligation and set out to provide the requisite grounding for their religious beliefs, or they can abjure the requirement by challenging its legitimacy. If they pursue the first option and succeed in providing the rational grounding, they can continue what they were doing, though now they will be doing it on this new basis; otherwise, in case of failure, they must abandon their beliefs. There is also the possibility of partial success and partial failure where, again, believers have to purge their belief system downward to jettison beliefs that cannot be rationally grounded. However, rather than engaging in the grounding endeavor, reformed epistemologists such as Alvin Plantinga opted for the second of the two main alternatives: They challenged the religious epistemology of the Enlightenment on its pivotal principle. In particular, according to Warranted Christian Belief, religious beliefs do not have to be rationally grounded to be rational.
As a reformed epistemologist, Plantinga’s challenge to the epistemological account of the Enlightenment is mounted on several fronts. He claims that a great many religious beliefs are not in fact rationally grounded in the deliverance of reason and experience. A vast number of them are not rationally grounded in anything at all; they are neither acquired nor maintained on the basis of other beliefs. They are, in Plantinga’s phrase, basic beliefs or immediate beliefs, on the ground that they are not formed by the mediation of inference. Some beliefs are evoked, for example, by mystical experience and others by a person’s experience of some aspect of the world or human experience. Religious beliefs can thus be properly basic and not held on the basis of any inferential evidence at all.
Also, the psychological act of believing is very much a situated phenomenon in the sense that for almost any proposition that people are entitled to believe in their situation, there will be others in other situations who are not entitled to believe that proposition. To the question “Is one entitled to believe P?” the answer must almost always be “It all depends.” The underlying thought is that there is an irreducible plurality of fundamental perspectives on reality, where people’s acceptance of one of them is strongly influenced by their prephilosophical beliefs and commitments. Moreover, it is claimed that it is not in general possible to show, by neutral philosophical argument, that a particular perspective is correct and all the others are mistaken. In view of this, it is perfectly appropriate and in no way irrational for people to philosophize on the basis of their own perspective, even if they have not been able to demonstrate the correctness of that perspective in a way that is convincing to others. In particular, Christian philosophers are entitled to their own perspective, or, in Plantinga’s term, to their own sets of examples, by which they determines the criteria for properly basic beliefs.
Although the Enlightenment model of religious belief may not be unproblematic, there are still serious misgivings about Plantinga’s reformed epistemology. On his epistemological account, our beliefs about the external world are formed by certain psychological processes that occur immediately, without inference or any kind of argument. For instance, I believe that I am seeing a tree when “I am appeared to treely.” However, one can be “appeared to” as often as one likes, yet the fact remains that this is compatible with not seeing the tree. The question is how to separate veridical from illusory/delusory beliefs. Also, the claims that there is an irreducible plurality of fundamental perspectives on reality and it is not irrational for people to philosophize on the basis of their own perspective seem to usher in a self-defeating radical relativism. Such a pervasive perspectival point of view does not leave much room for differentiating between genuine and spurious systems of religious belief.
Nonetheless, the central contention of Plantinga’s reformed epistemology is that belief in the existence of God—along, perhaps, with some other crucial religious beliefs—is properly basic. It is a belief that people can be justified in accepting without basing it on other beliefs. Although Plantinga readily concedes that there is no general criterion for proper basicness, he maintains that some of our religious beliefs can be accepted as properly basic. To support his position, Plantinga proposes that humans have been given, in John Calvin’s terminology, a sensus divinitatis—a God-given disposition to believe in God in certain circumstances. For example, when contemplating a butterfly or reflecting on a misdemeanor, an individual may be moved to believe “God has made this wondrous thing” or “God disapproves of this mean behavior.” Plantinga then extends this claim that belief in God can be properly basic to the claim that the central truths of Christian faith can be held in a properly basic way, if they are maintained on the basis of the instigation of the Holy Spirit. However, Plantinga’s anthropological claim that human beings are naturally disposed to form immediate beliefs about God is highly controversial. For one thing, there are many individuals who do not have any natural inclination to form such beliefs, and for those who have, it can be explained away in terms of cultural conditioning and social habituation. For another, how can one account for the incompatible and contradictory beliefs about God that believers of different religions have, notwithstanding believers of various denominations of the same religion?
Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief can be properly appreciated against the Enlightenment criticism that faith involves belief without evidence or with deficient evidence. He attempts to overturn the underlying Enlightenment assumption that rational religious beliefs must be based on evidence. However, what is distinctive about his position is the conditional character of his argumentation. That is, Plantinga does not claim to be able to demonstrate that beliefs about the sensus divinitatis and the instigation of the Holy Spirit are true, but, rather, if they are true, then it is likely that some individuals are reasonable to believe them. Such a position is intellectually inadequate for many thinkers—whether religious or not—whose desire is to establish what is true on the basis of some neutral epistemological position that provides a basis for probing the propriety of such claims.
Plantinga is effectively arguing that such an epistemological stance may be beyond our human capacities. What we can know depends on the truth about our world and our capacities, and what we believe we can know may depend on our beliefs about the world and our capacities. There may be no neutral epistemological stance, because what we think we can know may depend on what we believe about our relation to the world we are trying to know, and that in itself is subject to variation.
Sources for Further Study
- Baker, Deane-Peter. “Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology: What’s the Question?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 57, no. 2 (April, 2005): 77. Baker examines the criticisms against Warranted Christian Belief.
- Baker, Deane-Peter, ed. Alvin Plantinga. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. A collection of essays on Plantinga, including one on his model of warranted Christian belief.
- Beilby, James K. Epistemology as Theology: An Evaluation of Alvin Plantinga’s Religious Epistemology. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2005. An examination of Plantinga’s religious epistemology, with discussion of his model of warranted Christian belief.
- Moser, Paul K., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Epistemology. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002. Philip L. Quinn’s “Epistemology in Philosophy of Religion” offers a critical examination of Plantinga’s epistemological account of warranted Christian belief.
- Stackhouse, John G., Jr. “Mind Over Skepticism.” Christianity Today 45, no. 8 (June 11, 2001): 74-77. This profile of Plantinga examines his philosophy in depth. Contains discussion of whether belief can be proven on the basis of reason and experience.
- Wainwright, William J., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2005. The handbook contains a number of detailed surveys of issues in philosophy of religion that also discuss the contribution and significance of Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief to those issues.