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...
(The entire section is 1040 words.)