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Is religious knowledge possible? Can we make intelligible statements about God - or are such statements simply meaningless? Traditionally, the Christian response to such questions has been that religious knowledge, including knowledge of God, is genuinely possible. But others have argued against this position. This article will explore these issues further.


An Exploration of Religious Knowledge

Written by Michael Gleghorn   

 
Edgar Cayce

The poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll
as illustrated by Rodney Matthews

Logical Positists assert that religious statements like ‘God exists’ cannont be empirically verified,and are therefore meaningless, as if one had asserted, ‘ ‘twas brillig, and the slythey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.’

The Challenge of Logical Positivism

Is religious knowledge possible? For instance, is it possible to know if God exists? And can we make intelligible statements about God – or are such statements ultimately doomed to meaninglessness? Traditionally, the Christian response to such questions has been that religious knowledge, including knowledge of God, is genuinely possible. But Christianity has always had its detractors and there have been many in the past who have argued that such knowledge claims are either meaningless or impossible. So in this week’s program we’ll explore whether or not such religious knowledge is actually possible.

Let’s begin our exploration by traveling back in time to the first half of the twentieth century. Early in this period, a movement which came to be known as logical positivism began. Logical positivists “championed the highly influential verification principle, from which it follows that a proposition has meaning only if some sense experience would suffice to determine its truth.”{1} In other words, unless a statement, or some claim to knowledge, could be verified (at least in principle) by means of our physical senses, it was simply considered meaningless.

Just think for a moment about what effect this might have on Christian theology and the statements it makes about God. Can such statements be meaningful? Not according to the positivists. As William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland observe, “Since religious statements like ‘God exists’ or ‘God loves the world’ were, in their opinion, incapable of being empirically verified, positivistic philosophers held them to be literally meaningless, as if one had asserted, ‘ ‘twas brillig, and the slythey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.’”{2} Clearly such assertions are neither true nor false; they’re simply nonsense.

Since some pretty big names in philosophy were associated with logical positivism, one can imagine that their proclamation of the “verification principle” struck some initial fear in the hearts and minds of Christian thinkers. Was all their talk of God and morality really meaningless? Were only those statements that could be verified through the senses in some way really worthy of the label meaningful?

As it turns out, there’s a lethal objection to the verification principle. It says that a statement is meaningful only if it can be empirically verified through the senses in some way. Ironically, however, by its own criterion the verification principle is itself meaningless, for it cannot be empirically verified by the senses! Craig and Moreland observe that the inadequacies of logical positivism led to its complete collapse in the second half of the twentieth century.{3} Christian theology, on the other hand, is still alive and well.


The Presumption of Atheism

This week we’re exploring the subject of religious knowledge. In particular, we’re interested in whether or not it’s rational to believe in God. Now there have been atheists in the past – and probably there are some in the present – who have urged what is called a presumption of atheism. Indeed, before his recent conversion to theism, the philosopher Antony Flew had been a very visible defender of this view. In his essay, “The Presumption of Atheism,” Flew wrote that “thorough and systematic inquiry must start from a position of negative atheism, and that the burden of proof lies on the theist proposition.”{4}

What did Flew mean by this? Basically, he seemed to say that when we come to the question of whether or not God exists, it’s only fair that we begin our inquiry without any prior belief in, or commitment to, the existence of God. As Flew urged, we must begin our inquiry as a ‘negative atheist,’ which for him meant “someone who is . . . not a theist.”{5} Furthermore, the burden of proof lies on the claim that ‘God exists’. Unless sufficient evidence can be offered for believing this claim to be true, intellectual honesty requires that we maintain our initial presumption of atheism.

Now initially this may sound quite innocent. After all, if someone claims that God exists, then shouldn’t he bear the burden of showing that there are sufficient reasons for believing this claim to be true? But wait a minute! What about the person who claims that God does not exist? Shouldn’t he also bear the burden of showing that there are sufficient reasons for believing that his claim is true? Of course he should! As the Christian philosopher Paul Copan observes, “Atheism is justified only if there is sufficient evidence against God’s existence.”{6} So the presumption of atheism isn’t really as innocent as it may have initially appeared.{7}

Recognizing their need for justification, some atheists “insisted that it was precisely the absence of evidence for theism that justified their claim that God does not exist.”{8} But there are two big problems with this view. First, absence of evidence isn’t always evidence of absence. For instance, if I find no evidence of a flea in my house, it doesn’t necessarily follow that there’s not a flea in my house! And second, there’s actually good evidence that God exists. Dr. William Lane Craig has argued that God is the best explanation for the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, the existence of objective moral values, the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, and the Christian’s personal experience of God.{9} So there’s really no good reason for an initial presumption of atheism.

    Notre Dame professor, Alvin Plantinga, argues that a person's belief in God could be not only rational, they could actually be said to know “apart from evidence that God exists.”

Evidentialist, W. K. Clifford, held that true beliefs must be "properly basic" or established on evidence that is based on this foundation.

Evidence and Evidentialism

There’s credible evidence, from a variety of quarters, for believing that God exists. But even so, is it really necessary to have such evidence in order to rationally believe in God? Some people may find this question rather silly. Why would an intelligent, rational adult believe anything without sufficient evidence? As W. K. Clifford wrote in “The Ethics of Belief”: “To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”{10} According to Clifford, we have an intellectual duty “to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence.”{11}

Now Clifford was an evidentialist. For the sake of simplicity, we might say that an evidentialist is someone who holds that a belief is rational only if it meets one of two conditions. First, the belief might be properly basic; that is, it might be part of the foundation of knowledge.{12} Beliefs that are self-evidently true would fall into this category. For example, most people would consider it self-evidently true that a finite whole is greater (or more) than any of its parts. Thus, a whole pizza is more than a single slice of that pizza. This seems self-evident.

But what if a belief is not self-evidently true, or properly basic? According to the evidentialist, if we’re going to be rational in holding such a belief, then it must meet the second condition of rationality. That is, it must have supporting evidence that is ultimately based on the foundation of properly basic beliefs. In a sense, our beliefs are like a building. In order for the building to be secure, it must be built on a firm foundation. Similarly, says the evidentialist, in order to be rational in our beliefs, they must either be properly basic, foundational beliefs, or else established by evidence that is based on this foundation. Otherwise we’ll be guilty of holding irrational beliefs.

With this in mind, let’s now return to our original question: Is it necessary to have evidence in order to rationally believe that God exists? The evidentialist says it is, for it’s not self-evident that God exists. Therefore, unless we have sufficient evidence for this belief, it’s not rational to hold it. But a contemporary Christian philosopher named Alvin Plantinga has challenged this view. Plantinga agrees that God’s existence isn’t self-evident. But he argues that belief in God can still be considered properly basic and so part of the foundation of knowledge. If he’s right, then it’s perfectly rational to believe that God exists even without any evidence, for our foundational beliefs require no evidence! But is Plantinga correct? We’ll consider this question tomorrow.

Reasonable Faith and Proper Function

Dr. Alvin Plantinga is rightly regarded as one of the premier philosophers of religion in the world today. A professor at the University of Notre Dame, he’s also a committed Christian. He’s argued that belief in God is a properly basic belief. By this he means that it’s part of the very foundation of human knowledge. Since foundational beliefs – like self-evident truths, for example – can be rationally held without any supporting evidence, Dr. Plantinga thinks that one can rationally believe in God without any supporting evidence! Is he right about this? Why does he think that belief in God is properly basic?

In order to get a handle on these questions, we need to consider Plantinga’s model of religious belief. He appeals to the Reformation theologian, John Calvin, for the idea that all men have inherently, and by design, an innate sense, or awareness, of divinity. Calvin called this the sensus divinitatis. Plantinga believes that “in a wide variety of circumstances” this sense of divinity “produces in us beliefs about God.”{13}

What sort of circumstances does he have in mind? Well, he specifically mentions things like “gratitude, a sense of contingency . . . beholding the beauties of nature . . . [and] being in danger.”{14} In such circumstances, Plantinga thinks, the belief that God exists arises quite naturally for most people through this sense of divinity that we have.

But why should we think this belief is true? Why should we think it constitutes genuine knowledge – instead of being, as Freud thought, the “universal obsessional neurosis of humanity”? Plantinga notes that for atheists like Freud, someone who believes in God appears delusional, as if they were suffering from some cognitive defect. But for the theist it’s the other way around; it’s the atheist who appears delusional or dysfunctional.{15} So how can we tell who’s right? How can we tell whose cognitive faculties are really functioning properly? Better yet, what would it even mean to say that our cognitive faculties are working properly?

Although Plantinga believes these questions pose difficulties for the atheist, he thinks the theist has a ready answer. He observes that when we’re speaking of something we’ve constructed, like a refrigerator, we judge that it’s working properly “if it refrigerates, if it does what a refrigerator is designed to do.”{16} Similarly, he notes, “The theist has an easy time explaining the notion of our cognitive equipment’s functioning properly . . . [it] functions properly when it functions . . . the way God designed it to function.”{17} We’ll consider some of the implications of this view tomorrow.

Edgar Cayce

Christian philosopher , Alvin Plantinga, argues that a person's belief in God could be not only rational, they could actually be said to know “apart from evidence that God exists.”

Proper Function and Religious Knowledge

The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued that we really know something when what we believe is true and when it’s produced in us by properly functioning cognitive faculties in an appropriate environment.{18} This raises an interesting question. What does it mean to say our cognitive faculties are functioning correctly?

Plantinga thinks this question poses difficulties for the atheist. But suppose the atheist says that our cognitive faculties function properly when they aid in our survival. Okay, but they could aid in our survival without giving us with true beliefs. And if our beliefs aren’t true, we have no reason to believe in atheism! Further, any reason offered for why we should trust our cognitive faculties assumes that the process of reasoning (which is done through these faculties) is trustworthy. But this begs the question, for the question is why we should trust our cognitive faculties in the first place! We can’t fairly assume what needs to be proven.

In contrast, the theist has a ready answer to such questions. Our cognitive faculties work properly when they work the way God designed them to work. According to Plantinga, if God exists:

The natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold such true beliefs as that there is such a person as God . . . And if that is so, then the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do produce belief in God are aimed by their designer at producing that belief. But then the belief in question will be produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth: it will therefore have warrant.{19}

If Plantinga is right, then the person who comes to believe in God in this way has warranted true belief, or knowledge. They would not only be rational to believe in God, they could actually be said to know “apart from evidence that God exists.”{20} This is because their belief would meet the proper requirements for knowledge; namely, it would be both true and produced by properly functioning cognitive faculties designed by God to produce true beliefs.

Plantinga’s model of human knowledge is compelling. And if having knowledge presupposes that our cognitive faculties are functioning properly, then since theism provides a better explanation than atheism of proper function, his model even provides an indirect argument for God’s existence. Thus, if Plantinga’s model is true, not only does God exist, but religious knowledge (including knowledge of God) is genuinely possible – just as Christianity has always taught.

Notes

1. “Logical Positivism.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001–04. www.bartleby.com/65/, accessed on April 6, 2005.

2. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 154. The basic outline for my article comes from chapter 7 of this book, “Religious Epistemology,” pp. 154-170.

3. Ibid., 155

4. Anthony Flew, “The Presumption of Atheism,” at http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/flew01.htm, accessed on April 7, 2005. The site states that this essay comes from a chapter in Flew’s 1984 book, God, Freedom and Immortality: A Critical Analysis.

5.Ibid.

6. Paul Copan, “The Presumptuousness of Atheism,” at http://www.paulcopan.com/articles/the-presumptuousness-of-atheism.html, accessed on April 7, 2005.

7. Flew tried to avoid this difficulty by defining an atheist as simply a non-theist. In “The Presumption of Atheism,” (cited above) he wrote, “In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist.” Nevertheless, it is still true that the person who claims that there is no God must bear the burden of showing why this claim should be believed. Atheism (at least as this term is generally understood) is not a neutral, default position.

8. Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 156.

9. See, for example, William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, Point/Counterpoint Series, ed. James P. Sterba (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 3-30.

10. W.K. Clifford, "The Ethics of Belief," in Lectures and Essays (London: Macmillan, 1879), 186, cited in Alvin Plantinga, “Theism, Atheism, and Rationality” at http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth02.html, accessed on April 12, 2005.

11. Ibid., 184.

12. I am indebted to the discussion in Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 161-62, for some of the observations about evidentialism.

13. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 172, cited in Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 162.

14. Alvin Plantinga, “Theism as a Properly Basic Belief,” an interview with Roy Varghese at http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth06.html, accessed on April 14, 2005.

15. See the discussion in Alvin Plantinga, “Theism, Atheism, and Rationality,” at http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth02.html, accessed on April 5, 2005.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Plantinga, “Theism as a Properly Basic Belief,” at http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth06.html, accessed on April 14, 2005.

19. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 188-89, cited in Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 164.

20. Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 162.

© 2006 Probe Ministries



About the Author   Dr. Michael Gleghorn is a research associate with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.A. in psychology from Baylor University, a Th.M. in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in Theological Studies (also from Dallas Theological Seminary). Before coming on staff with Probe, Michael taught history and theology at Christway Academy in Duncanville, Texas. Michael and his wife Hannah have two children: Arianna and Josiah. As a family, they attend Frisco Bible Church, where Michael and Hannah are involved in various ministries.
About Probe Ministries    Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to present the Gospel to communities, nationally and internationally, by providing life-long opportunities to integrate faith and learning through balanced, biblically based scholarship, training people to love God by renewing their minds and equipping the Church to engage the world for Christ. Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting:

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