I hope this will be the last time I must foist the sophistry of theologian Alvin Plantinga on you, but I had no choice. This post bears on a frequent argument about the irrationality of religious belief: if you were born in Saudi Arabia, you’d hold the tenets of Islam sacred and aver that Christian belief was wrong; if you were born in Mississippi, you’d have exactly the opposite view. How can you think your belief is right if it would differ depending on the conditions of your upbringing?
Plantinga’s discussion comes from chapter seven, “A defense of religious exclusivism“, in The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader (ed. James F. Sennet, 1998, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), which is itself an excerpt from The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith: Essays in Honor of William P. Alston (ed. Louis Pojman, 1995, Cornell University Press).
Plantinga’s goal—for theology is not an honest attempt to find the truth, but a post facto rationalization of what the theologian already believes—is to show that his brand of Christianity is the best faith, and that it is rational, justified, and warranted to think that the faith you were brought up with is really the right faith, and that adherents to other religions are simply wrong.
First, Plantinga espouses what he believes (p. 188):
- The world was created by God, an almighty, all-knowing, and perfectly good personal being (one that holds beliefs; has aims, plans, and intentions; and can act to accomplish these aims).
- Human beings require salvation, and God has provided a unique way of salvation through the incarnation, life, sacrificial death and resurrection of his divine son.
In other words, he’s a Christian. How can he show that Muslims and Hindus are wrong? His whole chapter is an attempt to do just that, or, rather, to show that it’s perfectly rational and justifiable to hold that view, and not rational or justifiable to say either, “All faiths are correct,” “No faith is correct,” or “Well, the plurality of faith means that I can’t judge which faith is right.” It’s one of the most annoying pieces of self-justification I’ve ever seen, and truly underscores the difference between science and religion You can read it for free here.
Plantinga begins by quoting John Hick from his book An Interpretation of Religion:
“For it is evident that in some ninety-nine percent of cases the religion which an individual professes and to which he or she adheres depends upon the accidents of birth. Someone born to Buddhist parents in Thailand is very likely to be a Buddhist, someone born to Muslim parents in Saudi Arabia to be a Muslim, someone born to Christian parents in Mexico to be a Christian, and so on.”
Plantinga then begins dismantling this argument, or so he thinks (all from pp. 206-207 of the reader):
As a matter of sociological fact, this may be right. Furthermore, it can certainly produce a sense of intellectual vertigo. But what is one to do with this fact, if fact it is, and what follows from it? Does it follow, for example, that I ought not to accept the religious views that I have been brought up to accept, or the ones that I find myself inclined to accept, or the ones that seem to me to be true? Or that the belief-producing processes that have produced those beliefs in me are unreliable? Surely not. Furthermore, self-referential problems once more loom; this argument is another philosophical tar baby.
For suppose we concede that if I had been born in Madagascar rather than Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. (For one thing, I probably wouldn’t believe that I was born in Michigan.) But of course the same goes for the pluralist. Pluralism isn’t and hasn’t been widely popular in the world at large; if the pluralist had been born in Madagascar, or medieval France, he probably wouldn’t have been a pluralist. Does it follow that he shouldn’t be a pluralist or that his pluralistic beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process? I doubt it.
I think that if you adhere beliefs that you were taught as a child, or that are common where you live, and that is the factor explaining most of the variation among people in religious belief (which I’m sure it is), then yes, you should be deeply suspicious about whether your belief is indeed true. If one faith happens to be true, and Plantinga believes that his brand of Christianity is, then all the Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs who hold their incorrect faiths based on where they were born are wrong by virtue of geography.
Imagine if scientists held beliefs based on where they were born. If that were the case, then we’d have reason to question their motivations and hence their conclusions. There is actually one case like this, though I can’t find a reference at the moment. As I recall, someone did a sociological study of those scientists who studied the genetic basis of IQ differences between blacks and whites. I may get a bit of this wrong, but I remember that those researchers who were from the American South, rural areas, or were politically conservative found significantly more genetic influence on racial differences in IQ than did northern and liberal scientists, or those from urban areas. That finding immediately casts suspicion on their results, for such a correlation should not hold if their methods are objective. One group may be right in their conclusions, and the other wrong, but this means that everyone’s work needs to be re-examined.
Likewise, if you are a Christian because your parents were Christian and imbued you with the faith, that should cast doubt on whether you really arrived at Christian beliefs through a process of rational scrutiny, or whether your “rationale” for being a Christian is simply a post facto confabulation.
Plantinga then lays on the sophistry:
Suppose I hold
(4) If S‘s religious or philosophical beliefs are such that if S had been born elsewhere and elsewhen, she wouldn’t have held them, then those beliefs are produced by unreliable belief-producing mechanisms and hence have no warrant;
Once more I will be hoist with my own petard. For in all probability, someone born in Mexico to Christian parents wouldn’t believe (4) itself. No matter what philosophical and religious beliefs we hold and withhold (so it seems) there are places and times such that if we had been born there and then, then we would not have displayed the pattern of holding and withholding of religious and philosophical beliefs we do display. As I said, this can indeed be vertiginous; but what can we make of it? What can we infer from it about what has warrant and how we should conduct our intellectual lives? That’s not easy to say. Can we infer anything at all about what has warrant or how we should conduct our intellectual lives? Not obviously.
The other reason that Plantinga thinks that Christianity is correct is because God put a Christianity-is-true detecting mechanism in him.
But then clearly enough if (1) or (2) [the Christian beliefs given above] is true, it could be produced in me by a reliable belief-producing process. Calvin’s Sensus Divinitatis, for example, could be working in the exclusivist in such a way as to reliably produce the belief that (1); Calvin’s Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit could do the same for (2). If (1) and (2) are true, therefore, then from a reliabilist perspective there is no reason whatever to think that the exclusivist might not know that they are true.
I think this comes from Plantinga’s idea that the epistemic warrant for belief must differ from the epistemic warrant for science. If we were to judge “warrant” of a scientific view whose support was solely that a) you were taught it and b) you think it’s right because you have a “Sensus Scientificus” installed by God, then your scientific beliefs would immediately become suspect.
If you hold a view based almost entirely on whether you were taught it rather than having looked at the evidence for the veracity of many faiths, and if your epistemic defense of that view rests on revelation (for that is what the “Sensus Divinitatis” really is), then no, your beliefs are neither warranted nor justified.
It’s a testimony to Plantinga’s cleverness (oh, how that mind could have been used for productive purposes!) that these arguments seem convincing to some people. What’s particularly galling is that they convince Plantinga that his brand of Christianity is correct, and that Islam, say, is wrong. But a Muslim could use precisely the same arguments for the rationality, justification, and warrant for believing in Islam! All it would take is for some Muslim theologian to assert that Allah had installed a Muslim Sensus Divinitatis in him.
The fact is that at most one faith can be correct (and almost certainly none of them are), and that none of Plantiga’s arguments are remotely convincing to the skeptic that Christianity is the right one. What he is doing here, as always, is making stuff up to show that Christian belief is rational and true. He’s providing Christians with shaky but fine-sounding academic arguments to buttress their beliefs.
If your beliefs come not from evidence, but from geography and revelation, then no, there is no warrant for them. The missing ingredient in theology—the ingredient that has made science so successful—is doubt. In theology, doubt has been replaced by faith.