Plantinga Pwns, Part IV: The Rationality of Belief in God

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In Part II, we looked at Plantinga's analogy between belief in God and belief in the existence of other minds.  In this post we will look at some later work of Plantinga that also deals with the rationality of belief in God.  Obviously, his earlier work could not tackle all the possible objections, and some of his work in epistemology since then has also shed light on the issue.

De Jure vs. De Facto

In order to determine whether or not belief in God is rational, or intellectually acceptable, Plantinga makes a distinction between two types of objections to Christian belief: de jure and de factoDe facto objections argue against the truth of Christianity.  The Problem of Evil is a good example, as it seeks to show that God cannot exist.  There are other objections that are de facto as well, such as the claim that some doctrine or other is incoherent, and therefore Christianity cannot possibly be true.  There are also arguments that Jesus couldn't possibly have risen from the dead.

De jure objections, on the other hand, do not deal with the truth of Christianity; they seek to show that Christian belief, "whether or not true, is at any rate unjustifiable, or rationally unjustified, or irrational, or not intellectually respectable, or contrary to sound morality, or without sufficient evidence, or in some other way rationally unacceptable, not up to snuff from an intellectual point of view."1  It covers a broad spectrum.  The two things to keep in mind with respect to a de jure objection is 1) it doesn't seek to prove Christianity is false, in fact it has nothing to say as to whether or not Christianity is actually true and 2) it does seek to show that one shouldn't believe in Christianity.

Now, it should be clear that if a de facto objection were to succeed, it would follow that belief in Christianity would be irrational.  After all, the argument just disproved Christianity.  But many of the famous objections to Christianity - especially since the Enlightenment - have been de jure objections, and they deal directly with the rationality of Christian belief.  For example, there is the Kantian claim among some theologians that we cannot even properly define who God is, or even refer to "God" meaningfully.  Plantinga argues that Kant's writing don't actually form an argument to make this claim, and that the arguments that have been formed since him have failed.2

As you might expect if you have some familiarity with the topics of rationality, epistemic duty, etc., the question brought up by de jure objections is quite complex, and not just a bit messy.
...[I]t is far from obvious just what that de jure question or objection is supposed to be; precisely what question (or questions) is it that critics mean to press when they ask whether christian and theistic belief is rational, or rationally defensible, or rationally justifiable, or whatever?  Critics claim that Christian belief is not rationally justified or justifiable: what, precisely, is the infirmity or defect they are ascribing to the Christian believer?  What exactly, is the question?  Call this question the 'metaquestion.'  One problem with contemporary discussions of the justification of Christian belief is that the metaquestion is almost never asked.  People ask whether Christian belief is rational or reasonable or rationally justifiable; they turn immediately to answering that question, without first considering just what the question is.  What is it?  That is not easy to say...3
You'll recall from Post II that even Plantinga made this mistake in God and Other Minds.  He simply assumed that in order for belief in God to be rational, one had to have evidence for it.  In other words, he bowed to Evidentialism without even thinking.  But what is rational justification?  Why does it require evidence (if it does at all)?  What is the connection between evidence and justification?  What sort of arguments meet these requirements?  As pointed out in Post II, Plantinga came to realize that the requirements he set up for the traditional arguments for the existence of God are so high that no philosophical argument of any substance met those standards.

Plantinga discusses the metaquestion at length.  I really can't do it any justice in a brief blog summary, but suffice to say that Plantinga has trouble finding any actual objection.  There is, however, one possible candidate, and there are two very famous proponents of it: Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.

The idea is that religion did not arise from the revelation of a God or gods, but rather all religion has a naturalistic explanation.  It doesn't amount to much of an objection at this point; what makes the objection powerful is what the naturalistic explanation is.  Religion, according to the proponents of the argument, arose from some form of cognitive error, or arose to promote survivability of the species rather than to promote truth.

Marx and Freud (and others who have followed in their footsteps) have differing ideas as to how religion arose.  For Freud,  "These [religious beliefs], which are given out as teachings, are not precipitates of experience or end-results of thinking: they are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind."4  Religion is wish-fulfillment; more specifically, the childlike wish for protection.  And  for Marx, "The basis of irreligious criticism is man makes religion, religion does not make man.... Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress.  Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.  It is the opium of the people."5  I'm sure you've heard that last sentence many times before.  There are others who have similar theories, such as Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Hume, and contemporaries such as Northrop Frye, Don Cupitt, and Charles Daniels.

Plantinga summarizes,
And here we come to the heart of the F&M [Freud & Marx] objection: when F&M say that Christian belief, or theistic belief, or even perhaps religious belief in general is irrational, the basic idea is that belief of this sort is not among the proper deliverances of our rational faculties.  It is not produced by properly functioning truth-aimed cognitive faculties or processes.  It is not produced by belief-producing processes that are free of dysfunction and whose purpose it is to furnish us with true belief.  And this means that the presumption of the reliability of properly functioning cognitive faculties does not apply to the processes that yield belief in God of Christian belief more broadly.  The fundamental idea is that religious belief has a source distinct from those of our faculties that are aimed at the truth.  Alternatively, if religious belief does somehow issue from those truth-aimed faculties, their operation, when they function in such a way as to produce religious belief, is overridden and impeded by something else: a need for security, or for feeling important in the whole scheme of things, or for psychological comfort in the face of this pitiless, intimidating, and implacable world we face.6

It seems we have found a candidate for a good de jure objection.  Christianity may or may not be true.  Regardless, it's irrational.  It's clear what Max and Freud are claiming, and it is not obviously false.  But are they right?  We'll have to answer that question in the next post (spoiler warning!: no, otherwise this blog wouldn't exist), which will cover some of Plantinga's work on Reformed Epistemology.  With that information, we will be able to answer F&M.  That post will end with a final - and crucial - twist regarding de jure objections.

1.  Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, p. ix
2.  If you'd like to read about this, take a look at Chapters 1 and 2 of Warranted Christian Belief
3.  Plantinga, p. 67
4.  Freud, The Future of an Illusion, p. 30, quoted in Plantinga, p. 138-139
5.  Marx, On Religion, p. 41-42, quoted in Plantinga, p. 140-141
6.  Plantinga, p. 151
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