Is Atheism Irrational? An Interview with Alvin Plantinga

Gary Gutting talks to Alvin Plantinga about the evidence for atheism.

7 replies
  1. acct066 *
    acct066 * says:

    I’m a Christian, and I realize Dr. Plantinga is a widely
    esteemed philosopher, but I’m with the atheist commentators on this one. The arguments he sketches here are unconvincing and seem utterly disconnected from the life of faith as most Christians experience it; it’s difficult to see what possible
    point or purpose they achieve (in this forum especially) beyond inciting the
    ire of non-Christians who understandably bristle at being labeled “irrational.”

    In my experience, philosophy is an effective means of cultivating atheism, but cultivating religious faith requires a different set of cultural practices and cognitive capacities, ones more closely allied to intuition, emotion, and imagination than ratiocination (I thank God and evolution that our minds are capable of all these!).

    The real question is which path one decides to pursue, and why. In my experience, good people choose differently, and end up at very different places – and remain good people.

  2. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    Well, let’s review his arguments…

    1. Lack of evidence for something is not grounds for positive disbelief in that thing. This seems self-evident; I wonder what you find unconvincing about it.

    2. Disbelieving in a teapot orbiting the sun is not based on lack of evidence for the teapot, but an obvious preponderance of evidence against the teapot. Again, this seems self-evidently true, and I wonder what you find unconvincing about it.

    3. The problem of evil has to be balanced against the positive evidences for God’s existence when assessing the rationality of theism. I thought Plantinga was quite weak on this, because the problem of evil has been crushed, philosophically speaking, and amounts to nothing more than an emotional appeal. I thought he gave it far too much credence, especially for someone sympathetic to Calvinism, who can present the biblical theodicy strongly: evil is necessary to fully reveal the perfections of God. If anything, the “problem” of evil is evidence for God’s existence. Nonetheless, his point is still valid: if you think the PoE is evidence against God, you still need to weigh it against all the evidence for God.

    4. Arguments are not required to have a rational belief in God, just as they are not required to have a rational belief in the existence of other people, or the past. Most people have some sense of God’s existence which they simply know from inward experience. Again, what is unconvincing about this? Indeed, doesn’t this fit directly in with what you said about “the life of faith” and what “most Christians experience”? Plantinga is arguing that religious experience makes belief in God rational even if you don’t have any other evidence for his existence. He isn’t saying that religious experience should convince atheists that God exists; he is saying that given what rationality is, atheists are simply mistaken to call faith irrational. If you think he is wrong about this, why?

    5. The prior probability of the universe being fine-tuned is outrageously improbable on atheism, but highly problem on theism. Therefore, the fine-tuning of the universe weighs strongly in favor of theism. Again, this is true; anyone who denies it does not understand probability theory. I suspect he picked this example precisely because atheists pride themselves at being intellectual, so they of all people should understand the weight of the argument.

    6. The best possible world(s) is one where God redeems sinners who don’t deserve it. This seems to have a lot of intuitive weight. God cannot exercise the greatest amount of love without sin. He can’t exercise mercy or justice or wrath at all. Etc. See (3), on God revealing his perfections.

    7. See (1).

    8. “The most important ground of belief is probably not philosophical argument but religious experience.” Again, this directly speaks to the life of faith and Christian experience, so I’m wondering why you think his comments are so far removed from these things.

    9. One reason atheists are atheists is that they don’t want God to exist. In their more candid moments they admit as much. This is certainly biblical, and anyone who has spent much time talking to atheists knows it is true. Atheism is lived before it is believed; it is an emotional need justified after the fact with argumentation.

    10. If evolution is true, we don’t act based on beliefs, but based on physical processes. But in that case, our belief in evolution is not based on logical reasoning. Moreover, our belief-forming structures are chronically unreliable given probability theory. This is a very strong reason to disbelieve materialism; if you disagree, I’d love to know why.

    Btw, it’s kind of ironic at atheists bristling at being called irrational. They can dish it out, but they can’t take it?”

    In my experience, good people choose differently, and end up at very different places – and remain good people.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “good”. On the face of it, a Christian would not think there are any good people since there is an abundance of evidence against this view (Isa 64:6; Rom 3:10-11; Jer 17:9; Gen 6:5; John 3:19, 8:34; 1 Cor 2:14; Mark 10:18 etc). Maybe you can explain what you mean?

  3. acct066 *
    acct066 * says:

    Wow, thanks for that detailed reply! It feels odd to be engaging with a fellow Christian in an online forum — I’m usually the lone Christian slugging it out with atheists! (Or, more likely, trying to exchange viewpoints *without* slugging).
    I don’t meant to disregard your philosophical points, but I feel like I’ve read them all before, along with the atheistic rebuttals, and in all honesty I can’t tell who’s got the better argument. And really, when two people are arguing a philosophical point, and both are more philosophically experienced than I am, on what basis am I to pass judgement on who is correct?
    I understand that Dr. Platinga lays out these arguments in more detail and rigor in his books, but this was a posting on the front page of the NYT, the veritable paper of record for the secular left. It seems to me an opportunity to open a meaningful dialogue with secularists was wasted; instead, his post merely occasioned 900 angry responses, further calcifying the Christian/atheist discussion as it lives online.
    Whether one’s goal is evangelizing, creating respectful dialogue, or just plain good manners, it seems to me that, outside of a primer on theistic philosophy, the kinds of arguments Dr. Platinga marshalls in defense of the Christian faith are actually pretty counter-productive.
    Just to be clear, though; I respect the hell out of the guy, and always will.
    With respect —

  4. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    Hey Iggy, I’m always glad to discuss ways to better reach out to unbelievers :)

    in all honesty I can’t tell who’s got the better argument.

    Really? Not to be a smart-ass, but if you can’t tell whether Christians or atheists have the better argument, what makes you believe that Christians are right, rather than atheists?

    It seems to me an opportunity to open a meaningful dialogue with secularists was wasted; instead, his post merely occasioned 900 angry responses

    What would you have said in Plantinga’s place? Again, I don’t mean to be a smart-ass; I’m genuinely curious. Maybe there is a much better way Plantinga could have gone about answering those questions. I’m just not sure what it would be. How would you have done it?

    In strict fairness to Plantinga, do you think he said anything unreasonable or intentionally offensive? I personally can’t see that he did. He seemed to be trying very hard, as he always does, to be extremely even-handed and irenic.

    But that being the case, it hardly seems fair to fault his response given the 900 angry comments. Surely if he did everything he could to be reasonable and fair, the 900 angry people are not his fault? It seems to me quite obvious that these were people who were already angry, and were looking for the opportunity to vent their anger. (Indeed, new atheism is characterized by an intense anger toward God.) But if that is closer to the truth of the matter, what could Plantinga possibly have said to mollify such people? Surely the fault lies not with him, but with the commenters?

  5. acct066 *
    acct066 * says:

    Once again, thanks for the reply. I’m afraid I can only spare a few moments today to reply, but let me try to address at least a couple of your points.

    “Not to be a smart-ass, but if you can’t tell whether Christians or atheists have the better argument, what makes you believe that Christians are right, rather than atheists?”

    In all honesty, I cannot. I am not a Christian because I think atheism is incorrect. Objectively speaking, I don’t know if it’s correct. Certainly lots of smart of people — including family and friends I love and respect — think it’s correct. I have an intuition that it’s incorrect; I have a strong hope that it’s incorrect. Most importantly, though, I have pursued cultural practices — worship, prayer, Bible study, serving at migrant camps and homeless shelters and hospices — that cultivated belief, not unbelief. My media diet is more pro-Christian than anti-, though I try to read widely. We get better at what we practice, and I have practiced Christianity, not atheism. At this point in my life I would characterize my orientation to God not as belief, but as love and allegiance. And the older I get, the fiercer that love and allegiance becomes. I accept that there are many people on both sides of belief/unbelief who feel they *can* be certain, or very close to it; I’m just not one of them.

    “But if that is closer to the truth of the matter, what could Plantinga possibly have said to mollify such people?”
    I don’t know, really. And of course Platinga wasn’t posting an op-ed he composed himself but was responding to the questions Gutting fed him. It’s also likely his replies were edited for length etc by the Times. He’s a philosopher, and a great one, and he did philosophy. It’s certainly understandable.
    I guess I’m just tired of all the vitriol I see online. I sense the same thing you do — that many atheists hate God as much (or more) than they disbelieve in God. But that fills me with sadness more than anger, or a need to retaliate or refute. I want to hear their stories; I want to understand where they’re coming from. I don’t even want to change their minds, really — I just want to understand them, and if I can help relieve some small measure of their anger, I want to do that. And to be honest, I don’t see what constructive role philosophy can play in that conversation. At least, not for me.
    Thanks for listening —

  6. Stuart McEwing
    Stuart McEwing says:

    So what you’re saying is your a Christian without Christian belief? You see, and intuition is a belief – just one that isn’t particularly well thought through or strong. I think what you want to say is that you have Christian belief, and though you practice as a believing Christian should, you don’t hold to those beliefs particularly strongly. If so, then philosophy can really be a help to you. And if you understood a little more of philosophy, I suspect you will be able to understand non-Christian types better, and be able to help them have Christian intuitions rather than atheistic intuitions. Those are just two of the constructive roles philosophy can play.

  7. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    I agree with Stu :) It doesn’t seem to make sense to say you fiercely love and have allegiance toward someone you don’t know exists. That seems like the sort of thing cuckoo 40 year-old housewives do with Edward from Twilight. It ain’t a sign of a well-functioning mind.

    And anyone whose mind is functioning well is qualified to think through and assess the arguments for God (and for atheism), as long as they are careful :)

    Anyway, I get where you’re coming from wrt angry atheists. I don’t think they can be argued into believing, necessarily. But we have to balance our desire to minister to them, with the recognition that these are people who think of themselves as rational, and therefore do need reasons to believe. That was certainly the case with me. I was a new atheist. God softened my heart with interpersonal interaction, but I needed to see solid arguments for faith before I was convinced that it was anything more than a nice fairy tale.

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