Wednesday, August 3, 2011

"Consider Such An Atheist," Part II: Reformed Epistemology's Inequitable Assertion

“But...if Plantinga’s notion of justification is correct, she is justified even if she does only a small portion of her intellectual duty and doesn’t have any mental dysfunction. The question we must ask ourselves is, however, one that connects us to the last post: “If the Christian is justified (and hence, rational) in believing this way, why is the atheist, though justified, not rational for disbelieving?”

I ended with this paragraph in my last post on Reformed Epistemology. My point in the last post was to demonstrate that Plantinga had to “broaden” the definition of justification from evidence to the individual’s mental condition in order to make his system work. The fact that the individual has no mental dysfunction and has done some intellectual legwork justifies that person’s belief. What I said there was that this notion of justification is never used in issues of evidence. Take hermeneutics, for example: there could be two preachers, both subject to no mental dysfunction, having researched a passage, who come to two different interpretations of the Bible passage. A good case in point would be Calvinists and Arminians. Both camps have come to their views because of the Biblical text. They have looked at verses used by the other side and attempted to corporate them in their systems. Both sides are rational, and possess no mental defect...but does this make either camp “justified” in its argumentation and evidence? No, of course not. Contrary to Plantingan belief, two individuals can “rationally disagree” with each other. Thus, to argue that both are sides are justified in their belief (and construe justification as rationality) is to further dodge the question of rightness. Both sides can be rational, but both cannot be right.

In today’s post, I am back to pose the question I ended with in the last post: that is, if a Christian can be justified and rational in his or her belief that God exists, can an atheist be justified and rational in his or her belief that God does not exist? Plantinga is willing to grant that the atheist is justified...but he is not rational:

“according to the model [Aquinas/Calvin], it is really the unbeliever who displays epistemic malfunction; failing to believe in God is a result of some kind of dysfunction of the sensus divinitatis” (Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, page 184).

“On the present model [Aquinas/Calvin], such failure to believe is doesn’t follow that failure to believe is unjustified...but it is nonetheless irrational” (Plantinga, WCB, page 186).

I was told once that I was not reading these two statements of Plantinga’s “in context,” but how else can one read these statements? And what are the chances that if one read these statements in context, he or she would come out with a different impression than provided here? The chances are extremely minimal, indeed. The truth is, Reformed Epistemology (RE) attacks Freud and Marx for claiming that Christians are irrational...but then turns around and claims that unbelievers are irrational. How does this solve anything? How will this aid the unbeliever? It will not. I once asked the same question about how RE aids the unbeliever to a proponent of RE. This is the response I was given:

“Plantinga never claims that his thesis about proper basicality or warrant for theistic belief is not an attempt to ‘write off unbelievers.’ Indeed, it’s a claim about believers.”

The phrase about writing off unbelievers is what I said to the proponent about RE. I think the system does write off unbelievers because it claims (as with the two Plantinga quotes above) that unbelievers are irrational, while also asserting that one can believe in God and be justified and rational without evidence or argument. If a system calls unbelievers “irrational,” does it not “write off unbelievers”? I don’t see how else Plantinga’s words can be interpreted. Secondly, notice that the only remarks made about the unbeliever is that he or she is irrational in their belief. This so-called “apologetic” (as provided in Gary Habermas’s Five Views on Apologetics) is not an apologetic at all; RE does not seek to aid the unbeliever in coming to understand that Christian belief is rational. Rather, it says, “I am justified in my belief and rational in it whether or not any such arguments exist.” Why even do apologetics if this is the attitude Christians will have in the world?

And this comes down to the subject of this post. Consider an educated atheist as a replacement in Plantinga’s example of the educated Christian. Consider such an atheist: this atheist has read her Intelligent Design books, written by the ID team: Phil Johnson, Michael Behe, David Berlinski, William Dembski, etc. She’s read Lee Strobel and William Lane Craig. She’s read McGrath, Lennox and C.S. Lewis. She’s read William Paley’s arguments, even. Let’s say that she’s read every work these men have ever written. She finds none of their research, however remarkable they think their work is, to be convincing. She thinks that they are pitiful excuses for scholars. On the other hand, she’s also aware of atheistic arguments against the existence of God, but she is not an atheist because of those arguments. Rather, she is an atheist because of experiential dreams she’s had, as well as encounters with dead atheists who she thinks she’s seen in visions and night dreams. As a result of their appearances to her, and their warnings to not fall for Christian belief, she refuses to believe in God. Is she justified in her belief? Plantinga would respond, “Yes...but she’s irrational nonetheless.” But how is this the case? In his example, Plantinga argues that the Christian is both justified and rational:

“We may feel in some subterranean way that without evidence she isn’t justified; if so, this must be because we are importing some other conception of justification. But if it is justification in the deontological sense, the sense involving responsibility, being within one’s intellectual rights, she is surely justified. How could she possibly be blameworthy or irresponsible, if she thinks about the matter as hard as she can, in the most responsible way she can, and she still comes to these conclusions? Indeed, no matter what conclusions she arrived at, wouldn’t she be justified if she arrived at them in this way?” (Plantinga, WCB, 101)

But I could ask the same thing regarding the atheist: if the atheist has thought about the matter as hard as he or she can, how could the atheist be blameworthy or irresponsible? Indeed, no matter what claim the atheist makes, would he or she not be justified and rational even if he or she left the investigation without believing in God? To this, Plantinga would say that, while the atheist is justified, he or she would still be irrational. But how is this the case? Has not the atheist educated himself on the issue as much (if not more) than the Christian has?

Since Plantinga believes that the Christian can use experience to validate his/her faith in God, I’d like to use an experience that will serve the contrary purpose: to show how the atheist can be as rational (if not more) than the Christian.

This summer, I had some witnessing encounters with atheists. When I first began to share my testimony and talk with them about what could lie beyond this life, I believed that they had just simply read Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, a few other atheistic scientists, and concluded that Christianity was bunk because of a few men. Through a two-to-three-week discussion with them, it became clear that not only had these men and women read Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, and other atheistic/agnostic scientists...but they had also read all the guys in the Intelligent Design movement. In fact, they’ve read much more than I have on either side of the movement itself...and I’m quite a voracious reader. I felt like I was in the company of intellectuals...and that I was the only “non-intellectual” person there at the forum! I asked them things about the works of the Intelligent Design folks, questions that could only be answered by those who’ve read on the ID side, and they answered me in great detail. To my surprise, they knew about every work done by Intelligent Design, as well as why they disagreed with it!

So what do we label these individuals? Are they both justified and rational in their unbelief? I would say they are. But if Plantinga’s right, these atheists could have read more than I, studied more theistic arguments than I have, read William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, all of the ID writers and arguments for the existence of God, as well as evolutionist arguments, and still be irrational in their unbelief. But how can they be labeled such when, like their Christian counterparts, they have read, studied, and contemplated the evidence as much (if not more) than most Christians have?

This is the answer we find: when we strip away all the fancy language, the truth is that atheists are not justified in their belief because “they do not believe in Jesus.” If they believed in Jesus, the implied argument goes, then they would be rational. One can only be rational if one believes in Jesus (according to this argument). But, as I’ve said in prior posts, atheists too, possess the imago dei and the likeness of God. They too, possess intellect and rational capability. If they do, then why is it they can only have a rational belief if they believe in God? Because Reformed Epistemology is “Reformed” for a reason. It caters to Calvinist theology. Plantinga again:

The extended model [Aquinas/Calvin] will bear some of the earmarks of Reformed theology, but similar models can be constructed for other theological traditions” (Plantinga, WCB, 200).

I don’t know about constructing other models, but the Plantingan model reflects “Reformed” theology. It becomes clear in this next quote that by “Reformed,” Plantinga means “Calvinist”:

“...(even if in fact such a person has, as in the model, been enlightened by the Holy Spirit), but toward someone who accepts the bit of Reformed theology according to which the Holy Spirit illuminates only some of us...” (Plantinga, WCB, 253)

So now we arrive at the origin of rationality. Sin has distorted the sensus divinitatis and we do not see things the way our foreparents Adam and Eve did prior to the Fall in Genesis 3. As a result, only some of us will be illuminated, and thus, rational, according to Calvinism. And Plantinga happens to agree with this portion of Calvinism, at least. Only some of us are enlightened, while the rest of us are not. And so, the believer can claim he or she is rational because it does not matter what arguments or evidence are provided; rather, what matters most is whether or not one is elected to salvation. Rationality hinges upon the election of some in eternity past.

I don’t think that RE is bad only because of its Calvinist theology; I think it’s bad because it presumes to label atheists as irrational. And once again, I ask: how can the believer be both justified and rational in believing in God without evidence or argument...while the atheist is justified but irrational in disbelieving against God with evidence and argument? 

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