May 25th, 1997
by Paul Pardi
Most philosophers of religion do not believe that the traditional deductive “proofs” for God’s existence work. Many that do believe they work do not see them as formal proofs but as inductive arguments that make a cumulative, probabilistic case. Does this mean that the business of defending religion (formally known as apologetics) is dead? To the contrary, in certain circles, apologetics is an active area of study for philosophers of religion. In fact, it is hard to find a philosopher of religion writing today who is not concerned with the subject at one level or another.
Yet despite the current prominence of the discipline, the formal task of what philosophers of religion today have come to know as “defending of the faith” actually is a rather late development. The short story goes something like this. Before the enlightenment, the idea of defending belief in God against atheistic argument was rather unheard of. Instead, formulations of logical proofs or the culling of historical and scientific evidences was part of a larger programme of developing a well-rounded theology. Rarely did anyone think that proofs were necessary in order for one to have a rational faith. In fact the idea that one would need to depend on arguments for belief in God was foreign to the mainline, pre-enlightenment philosophers who thought about the matter.
When Locke, Kant, and Hume came on the scene ostensibly destroying the formerly stalwart ideological fortresses with their bifurcation of reality and skeptical view of knowledge, God’s existence, as well as other religious truth claims, came under attack. Unfortunately for many, a result of the enlightenment attack on certainty undermined the force of the theistic “proofs” and the reliability of the scientific and historical evidence (at least qua evidence). Almost immediately, these rational defenses of God’s existence became passé at best and at worst were considered fallacious or rationally unacceptable. The reaction of many theists was to attack directly the Enlightenment thinking and develop a rationalistic counterattack that had the theistic proofs at its core. Out of this came the formal discipline of apologetics—the project of rationally defending the existence of God. Under this project, the proofs and evidences that formerly served as a support to faith now came to ground it.
For many believers and philosophers however, faith continued despite the attack on the proofs. As I already mentioned, pre-enlightenment theism never really relied on the proofs as a ground for faith anyway. There was a difficulty though. Though pre-enlightenment theism didn’t rely on the proofs, they did play an important supporting role to faith. The average believer’s attitude towards formal arguments for God’s existence was like the typical American mindset towards the US judicial system: my daily freedom doesn’t depend upon my knowing it but its nice to know its there if I ever need it. When post-enlightenment thinkers dismantled the formal proofs, many believers decided to devalue them altogether (epistemically speaking) and take a more “experiential” approach to grounding belief in God. To push the judicial analogy one step further, the new attitude was like the attitude of one who rejects the court system after finding out that all the United States Justices are on the Mob’s payroll. The term “fideist” or “existentialist” has been applied to the most radical forms of this movement though on the average, these terms would be too drastic. Philosophy of religion then entered the post-enlightenment, post-modern era with God’s existence largely being grounded either by strict evidentialism or by rejecting evidentialism and appealing to personal conviction based on leaps of faith. These two approaches have dominated apologetics up to the present time. Recently, however, many philosophers are returning to the pre-enlightenment approach to apologetics (a move which, in no small part, is due to a rejection of the enlightenment epistemology).
Even so, the Enlightenment has had a significant effect on apologetics and all three approaches have significant characteristics that mark them as post-Enlightenment. First, they are focusing less on ontology and more on epistemology. That is, philosophers are becoming more concerned with defending the belief that God exists than with rationally proving God existence per se. The difference is subtle but important. In the not so distant past, one would be inclined to ask and answer the question, “Does God exist?” Presently we’re more apt to hear the question framed as, “Is it more reasonable to believe that God’s exists than that He doesn’t?” The changing nature of public and philosophical discourse may be part of the reason this shift may have occurred (discussed below). After all, apologetics is, by definition, a defense ad populum. If one’s apologetic does not reach the minds of the ones to whom the apologetic is aimed it is entirely ineffective as a defense. The second main trend is that of trying to wed a strong evidentialist approach to the more existential one by attempting to demonstrate the rationality of the apologetic system even if the apologetic itself isn’t rationalistic. For example, Reformed apologists are working on arguments that attempt to that one’s experiences of God are veridical and therefore provide an adequate ground of rational belief in God.
I’m concerned here with highlighting apologetic trends as they apply to theism in general and not a particular religion like Christianity or Islam. However it is significant to note that much of the good work in apologetics is being done in the context of a particular religion. For example, Zondervan just released Five Views on Apologetics that discusses five evangelical Christian approaches to defending belief in God. Another example can be found in the scholarship of the Catholic Church. The Pope’s latest encyclical demonstrates the church’s continued commitment to evidentialism. His Fides et Ratio is garnering attention from all Christian denominations both Catholic and Protestant. It is a fine work and upholds the commitment to the integration of the spiritual life with the life of the mind. (For a Reformed evaluation of the encyclical, see the Books and Culture special article, “Faith and Reason.”)
Still, many philosophers of religion working in the field of religious epistemology and apologetics are concerned with the rationality of theistic beliefs. This type of apologetics provides a foundation for the work being done at the level of a specific religious system. This past spring, the University of Aberdeen focused its International Gifford Conference on natural theology. Natural theology attempts to develop a philosophy of religion and theology apart from any revelation claim. The Conference, titled, “Natural Theology: Problems and Prospects,” featured papers by theists and non-theists alike.
Probably the most creative work being done in the evidentialist camp falls under the rubric known as “Design Theory.” Berkely law professor Phillip E. Johnson (author of the widely read, Darwin on Trial; Johnson’s latest book, The Wedge of Truth, is directed against naturalism and was just published by Intervarsity Press) is spearheading this “movement.” In the United States, The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think-tank, has pooled together some of the top minds doing work on the subject. The fellows of the Institute’s “Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture”, which include Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski , and Stephen C. Meyer, have been writing on a wide variety of topics and speaking all over the country promoting design as a theory of explanation. In November, CRCS will be hosting a conference at the venerable Yale University entitled, “Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe.” This conference, like the “Design and its Critics” conference recently held at Concordia University, will be a forum for presentations on both sides of the question.
Interestingly, the arguments of design theorists like those mentioned above are not given under the auspices of an apologetic per se (though their work does include some apologetic work). That is, these philosophers are not arguing that their conclusions entail that belief in God is more reasonable than not. Rather, they are arguing for design as a theory in and of itself. For example, Demski’s now famous The Design Inference barely mentions theism in the entire monograph. The goal of the book is to describe ways in which design could be detected in events. However, or so the thinking goes, if one buys the system’s conclusions then theism isn’t too far off. At the very least, accepting design in the universe certainly makes theism more reasonable than not. This example brings to the fore the subtle shift in the way apologetics is being done. Though this certainly does not represent the entire evidentialist field, it does I believe represent an important direction evidentialist apologetics is taking.
A second way philosophers have defended belief in God has gotten an ideological boost in recent days from postmodernism. This second approach might be considered the antithesis of evidentialist apologetics. I will call this approach “deconstructionist” apologetics (I’m loathe to use that term because of the baggage it carries but I do think it is the best term for this position). The idea is that the rationality of belief in God is not dependent upon beliefs being formed in the mind of a would-be believer by way of evidence or, in some cases, even an act of God. Rather a religious belief is rational because the believer made a choice to believe based on what she loves and hates. Some of the spin-offs, I believe, of this fundamental epistemology are religious pluralism. Much of the recent work by John Hick, D.Z. Phillips and some of the process philosophers like Hartshorne, and on the more postmodern side, Jean-Luc Marion and John Caputo (and one might even include here Cornel West).
Some readers may find it odd that I’m suggesting that a person like Hick or Caputo is doing apologetics. It is odd in the sense that these philosophers are not intentionally attempting to present a defense of theistic belief. However if one considers that the project of folks like Hick and Caputo is to place religious belief within a modern, scientific, pluralistic framework and make it “fit,” it becomes clear that they are seeking to rescue religious belief from irrationality or irrelevance. In that sense, they are constructing an apologetic.
It should be clear that this approach is the terminus ad quem of the move away from a metaphysical or ontological apologetic to an epistemological one. If, for example, someone like Hick can show that all religious belief just is an affective movement towards “the real” then perhaps the religious believer really isn’t all that different from the inquisitive scientist who is seeking to discover the nature of the universe. Religious belief then becomes much more “rational” than it would be if we took all that talk about a real, transcendent person seriously. So, whether religious belief is viewed merely as a language game, a private narrative, or an internal longing for something transcendent, it becomes protected from the criticisms of non-religious epistemology (it becomes irrelevant whether or not there really is a God as construed by orthodox religions). Religion becomes isolated from the rest of one’s noetic structure and thus is not subject to the rationality constraints of it. This claim itself becomes a defense of religious belief. For an excellent overview of the developments taking place in this space, see David G. Kamitsuka’s new book, Theology and Contemporary Culture published by Cambridge (especially chapters 2 and 3).
The third approach to doing apologetics incorporates, very broadly, some features of the first two approaches. The third approach agrees with the deconstructionists in that enlightenment-style rationalistic evidence and philosophical argument are not viewed as necessary to ground belief in God and to make it rational. However, it also holds that this approach to belief —rejecting evidentialism— itself is rational and presents arguments and evidence in an attempt to argue for that conclusion. Most of the philosophers, Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Alston being the most prominent, who are developing ideas in this area are doing so under the auspices of Reformed epistemology. (The version of Reformed epistemology I discuss here is not the only version. C. Stephen Evans is developing a version of Reformed epistemology along Kierkegarrdian lines that is seeking to be sensitive to postmodern concerns. See my WHiP article “Postmodernizing Religion”).
Where these philosophers differ from the deconstructionists is in the fact that they believe religious knowledge is objective knowledge. That is they hold that religious belief actually is of something real. They differ from the evidentialists in that they deny that belief in God has to come by way of evidence and argument. Rather, believe in God, like other types of belief (e.g. beliefs formed by perceptual experience) can be formed by an internal function or by way of an act of God or a combination of both. For example, thinkers in the Calvinist tradition hold that belief in God is formed by way of a capacity of soul that is designed to detect God. When formed in this way, the belief is both immediate and rational.
Plantinga’s latest opus, Warranted Christian Belief, is already receiving much critical attention and is an apologetic in the truest sense. In it, Plantinga does three major things. First he argues that all of the arguments against the rationality of God fail. He examines the critiques of Kant, Freud, Marx, and looks at postmodern critiques and attempts to show why their critiques of religious belief don’t work. Second, he painstakingly develops the notion of a sensus divinitatus—a divine sensor—that allows a human being to directly detect and form belief in God. He draws on the rich Christian tradition found in folks like Calvin, Saint Thomas, and Jonathan Edwards. Finally, after establishing the rationality of theism, he argues for the rationality and superiority of the Christian religion specifically. Though the book primarily is a discourse in religious epistemology, it serves as a staunch defense of the rationality of belief in God and is aimed and “defeating defeaters” for that belief. This is a paradigmatic example of the return to the pre-enlightenment philosophy.
It seems to be the nature of human beings to want to provide reasons for believing the things most dear to them even if those beliefs turn out to be irrational or just plain false. Given that philosophers tend to be among the more inquisitive, I think its fairly safe to say that apologetics will continue to be a dominate discipline within philosophy of religion for the foreseeable future. In philosophic years, that’s millennia.