Culture At Large

Alvin Plantinga on atheism

Josh Larsen

The New York Times’ philosophy blog recently posed the following question to Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga: Is atheism irrational? The emeritus professor at Notre Dame, who has written for Think Christian on the historical Adam, offered a number of thoughts in his cogent, congenial style.

One of Plantinga’s repeated claims in the interview is that while agnosticism may be a rational position to take, atheism is not. As he says:

Lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism. In the same way, the failure of the theistic arguments, if indeed they do fail, might conceivably be good grounds for agnosticism, but not for atheism. Atheism, like even-star-ism, would presumably be the sort of belief you can hold rationally only if you have strong arguments or evidence.

The interviewer, Gary Gutting, also raised a common claim by contemporary atheists: that as science explains more and more of the natural world, it further erases our “need” for a creating God. “As a justification of atheism,” Plantinga responds, “this is pretty lame.” He goes on:

We no longer need the moon to explain or account for lunacy; it hardly follows that belief in the nonexistence of the moon (a-moonism?) is justified. A-moonism on this ground would be sensible only if the sole ground for belief in the existence of the moon was its explanatory power with respect to lunacy. (And even so, the justified attitude would be agnosticism with respect to the moon, not a-moonism.) The same thing goes with belief in God: Atheism on this sort of basis would be justified only if the explanatory power of theism were the only reason for belief in God. And even then, agnosticism would be the justified attitude, not atheism.

The interview also gets into materialism and neurophysiology, which is where my brain started to hurt. More on my level was Plantinga’s answer to this question from Gutting: “Since the world isn’t perfect, why would we need a perfect being to explain the world or any feature of it?”

I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.

Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might - e.g., having them boiled in oil - God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures. I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better.

What do you think? Is atheism a more rational worldview than Christianity? Should Christians have to make a rational case for faith or does this limit our experience of God?

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Philosophy, Theology & The Church, Theology, Other Religions