Category Archives: science and religion

science and religion soul Trembley

Can science make room for the soul?

In the 18th century, Abraham Trembley discovered that a microscopic, fresh-water animal called the hydra could be cut up to form as many hydras as one would like. This troubled the then current idea of the soul, which held that all animals had souls. If all animals had souls, then the hydra should as well. Does cutting up the hydra mean that one is cutting up the soul? If not, does God grant each of the pieces a soul? Or does the experiment imply — as many atheists of the time inferred — that there simply is no immaterial soul?

In our time, unknown to most people, there is a new challenge to the soul. In this new challenge, instead of cutting up hydra, neuroscientists cut up the human brain. It has been found that splitting the brain into two produces two independent personalities with distinct minds (the split-brain procedure is used out of medical necessity in the treatment of certain disorders). In fact, these two minds can have distinct religious beliefs. Here is neuroscientist VS Ramachandran explaining an experiment in which one patient was recorded as having both atheist and theist halves of his brain:

read more »

evolution Existence of God God history Jerry Coyne John Haught NOMA science science and religion scientism theist arguments

On the Haught/Coyne Debate


I recently re-watched the debate between University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and Georgetown theologian John Haught, which Haught had famously (infamously?) not allowed to be posted online (until a great deal of ruckus had been raised over the issue, at which point Haught eventually relented) (debate here and question/answer session here). Coyne’s view is very close to my own, though I thought he has done a better job at presenting his view elsewhere when he had more time to speak. On the other hand, I think that Haught performed poorly in this debate.

In this post, I will first explain how Coyne and Haught fit into my present theoretical understanding of the science/religion debate, why Coyne and Haught were likely speaking past each other, and then I will show why I think that Haught’s central argument (concerning his layered view of reality) is weak. I’ve broken this post up into various sections so readers can skip those parts that they are not interested in.

read more »

Atheism civil liberties civil rights constitution creationism Establishment Clause FFRF First Amendment intelligent design science and religion scientific consensus separation of church and state

Karl Giberson, Christian Privilege, and Teaching Science/Religion Classes

For those who don’t know, there has been an on-going spat concerning a class taught by physics professor Eric Hedin at Ball State University. Hedin teaches a class entitled “Boundaries of Science” whose syllabus reveals that the class focuses on discussing the relationship between science and religion. As someone whose academic pursuits are related to studying the relationship between science and religion, this debacle has been on my radar screen for a while. Several groups have weighed in — perhaps most prominently Jerry Coyne (who is against the class) and the Discovery Institute (who say that they support the class in the name of “academic freedom”) — with a variety of viewpoints. Recently, physicist Karl Giberson has weighed in on the issue on his blog. In this post, I’d like to say a bit about Giberson’s response.

Giberson is a Christian commentator on the evolution/Creationism dispute who encourages his fellow Christians to accept Darwinian evolution. He works for the pro-evolution evangelical think tank the Biologos Foundation and I’ve been following his work in the blogosphere for a while.

In his article, Giberson calls Coyne’s view on the issue “hyperbolic” (I don’t think they are) and goes on to state (emphasis mine):

The Hedin uproar interests me because I teach similar courses — at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. — that explore the boundaries of science, the nature of scientific truth and the religious implications of science…

Teaching courses on controversial subjects when you have a public — or even private — position on the controversy is a balancing act. Teachers, especially professors, are authority figures with powers of persuasion that should not be used to move students to positions that do not represent the mainstream thinking on the topic

…I assign equal reading from theists and atheists and spend roughly half the time discussing the ideas of the atheists. My goal — and I think I succeed — is to help students think through important issues that may inform their own spiritual journeys, regardless of the direction they are traveling. And as we know, college students do a lot of traveling…

Hedin’s assigned readings and bibliography are somewhat unbalanced, although one of the two required texts is a solid popularization of conventional big bang cosmology, unadorned by theological speculation. However, were students to infer that the extensive bibliography list covers the bases for the discussion of the “Boundaries of Science” they would be mistaken. Of the roughly 20 books listed, half advocate basic intelligent design with the remainder divided evenly between books by Christians sympathetic to raising constructive questions about God in the context of science — like Keith Ward and myself — or non-theists with minority viewpoints that resonate in some way with traditional theism — like Roger Penrose and Paul Davies. Noticeably absent are genuinely critical books of the sort written by Vic Stenger, Steven Weinberg and even Jerry Coyne that address the same issues but offer informed atheistic responses.

But is any of this a big deal? Should Ball State University terminate a young assistant professor teaching a general education course, which most faculty avoid like the plague, outside his field because, on first offering, it was ideologically slanted? I wonder how those us living in the ivory towers of academia would fare if our most challenging interdisciplinary syllabi constructed early in our careers became topics of national conversation?

…my guess is that his interdisciplinary explorations, like those of many thinkers inclined to consider the larger context of their fields, will become more sophisticated as time passes. If not, his colleagues won’t vote him tenure. In the meantime, Ball State doesn’t need external culture warriors telling them how to run their university.

I feel largely sympathetic to much of what Giberson stated. I’m a graduate student whose research focuses on the historical and philosophical relationship between science and religion. Despite having publicly accessible views on that relationship, I look forward to teaching courses on this topic but worry that my views may get in the way of pedagogy (what happens when students google me?). Unlike Giberson, I’m an atheist, but I think can I can imagine what it would be like to teach courses of this kind when one’s views are so publicly accessible. I have yet to teach a class on this, but would very much like to do so in the future (especially since it’s my research area!). And I think that Giberson has much the right idea; spending half of his course on thinkers he is adamantly opposed to, and working hard to present their ideas as strongly as you present your own, can work to create a classwork environment where academic exploration is encouraged. While I have not taught classes on the topic, I have done guest lectures for various groups and was happy to hear from my colleagues (who sat in) that I was as neutral as I was.

Giberson is correct that Helin’s syllabus lacks the full range of possible views that one might have on the science/religion relationship. And he’s right that Hedin is abusing his power as a professor. As others have pointed out, Hedin’s teaching evaluations on provide further evidence that he seems to be abusing his power as professor:

“Extremely nice guy and an easy class. However, the class had an extremely Christian bias and he does not believe in evolution. Many of his views do not quite jive with those of mainstream science.”
“Constantly talks religion, as an atheist, I was slightly concerned my science teacher is a devout christian.”
“The one thing I didn’t like was his constant bringing religion into class.”

When I took Philosophy of Religion, professor Ted Parent commented to the class that, if he did his job well that semester, students in the class will be guessing right up until the last day what his personal views are. Having taken other religion courses, I’ve seen other ways that professors try to avoid appearing biased; my Sociology of Religion professor stated his views the first day of class (he was an agnostic) and apologized if he ever appeared biased. He also encouraged students to relate the material to their own backgrounds and their own personal views. I sat in on a class that looked at the history of science and religion, taught by Matthew Goodrum, and he avoided telling the class his personal views the entire semester. He was so good at appearing neutral that his views were never relevant to the course material. His own views were simply not relevant to the course material. These approaches appear to me to be legitimate ways of reassuring students that the material will not be present in a biased manner; either make an effort to appear so neutral that your students have no idea what your views are or air them on the first day of class and let the students know that you want to cooperate with them to leave those views outside the door of the classroom.

Hedin’s class, in its syllabus and in his teaching evaluations, seems to be unapologetically biased towards Christian theism.

Giberson’s remark that this isn’t really a big deal seems to miss-the-mark. The problem is two-fold: 1. the kind of abuse of one’s power that can be identified in Hedin’s teaching evaluations and syllabus and 2. the kind of anti-atheist prejudice that is involved here. Despite recognizing Hedin’s abuse of power, Giberson asks that outsiders leave the matter to the university. Nonetheless, (2) especially concerns me because we already live in a country where atheists are regularly demonized; it doesn’t help to have a college professor abuse his power to erase the positions which atheists are voicing. If there were a class on “Gender Theory”, and it was taught by a white, heterosexual, cis male, and the syllabus solely contained works written by so-called “Men’s Rights Activists”, we would have reason to be concerned. We would have even more reason to be concerned if the professor’s teaching evaluations and other anecdotal evidence revealed that the teacher was making misogynistic comments in class. Such a situation would strike many of us as cause for concern. Imagine how inadequate it would appear if the response from MRA activists was to defend such a professor in the name of “academic freedom”.

It’s not that such a class should avoid discussing MRA thought; as much as I detest it and find it morally abhorrent, such views appear in the discussion on gender issues and a class focusing on such issues could conceivably do students a disservice if such a discussion were avoided. Similarly, while I find it intellectually abhorrent, Creationism is relevant to the discussion of science and religion. That does not mean that it should be the primary focus of the course.

This course is a violation of student rights and openly presents inaccurate information. If Ball State does not want to do anything about this situation, then students have every right to seek outside influence. It isn’t fair that students should be subjected to this sort of thing and it isn’t right for a professor to teach whatever he pleases under the guise of “academic freedom”.

Cosmological Argument Evidential Problem of Evil Max Andrews properties of God science and religion

Responding to Shaun Smith’s Review of the Liberty U Debate

Last Thursday, Max Andrews and I debated the question of whether or not God exists on the Liberty University campus. There was understandably a lot of excitement among students over the event because it is rare to have an atheist as an invited speaker at such a deeply conservative and Christian school as Liberty. To give you some idea of what the campus is like, the lecture hall in which the debate was held was in the same building as Creation Hall, which displays information and artifacts advocating Young Earth Creationism and a literal reading of the book of Genesis. There is also an evangelism class that Liberty requires all of their undergraduates to take. Most of their faculty members have degrees in Divinity or in Theology. There was one student who, prior to the debate, approached me and asked if I were an actual atheist. I don’t think he had knowingly met one before.

At the debate, Max presented four textbook arguments for the existence of God – the cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, the moral argument, and Plantinga’s modal ontological argument – while I presented a number of either original or unorthodox arguments against the existence of God – a version of the argument from incoherency from Stephen Law’s Believing Bullshit, a version of the assumption of naturalism I’ve seen used by John Shook, something I call the argument from uneven resources (which is related to the problem of evil and is original to myself), and an argument based around provisional methodological naturalism (inspired by a paper by Maarten Boudry). I’ll likely be presenting these arguments individually in future blog posts.

A colleague of Max’s, named Shaun Smith, has posted a review of the debate to Max’s blog that is largely critical of the arguments that I presented at the debate. I thought that I’d take some time here to respond to his comments.

read more »

arguments Atheism Evidential Problem of Evil Existence of God science and religion

Reflecting back on last year’s debate with Max Andrews

Last year, I debated Max Andrews from Liberty University on whether God is likely to exist or not. I think the debate went well, could have gone better, and that my arguments were not understood (which is evidenced by how they were characterized on Max’s blog Sententias).

This Thursday, I will be debating Max again, but this time on the Liberty University campus. It’s been rather difficult to arrange the debate, but — however begrudgingly — I think everything is set to go now. Nonetheless, preparing for this year’s debate has caused me to reflect back on last year’s.

Last year’s debate was held in a 2-on-2 debate format, modelled after the Intelligence^2 debates. There was some level of miscommunication with the moderator, so the entire back-and-forth section (where the debaters addressed each other) got dropped. That was really rather regrettable, and, as I understand it, both sides were saddened that it occurred; I know that my debate partner and I were planning on using that section to address the arguments made by the opposing side. With the loss of that section, both sides were disabled from responding directly to the charges that the other side made. Hopefully, there will be better communication with the moderator at LU to ensure that the same mistake is not repeated.

The arguments presented by my debate partner and I went together; I presented an argument against the existence of an Abrahamic god while my partner presented an argument against a benevolent god. Max, apparently, misunderstood the argument that I presented; often, on his blog, he claims that I simply attacked inerrancy. Instead of attacking a more general conception of god during my opening remarks, I attacked the specific deity associated with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I also pointed out that any other conception of god would be sufficiently different that either:

1. It’s difficult to see why we should even use the English word “god” to describe it (a point that David Hume makes in Natural History of Religion);
2. Would require a different kind of argument.

But any sort of benevolent, monotheistic god was already going to be addressed by my partner.

Let’s take a look at the argument I presented last year and why I think Max never understood it. Last year’s argument had three different prongs:

3. The Abrahamic god is a social product of a particular cultural context, namely the ancient Levant. Therefore, while Max can certainly identify several mysterious features of our world, the Abrahamic god is not a very good explanation of those features.
4. Where ever it is that morality comes from, it cannot be from the Abrahamic god as depicted in various holy texts. This is both because of the things that people do because of those texts (especially when they have read them accurately) and because of what those texts say the Abrahamic god commanded.
5. Scientists do not need to posit a god to explain their data. While scientists in the past might have made use of theistic hypotheses, they have found such hypotheses to be useless and no longer appeal to religion when doing science.

My debate partner, whose argument was intended to attack the idea of an all loving, all knowing, and all powerful god produced an evolutionary problem of evil; i.e. since the process of evolution involved so much suffering and pain, it is unlikely to be the mechanism by which God brought about the existence of human beings. But human beings were brought about evolution. Ergo, the universe we live in is not likely to be the kind of universe that a personal, all-loving, omnipotent, omniscient creator god would bring about. Thus, the universe — as we see it — is evidence against the existence of such a being. I think its a rather ingenious argument and it doesn’t come into a lot of the pitfalls had by more traditional versions of the argument from evil.

creationism Draper-White Thesis Fundamentalists intelligent design NOMA science and religion theology Uncategorized Young Earth Creationism

The Religion and Science Conflict is Complex

John Hedley Brooke’s Complexity Thesis — that the historical relationship between science and religion has been complex, with times at which science challenged religion and times at which they supported each other — is the scholarly consensus about the relationship between science and religion amongst those scholars who study such things. However, I think that the Complexity Thesis, ironically, misses an important complexity. The Complexity Thesis is often brought out against the claim that science and religion necessarily conflict; it is pointed out that the Draper-White Thesis (that science and religion have historically been at war) is an overly simplistic view of history and that both Draper and White were more involved with polemics than they were with legitimate, historical scholarship. Nonetheless, historical warfare is not the only way in which science and religion can conflict. Showing that the relationship between science and religion has been historically complex misses the other ways in which science and religion might pose challenges for each other.

There are likely to be other ways in which science and religion can conflict, but here are at least three:

read more »

creationism Existence of God God history intelligent design Isaac Newton science and religion theology

Happy Birthday Isaac Newton! (and: So what did Newton think about God?)

Godfrey Kneller’s 1689 portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

Isaac Newton was born on December 25th, 1642; thus, many Freethinkers and science fans celebrate Newton’s birth on Christmas day. Since today is Newton’s birthday and this is an atheism blog, I’d like to ask — what were Newton’s views on God? To answer that question, I’ll first present a brief description of Newton’s context. Then, I will include, in full, a letter which Newton wrote to a clergyman in 1692 describing his religious views.

Although not a typical believer, Newton did have a belief in a god of some kind. However, he certainly should not be thought as an orthodox Christian by any stretch of the imagination. Newton was a heretic. He rejected the trinity and embraced alchemy; Isaac Kramnick described Newton as anticipating Enlightenment deism (Kramnick, 1995).

One has to understand that in Newton’s time, there was no such thing as science. Science would emerge in the 19th century; in Newton’s day (mid to late 17th century), there was natural philosophy and natural theology, both of which Newton did, and both of which, to some extent, were the precursors to modern science.

read more »

Alister McGrath Complexity creationism Existence of God history intelligent design science and religion theology Uncategorized William Paley

Paley Plagiarised

William Paley plagiarized his watchmaker argument.

In 1802, William Paley published his famous Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, which was based largely on Enlightenment era theology. In the book, Paley argues for the existence of God by arguing by analogy between watches and organisms. Living things, Paley argued, are just as complex and ordered as pocket watches are. Thus, we should infer the existence of a cosmic Watchmaker (i.e. God). Of course, this is the argument which contemporary Intelligent Design advocates use.

But regardless of the contemporary political issues surrounding the argument, there are multiple intriguing questions which can be raised about the argument. One such question is how we come to recognize which objects are designed. After all, archaeologists are able to distinguish designed from non-designed objects all the time; surely, even if Paley’s argument fails on multiple levels (which it does), there should be a way to characterize what archaeologists are doing. That’s a question that I raise in a paper I’ve been working on. But another sort of question one can ask is about the historical origins of the argument.

In his book Darwin and the Divine, historical theologian Alister McGrath pretty conclusively shows* that Paley plagiarized large portions of the watchmaker argument. Consider this passage from Bernard Nieuwentyt (1750):

So many different wheels, nicely adapted by their teeth to each other… Those wheels are made of brass, in order to keep them from rust; the spring is steel, no other metal being so proper for that purpose… Over the hand there is placed a clear glass, in the place of which if there were any other than a transparent substance, he must be at the pains of opening it every time to look upon the hand.

And now consider this passage from Paley:

A series of wheels, the teeth of which catch in and apply to each other… The wheels are made of brass, in order to keep them from rust; the spring of steel, no other metal being so elastic … Over the face of the watch there is placed a glass, a material employed in no other part of the work, but in the room of which if there had been any other than a transparent substance, the hour could not have been seen without opening the case.

Comparing them line by line, they’re virtually identical. And according to McGrath, Paley didn’t think to even cite Nieuwentyt in the first edition of his book.


According to McGrath, he’s not the first person to comment on this. But this was the first time I’d ever come across allegations that Paley plagiarized.

Atheism Christianity Environmentalism science and religion

Why are some evangelicals hostile to environmentalism?

Belief matters. Convincing people of that statement is often difficult. After one becomes convinced of that statement (as I am), one wonders why it is not obvious to more people. Beliefs determine our actions; our chances of interacting appropriately with the world correlate pretty highly with how consistently accurate our model of the world is. If I do not have correct beliefs about the meanings of street signs or about what automobiles can do to people, I might think it proper to march out into rush hour traffic.

Or I might cause global warming, while denying that it even exists.

The word “environmentalism” indicates a certain kind of concern with the negative impact that human beings can have on the natural world. Since one’s religious views will often determine how one understands the relationship between humankind and nature, whether or not environmentalism is even seen as legitimate will largely depend on the religious views that one has accepted. If one is motivated by the dominant religion in one’s culture, then even as a non-adherent, one may have an attitude which ultimately originates in religious beliefs.

It has been claimed that Evangelical Christianity is particularly hostile to environmentalism. In fact, early empirical research on the subject identified that, of all of the indices of religiosity that were measured, “only religious fundamentalism consistently predicted environmental attitude and actions” (Emerson, et al). But others disagree. Many other indices of religiosity — church attendance, frequency of prayer, etc — were not found to be strongly correlated with environmental attitudes. Nor was it found that environmental attitudes were significantly different between American Christians or American non-Christians.

Why might there be a relationship between anti-environmentalist attitudes and Evangelical Christianity? The Lynn White Hypothesis (proposed by Lynn White in his The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis) states that this is due to a particular kind of theological view about the relationship between humankind and nature. White argued that the Judeo-Christian creation story provides a view in which humans have mastery and dominion over nature. Importantly, that Genesis 1:28 historically motivated an anti-environmental stance (at least in certain parts of Christianity). Furthermore, at least some Evangelical Christians apparently believe that this world is unimportant because it is about to be destroyed. For at least some Christians, the imminent apocalypse makes concerns about the environment moot.

However, there are other Evangelical Christians who respond to environmental concerns with a much more nuanced reading of Genesis 1:28. They believe that, as human beings, being stewards over the Earth is a responsibility. As faithful believers, they believe that they are expected and charged with caring for the Creation which God made. And, thus, we have the concept of “Christian Stewardship”.

The Evangelicals who take the view that they should be “stewards” of the Earth have the right idea, but for the wrong reason. Importantly, the only reason that they do the right thing is by sheer accident.


Emerson, M., Mirola, W., & Monahan, S. (2010). Religion matters: What sociology teaches us about religion in our world. Pearson.

Alvin Plantinga Atheism beleifs Christianity Daniel Dennett evolution Existence of God intelligent design New Atheism science and religion theist arguments

Review of Plantinga & Dennett’s “Science & Religion: Are They Compatible?”

When I found out that Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett co-authored a book, I was shocked. I could not think of two more diametrically opposed philosophers. It turned out that the book, entitled “Science and Religion”, resulted from a debate between the two famed philosophers at the American Philosophical Division Meeting in Chicago for 2009. The book consists of alternating short readings from each philosopher. The book contains a transcript of the original debate along with two more essays from each philosopher. Having now read the book, I think that Plantinga largely missed the point of Dennett’s arguments and that Dennett was probably more terse than he should have been.

The debate organisers had asked the two philosophers to discuss whether science and religion were compatible. However, the debate topic promptly changed when both philosophers agreed that there was no logical inconsistency between theism and science.

I’ll start by describing the arguments given by the respective parties and then offer commentary on some aspects of Plantinga’s argument I found problematic. Then I will briefly describe the response that I think Plantinga should have given to Dennett, followed by the response that I think Dennett would have given.

Plantinga argues:

1. Theism — in particular, Christian theism (Plantinga calls this “classical theism”) — is compatible with modern evolutionary theory. According to Plantinga, evolutionary theory is consistent with the idea that God guided the evolutionary process. One might object that evolution is random (and is therefore unguided). However, no part of evolutionary theory states that evolutionary events do not have causes; in fact, there are (often) causes cited for mutations. One such cause could be divine intervention.

2. The reliability of our beliefs is inconsistent with the conjunct of evolution and naturalism (where naturalism is *defined* as strong atheism — i.e. as the belief that are is no God or god-like beings). Plantinga argues that evolution cares only about adaptivity, not about truth tracking.


3. In response to (1): True, at least some forms of theism are consistent with evolution. But many things are logically consistent with evolution and that they are consistent is not evidence that theism is the case. Consider Supermanism — the thesis that Superman (son of Jor-El and an alien from the planet Krypton) caused the Cambrian explosion.

In response to (2): Dennett provides two replies:

4. Human brains evolved to track truth; that they do so is a sign that they are functioning properly. Just as the proper functioning of our hearts is to pump blood, the proper functioning of our neurophysiology is to produce correct beliefs about the world. Importantly, Dennett argues that the various parts of our bodies have functions to which they were tuned by evolution. Our hearts pump blood efficiently because that is the function they evolved to have. Brains track truth because that is what brains were evolved to do. So, evolution *is* truth tracking after all.

5. While it is true that our beliefs are, at least in part, the product of our neurophysiological states, they are also the product of our collective cultural evolution, discourse, and deliberation. So, while there might be poor beliefs that are produced by evolution, cultural evolution tends to expunge the bad and leave us with the good (this is why scientific — or, more generally, intellectual — progress is possible at all).


6. In response to (3) (in particular, to Supermanism): Plantinga characterises the Superman thought experiment as trying to show that theism is absurd (or just as absurd as supermanism). Plantinga argues that Dennett, and the other New Atheists, may think that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism), but they have not provided an argument to show this point (or so Plantinga asserts). Plantinga argues that since there are a tremendous number of religious people in the world, and they do not appear to be irrational, it’s not clear that theistic belief is irrational. Thus, it would be incumbent on the New Atheists to argue for the irrationality of theism, something which Plantinga charges they have not done.

7. In response to (4): Plantinga does not think that organisms need to have accurate belief states in order to survive. Rather, organisms only require unconscious indicators that result in “correct” actions when provided with a given stimulus.

8. Plantinga does not provide a response to (5).


I think that there are a number of problems with Plantinga’s strategy. One particularly vexing problem concerns (6). Plantinga mischaracterises Dennett’s argument. Arguing that theism is absurd (or as absurd as Supermanism) would be a rather poor rhettorical strategy; after all, Tertullian* notwithstanding, presumably no one holds beliefs which they think are absurd (again, in the Supermanism sense). However, that’s not what Dennett appears to be arguing.

The argument which Dennett presents concerns the burden of proof.

When Plantinga argues that theism is compatible with modern evolutionary theory, Dennett is right to respond with agreement. There are many things which are logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but the more interesting question is which of those things is the case. Supermanism is one idea which is logically consistent with our best scientific theories, but we do not think Supermanism is something that anyone should believe. Thus, Dennett presses Plantinga to do more than just argue for the logical consistency of theism with evolution. Dennett asks, can Plantinga provide us with a positive argument for theism? Dennett’s argument was categorically not to assert that theism is an absurd claim (though, no doubt, Dennett does think that).

In this book, Plantinga does not provide us with a positive argument for theism; instead, all he can offer is an argument against what he calls naturalism (really, a strong form of atheism). However, to be consistent with the rest of his work, there is a response that Plantinga should have given to Dennett instead of the one that he gave.

Plantinga should have responded that he does not need to give a positive argument for classical theism. Plantinga thinks that there is an additional sense — the sensis devinitatis — which provides human beings with non-propositional information concerning the existence of God. On Plantinga’s account of religious justification, theists are justified in their beliefs because belief in God is properly basic in virtue of having been caused by the sensus divinitatis. On Plantinga’s account, theists are people who have the proper sort of sensory experience to justify god-beliefs. Just as we do not ask people to justify that they are having the experience of the color purple when they see a purple object, Plantinga thinks people do not have to justify their having theistic beliefs.

In turn, Dennett could have responded with at least two arguments:

–that the best explanation of religious belief is not that it is caused by the sensus divinitatis. Rather, the best explanation would be in terms of standard evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution, sociology, anthrology, etc (that is, the sort of thing Dennett details in “Breaking the Spell”). Naturalistic (though not in Plantinga’s sense!) explanations of religious belief and  experiences are capable of explaining much more than classical theism (for example, they can give good explanations of the global diversity of religion. They can also explain why we see the sort of religions that we do and not others, etc).

–even if the best explanation of religious belief was the sensus divinitatis, if non-theists are truthful about their belief states, then they apparently lack the sensus divinitatis (or atheists have an inactive sensus divinitatis, etc). If theists would like to convince non-theists then it is incumbent on them to provide other lines of argument/evidence than to appeal to non-propositional sensory experiences which are closed off to the rest of us (or so they would claim). Theists certainly do not have to convince non-theists, but one would think that the point of debate is to convince those who disagree with oneself. Thus, while some theists might claim that they do not want to convince others, they should refrain from asserting arguments for their position. Furthermore, given Plantinga’s account of religious beliefs, theists might think that convincing an atheist that God exists would be rather like trying to convince a blind person that you are experiencing purple. Since such an endeavour would be utterly futile, debate would be pointless. However, Plantinga both participated in a debate with Dennett and writes books arguing for theism. Thus, Plantinga presumably thinks that there is a point to the debate.


*Tertullian famously stated: “Credo quia absurdum” — “I believe because it is absurd.”