Religion and epistemology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K080-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 30, 2022, from

7. De jure reduced to de facto

Freud, Marx, Nietzsche and their confrères claim that theistic belief is irrational (in the sense explained); Christians and other believers in God deny this. Who is right? Here it is important to see that this question cannot really be settled apart from the question as to whether Christian or theistic belief is true. First, it is clear that if Christian belief is true, then very likely it is rational; it is produced by unimpeded cognitive faculties functioning properly and aimed at the production of true belief. For if Christian belief is true, then we have been created by God and created in his image, one aspect of which involves our being able to resemble him with respect to knowledge. Further, God has instituted a way of salvation for human beings, and has also made available to us the means to know of and apprehend that salvation. When Christians form these beliefs, therefore, they do so by way of mechanisms that are working properly and successfully aimed at the production of true belief. So if Christian belief is true, it is rational. On the other hand, if Christian or theistic belief is false (if, for example, naturalism is true), then these beliefs constitute massive error, and it is hard to see how cognitive faculties functioning properly and aimed at the truth could produce them. Whatever mechanisms do produce them then, those mechanisms must be either malfunctioning or, like wishful thinking, be aimed at something other than the truth.

Once we see this, however, we see an important point about the version of the de jure criticism offered by Freud and Marx. What we see is that this question as to the rationality (or lack thereof) of Christian belief is not really just an epistemological question at all; it is at bottom a metaphysical, or theological, or religious question. For it is to be answered in terms of the answer to another question: what sort of beings are human persons, and what sorts of belief do their noetic faculties produce when they are functioning properly? Your view as to what sort of creature a human being is will determine or at any rate heavily influence your views as to what it is rational or irrational for human beings to believe. But the answer to that question depends on whether or not Christian theism is true. And so the dispute as to whether theistic belief is rational, in the present sense, cannot be settled just by attending to epistemological considerations; it is at bottom not merely an epistemological dispute, but a metaphysical or theological dispute.

You may think humankind is created by God in the image of God – and created both with a natural tendency to see God’s hand in the world about us, and with a natural tendency to recognize that we have indeed been created and are beholden to our creator, owing him worship, obedience and allegiance. You may add that the source of distinctively Christian belief lies in the work of God himself. Then of course you will not think of belief in God or Christian belief as (in the typical case) a manifestation of cognitive dysfunction or any other kind of intellectual defect; nor is it a product of some mechanism not aimed at the truth. (It is then more like a deliverance of sense perception, or memory, or sympathy – or perhaps the faculty responsible for a priori knowledge.) On the other hand, you may think we human beings are the product of blind evolutionary forces; you may think that we are part of a Godless universe. Then you will no doubt be inclined to go along with Freud and Marx in seeing belief in God as either a product of cognitive dysfunction or of a mechanism whose function is not that of the production of true belief. If you adopt the former view, you will of course think Christian belief eminently rational; if you adopt the latter you will think it irrational. But the important thing to see is that this dispute cannot be settled by attending only to epistemology: at bottom it is a dispute about the truth of Christian belief. To determine whether Christian theism is rational, therefore, one must first determine whether it is true. But then this de jure question – the one associated with Freud and Marx – is not after all independent of the de facto question. To answer the former, we must already know the answer to the latter.

What we have seen so far is that there are fundamentally two de jure criticisms of Christian theism: the evidentialist objection and that from Freud and Marx. The first is easily seen to be mistaken and the second is not independent of the de facto question of the truth of Christian belief. But then it seems that there are not any sensible de jure questions or criticisms that are independent of the de facto question of the truth of Christianity. And this means that the only possibly successful objections to Christian or theistic belief will have to be to the truth of such belief, not to its rationality, or justification, or intellectual respectability, or rational justification, or whatever. The only possibly successful objections are de facto objections; the de jure objections drop away.

Citing this article:
Plantinga, Alvin. De jure reduced to de facto. Religion and epistemology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K080-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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