Religion and epistemology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K080-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 26, 2022, from

1. Evidentialism

Epistemology is theory of knowledge: an inquiry into whatever it is that distinguishes knowledge from mere true belief. (For example: due to pathological optimism, you are convinced that you will win the lottery; if by some fluke it turns out you do win, your belief will be an example of true belief that is not knowledge.) We need a name for that quality or quantity, whatever precisely it is, that makes the difference between knowledge and mere true belief: call it ‘warrant’. Then one would expect the epistemology of religious belief to centre on whether religious belief has warrant, and if so, how much and how it gets it. As a matter of fact, however, epistemological discussion of religious belief, at least since the Enlightenment (and in the Western world), has mostly focused not on the question as to whether religious belief has warrant, but on arguments – in particular, on arguments for and against theistic belief. This is the belief that there exists a person like God as conceived in traditional Christianity, Judaism and Islam: an almighty, all-knowing, wholly benevolent and loving immaterial person who created the world, created human beings in his own image, and continues to act in the world by way of providential care for his creatures.

The most popular theistic proofs or arguments have been the traditional big three – the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments, to use Kant’s terms for them – together with the moral argument (see God, arguments for the existence of). Of these, the teleological argument, the argument from design (as in Swinburne 1979), is perhaps both the most popular and the most convincing. On the other side, the anti-theistic side, the principal argument has traditionally been the deductive argument from evil: the argument that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good God is logically inconsistent with the existence of evil, or with all the pain, suffering and human wickedness actually found in the world (see Evil, problem of). The deductive argument has fallen out of favour over the last quarter-century as philosophers have come to think that there is no inconsistency here; it has been replaced by the probabilistic argument, according to which it is unlikely that there is such a person as God, given all the evil the world displays. The argument from evil is flanked by subsidiary arguments, such as the claim that the very concept of God is incoherent (because, for example, it is thought to be impossible that there be an omnipotent person, or an omniscient person, or a transcendent person who can act in the world, or a person without a body). (As we shall see below, in the nineteenth century Freud and Marx introduced a different style of argument against theistic belief, one according to which such belief is irrational in that it arises out of cognitive malfunction or wish-fulfilment.)

Which of these groups of arguments is the stronger? According to evidentialism, belief in God is justifiable only if the former is stronger than the latter.

Citing this article:
Plantinga, Alvin. Evidentialism. 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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