Religion and epistemology

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

3. Evidentialism criticized

It is widely thought that there are several important problems with this approach to the epistemology of theistic belief. First, the standards for theistic arguments have traditionally been set absurdly high (and perhaps part of the responsibility for this must be laid at the door of some who have offered these arguments and claimed that they constitute wholly demonstrative proofs). The idea seems to be that a good theistic argument must start from what is self-evident or utterly obvious and proceed majestically by way of self-evidently valid argument forms to its conclusion. It is no wonder that few if any theistic arguments meet that lofty standard – after all, almost no philosophical arguments of any sort meet it.

Second, attention has been mostly confined to three theistic arguments: the traditional ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments. But in fact there are many more theistic arguments. For example, there are arguments from the nature of proper function, and from the nature of propositions, numbers and sets. There are arguments from intentionality, from counterfactuals, from the confluence of epistemic reliability with epistemic justification, from reference, simplicity, intuition and love. There are arguments from colours and flavours, from miracles, play and enjoyment, from morality, from beauty and from the meaning of life. There is even a theistic argument from the existence of horrifying evil.

But there is a third and much deeper problem. The basic assumption underlying traditional thought about the justification of theistic belief is that such belief is justified only if there is a good argument for it from other propositions you believe. But why believe that? Perhaps some beliefs are like that. Scientific hypotheses – special relativity or the theory of evolution, for example – are such that if you believe them without evidence you are irresponsible. For such theories have been devised to explain certain phenomena, and they get all their warrant from their success in so doing. (Even so, would you really be irresponsible in believing such a proposition without evidence, or just foolish or irrational?) But other beliefs – such as memory beliefs, or belief in other minds – are not like that at all; they are not hypotheses, and are not accepted because of their explanatory powers. Now why assume that theistic belief, belief in God, is in this regard more like a scientific hypothesis than like, say, a memory belief? Why think that the justification of theistic belief depends upon the evidential relation of theistic belief to other things one believes?

According to Locke, it is because there is a duty not to assent to a proposition unless you can see that it is probable with respect to what is certain to you; but is there really any such duty? No one has succeeded in showing that, say, belief in other minds or the belief that there has been a past is probable with respect to what is certain for us. Suppose it is not: does it follow that you are living in epistemic sin if you believe that there are other minds? Or a past? Nearly everyone recognizes such duties as that of shunning gratuitous cruelty, of taking care of one’s children and one’s aged parents, and the like; but do we also find ourselves recognizing that there is a duty not to believe what is not probable (or what we cannot see to be probable) with respect to what is certain for us? Hardly. But then it is hard to see why being justified in believing in God requires that the existence of God be probable with respect to some such body of evidence as the set of propositions certain for you. Perhaps theistic belief is properly basic – that is, such that one can be justified in accepting it without accepting it on the evidential basis of other propositions one believes.

For consider a typical Christian believer: they have been brought up as a Christian, and for the most part Christian belief has always seemed to them clearly true. While they have never looked carefully into the alleged objections to Christian belief, what they have heard of them does not seem promising; those whom they respect on these matters tell them the objections are without foundation and they accept this. Such a person, surely, is not to be censured; they are not a proper subject of moral disapprobation. They may be mistaken, deluded, even foolish; they may be insufficiently critical; but there is no reason to think them unjustified or derelict in their epistemic duties.

On the other hand, consider someone sophisticated in these matters and very well aware of the critics. This person does not believe on the basis of propositional evidence; they therefore believe in the basic way. Can they be justified? They read the critics, but on careful reflection do not find them compelling; likewise, although they are aware of theistic arguments and find some of them not without value, they do not believe on the basis of them. Rather, this person has a rich inner spiritual life; it seems to them that they sometimes catch a glimpse of the overwhelming beauty and loveliness of God; they are often aware, as it strongly seems to them, of the work of the Holy Spirit in their heart, comforting, encouraging, teaching, and leading them to accept the ‘great things of the gospel’ as Jonathan Edwards (1746) calls them. After long, hard, conscientious reflection, they find all this enormously more convincing than the complaints of the critics. Are they then going contrary to duty in believing as they do? Are they being irresponsible? Clearly not. There could be something defective about them, some malfunction not apparent on the surface. They could be mistaken, a victim of an illusion; they could be a victim of wishful thinking, despite their best efforts. They could be wrong, desperately wrong, pitiably wrong, in thinking these things. But they are not flouting any discernible duty; they are doing their level best to fulfil their epistemic responsibilities. They are certainly justified.

Taking justification in that original etymological sense, therefore, there is every reason to doubt that one is justified in holding theistic belief only if one has evidence for it. Of course, the term ‘justification’ has undergone various analogical extensions in the work of various philosophers. Thus it is sometimes used just to mean propositional evidence; then to say that a belief is justified for someone is to say that they have (sufficient) propositional evidence for it. In that sense of ‘justified’, of course, a person will be justified only if they have evidence. But you cannot settle a substantive question just by giving a definition. If you accept that definition, then the real question is whether there is anything amiss with holding beliefs that are unjustified. Perhaps one does not have propositional evidence for one’s memory beliefs; if so, those beliefs would be unjustified in that sense, but none the worse for that; it would not suggest that there is something wrong with holding them. And the same goes for theistic belief.

Citing this article:
Plantinga, Alvin. Evidentialism criticized. 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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