Religion and epistemology

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

6. The religious riposte

Of course, Christians and other theists will not agree that theistic belief is irrational in this sense; they will have their own views as to how it is that belief in God is formed, their own candidates for the sources of belief in God. Thomas Aquinas (§11), for example, speaks of a ‘natural (and confused)’ knowledge of God. John Calvin (§2) develops this idea, suggesting that we human beings have a sensus divinitatis (a sense of divinity) whereby under a wide variety of circumstances – danger, perception of the beauties and wonders of nature, perception of our own sinful condition – we form true beliefs about God. The sensus divinitatis, according to Calvin, is a natural, inborn faculty with which human beings have been created; in this respect it resembles perception, memory, reason and other cognitive faculties. What is important in all these views is that our beliefs about God are produced by cognitive faculties aimed at the truth and functioning properly; hence on these views such belief is not at all irrational in the sense intended by Freud and Marx.

There is a complication here: according to Christianity, our natural knowledge of God has been compromised by sin, which has cognitive or noetic as well as moral and spiritual results. As a result, God, as Anselm says, is obscured by the smoke of our wrongdoing. But (again, according to Christianity) God has made a gracious response to our human sinful condition. There is the offer of salvation and eternal life, available through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God. But there is also a cognitive component to the divine response. This is God’s providing a way by which we human beings can come to know and appropriate the gracious offer of salvation. Here Christians will think of the Scripture, the Church, and perhaps above all, the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the work of the Holy Spirit was developed perhaps most fully in the Reformed tradition and in particular by the great Puritan divines. According to John Calvin, the principal work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian is the production of faith, which includes at the least a deep acceptance of the gracious offer of salvation, and a deep conviction of the truth of the essentials of Christian teaching. In so far as Christian belief (including belief in God) is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit, it is not a product just of natural faculties; the activity of the Holy Spirit is supernatural. But of course it is not at all irrational in the sense of the objection from Freud and Marx: it is not produced by cognitive faculties that are malfunctioning or aimed at something other than the truth. Instead, these beliefs are produced in us (with our concurrence) by the work of God himself, as part of his gracious response to the human sinful condition. From this point of view, then, Christian faith is in no way irrational, and, indeed, is a form of knowledge (given most accounts of knowledge), so that it is an error to contrast faith with knowledge; for faith is one kind of knowledge.

Citing this article:
Plantinga, Alvin. The religious riposte. 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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