Analytic Philosophy & Christian Theism
Philosophical Scholarship & The Rational Status Of Christian Theism.
Professor Klaas J. Kraay (Ryerson University)
It would be impossible, in a short article like this, to say everything that really needs to be said about either “analytic philosophy” or “Christian theism”. (Just trying to define either of these is a formidable task all on its own!) So I won’t even try. What I will do, however, is say a little bit about the interplay between analytic philosophy – the dominant contemporary approach to academic philosophy in the English-speaking world – and Christianity. My approach will be to distinguish several important challenges that have been raised against attempts to use philosophy to defend the rational status of Christian theism. Some of these criticisms specifically target Christianity, while others are broader, aiming (for example) at belief in God in general. My goal is to give the reader a sense of what some of these challenges are all about, and how some Christian philosophers have responded – and along the way, to whet the appetite for further reading.
Analytic philosophy of religion is a very vibrant sub-field of academic philosophy these days. Hundreds of peer-reviewed texts, including monographs, anthologies, and journal articles, are published each year in this area. There are dozens of academic conferences devoted to philosophy of religion, and many broader philosophy conferences include presentations in this area. Most English-speaking philosophy departments offer courses in the philosophy of religion, and these generally include many readings by analytic philosophers. But all this is fairly new, since analytic philosophy of religion didn’t exist before about the mid-twentieth century. This may seem surprising, since, of course, pretty well every canonical philosopher in the western tradition has had something to say about religion or belief in God. The story of how contemporary analytic philosophy of religion emerged as a distinctive subfield of academic philosophy is a complex one, and to begin to understand it, it’s important to look at the first of the series of challenges that I plan to survey.[i]
The Meaninglessness of Religious Language
Consider these two sentences:
(1) “The moon is made of green cheese.”
(2) “Blaggity-blaggity glibbity-globbity.”[ii]
They have something in common: neither expresses something true. But there is an important, if obvious, difference between them: sentence (1) actually means something, while sentence (2) is meaningless gibberish. One consequence of this difference is that it makes sense to declare sentence (1) false, but not sentence (2). Since it doesn’t express anything meaningful, (2) can’t be either true or false. The categories, you might say, just don’t apply.
OK, but why is the second sentence meaningless? Well, one reason is that there is nothing you can do, either in practice or in principle, to figure out whether it is true or false: it simply can’t be verified or falsified. During the early-to-mid-twentieth century, many analytic philosophers came to believe that many religious claims were literally meaningless, just like the sentence (2). Consider, for example, this sentence:
(3) “God is perfectly loving.”
What could you do, either in practice or in principle, to figure out whether this sentence is true or false? If the correct answer is “nothing”, then, according to this criterion of meaning, sentence (3) is meaningless gibberish.
Various criteria of meaning along these lines were very popular among philosophers during the early-to-mid-twentieth century, and their influence is one reason why analytic philosophy of religion didn’t exist as a sub-discipline of professional philosophy during this time. After all, if many religious statements are quite literally meaningless, it would be silly to spend time thinking about them! The story of the rise and fall of these criteria is an intricate one, and it needn’t detain us here. But it is important to see that analytic philosophy of religion arose partly as a response to this challenge. It is also important to see that this challenge was a direct threat to Christian theism itself, since, of course, Christians take themselves to say many meaningful things about their faith.
The Incoherence of God
As the influence of these criteria of meaningfulness waned, it became respectable again to hold that religious language is meaningful, and analytic philosophers began once again to turn their attention to various theistic claims – claims about God.
There are, of course, many different conceptions of who or what God is. One says that God is a being who is omnipotent (perfect in power), omniscient (perfect in knowledge), perfectly good, and who created the universe. One could plausibly argue that this understanding of God is essential to the major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that no religious idea has had a greater influence on the world than this one.
But whether such a being really exists has been, and continues to be, an enormously controversial matter. One perennial challenge says that this idea of God is self-contradictory – and, of course, it is pretty obvious that nothing self-contradictory can exist. There are two basic ways to flesh out this challenge. The first looks at one of the characteristics of God in isolation, and argues that it is incoherent. The second argues that there is a logical contradiction between two or more of the characteristics of God.
One example of the first strategy is the famous “paradox of the stone”, which seeks to show that the characteristic of omnipotence is incoherent. The challenge goes like this. Either God can, or God cannot, create a stone so big that he cannot subsequently lift it.[iii] If God cannot do this, then there is evidently something beyond his power to do, in which case he is not omnipotent. But, on the other hand, if God can create such a stone, then there also seems to be something he cannot do: lift the stone. One example of the second strategy tries to show that no being can be both omnipotent and omniscient. Ask yourself: would God have the power to make himself forget something? If you answer “no”, then it seems God is not omnipotent. But if you answer “yes”, then it seems that a God who exercised this power would no longer be omniscient.
Now, you might expect theists to reply to both challenges along these lines: “Look, so long as God doesn’t actually create the rock or make himself forget something, there’s no problem here. It’s only when he does these things that problems arise – and surely God would be clever enough to realize this and to refrain from doing them!” But this response is generally thought to be unsatisfactory. The reason is that most analytic philosophers believe that God (if he exists) not only possess these characteristics, but possess them essentially. According to this view, God could not even possibly fail to be omnipotent or omniscient or perfectly good. If this is right, then it shouldn’t be possible for God to make the rock or to cause himself to forget something. But, of course, if it’s really impossible for God to do these things, then, once again, the coherence of this conception of God seems threatened.
These sorts of challenges have been around for a long time. But it is fair to say that analytic philosophers have approached them in new and fresh ways, using the distinctive technical vocabulary and logical apparatus that are characteristic of this mode of doing philosophy. Many of those working on these topics were or are Christians. I should stress that these philosophers haven’t always assumed – and needn’t assume in any case – a purely defensive position, by simply replying to arguments for the incoherence of one or more divine attributes. Many of them are primarily interested in exploring various ways of understanding these characteristics and the relationships between them, and defending their own favoured positions on these matters, quite apart from whatever interest they may have in responding to arguments for the claim that this concept of God is incoherent.
Arguments for the Non-Existence of God
So far, we have briefly looked at the challenges of meaninglessness and incoherence. From here on in, let’s set these aside and suppose that the statement “God exists” is both meaningful and coherent. Well, the next obvious question to ask is this: “But is it true?” Philosophers and others have, of course, debated whether God exists for many, many centuries. In this section, I will discuss a couple of arguments for the non-existence of God that have received a lot of recent attention from analytic philosophers.
One broad strategy of arguing for atheism tries to show that there is a conflict between God’s existence and some fact about the world. But what kind of fact, and what kind of trouble does it make for theism? No doubt the most famous attempt to argue for atheism focuses on evil. The most basic version of this argument says that the existence of any evil whatsoever is logically incompatible with the existence of God. After all, so the argument goes, an omnipotent being would be powerful enough to prevent or eliminate evil, an omniscient being would know how to do this, and a perfectly good being would want to do it. J.L. Mackie published a famous version of this argument in 1955, and it generated an enormous literature. The most influential response to it was offered by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who argued, in effect, that it is possible that God has good reasons for permitting some evil to occur. If so, the mere existence of evil cannot, all by itself, disprove theism.
A second argument from evil to atheism is different in two important ways. For one thing, it focusses on a particular type of evil – namely, pointless evil – rather than evil in general. Also, instead of trying to show (ambitiously) that God does not exist, it tries to show (more modestly) that God probably does not exist. This argument runs as follows. Step one: if God exists, then pointless evil does not exist. Step two: probably, pointless evil does exist. Conclusion: probably, God does not exist. Most critics of this kind of argument have focused on step two. They generally attempt to undermine this step by saying that we have no good reason to say that it’s probable that pointless evil exists. Why? Well, a common thought is that if God exists and has good reason for permitting evils, it’s just not likely that we limited creatures would be able to discern these reasons. This response has become known as skeptical theism because of its attempt to use skepticism to block step two. There is now an enormous literature about this very controversial position. Meanwhile, a few philosophers have tried to block step one of this argument, by arguing that God could indeed permit pointless evil. This response, unsurprisingly, has been very controversial too.
A third way to argue from evil to atheism is still more modest. This one doesn’t try to show that God doesn’t exist, or that God’s existence is improbable. Instead, it tries to show that thedistribution of pain and pleasure that we find in the world is harder to explain if God exists than if naturalism is true. (Naturalism is just the view that there are no supernatural entities). If this argument succeeds, then it provides one overall reason for preferring naturalism to theism. Of course, there might be other facts about the world that are easier to explain if theism is true than if naturalism is true, and so a complete analysis of the overall likelihood of theism would require assessing and weighing each of these.
There are, of course, many other philosophical strategies for trying to show that God does not exist, or that Christianity is false. Some of these involve purely philosophical considerations, while others claim that some scientific result counts against the truth of theism in general or Christianity in particular. Christian analytic philosophers have had a lot to say about all of these.[iv] Moreover, in addition to responding to arguments for the non-existence of God, Christian analytic philosophers have also developed and defended many positive arguments for the existence of God, including ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, moral arguments, and arguments from design. There is an enormous contemporary literature on each of these.
Arguments for the Impropriety of Christian Belief
It is one thing to argue that God does not exist, or that some other central point of Christian doctrine is false. It is another thing entirely to argue that there is something epistemically improper about Christian belief, whether or not the central claims of Christianity are true. Challenges along these lines have a long and influential pedigree. Their basic complaint is that there is something unreasonable, unjustified, irrational, unacceptable, unwarranted, or otherwise improper about believing that some central Christian claim is true.
One important way of pressing this challenge is by appealing to religious diversity and disagreement. Consider, for example, a Christian exclusivist – someone who believes that the central claims of Christianity are true, and also that any claims that conflict with these are false. Many philosophers have urged that this position is unreasonable, by arguing that proponents of other religions or worldviews, who believe things that conflict with Christianity, are just as much within their epistemic rights to believe as they do. In other words, the fact that others disagree is taken to count against the rational status of Christianity. In response to this challenge, several alternative positions have been explored and defended, including inclusivism, pluralism, andrelativism. Christian analytic philosophers have had a lot to say about the merits and demerits of these positions.
Some defences of the propriety of Christian belief are broader, in the sense that they don’t merely aim to respond to worries about disagreement. Two of these are particularly worth mentioning. William Alston’s monograph, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience, offers a comprehensive defence of the claim that Christian mystical experience can be a reliable source of rational beliefs. Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, meanwhile, offers an extended defence of the claim that if Christianity is true, there is nothing at all improper about Christian beliefs. Moreover, Plantinga argues, they can legitimately count as knowledge. These and other defences of the propriety of Christian belief have also received an enormous amount of attention from analytic philosophers of religion.
The challenges that we have looked at so far target the content of Christian claims. The next one is a bit different, since it attacks a certain method of doing Christian philosophy. The challenge can be expressed like this: Christian doctrines such as the Trinity or the Incarnation should be, at best, the end results of philosophical reasoning; according to this view, it is wildly improper to begin one’s philosophical reasoning from starting points such as these. In an important 1984 essay, however, Alvin Plantinga argued that this is nonsense:
“Philosophy is in large part a clarification, systematization, articulation, relating and deepening of pre-philosophical opinion. We come to philosophy with a range of opinions about the world and humankind and the place of the latter in the former; and in philosophy we think about these matters, systematically articulate our views, put together and relate our views on diverse topics, and deepen our views by finding unexpected interconnections and by discovering and answering unanticipated questions. Of course we may come to change our minds by virtue of philosophical endeavor; we may discover incompatibilities or other infelicities. But we come to philosophy with pre-philosophical opinions; we can do no other. And the point is: the Christian has as much right to his pre-philosophical opinions as others have to theirs. He needn’t try first to ‘prove’ them from propositions accepted by, say, the bulk of the non-Christian philosophical community; and if they are widely rejected as naive, or pre-scientific, or primitive, or unworthy of “man come of age,” that is nothing whatever against them. Of course if there were genuine and substantial arguments against them from premises that have some legitimate claim on the Christian philosopher, then he would have a problem; he would have to make some kind of change somewhere. But in the absence of such arguments – and the absence of such arguments is evident – the Christian philosophical community, quite properly starts, in philosophy, from what it believes. But this means that the Christian philosophical community need not devote all of its efforts to attempting to refute opposing claims and or to arguing for its own claims, in each case from premises accepted by the bulk of the philosophical community at large. It ought to do this, indeed, but it ought to do more. For if it does only this, it will neglect a pressing philosophical task: systematizing, deepening, clarifying Christian thought on these topics”.
Plantinga’s response to this methodological challenge has been hugely influential. More recently, Paul Moser has advocated a similar methodological approach with his articulation and defence of something called Christ-Shaped Philosophy. As the name suggests, this framework seeks to place all Christian philosophical activity under the authority of Jesus, with the primary aim of serving the Christian church.
While controversial,[v] these proposals have stimulated philosophers to think deeply about the relationship of philosophy of religion to the rest of analytic philosophy, on the one hand, and also about the relationship of philosophy of religion to the discipline of theology, on the other hand. One might call this reflection meta-philosophy of religion, since it studies the philosophy of religion itself, in attempting to understand what its methods and boundaries are or ought to be. Currently, there is considerable disagreement within this domain. Two very important recent anthologies that explore these methodological issues are Faith and Philosophical Analysis: The Impact of Analytical Philosophy on the Philosophy of Religion and Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology.[vi] Several papers on this topic have also recently appeared in the new peer-reviewed journal, Analytic Theology.
It is fair to say that many Christian analytic philosophers are very engaged with these methodological matters at present, and that no consensus has emerged for how best to understand them.
Christian Analytic Philosophy Today
While the methodological examination (and self-examination) continues, in recent decades, philosophers have also had an enormous amount to say about topics of special interest to Christians. I cannot hope to summarize all this thinking here, so I will simply list a few books that seem to me especially important and influential, and that would make good starting points for those interested in this area:
The most influential British Christian philosopher working today is Richard Swinburne, and his tetralogy on Christian doctrine is enormously important: Responsibility and Atonement, Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy, The Christian God, and Providence and the Problem of Evil.
The most influential American Christian philosopher working today is Alvin Plantinga. HisWarranted Christian Belief, mentioned earlier, is a very important defence of the propriety of Christian belief.
Three recent anthologies provide careful philosophical treatments of topics such as revelation, scripture, the Trinity, the incarnation, atonement, sin, providence, and resurrection. These are:A Reader in Contemporary Philosophical Theology, and Oxford Readings in Philosophical Theology, Volume 1 and Volume 2.
In addition to these, articles that use analytic philosophy to examine Christian beliefs regularly appear in the following peer-reviewed journals: Faith and Philosophy, the Heythrop Journal, theInternational Journal for Philosophy of Religion, the International Journal of Philosophy and Theology,Philosophia Christi, Religious Studies, and Sophia.
Contemporary Sociological Challenges to Christian Analytic Philosophy
I will close by briefly discussing two contemporary challenges to Christian analytic philosophy. I call them ‘sociological’ because they maintain that certain facts about the sub-field of philosophy itself raise profound worries for the objectivity of its results. Since the year 2000 or so, the John Templeton Foundation has poured millions of dollars into philosophy and theology generally, and into analytic philosophy of religion in particular. Many Christian philosophers of religion have directly or indirectly benefitted from this research support, which has made possible a dizzying array of conferences, research fellowships, summer seminars, and many ensuing publications. Concerns have been expressed about this Foundation’s grant-making in general, and about its support of analytic philosophy of religion in particular.[vii] Here are two that pertain to objectivity. It has been alleged that the foundation favours research results friendly to Christianity, and that direct or indirect pressure is placed on researchers to deliver them. (In my experience, I should add, this charge is utterly groundless.) Second, it has been alleged that the overweening influence of these grant dollars can skew the research interests of the entire sub-field of philosophy of religion in undesirable ways. The basic idea here is that researchers, dazzled by this funding, will gravitate towards Templeton-friendly topics, and thus neglect other questions of equal or greater objective importance. This is the gist of the charge: I have yet to see it expressed as a rigorous argument.
Another kind of sociological challenge claims that certain demographic features of the sub-field compromise the objectivity of its results. A large majority of philosophy professors or PhD-holders are either atheists or lean towards atheism. But it turns out that a large majority of thosewho specialize in philosophy of religion either accept or lean towards theism. The explanation for this asymmetry may be straightforward and innocuous: it may simply be that theists with advanced training in philosophy are more likely to specialize in philosophy of religion, since, as theists, they are especially interested in many of the questions and topics that animate this sub-field. That said, some philosophers have claimed that this homogeneity nevertheless threatens the objectivity of the sub-field’s results. Not only do a majority of philosophers of religion believe in God, it is widely thought that a sizeable majority of these are male Christians.[viii] Work in feminist philosophy of religion has, in numerous important ways, promoted careful philosophical reflection on the interplay of religion and gender in the subfield and beyond, and the ways in which assumptions and attitudes concerning gender can lead to bias. As for the preponderance of Christians in the sub-field, this too has been thought to threaten objectivity. In an important recent paper, Paul Draper and Ryan Nichols argue that much work in contemporary philosophy of religion is too partisan, too polemical, too narrow, and too often evaluated by religious or theological criteria. They think that many philosophers of religion suffer from various cognitive biases, and that this threatens the objectivity of their arguments.J.L. Schellenberg has recently argued in a similar vein, claiming that much of what passes for contemporary philosophy of religion should no longer be considered philosophy at all.[ix]
Several signs suggest that the subfield is beginning to respond to these important challenges. An on-line directory of underrepresented philosophers has recently been launched, and it includes asection dedicated to the philosophy of religion. This directory aims to combat the marginalization of individuals who belong to these groups. Philosophy of religion textbooks are beginning to include more coverage of and from different perspectives, as well as readings from or about theistic and nontheistic religious traditions other than Christianity. One recent anthology, and two soon-to-appear anthologies, explicitly aim to increase the diversity of positions and perspectives in analytic philosophy of religion.[x] These are all welcome signs, but I suspect that more work is needed, both by those articulating these challenges and by those responding to them.
Footnotes & References
[i] For more comprehensive histories of the rise of analytic philosophy of religion, see Chapter 1 of James Harris’ Analytic Philosophy of Religion and William Hasker’s chapter entitled “Analytic Philosophy of Religion” in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Religion.
[ii] This nonsense sentence appears in B.J. Novak’s The Book with no Pictures, a children’s book that is currently much, much, much beloved by my four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.
[iii] While I follow tradition in using the masculine personal pronoun ‘he’, I should note that Christian theists have typically held that God is genderless.
[iv] One good starting point for looking at these arguments is the Oxford Handbook of Atheism. I should mention, in passing, the so-called New Atheists: Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. While they have achieved considerable notoriety in recent years, analytic philosophers of religion have typically held their arguments against theism and Christianity in rather low esteem.
[v] I will discuss some criticisms in the final section of this article.
[vi] A very good introduction to these issues is William Wood’s 2009 review essay, “On the New Analytic Theology, or: The Road Less Traveled”.
[viii] Relatedly, it is widely thought that a sizable majority of those working in the subfield are also heterosexual and white. There has not yet been much discussion within analytic philosophy of religion in particular about whether these kinds of homogeneity threaten objectivity, but I predict that this will soon change. For some recent discussions of race in philosophy more generally, see here, here, and here.
[ix] I should note that while I have criticized some details of their arguments in print, I do share, to a considerable extent, the concerns voiced by Draper, Ryan, and Schellenberg.
[x] They are: (1) Jeanine Diller and Asa Kasher (eds.), Models of God and Other Ultimate Realities(Springer, 2013); (2) Andrei Buckareff and Yujin Nagasawa (eds.) Alternative Concepts of God: Essays on the Metaphysics of the Divine (Oxford University Press, forthcoming); and (3) Paul Draperand John Schellenberg (eds.), Renewing Philosophy of Religion: Exploratory Essays (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).