Apologists have traditionally assumed that (a)religious belief is formed and held on the basis of argument. Theistic apologists often assume that the atheist believes there exists no God because he has bumped up against, understood, and been moved by more arguments for that conclusion (atheism) than for its denial (theism). What is to be done is to present him with arguments for theism, arguments sufficiently compelling to “outweigh” his atheistic arguments and move him into theistic belief. Likewise, atheist apologists often assume that the theist believes there is a God because the theist has bumped up against, understood, and been moved by more arguments for that conclusion (theism) than for its denial (atheism). What is to be done is to present him with arguments for atheism, arguments sufficiently compelling to outweigh his theistic arguments and move him into atheistic belief. (A qualification to what I have just said: this assumption is made by apologists only with reference to those in their audience that they would consider “reasonable”: critical, reflective, open-minded, and generally intellectually virtuous. Of course apologists think that there are many other reasons besides argument which are responsible for (a)religious belief – a young atheist might be an atheist because his favorite professor is, a young Christian might be a Christian because his parents are -; but it seems that most apologists do assume that, when it comes to reasonable folk, argument is bearing the bulk of the responsibility for their (a)religious belief.)
Plenty have challenged this assumption, the most talked-about challenge probably being that of “Reformed Epistemology”. Reformed Epistemologists – most or all of whom are theists (c.f. Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Alston) – argue that religious belief can be reasonable in cases where such beliefs are formed and held on the basis of “reasons-other-than-argument”. Perceptual experiences are commonly offered by these philosophers as an example of a reason-other-than-argument: there are no premises, no inferences, and no conclusion in a perceptual experience. Even so, a perceptual experience is sufficient to form and justify beliefs like “there is a tree”, or “that couch is blue”. It is – in philosophical parlance – a “ground” for belief. Reformed apologists point to this feature of perceptual experiences, and claim that certain types of religious experience share this same feature; inner, religious “seemings”, they claim, can suffice to form and justify beliefs like “there is a God”. What’s more, most Reformed Epistemologists go even further to claim that, as a matter of fact, many, if not most, theists are theists for just these sort of reasons-other-than-argument. It would seem, then, that Reformed Epistemology, if it is right, serves to undermine the apologetic assumption that argument is predominantly responsible for (a)theistic belief (in reasonable people).
I can imagine, however, two lines of response from the apologist. The first goes something like this: “Certain experiences might very well form and justify my belief that God exists (or does not exist); but in as much as apologetics is an enterprise which attempts to persuade and move others, these experiences are impotent. Outside of the weight carried by testimony, these sorts of reasons are only reasons for the one “inside” the experience. They are private, not public reasons; but apologetics is in the business of offering public reasons — i.e. arguments.” And it continues… “If the Reformed Epistemologists are right, then although the apologetic assumption about the primacy of argument is (strictly speaking) false, we apologists are still perfectly within our rights to practice apologetics as if this assumption were true. For although argument is not the only belief-grounding reason out there, it is still the only belief-grounding reason that has a place in apologetics.”
A second line of response to the challenge of Reformed Epistemology has to do with its partiality to theism. It has often been seen as a challenge only to atheist apologists and their assumptions about theists (this is no doubt due to the fact that Reformed Epistemology was conceived by Christian philosophers with the intention of defending the reasonableness of Christian belief; it was not conceived with the intention in mind of undermining the assumption in question). As a result, Christian apologists, even those who are devotees of Reformed Epistemology, have curiously ignored the possibility that reasonable atheists might very well believe what they do for reasons-other-than-argument. So Reformed Epistemology, if it is a challenge to the apologetic assumption, is only a partial challenge. It certainly does not settle the matter.
But it should make us uneasy about the matter. What Reformed Epistemology should tell us is that we need to think further about this assumption that it so pervasive the practice of contemporary apologetics. We need to spend some time thinking hard about the psychology of (a)religious belief, and then spend some time thinking hard about the implications this psychology might have for good apologetics.
In my next post I am interested in doing just this. I’d like to throw out, in a less-than-organized manner, some thoughts I have had in this regard. And I’d be very interested to hear the thoughts of others in this regard.