Friday, April 30, 2010

Essay: Showing Christianity is True by Matthew Flannagan

Showing Christianity is True by Matthew Flannagan
“Can you show that Christianity is true?” To help us focus our thinking as to how one should answer this question I will pose some other questions as follows. Can you show that other people exist or that there exists a world that endures independent of our senses, which continues to exist when we no longer perceive it? Can my belief that it is wrong to inflict pain on another person for no reason at all be shown as true? What about my belief that Russell’s sceptical hypothesis that the whole Universe came into existence six seconds ago, including all apparent memories and signs of age – is this false or true?  (MP3 Audio | RSS | iTunes)

I hope that the point of these examples is clear. Unless we want to fall into a global scepticism that defies all common sense we have to acknowledge that there are some beliefs which we hold rationally and know are true that, nevertheless, cannot be shown or proven to be true from premises that all intelligent people are required to accept. In fact, somewhat ironically, the claim that one is only rational in believing something unless it can be shown to be true from premises all sane people are required to accept, is self-refuting; after all, many sane people reject it and it has yet to be shown to be true from premises that all sane people accept.

However, one is rational in accepting some beliefs independent of any argument showing the truth of those beliefs; philosophers term such beliefs ‘properly basic beliefs.’ These beliefs typically function as foundational beliefs, a person reasons from them as premises to the truth of other propositions one holds. Similarly, they function as the background data against which one assesses hypotheses proposed for one’s acceptance. They arise because ongoing appeals to premises to prove premises to prove premises have to end somewhere. Properly basic beliefs constitute those beliefs where it is rational for the appeal for proof to end.

It needs to be noted that properly basic beliefs are not groundless. While one does not believe a basic belief based on an inference, basic beliefs are often based on some form of experience. Alvin Plantinga discerns two types of experience, “sensory evidence”, such things as appearing to see, hear or feel a given object and “doxastic evidence”, which he refers to as “the belief feels right, acceptable, natural.”1  Doxastic beliefs appear to be self-evident. An example of such a belief is the corresponding conditional of modus ponens. When one entertains the conditional of modus ponens it just seems to be correct. Modus ponens seems self-evident in a way that an overtly-fallacious inference does not. It is this kind of experience that grounds basic beliefs.
Many philosophers and theologians such as Calvin, Pascal, Alston and Plantinga hold that certain theological beliefs are properly basic. Belief in the existence of God is, from the believer’s perspective, properly basic and grounded directly in some form of religious experience; hence it is justified and rational to believe these doctrines independently of any argument in favour of them. Although I cannot elaborate it in a small article, I am in fundamental agreement with this position. The request then that Christians show or demonstrate that Christianity is true often relies on an assumption that I think is mistaken; this assumption is that rational Christian belief requires that arguments or proofs be provided for Christianity and failure to provide them renders the believer irrational.

There is another more moderate question which lurks in the neighbourhood. If one grants that the believer is rational in accepting Christian belief in a properly basic way then what reasons can the believer give to those who do not hold to the same properly basic beliefs for accepting Christian belief? Perhaps some people, on the basis of some kind of religious experience, have immediate properly basic beliefs but many people do not have this kind of experience – what reason can be given to them for accepting the Christian faith? This problem is exasperated by the fact that it is extremely difficult to demonstrate the truth of foundational beliefs precisely because they are foundational beliefs. To prove something one needs to appeal to premises and the whole question in this instance is over what ultimate premises to accept. How then would one show to these people that Christianity is true?

I think several strategies are available but due to space I can only briefly sketch them here.

First, in many instances, one can show Christianity is true by rebutting objections to Christian beliefs. Properly basic beliefs are beliefs that one is rational in believing independently of any argument for them in the absence of any good reasons for them. It does not follow, however, that these beliefs cannot be defeated by reasons offered against them.  If I see John screwing his face up and grasping his leg, I might form the belief that John is in pain. However, if later John tells me that he was not in pain but rather rehearsing his death scene in a play he is acting in I might change my belief to believing that he was not in pain. The initial belief that he was in pain was properly-basic; however, because of what I later discovered, its rational status was defeated.

I think many people stand in an analogous position to various Christian beliefs; they reject them not because they do not see them to be true but because they accept various objections to these beliefs. Consider Richard Dawkins’ “All appearances to the contrary, the only watchmaker in nature is the blind forces of physics, albeit deployed in a very special way... it is the blind watchmaker.” What is interesting here is the phrase, “all appearances to the contrary,” Dawkins admits that, prima facie, the world appears and looks like it was designed and in the absence of any reasons for denying design then the natural observation is to say that it is. Dawkins suggests, however, that appearances are deceiving because science has allegedly provided defeaters for this belief. Showing Dawkins’ arguments are unsound in such a context enables people to accept appearances.

The second line of argument is to show that various alternatives to Christianity are false. Often people fail to see the truth of Christianity because they accept mistaken views of the world and mistaken epistemic standards such as those associated with naturalism. They may experience God’s presence in nature but believe this is an illusion because they are convinced that nothing beyond nature exists. They might think that only things which can be empirically demonstrated can be rationally believed and these experiences are an illusion fostered by evolution to ensure social co-operation. Showing that these pictures of reality are false helps them to re-consider the veridical nature of these experiences. Refuting alternatives to Christianity provides another impetus for seeing the truth of Christianity.

People have to live by some vision of the world. In terms of practice, one cannot remain agnostic on many existential questions. If all the viable alternatives to Christianity can be shown to be implausible then Christianity has to be taken seriously by people who cannot, in practice, live a life which suspends judgment on ultimate questions.

Third, even if a person does not accept a given proposition they can still reason about such beliefs. One can reason “conditionally”,2  if one accepts certain premises or propositions as properly basic beliefs. Then certain other positions, hypotheses and theories are likely, and people from all sides of the dispute can assess and debate whether the reasoning is cogent. Plantinga notes,
The conclusions of theistic science may not be accepted by non-theists, but the method - trying to see how best to explain the relevant phenomena from a theistic perspective - is indeed open to all.3
One can show that when one does reason from a theistic perspective then certain existential and theoretical questions can be given coherent answers. One can explain such things as the origin of the universe, the existence of contingent beings, the existence and nature of moral obligation, the existence of laws of nature, existential questions about guilt and forgiveness and so on. Plantinga notes that the existence of God imports a “great deal of unity into the philosophic endeavor, and the idea of God helps with an astonishingly wide variety of cases: epistemological, ontological, ethical, having to do with meaning, and the like of that.”4 Showing that if one accepts theism, then plausible, defensible, comprehensive and unified answers are available to what would otherwise be intractable questions, provides one way of showing others why they should accept belief in God as a properly basic belief.

The fourth and final way is to put a person in a position where that person is likely to have the requisite experience that grounds properly basic theological beliefs. Suppose I see a tree in the park and my wife asks me to show her that this tree exists. The obvious way to do so is not to construct a proof of the existence of a tree but to take her to a park and show her it. Similarly, many people fail to grasp self-evident axioms of logic because they fail to understand them, but when these are explained to them they become self-evident. The same is true with Christian belief. One way to show agnostics the truth of Christianity is to put them into circumstances where, if they are attentive, they are likely to start seeing the truth.

One can explain the scriptures to them, encourage them to seek God in prayer – this is analogous to the way a person lost in the bush might call out to a rescuer even if he or she were unsure anyone was searching for him or her. One can encourage them to engage in the study of the scriptures whilst taking seriously the possibility that they are the word of God. The person could get involved in a community of believers where God dwells and works, where the person could be encouraged to live in accord with the moral law and honestly confess their failings and seek forgiveness for their moral errors. Pascal made this point in his famous wager; while an agnostic cannot simply choose to believe something he does not believe, he or she can choose to look, to seek and to understand. When the agnostic sincerely does so, it is likely that he or she will come to experience God. Just as a person who attempts to understand logic will see why its axioms are self-evident or a person who actually looks in the park will see that there is a tree there.

In conclusion the basic doctrines of Christianity, if true, constitute properly basic foundational beliefs. One does not believe them on the basis of argument or proof as they are grounded directly in experience. Typically it is very difficult to prove with argument that a foundational belief is true; however their truth can be shown in other indirect ways. One can argue that the arguments against such beliefs are false, one can argue that the alternatives to accepting them are false or problematic, and one can show that if one accepts Christianity then these beliefs make coherent sense out of the world, they provide comprehensive answers to many theoretical and existential questions. Finally, in the context of all of the above, one can assist the sceptic to adopt the stance of a sincere seeker; to get him to put him or herself into the kind of position where he or she can come to have the requisite encounter with God so as to see that Christianity is true. This is ultimately how one shows that Christianity is true.

1 Alvin Plantinga Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 110-111.
2 See Alvin Plantinga “Creation and Evolution: A Modest Proposal” in Darwinism Design and Public Education ed John Angus Campbell & Stephen C Meyer (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004) 521-232; “Reason and Scripture Scholarship” in Behind the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation ed C Bartholomew, C Stephen. Evans, Mary Healy & Murray Rae (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003) 98-100.
3 Alvin Plantinga “On Rejecting The Theory of Common Ancestry: A Reply to Hasker” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44 (December 1992): 258-263.
4 Alvin Plantinga “Two Dozen or so Theistic Arguments” accessed 7 March 2010.


Roberto G said...

This sketch of a Reformed Epistemology approach to apologetics is commendable for several reasons. Used well, RE embraces Christianity as a system of belief and does not reduce the faith to a few, essential, core propositions. It is able to take seriously the objections in various areas of unbelief and offer a humble defense and offense. And, finally, it recognizes the necessary role of the Holy Spirit in actually being the difference in moving a person from unbelief to saving faith. We assist, God alone saves.

Ken Pulliam said...


Thanks for your essay. I can accept Plantinga's argument that belief in god(s) is properly basic but I think its a stretch to go from that to saying that the doctrines of Christianity are properly basic.

As for the reason why the belief in god(s) "seems right" (which is really all Plantinga is saying once the philosophical jargon is deciphered)is, in my opinion, because of the way man's brain has evolved. We know today from neuroscience that human beings are born with a brain that seeks to identify patterns and purpose. This is sometimes called agency detection, (Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought) which is the inclination to look for and attribute intentionality or mind or will to happenings. Thus, it "seems right" to postulate the existence of a supernatural agent(s).

Roberto G said...

Ken, if I were a non-Christian of the agnostic or atheist variety with a moderate to great confidence in neuroscience to explain the great mysteries and phenomena of our mind/brain, I would eventually have to ask myself the following:
given the evolution of our brain, does the same adaptation of ours to seek to identify patterns, purpose, and intentionality undercut the "agency detection" that leads me to reject the proper basicality of Christian theism?
Does it merely "seem right" to me to reject Christianity and postulate the findings of current neuroscience because my brain cannot do otherwise since that is the way it evolved? Despite this evolved inclination I have, is it ever appropriate to reverse this agency detection from rejecting Christianity to embracing it?

Ken Pulliam said...


That is a good question. I think that science has shown things to be true that seem counterintuitive. For example, evolution is counterintuitive. That is why so many of the "common people" reject it. The intuition that man has to see patterns and connections and attribute them to personal agents is being shown to be a result of how the brain has evolved rather than proof that it was created by god(s).

Roberto G said...

Ken, even if it is granted that theism in general is intuitive, Christianity's teaching on the mankind's spiritual state (i.e., that we are as bad off as we could possibly be before God), God's justice, and the lengths to which God has to go to to save us is by far not intuitive. In any case, I still think that if I were a non-believer with a high degree of confidence in neuroscience to explain our mind/brain activity, then I would eventually have to face the fact that this claim is reversible and undercuts my own closely held beliefs.

Ken Pulliam said...


You say:Christianity's teaching on the mankind's spiritual state (i.e., that we are as bad off as we could possibly be before God), God's justice, and the lengths to which God has to go to to save us is by far not intuitive.

I definitely agree with you and I think that is a major fault in this essay by Matthew.

I don't follow your logic though in saying that the findings of neuroscience may somehow undercut my belief that god(s) do not exist. Perhaps you could explain what you mean?

Roberto G said...

Ken, a few of things . I maintain that it is not a good refutation of Christianity to rely on the findings of neuroscience that postulate "agency detection". Christianity encompasses far more details than merely identifying patterns and purpose to observable "happenings". So, if I was a non-believer who accepted the validity of this account of why belief in God (bare theism) "seems right" to believers, it would dawn on me that the rest of the doctrines of Christianity would wipe away this evolved inclination because these doctrines don't exactly "seem right".
My point in saying that your reliance on neuroscience undercuts your own closely held belief that God doesn't exist is because since belief in theism can be reduced to physical, neurological processes determined by evolution, why can't your atheism be rejected on the same basis? Atheism is a belief/mental state, too. And it is also reduced to a physical, neurological process determined by evolution.

Matt said...


First, I have heard of the studies from evolutionary psychology you cite, and from memory Plantinga has actually referred to some of them in his work. These studies suggest that there is some evidence that humans do naturally form basic beliefs in the existence of God, just as they have evolved a tendency to believe in the existence of other people with minds, the existence of moral truths, the existence of an external world and so on. I am not sure how, this bears on the question however, I was at a seminar recently where someone suggested that these studies provide a defeater for properly basic theistic belief, such that someone aware of them has reasons for rejecting belief in God. I fail to see why this is so however, any more than the fact humans have evolved a capacity for believing that other people have minds and capacities provides reasons for doubting other minds exists. After all on some accounts of evolutionary psychology, belief in God is produced by the same agency detection device that belief in other minds is. If this device is unreliable then solipsism seems to follow as much as atheism does. If it’s reliable then belief in God is formed by a reliable process.

As to you and Robert’s suggestion that belief in the doctrines of Christianity are not intuitive and your opposition to Plantinga’s suggestion alone these lines. I think here there may be a misunderstanding. Plantinga's view is not that humans naturally find the doctrines of Christianity intuitively obvious. It’s rather that the become apparent through a supernaturally initiated process of some sort.This is quite compatible with the findings of evolutionary psychology.


Ken Pulliam said...


Thanks. Yes I can agree that one could interpret the "hard-wiring" that appears to be in man's brain for belief in god(s) as evidence of the sensus divinitias. My point, is that, due to what we know from evolution, there is no necessity to believe that this "god idea" comes from god. In other words, there can be a purely natural explanation for it.

I confess that I don't quite follow Plantinga on how he thinks that A/C can be properly basic. Perhaps you can explain it for me. I have read his writings but all I get from it is that these things just "seem right." The problem of course is that while they may seem right to Plantinga and others who have been reared in a culture where these things are accepted, they don't seem right to otherw who were reared in another culture or people within a Christian culture who have come to question these beliefs.

SteveJ said...

If I were raised in a Hindu culture, it would seem right to worship a pantheon and function within the caste system. Had I been born in the American south in the early 1800s, enslaving blacks would have seemed consistent with the very nature of things. To the Muslim jihadist, killing the infidel is perfectly intuitive.

Matt said...

Ken: You write ”My point, is that, due to what we know from evolution, there is no necessity to believe that this "god idea" comes from god. In other words, there can be a purely natural explanation for it.” It seems that your argument assumes that God is rationally believed only if his existence is inferred by some kind of argument for the best explanation of a given phenomenon. in this case the phenomena of religious belief. This was precisely the point I challenged in my article. Belief in God is a basic belief, it’s a belief people use as background data to asses explanations and hypothesizes not an explanatory hypothesis itself. So your argument seems to simply assume that the position I sketched was false from the outset.

Moreover, the argument proves to much. One can put forward explanations for other basic beliefs such as belief in moral truths or belief in an enduring physical world which fit the data and do not require that these things actually exist. So analogous arguments justify skepticism about these things.

SteveJ: I don’t think your objection is successful either ( in fact Plantinga explicitly addresses it). Take the claim its wrong to enslave different races, or that its wrong to beat ones wife, or that there exists an enduring physical world, if I had been raised in a different culture I would not believe these things. It does not follow I am irrational in accepting them today.

Similarly, if I had been raised in a tribal culture as opposed to one with western education system I would not have learnt any math and so would not find basic axioms of math intuitive. If I had not been raised in a different context I would not find many basic axioms of logic intuitive. Yet these beliefs are clearly not irrational.

Moreover, the kind of skepticism engendered by this objection is self defeating. The whole I idea that its problematic to accept as true things which other cultures or people do not find intuitively obvious is based on notions of pluralism and equality and tolerance etc which other cultures and people do not accept. Hence if this skepticism is correct then one should reject this skepticism as irrational.

If one limits properly basic beliefs to those which all cultures accept one ends up both in a radical skepticism and also incoherence.

Matt DeStefano said...

This is an old article, but I've responded to it at length here ( for anyone who is interested in further discussion about Reformed Epistemology.

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