One of our listeners (and contributors! Thanks again!) Ernie P. has posted on our Facebook page:
You all (on the podcast) seem to assume that ‘belief in the irrational’ is a strongly correlated with religious belief; I would argue that (depending on how you define it), it is a factor in all human belief, and the only real irrationality is to think our own beliefs fully rational…
Now, I see that Ernie and another blogger Alan Lund have a whole back-and-forth going about the justification for Christianity, so you can check that out if you want; I’m not going to attempt to inject myself into that (and honestly don’t have time to read it all right now).
So without getting into Ernie’s specific arguments in favor of theism, I wanted to point out that move of trying to undermine all of our knowledge and then saying that religion isn’t any more undermined than anything else is one of the standard theistic strategies, as with the guys from the Philosophy for Theologians podcast I blogged about earlier. Alvin Plantinga, probably the most influential living Christian philosopher, has a similar take (if you want details from this you can listen to it on several episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, most notably this interview with Tyler Wunder who wrote his dissertation on Plantinga). Plantinga basically sets a pretty low bar for legitimate evidence and then counts our alleged sense of God as sufficient to meet this. In the area of history, I’ve blogged about views of the evidence for the Resurrection based on the premise that pretty much any historical evidence that we have for long-past events is crappy, and the case for the Resurrection isn’t any crappier than that. …And intelligent design must be a legitimate theoretical option because science is all just theories anyway, right? Even my boy Montaigne thinks all human knowledge is folly, so we need revelation to get us set straight.
It should be obvious from the range of examples I just gave that I’m not sympathetic to this objection. As elaborated in “The Great Pumpkin Objection” to Plantinga, this overall view is a recipe for allowing in belief for just about any kind of nonsense, and it’s a real problem for religious folks to positively rule out all the other faiths apart from their own; a truly universalist attitude accompanying this defense is pretty rare. I’m not going to get into the subtleties of Plantinga; this general objection is much more widely used than his specific view, and (as in the creationist example above) most often used as a hacksaw, not a scalpel. One could respond with Harris’s hacksaw and insist that science is fully grounded, but a truly adequate response is going to have to elaborate a whole epistemology, whether it be pragmatist (keeping in mind James’s sympathy for religion, which could be considered a very mild version of this same kind of theist argument I’m objecting to) or phenomenological (and though famous phenomenologists like Sartre were atheists, there are luminaries in this tradition that weren’t) or quietist or analytic/emprical (a la Russell). I’m not prepared to give such an account here, but it’s something I’m going to have in mind during future epistemology episodes. I do think this theist tack is deeply cynical and is in no way going to ground a belief in one of the traditional religions.
For a really interesting take on what post-modernism (Derrida and friends) suggests in the area of religion, listen to this Pale Blue Dot interview with John Caputo, who is one of the few guys involved with this whole area that I actually want to read more by.