This is the third reposting in my series of reviews of Loftus The Christian Delusion (originally published at “The Christian Post” in 2010).
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Back in 84′ Boy George and “Culture Club” were a guilty pleasure. If nobody was around, you could crank their number 1 hit “Karma Chameleon”. But if you saw your friends coming you only had seconds to swap the cassette with Van Halen or face the ignominy of being caught listening to the androgynous ambassador of British New Wave.
Fast-forward to 2010 and the chameleon is now Christian, at least according to John Loftus’s introduction in The Christian Delusion. (Aside: some people inexplicably skip the introductions to books. I’m sure those people also refuse to look at the street map until they’re lost in the tangled grid of a strange metropolis. Folks, read the intro. Loftus provides a good survey of the material.) Here’s what he says about the chameleon like qualities of the faith:
“In my own lifetime I have seen Christianity reinvent itself like a chameleon changes colors. Because of the onslaught of skeptical arguments, more and more Christians are claiming that their faith is a ‘properly basic belief’ and as such it doesn’t need any evidence to support it (à la Alvin Plantinga in Warranted Christian Belief).” (17)
Two complaints here.
My first complaint is that Plantinga didn’t argue for properly basic belief as a retreat to fideism. Indeed, he has a strong place for defeaters in his epistemology. Rather, his point, dating back to God and Other Minds, is that it is inconsistent to demand proof of God’s existence for rational assent to God’s existence when this standard is not applied in other areas of belief (e.g. belief in other minds).
Hence, if I could have a properly basic belief in other minds (albeit one that could lose its justification due to undercutting or rebutting defeaters), then it would seem that I could likewise have properly basic belief in God’s existence and certain beliefs about God. This too would not be ultima facie properly basic but only prima facie so.(Hence, it is not a retreat to an irrational fideism which is impervious to rational analysis.)
So to sum up, Plantinga’s arguments are rooted not in a defensive, irrational apologetic retrenchment but rather in an analysis of the meaning of concepts like rationality, justification, warrant and knowledge within the context of a moderate foundationalist epistemology. (And Plantinga’s moderate foundationalist epistemology, like that of fellow epistemologists Nozick, Goldman, Alston, Bergmann and others, is very much in the game.)
Now for the central chameleon charge.
I have this friend, Wes. Back in the seventies Wes distinguished himself with mutton chops, a T-bar mustache, and a corduroy jacket. By the time Culture Club released “Do you really want to hurt me?” Wes was sporting a clean shaven face and a red leather jacket (thanks Michael Jackson). And today? Grey hair and a three piece suit. Can you believe that guy? Wes the chameleon.
Well, but people do change over time, they adapt, and this is no slight on their character. Belief systems change too. Nor is this adaptive potential necessarily a slight on the belief systems.
Take naturalism, the worldview of many atheists. As I have often noted in this blog, naturalism used to be the thesis that all that exists is atoms and the void. Phew, at least that much is clear.
Unfortunately, this thesis suffered a fatal epistemological problem (i.e. how does one know this is all that exists?) as well as putative defeaters (i.e. entities not reducible to material atoms, like qualia for instance). So off go the mutton chops and T-bar mustache and you have naturalism for the eighties, a naturalism that now admits to entities which supervene on the material.
Oh, but that epistemic problem still nags (how do you know only the material [whatever that is defined as] and that which supervenes on it, is all that exists?), so many naturalists today have abandoned the traditional view of naturalism as a metaphysical claim altogether and have instead adopted it as a research program.
But what kind of research program? Well, presumably one that says we ought to seek natural explanations. (Always? How do you know that? Ahh, the epistemic problem again.) Let’s recalibrate. You ought to seek natural explanations whenever possible or reasonable. Now there are still significant problems even with this watered down, milquetoast naturalism. Problems like “what constitutes a natural explanation?” and “when is it rational or obligatory to abandon such explanations?” But I’m more content to observe this: you could be the Pope in Rome and be a naturalist of this sort.
Those naturalist chameleons. How dare they abandon their mutton chops, T-bar mustaches, and corduroy jackets for a grey three piece suit. Have they no shame?