In the film adaptation of the Dan Brown novel Angels and Demons there is a scene where the hero, Robert Langdon, is explaining to an official of the Vatican an important incident of Roman Catholic Church history.1 In the sixteenth century, shortly after the trial of Galileo, Langdon explains, the church went on an enthusiastic crusade of sorts, called la purga, capturing scientists and branding them with crosses before executing them as a warning to other scientists. The Vatican official, already a suspicious looking character, feigns surprise at this information. “Geez,” exclaims Langdon, “you guys don’t even read your own history do you?” Startled by my own ignorance I went on a hunt to discover more details about this sad and tragic event of history. From my research I learned that, to date, no historian has found any reference to la purga outside Angels and Demons and fan based websites dedicated to Dan Brown’s work. This should come as no surprise. Brown has been in the habit of referring to his personal fantasies as something he calls “history” since his The DaVinci Code became the über “it” book of the last decade and proved that being a borderline illiterate was no great obstacle to success in the modern publishing world. That such fictions as Angels and Demons, and by extension la purga, have been accepted by many as fact, or at the very least believable, speaks of one of the most commonly held assumptions of the day: science and religion are in direct opposition to one another, if not outright war.2
Cheering on this conflict as both obvious and inevitable has been an increasingly vocal community of atheists and agnostics led by such luminaries as Richard Dawkins (2006), Daniel Dennett (1996), Sam Harris (2005) and the late Christopher Hitchens (2008). Dubbed by the media as The Four Horsemen, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens have through books, speeches and debates come to establish, at least in a much more credible fashion that Dan Brown, the irreconcilable and ever widening rift between science and religion. For them religion is a collection of myths, fantasies and irrational behaviours which has outlived any usefulness it may or may not have had and now needs to get out of the way for the new age of rational and progressive science. To this challenge several theists (mostly Evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians) have been providing vigorous rejoinders in defence of religious belief.3
It has all made for some exciting TV and media coverage. Web discussions on science and religion have become so common and heated that they threaten to rival the online debates over Justin Bieber’s hairstyles. While much of the conversation has taken the form of barely articulate mudslinging, some sober voices have managed to rise above the fray. Among the most respected and articulate on the religious side is that of Alvin Plantinga. Professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, Plantinga has over the past few decades quietly led a revolution. Starting with The Nature of Necessity (1979) where he used recent developments in modal logic to reformulate a proof for the existence of God, Plantinga was one of the first of an emerging generation of “believer” philosophers. In the 1960s less than one percent of university philosophy professors in North America claimed any sort of belief in God. Today that number has risen to a quarter or even a third and this dramatic shift has been the result in no small measure to the work begun by Plantinga (Smith, 2001; Craig, 2013).
His latest work, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism, is one of his more polemical and already controversial works. Written at a popular level, Plantinga examines the alleged conflict between science and religion. His assertion is stated boldly in the preface: “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” (ix) By naturalism he means a worldview or philosophy which maintains that there is no creator God, no possibility of supernatural occurrence in the world, and processes such as evolutionary biology and human mind are the products of randomness and chance, not divine intention. When people such as Dawkins and Dennett claim to be speaking on behalf of science, what they are really referring to is this philosophy of naturalism. Science, on the other hand, is merely the accumulation of methodological tools and information which either affirm or do not affirm these or other presuppositions. What Plantinga is arguing is this: while it may appear that science and religion (specifically Christian theism) are in conflict, if you dig a little deeper, you will discover that they are actually in harmony and it is atheism, which typically claims the banner of science, that doesn’t line up.
Plantinga is aware that such a stance will be hotly contested by many and he is not above delivering a few pre-emptive jabs at Dawkins, Dennett and their ilk. At one point he refers to atheism as “adolescent rebellion carried on by other means.”(xi) This is not to say that he considers all atheists to be behaving in a childish fashion. He respectfully acknowledges atheist thinkers with far subtler minds such as Thomas Nagel, Michael Tooley and William Rowe. To that list I would also amend the names of philosophers Quentin Smith and John Searle in terms of contemporary figures who have contributed fruitfully to the debate. Yet he is also right to draw attention to a dilemma that all who maintain a naturalistic position must contend with, namely the potential for intellectual impoverishment inherent in their assumptions. Speaking on what he calls “materialist atheism”, the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton states that this view “is not merely an arid creed but totally irrational. Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals, and it has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love, or heroism, or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat” (Eagleton, 2009).
Along these same lines but going still further, Plantinga argues that naturalism itself cannot even be rationally affirmed. For if naturalism were true, the probability that our cognitive faculties would be reliable is pretty low. For those faculties have been shaped by a process of natural selection which does not select for truth but merely for survival. If truth is the intended goal of scientific inquiry, it would more fittingly align itself with a demonstratively truth oriented worldview, namely theism. This is the project Plantinga sets himself to prove.
Where the Conflict Really Lies is divided into four main parts. In Part I Plantinga addresses two areas where there is an alleged conflict between religion and science, namely evolutionary theory and miracles, and seeks to show that there is really no conflict at all. Part II, titled ‘Superficial Conflict’, does indeed show where there is actual conflict between religion and science, but also claims that these conflicts are in fact superficial and in no way act as ‘defeaters’ for Christian belief. Part III seeks to demonstrate where there is actual deep concord or mutual affirmation between science and religion, namely the “fine tuning” argument for the creation of the universe and the design argument for life, as well as the fact that we have minds capable of apprehending the reality of the universe at all. In the final part, titled ‘Deep Conflict’, Plantinga turns the tables in order to demonstrate that while religion and science support one another, science and naturalism are deeply at odds. The only reason there is any concord between naturalism/ atheism and science is because so many atheists wrap themselves in science “like a politician in the flag”. Yet, as mentioned above, given the materialistic claims of naturalism and evolution, it is highly unlikely that our cognitive faculties are at all reliable. As such, all beliefs which are formed by such faculties must be by definition suspect, including those beliefs about naturalism and evolution. For the sake of brevity I shall address only a few of the points raised by Plantinga.
Throughout the twentieth century and even today there has been no area, at least within the public square, where science and religion have been perceived to be more at odds than around the topic of evolution. Some have claimed that this is the product of narrow-minded religious fundamentalists, who can’t accept any sort of innovation in thinking or development in science and so stir the pot. But this is simply not true. Most Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians have no problem with quantum physics, genetic research, or even the sun being the centre of the solar system! What they do have a problem with, in regards to evolutionary theory, are the philosophical conclusions which have been amended to it by proponents and teachers of evolution. It is the fact that evolution is taught as something which is unguided, which has caused the majority of the problems. Implied within the science is the view that a creator is not even necessary for creation. This is the cause for concern among many of the religious. Life is shown to be random and mechanical, with no guiding divine hand, and is therefore objectively meaningless. It must be made clear here that Plantinga is not suggesting that biology must in some way make room to wedge God into the equation. Some have made the old accusation that he resorting to the “God of the gaps” argument. Yet there are significant and enormous dark spots in our understanding of evolutionary processes which cannot be explained by the dictates of natural selection. Indeed it appears very likely that natural selection played no role in some forms of biological development. And for the naturalist, natural selection and undirected evolution is, as Plantinga puts it, “the only game in town”. The theist, by contrast, has more freedom in terms of understanding how evolutionary process works. “God has created the living world and he could have done it in a number of ways… In this way the theist is freer to follow the evidence where it leads.” (24)
And while the agitation and hostility in the conflict is typically understood to be arising from the religious side, Plantinga rightly notes that the naturalists have been equally exacerbating and have done much to damage their own cause in the melee. He is worth quoting at length with regards to these hostile attitudes towards religious belief.
… declarations by Dawkins, Dennett, and others have at least two unhappy results. First, their (mistaken) claim that religion and evolution are incompatible damages religious belief, making it look less appealing to people who respect reason and science. But second, it also damages science. That is because it forces many to choose between science and belief in God. Most believers, given the depth and significance of their belief in God, are not going to opt for science; their attitude towards science is likely to be or become one of suspicion and mistrust. Hence these declarations of incompatibility have unhappy consequences for science itself. (54)
Plantinga then goes on in the next section of Part I to examine the claim that given the natural order of the universe, divine intervention in the form of miracles is impossible. Yet as he demonstrates, the laws of physics are only applicable within a closed system and take no account of external intervention. That the universe is a closed system at all is an assumption, not a requirement of physical law. Hence the divine, should it exist, will have no problem at all interloping across our cosmic borders.
While he demonstrates that the conflict between religion and science when it comes to evolution and miracles is merely alleged, in Part II he examines areas which he deems possibly real but only superficial conflicts, namely the fields of evolutionary psychology and scripture scholarship. Plantinga notes that we live in an era where the popular literature and media is awash with notions of evolutionary psychology. It seems every aspect of human behaviour and interest can be explained by evolutionary process. Art, math, altruism, love, our sense of beauty and religion can all be explained as the result of some challenge which presented itself to our apish ancestors on the African grasslands. That there is virtually no evidence to support any of these assertions regarding the development of behaviours has not lessened the voluminous publication of books expounding on the concept. Even Thomas Nagel bewails the “ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about human life, including everything about the human mind” (Nagel, 1997).” The big issue of course is that proponents of evolutionary psychology claim that they have figured out where religion, or the religious impulse, derives from. And by demonstrating its biological origins the assumption is made that they can therefore invalidate it. You only believe in God because lightening frightened some Neanderthal ancestors of yours. Therefore God doesn’t really exist.3
Plantinga isn’t going to have any of it. For one thing, so much of religion is materially expensive, counterfactual and often highly counterintuitive. If humans are operating on the principle of disseminating their genetic material as much as possible, why then do so many religions endorse such practices as celibacy, martyrdom and ritual castration, or less extreme, altruism towards those who are not part of our immediate genetic community? In these instances religion does not seem to be promoting the biological good. And even if it turned out that religious belief has natural origins, this in no way refutes the existence of the actual divine. Perhaps it is through natural means that the divine wishes to reach us.
The other field of inquiry which some allege acts as a direct defeater of religion (in this case specifically the Christian religion) is Historical Biblical Criticism (HBC). Also known as “higher criticism”, HBC was alleged by its practitioners to apply a “scientific” approach to the study of Christianity’s sacred scriptures, the Bible. HBC seeks to demonstrate that the Bible is purely a human work with no divine input. This is said to be accomplished by showing several things: that the scriptures were not written by those they were alleged to have been written by (HBC practitioners insist that the Torah was not written by Moses as the Bible claims but much later authors and editors), the texts were altered or “developed” during the transmission of manuscripts to include the supernatural, and the divinity of Jesus Christ was never claimed by Him or his followers, but only came about through the accumulation of later traditions.
To this approach by HBC I would also add the so-called “history of religions” school, which develops on many of its assertions, namely that Christianity borrowed its central tenets, such as the virgin birth, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus from other religions and pagan mythologies. Ignoring or unaware of the monumental amount of both older and very recent Biblical scholarship which has, to this authors thinking, soundly responded to the claims of HBC and the history of religions school (an unfortunately missed opportunity), Plantinga cuts to the quick and demonstrates that naturalism is already assumed within the methodological apparatus of HBC.
Many of the arguments that Plantinga briefly sketches in this book are developed much more comprehensively elsewhere. Cunningham (2010) explains how evolutionary theory and traditional Christianity can be harmonized. The argument for Miracles is developed in the massive two-volume study by Craig Keener (2011). Claims of evolutionary psychology are refuted from within the atheist/naturalist camp by Tallis (2011) and Bennett and Hacker (2003). In-depth responses to the claims of HBC are available in two collections of essays (Carson & Woodbridge 1983 and 1986). Finally, Nash (2003) has refuted the alleged parallels between Christianity and pagan myths, a form of speculation which was demolished over sixty years ago by religious and classical scholars, but still has a thriving community of evangelists online.
In other words, the investigation into divine action in history begins with the assumption that there is no such thing as the divine! How then can it claim to be both impartial and “scientific” if the conclusion is already predetermined? HBC does not so much demonstrate that the divine doesn’t exist as assume it.
While parts I and II address the claims that science and religion do not jive, part III looks at examples of science which show deep concord with religious belief. He begins by looking at the “fine tuning” argument from physics which accounts for the precise conditions of the universe which made life possible in the first place (Ross, 2000). Fine tuning has become one of the most popular arguments for a creator among theistic apologists in recent years. Even Christopher Hitchens admitted it was the most powerful argument in favour of God that he knew of (Hitchens & Wilson, 2001). This along with the argument from design in biology, as developed by biologist Michael Behe (1996), acts, as he says, as powerful evidence for a creator.
More encompassing than these examples are what Plantinga calls the “Deep Roots” of science. This approach can be summarized as follows: Christianity claims that the universe is both rational and knowable for it has been created by a God who is both rational and seeks to be known. The underlying assumption of science is that the universe is regular and rational and therefore common scientific principles which have been developed may be applied to all of its parts with confidence. We call these scientific laws. And science also works on the given that the universe can also be known. We can use our senses, and by extension our scientific instruments, to observe the workings of the universe and we can be assured that these observations will be reliable. In this way the divine and the natural reflect a deep harmony with one another in terms of their relation to us as sentient beings. They make sense and there is a significant amount transparency to them.
This harmony plays off of the next and final part of the book which examines why naturalism and science are deeply at odds with one another. The crux of the argument in this section is Plantinga’s own ‘Evolutionary argument against naturalism’ (Plantinga, 1993). This argument derives ultimately from a quote of Charles Darwin (1881) who was reflecting on the implications of his then emerging theory of evolution and has since been monikered as ‘Darwin’s Doubt’. The quote is as follows:
But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?
Darwin hits on a nerve here. We all like to think that we ourselves individually are somehow immune when it comes to discussions of mind and the irrational and we don’t like to have that confidence challenged. Some people may have a warped sense of reality, but not me! In this unease Plantinga sees Darwin pointing directly to an irremediable conflict between naturalism and science. From an evolutionary point of view, the probability that humans have reliable cognitive faculties and the ability to interpret the world and rationalize about it is low (If we can’t trust a monkey to do science, why should we trust ourselves?). As we have no outside criterion by which to judge whether or not our reasoning is sound or unsound, this suspicion soon hardens into an abiding scepticism. The conclusion that we are unable to distinguish between true and false beliefs then becomes inevitable. For Plantinga, the fact that there is such conflict between the claims of naturalism and one of the most important fields of contemporary science is truly breathtaking in its irony, given the assured confidence with which so many of the proponents of naturalism use evolution as a cudgel against theistic beliefs.
In his review of Where the Conflict Really Lies, Thomas Nagel (2012, September 27) correctly identifies Plantinga’s main argument as primarily epistemological, an area of philosophy which is often neglected or dismissed by naturalists. And while Nagel quibbles over his lack of representation of naturalist theories of mind, he is generally quite laudatory, recognizing that Plantinga has indeed presented a challenge naturalists need to seriously consider and respond to. He then concludes his review with this remarkable statement:
I say this as someone who cannot imagine believing what he (Plantinga) believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticism of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view… Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.
For an atheist this is a truly startling thing to admit. Why can’t he imagine believing as Plantinga believes? Is atheism merely a failure of imagination and not the inevitable product of deductive logic and empirical science it so often claims? Honest enough to admit that naturalism has not so far produced a credible response, he looks to a hoped for third alternative between naturalism and theism. But whatever could that be? And what evidence is there for such an option? Nagel never says. If one thing is clear however, Nagel’s assurance in the unknown certainly smacks of what many of his fellow atheists might identify as religion.
1. From online reviews it appears that this scene can be found near verbatim in the novel of Angels and Demons as well.
2. See reader reviews of The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons on Amazon.com for a sampling of this Brownian gullibility.
3. Actually, one of the current theories on the evolution of religion which Plantinga mentions is that religion came about at the moment when our ancestors made the transition from prey to predators and this occasioned great joy and religion arose out of that celebration.
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Michael Plato teaches Film and Popular Culture at Seneca College in Toronto, and will begin a course in World Religions in 2013. He can be reached at email@example.com.