In the latest round of the Religion Vs. Science Wars, religion comes out punching.
Last month, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, of Notre Dame, published a pugilistic assault on atheist nay-sayers like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. As The New York Times pointed out this week, Plantinga’s case for religious belief is significant because, as a believing Christian as well as tenured philosopher, he’s not simply playing defense. Instead he’s making the audacious claim, at least among intellectuals, that religion is actually compatible with science, and even more rational than atheism.
The argument goes like this: since theists posit that God created rational-minded being in his image, then religious belief is more rational than Darwin-loving atheists. In their view, Plantinga contends, much of what happens in the world, especially evolution, is driven by utterly random events—and there’s nothing more irrational than that. “Indeed,” he writes, “it is theism, not naturalism, that deserves to be called ‘the scientific worldview.’” To be sure, Plantinga accepts the theory of revolution, but he’s essentially an intelligent-design guy—that is, God set it all in motion, and nudges things in a certain direction.
Now I haven’t read the book, but as the argument is represented, it seems significantly flawed. And the bedrock of that flaw is the same one that strict material rationalists cannot accept: that is, it requires you to take as a fact something that has no way of being proven. In other words, it rests on belief, not proof.
Plantinga fully concedes that a higher power cannot be proven to exist. He dismisses the concern with a wave-of-the-hand, however, saying that belief in God is a type of philosophical premise dubbed “basic belief.” Like the fact that one plus one equals two, there is simply no need to prove it true. It’s just self evidently so.
To which, I’d respond: Hmm.
It seems, however, Hmms aren’t enough. Dennett, the best-selling atheist and philosopher, who gets a drubbing in Plantinga’s book, tells the Times in response to Plantinga: “It’s just become more and more transparent that he’s an apologist more than a serious, straight-ahead philosopher.”
Personally, I’m with Stephen Jay Gould on this one. Science and religion set out to address entirely different sets of questions. Both are concerned with answering profound and eternal truths about the world. But they are truths of different kinds. Science investigates truths about the physical world, while religion concerns philosophical truths.
Occasionally, like literary truths, religion makes claims about human nature, which depending on what they are, are equally unscientific, but nonetheless concern a certain kind of truth about the physical world—the human, emotional, moral world. And those are claims that, because they can never be proven, will constantly demand our attention, and we will be arguing over—and rightly so—for a long time to come.