Friday, March 18, 2011

Can an Intelligent Person be a Christian? Some Plantingian Reflections

A redated post from a couple years back.

In going on the Secular Web and looking at some atheist blogs, the answer seems to be no. In Alvin Plantinga's essay "A Christian Life Partly Lived," he writes:

At Wayne, the late Hector Neri-Casteneda, George Nakhnikian, and Edmund Gettier confronted me with antitheistic argumetns of a depth and philosophical sophistication and persistence I had never encountered before....Nakhnikian was our chairman; he thought well of my powers as a budding young philosopher, but also thought no intelligent person could possibly be a Christian. He would announce this sentiment in his usual stentorian tones, whereupon Robert Sleigh would say "But what about Al, George? Don't you think he's an intelligent person?" George would have to admit, reluctantly, that he thought I probably was, but he still thought there had to be a screw loose in there somewhere."

38 comments:

vjack said...

As an atheist blogger, I say that it is absolutely possible for an intelligent person to be a Christian. Mental illness cuts across all levels of intellect, and high intelligence is not sufficient protection from delusion.

Victor Reppert said...

So you would agree with this statement as an assessment of Christians (adapted from Dawkins comments about evolution skeptics):

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims to be a Christian, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).

If that's what you think, then you need to spend some time in the company of some well-educated Christians, (that way we can rule out ignorance) and see if, oh, say, after a few hours, you really think they are insane or stupid or wicked.

Though at this point I can see the No True Scotsman fallacy about to rear its head (thank you for explaining that to us, Tony Flew).

es said...

Certainly it is possible for intelligent, well-educated people to be ignorant of certain facts, deluded, or wilfully blind to facts. I was in that position myself for many years. In the case of many Christians, I think the delusions are so entrenched that there is little hope that their worldview will ever change.

Victor Reppert said...

But do you really need "ignorant of the facts, deluded, or wilfully blind to the facts" to explain why anyone disagrees with you? How about just saying they are in error and leaving it at that. Why is it necessary to psychoanalyze???

es said...

Good question. I suppose it is because religion is virtually the only topic on which intelligent people can be presented with the facts and yet continue to stand by an irrational POV. You're a good case in point. ;-)

Victor Reppert said...

I still don't see why irrationality charges are necessary here.

Doug said...

Talk about being a fundamentalist. How is the attitude of vjack and es any less polemic than the religious fundamentalists they mock.
I was agnostic and insultive towards Christians a good portion of my life, but for me it was because of convincing argument, evidence and the 'all to certain' attitude of my atheistic friends that all made me start to question my previous held beliefs.

And es is either completely wrong with his last comment and not aware of it; or holding religion to a different standard than other pursuits of knowledge (science).
All of the metaphysical spins that many cosmologists perform to avoid a singularity regardless of what the evidence shows (Gold still supporting his Time-Symmetric model of the universe after the flaws were more than highlighted) is just one example.

Es's comment, if it were true, would not be unique to religious dialogue. So, even if it were true it would be a mundane point (Q: what makes football a unique sport? A: the players run along a field).
But, I would like to know what those conclusive facts that es would be refering to.... the facts makes atheism such a slam-dunk case for the rational individual.

Don Jr. said...

What befuddles me is that all the eggs are being put into one basket--namely, belief in God. For some, if you believe in God you're irrational and if you don't believe in God you're rational, even though you might believe that blue, invisible chickens (make sense of that) exist. Belief or disbelief in God is but one of a myriad of beliefs.

Victor Reppert said...

C. S. Lewis's essay "On Obstinacy of Belief points out that a Christian believes that he or she is in a personal relationship, and what may be reasonable with respect to an impersonal subject matter may not be reasonable where a personal relationship is at issue. To get the epistemically best perspective on one's spouse's faithfulness having a private eye follow them around would be good, but from the point of view of the relationship it would be disastrous.

With respect to world-views, it should be noted that for real human beings world-view changes involve a level of personal commitment that makes people, quite reasonably, be at least somewhat obstinate in the way they deal with evidence. World-view changes happen, of course, but it takes a lot of things from several sides to bring them about. It's a little like a paradigm shift in science. And this is not a testament to human irrationality.

Gordon Knight said...

E.S:

What are the supposed facts that contradict theism?

Evil is the only plausible candidate, and its hardly obvious that the atheistic argument from evil succeeds (reasonable people can disagree about this)

Anonymous said...

Irrationality charges are necessary because the subject matter is just as personally important for atheists as it is for theists. Or put another way, theists can be deeply threatened by the prospect that they are wrong about God. Less acknowledged is the fact that atheists can be just as threatened (Thomas Nagel is one of the rare atheists who admits to as much.)

But there's no conclusive and clear answer to the question of God in either direction. So what's someone to do when certainty can't be had, but doubt itself psychologically threatening?

Simple: Make the very act of doubt itself unthinkable. And that involves regarding anyone who disagrees with you as ignorant, irrational, or otherwise flawed. Every theist/atheist is, on the subject of God, therefore deeply flawed if they happen to disagree with you. They must be. Because the alternative is terrifying.

And yes, I'm psychoanalyzing the psychoanalyzers. That's pretty much the point - once you've decided to regard someone who disagrees with you, all bets are off. Theists become people who need security blankets and who aren't brave enough to accept the truth. Atheists become people who are afraid of authority or need to rationalize their desires, and aren't brave enough to accept the truth.

Psychoanalyze at your own peril - it's a weapon available to absolutely everyone.

Victor Reppert said...

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see clearly enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.” For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds - a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are. - C. S. Lewis in Bulverism.

Tony Hoffman said...

I think both sides condescend to the other. And we are all psychological beings, and we can't help psychologizing one another.

Although I've never had much interest in philosophy for philosophy's sake, I've come to respect the philosophical approach that considers the theism/atheism divide as one between two arguments, rather than two groups of people.

Chris said...

This atheist says that the answer is obviously yes - there are Christians who are truly exceptionally intelligent and who DO apply that intelligence to their Christianity. Is it possible that there are psychological (i.e., nonrational) reasons for their acceptance of Christianity? Of course. The same holds for atheism, however. Bias and delusion can be damnably difficult even to see, much less root out. I think my atheism is rational, but I'm pretty sure it's not 'entirely' rational - human beings cannot attain such a goal due to both our general and individual psychological complexity, and the complexity of the many issues that get pulled into the orbit of discussion.

John W. Loftus said...

It's simply not a matter of intelligence at all.

Matt said...

I'm pretty tired of the whole delusion bomb that has been getting thrown around. "You delusional Christians!" "I'm not delusional, YOU'RE delusional!" "I'm writing my book The Deluded Delusionists!" "Oh, yeah, I'm publishing Delusional Deluded Deluviations!" If you take a step back it all looks a bit silly.

I am not offended by the less pejorative charge of bias, however, because that is simply a blanket statement of what one is prone to believe whether it is true or not. In other words, it seems less insulting and does not commit the genetic fallacy. It doesn't rally the masses nearly as well though.

Anonymous said...

"It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims to be a Christian, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)."

Hi Vic,
What do you take "ignorant" to mean? Here's a view--you are ignorant with respect to p iff you don't know p. Can an atheist or agnostic really believe that theists aren't ignorant? Not in general, mind you, but on one specific issue?

Gimli 4 the West said...

I’ve never understood the “I used to be this but now I’m that and when I used to believe the former I was delusional or insane or duped” argument. The argument smells of the emotions of a recently divorced man who cannot give a single reason why he used to love his wife. Sorry, but it sounds childish to me.

I used to be agnostic and I remember why--the reasons still at times seem compelling to me. I used to work in science and left it because it was tedious and unfulfilling, but I still remember why I studied it and I’m glad for the projects I worked on for the sake of humanity and my own financial prosperity (besides giving me a few stories to tell). I used to be a fundamentalist and still have close friends who still are even if we don’t see eye to eye anymore. I remember why I believed what I did, is that really so hard for atheist converts to admit? Do you really have to bore us with the books you have written about your change of mind?

Big deal, grow up, it’s not that amazing that people change their minds. It's one of the things that makes life and people interesting.

Victor Reppert said...

Hi Vic,
What do you take "ignorant" to mean? Here's a view--you are ignorant with respect to p iff you don't know p. Can an atheist or agnostic really believe that theists aren't ignorant? Not in general, mind you, but on one specific issue?

I think it's absolutely safe to say that Dawkins means something more than just a failure to know the proposition "Evolution is true." That would trivialize his claim. Same with failure to know that "Christianity is false."

Alex Dalton said...

Chris wrote:

"This atheist says that the answer is obviously yes - there are Christians who are truly exceptionally intelligent and who DO apply that intelligence to their Christianity. Is it possible that there are psychological (i.e., nonrational) reasons for their acceptance of Christianity? Of course. The same holds for atheism, however..."

Alex: Ha! Thank you for your honesty. I think everyone knows what you wrote is true; hardly anyone will admit to it though. Thx again.

Anonymous said...

Vic wrote:

"I think it's absolutely safe to say that Dawkins means something more than just a failure to know the proposition "Evolution is true." That would trivialize his claim. Same with failure to know that "Christianity is false.""

Trivialize it how? Look, if we're evaluating what Dawkins says to see if it's true, shouldn't we look at the content of what was said rather than the tone or the implicature?

On the larger issue as to whether a Xian can be an intelligent person, I take it that the answer is obviously yes. George Nakhnikian seems to be coherent--someone like Plantinga might be a rational person even if he has some beliefs he only has because he has a screw loose somewhere. Just as a swallow doesn't make a spring, a screw loose doesn't make someone an unreasonable person. Even the most reasonable people have their rational failings. Why can't that view be Dawkins' view? That seems consistent with both the content and possibly the tone of the passage you quoted.

Tony Hoffman said...

Say what you want about Dawkins, the man knows how to write -- and provoking people is part of that craft. But I think it's uncharitable to paraphrase his statement so that it appears that his mindset logically leads to merely insulting Christians.

I believe that Dawkins would gladly admit that he, like all of us, is ignorant. To take umbrage at the term without asking of what it is that we are ignorant seems like avoiding an opportunity in order to score an easy point.

Hammiesink said...

In my recent discovery of what theist arguments actually say rather than the characterizations that get thrown around the atheist echo chamber, I suddenly find myself in a flip-flopped world, where the Christians are the ones who suddenly seem rational to me.

Victor Reppert: "If x, then y, given b and c. But if a, then not-x."

John Loftus: "YOU IGNORANT PIECE OF SHIT! YOU'RE SO IGNORANT!! THE WORLD IS TIRED OF YOUR IGNORANCE!!! IGNORANT IGNORANT IGNORANT!!!!!11!!eleven!!"

What's going on here? Have I been teleported to oppositeland?

Victor Reppert said...

Dawkins is the one that started the delusion-rhetoric. The trouble is, we all know that if I believe not-X, given a justified-true-believe account of knowledge, I cannot believe that you can know X, and so, in that sense, I have to believe that you are ignorant of X. The rhetorical force of Dawkins' comment seems to go beyond, that, which is what everyone claims with respect to any position he or she disagrees with.

Mr Veale said...

I think that one of the problems in debates about atheism and theism - or any debate for that matter - is "expert overconfidence".
Quite often a person confuses her expertise in one area with expertise in many areas. Or an expert can overestimate their competence, especially when their mistakes can take years to come to light. In areas like politics, the interpretation of QM, or history or philosophy and ethics, a person might never be falsified in their lifetime. SO their confidence can grow disproportionately.
In a sense I agree with John's statement. A high degree of aptitude in one academic area says very little about their aptitudes in other areas. Intelligence is also notoriously difficult to define, nevermind measure. So the existence of intelligent believers or non-believers is neither here nor there.

Graham

Mr Veale said...

Threre might be a coherent argument in that previous post - but it's 00.30AM here in Ireland, and I'm only awake because my daughter had a nightmare, so I'm not convinced myself.
Maybe someone else can work out what I'm getting at. Rebekah's back to sleep, so I'm going back to bed.

Graham

GREV said...

For Dawkins to admit he is ignorant on certain matters like the rest of us and needs to learn like the rest of us would require the removal of The God Delusion from Bookshelves. Or a major reworking to admit how little he knows about many things related to Christian Theism and Theism in general.

I look for neither to occur.

cl said...

I realize this thread is years old, but...

Vic,

"I still don't see why irrationality charges are necessary here."

In my opinion, it might be because the person making irrationality charges needs to cope with cognitive dissonance resulting from the fact that intelligent, rational people can be Christians. Or, it might be that the person making irrationality charges isn't too confident in their own beliefs, and attacking others bolsters their confidence. For whatever reason, I've never felt compelled to label somebody as "irrational" simply because they believe differently than I. Then again, I'm comfortable with my beliefs.

cl said...

Matt,

"I'm pretty tired of the whole delusion bomb that has been getting thrown around. "You delusional Christians!" "I'm not delusional, YOU'RE delusional!" "I'm writing my book The Deluded Delusionists!" "Oh, yeah, I'm publishing Delusional Deluded Deluviations!" If you take a step back it all looks a bit silly."

I, too, tire of such nonsense from Loftus, Dawkins, et al. Talk about poisoning the well!

One Brow said...

Victor Reppert said...
Dawkins is the one that started the delusion-rhetoric.

Really? No atheist used the notion of delusion to refer to theists, and no theist to refer to atheists, until Dawkins started it? You'll understand if I find that difficult to believe.

I don't see intelligence being particularly relevant to being religious, because intelligence is something people tend to use to support things they believe for other reasons, much of the time, rather than a guide for those beliefs. Similarly, knowledge gets filtered by the lens of those beliefs, and reationality is put in there service. So, I would reject the triplet of "ignorant, stupid or insane".

cl said...

One Brow,

"Really? No atheist used the notion of delusion to refer to theists, and no theist to refer to atheists, until Dawkins started it? You'll understand if I find that difficult to believe."

Of course, that's not what Victor said, so you're in good company with your skepticism there.

One Brow said...

cl said...
Of course, that's not what Victor said, so you're in good company with your skepticism there.

I'm sure it's my fault for interpreted "started" to mean the begining of something. My apologies.

cl said...

It's called being charitable. I read Vic as saying, well... exactly what he said: Dawkins started the delusion rhetoric, not, "Dawkins was the first one to use the word 'delusion' in reference to a believer."

Whatever though. The plain fact of the matter is that an intelligent person can be a Christian.

One Brow said...

It's called tweaking. It's a sign that you uhold a person to high standards in a generally positive manner. Personally, its amusing that you remonstrate me while saying you want me to interpret Dr. Reppert charitably.

Duke of Earl said...

As an Christian blogger, I say that it is absolutely possible for an intelligent person to be a atheist. Mental illness cuts across all levels of intellect, and high intelligence is not sufficient protection from delusion.

There, fixed it for you.

Interestingly scienceblogs did a survey that showed a correlation between Aspergers and atheism.

Maybe they are wrong in the head.

@Hammiesink, welcome to the real world.

Anonymous said...

vjack. Was that a kick in the balls disguised as a complement? lol. weasel.

I have many intelligent Christian friends as well as atheist friends. The most glaring difference I have noticed between the two groups is the level of arrogance and desire to be on the in crowd. Thats it. My friends who have decided to become atheists have decided based on the reasoning (im not sure if this word is completely appropriate) of Dawkins etc and the popularity of such 'free thinking' flavours within the media lately.

There is no more reason to think that all Christians must be stupid than to think all Atheists must be intelligent. We all know atheist friends, family who would not be considered particularly 'smart' or who havent really thought very deeply about God but who still choose to be atheists. The decision seems every bit as emotionally and spiritually driven, and without complete rational basis as those people who have not weighed up the philosophical arguments for God but still believe based on the tugging of their hearts and the teachings of Christ.

Trey Turner said...

I think a christian can be intelligent and on the other side of the coin, I think an atheist can also be intelligent. I don't believe a person's belief or disbelief in a higher power is determined by intelligence alone.That being said, I think the whole christian/atheist debate has gotten stale. Atheist just regurgitate the rhetoric of Dawkins and Christians just regurgitate the rhetoric of C.S. Lewis. This blog seems to perpetuate the notion that the theist suffers from delusion because they believe in things which are obviously false. However,i would say that atheist suffer with trust issues having a hard time believing anything that cannot be proving with hard evidence. If an atheist and a christian got in an argument 9/10 times the atheist would win based on logic alone. However, a belief in God is not solely bound to the laws of logic. When I was a child my parents were told they could never have another kid after me because my mom had endometriosis. They tried for 5 years and couldn't get pregnant. Wanting a little brother and not knowing where babies came from I prayed to God to give me a brother. a week later my mom was pregnant. Now she didn't sleep with an angle or anything htey had sex (penis + vagina = baby) Now that experience has shaped my faith throughout my life. I have many friends that are atheist and I have heard the arguments of the moral delima of god, the problem of evil, dark matter and evolution ( I don't necessarily disbelieve the last one. But despite all the logic I have been presented with I can't ignore the 'miracle". No one noes if ther's a God for sure (although this is my belief). Then only way I'll know for sure is when I die, I'll either stay rotting in the ground or go up to heaven.I'm not posting this to change your mind but to try and prove that it is foolish to make make broad sweeping generalizations like christian=idiot and atheist =intelligent. There are some stupid atheist out there too. Although, everyone on this blog seems to be pretty intelligent. So let's all try to get along.

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