Is there such a thing as natural knowledge of God? C. Stephen Evans presents the case for understanding theistic arguments as expressions of natural signs in order to gain a new perspective both on their strengths and weaknesses. Three classical, much-discussed theistic arguments — cosmological, teleological, and moral — are examined for the natural signs they embody. At the heart of this book lie several relatively simple ideas. One is that if there is a God of the kind accepted by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, then it is likely that a ‘natural’ knowledge of God is possible. Another is that this knowledge will have two characteristics: it will be both widely available to humans and yet easy to resist. If these principles are right, a new perspective on many of the classical arguments for God’s existence becomes possible. We understand why these arguments have for many people a continued appeal but also why they do not constitute conclusive ‘proofs’ that settle the debate once and for all. Touching on the interplay between these ideas and contemporary scientific theories about the origins of religious belief, particularly the role of natural selection in predisposing humans to form beliefs in God or gods, Evans concludes that these scientific accounts of religious belief are fully consistent, even supportive, of the truth of religious convictions.
The proud person “must either talk or burst …. He hungers and thirsts after hearers, to whom he may vaunt his vanities, to whom he may pour forth all his feelings, to whom his character and greatness may become known. … Opinions fly around, weighty words resound. He interrupts a questioner, he answers one who does not ask. He himself puts the questions, he himself solves them, he cuts short his fellow speaker’s unfinished words. … He does not care to teach you, or to learn from you what he does not know, but to know that you know that he knows.”
Certainly for anyone who thinks that Biblical teaching is at least in some ways normative, or that the Bible is in some sense authoritative, or who merely claims to take the Bible seriously, it should be a fundamental principle that the Bible must be allowed to say exactly what it wants to say irrespective of the consequences. We may then freely reject what it says as being foolish, inconvenient, embarrassing, or offensive. But no good is served by acting dishonestly with Biblical texts, that is, turning or twisting or otherwise manipulating and forcing them in the direction of what we want them to say. To be sure, we do not often do this in a deliberate or even conscious way, though this renders the problem even more insidious than it might otherwise be.
The revered Christian author whose bestselling classics include The Divine Conspiracy and The Spirit of the Disciplines provides a new model for how we can present the Christian faith to others. When Christians share their faith, they often appeal to reason, logic, and the truth of doctrine. But these tactics often are not effective. A better approach to spread Christ’s word, Dallas Willard suggests, is to use the example of our own lives. To demonstrate Jesus’s message, we must be transformed people living out a life reflective of Jesus himself, a life of love, humility, and gentleness. This beautiful model of life — this allure of gentleness — Willard argues, is the foundation for making the most compelling argument for Christianity, one that will convince others that there is something special about Christianity and the Jesus we follow.
… thy book
Is cliff, and wood, and foaming waterfall;
Thy playmates — the wild sheep and birds that call
Hoarse to the storm; — thy sport is with the storm
to wrestle; — and thy piety to stand
Musing on things create, and their Creator’s hand!
Books were understood to be a storehouse of wisdom from the past, a treasury and repository of hard-won experience and knowledge of these limits. What these books taught was itself a justification for an education centered around them. Because the present and future were believed to be fundamentally identical to the past, the past was understood to be a source of wisdom about our condition as humans in a world that we do not command. An education in great books was itself a consequence of a philosophical worldview, and not merely an education from which we derived a worldview (much less sought an education in critical thinking).
Many commend the teaching of great or core texts to provide something more than the exercise of “critical thinking,” a goal onto which academics have latched (after the ferocious curriculum battles of the 1980s and 1990s) with an almost audible sigh of relief. Debates about substance were put to rest as agreement was reached on the contentless goal of critical thinking, which allowed academics to lay down their arms and embrace the common project of cultivating a thinking style . Indeed, it has reached a pass in which the only idea impervious to critical thinking is the shared goal of critical thinking: No one quite knows what it is, but we can all agree that we want our students to be able to do it. Push-pins is equal to Homer, and Homer equal to push-pins, since both can be claimed to foster critical thinking.
A miracle is an extraordinary manifestation of supernatural power, perceptible to unbelievers as well as believers. Grace is a manifestation to believers only: Miracles are manifestations to unbelievers. A miracle is something perceptible to the senses, or to the intelligence, of a natural man. A miracle, therefore, may be called something tangible: something that we can lay before him and allege to him: something concerning which we can make an appeal to his natural perceptions: something concerning which we can charge it upon his conscience, that he knows within himself that such a thing has taken place. The world, therefore, is opposed to the doctrine of miracles: and opposed to it for this very reason, because they are tangible or perceptible. And mock professors, in like manner, shrink from the doctrine of miracles: because it brings them, at once, to an issue with the world. They shrink not, equally, from the profession of spiritual truths; because these may be eluded by the world, and lead to no issue. Doctrines, the world can explain away: miracles, it cannot. Here is something that it cannot get over. It is easy, for instance, to say to a man sick of the palsy, “Thy sins be forgiven thee;” because there is nothing to shew, at the moment, whether they are so or not: the issue stands over to the day of judgment. But it is not so easy to say to him, “Arise, and walk;” because, if the speaker be an impostor, he knows the sufferer will not rise and walk, and he dreads the consequent exposure.
Many people, including philosophers, have misguided expectations for God. These expectations are misguided in their failing to match what would be God’s relevant purposes, if God exists. The latter purposes include what God aims to achieve in revealing to humans (the evidence of) God’s reality and will. Misguided expectations for God can leave one looking for evidence for God in all the wrong places. In failing to find the expected evidence, one easily lapses into despair, anger, or indifference toward matters of God. We find such regrettable attitudes among many people, including philosophers and theologians. ¶ The needed antidote calls for a careful reconsideration of our expectations for God. This antidote enables us to approach religious epistemology in a way that does justice to the idea of a God worthy of worship. As we shall see, the evidence available to humans from a God worthy of worship would not be for mere spectators, but instead would seek to challenge the will of humans to cooperate with God’s perfect will. This would result from God’s seeking what is morally best for humans, including (a) their cooperative reconciliation to God, (b) their redemption from volitional corruption, such as selfishness, pride, and despair about human life, and (c) their ongoing cooperative life with God. ¶ What if, as Kierkegaard (1846) suggested, God maintains God’s value by refusing to become a mere third party and instead offering second-person (I–Thou) access to humans? What if, in addition, God is elusive in hiding from people unwilling to cooperate with God’s will? Such “what if” questions can shake up misguided expectations for God and point us in a new, reliable direction.
“A liberal society stands on the proposition that we should all take seriously the idea that we might be wrong. This means we must place no one, including ourselves, beyond the reach of criticism; it means that we must allow people to err, even where the error offends and upsets, as it often will.” So writes Jonathan Rauch in Kindly Inquisitors, which has challenged readers for more than twenty years with its bracing and provocative exploration of the issues surrounding attempts to limit free speech. In it, Rauch makes a persuasive argument for the value of “liberal science” and the idea that conflicting views produce knowledge within society.
Among philosophers some have pretended that man might know every thing, — these are madmen; others that he could know nothing, — these men were not more wise: the former have given too much to man, the latter too little; both the one and the other have rushed into excess. Where then is wisdom? She consists in not believing that you know every thing — that is the attribute of God alone; in not pretending that you know nothing — that is the property of brutes: between these two extremes there is a medium which is appropriated for man — it is knowledge mixed up with darkness and tempered with ignorance.
Science has been digging deeper and deeper, and as it has done so, particularly in the basic sciences like physics and astronomy, we have begun to understand more. We have found that the world is not deterministic: quantum mechanics has revolutionized physics by showing that things are not completely predictable. That doesn’t mean that we’ve found just where God comes in, but we know now that things are not as predictable as we thought and that there are things we don’t understand. For example, we don’t know what some 95 percent of the matter in the universe is: we can’t see it – it’s neither atom nor molecule, apparently. We think we can prove it’s there, we see its effect on gravity, but we don’t know what and where it is, other than broadly scattered around the universe. And that’s very strange. ¶ So as science encounters mysteries, it is starting to recognize its limitations and become somewhat more open. There are still scientists who differ strongly with religion and vice versa. But I think people are being more open-minded about recognizing the limitations in our frame of understanding.
Like my Swarthmore peers, I wanted to be sophisticated and enlightened — and to be regarded by others as sophisticated and enlightened. So a lot of what I believed simply as a matter of tribal loyalty was reinforced by a tendency to adopt views that conformed to the beliefs of what the late Irving Kristol dubbed “the knowledge class” — professors, elite journalists, and the like. With the exception of abortion, which I had thought about a lot, I hadn’t really thought myself into the positions I held. Rather, I had taken the short cut: I was content to believe what I thought sophisticated and enlightened people believed, or at least were supposed to believe. I simply, and rather unselfconsciously, assumed that an approach of that sort would reliably place me on the correct side of the issues. And, of course, it would give me access to a world I wanted to enter more fully — the elite world of important people who really counted and made a difference. If I got the right credentials, beginning with a Swarthmore degree, and held the right views, I could be someone who mattered. It was then, as it is now, a common motivation for students at elite colleges and universities.
A salient feature of the success of any social, religious, or moral movement is the degree to which its advocates understand, shape, and employ the flow of ideas that forms the intellectual backdrop against which those advocates carry out their work. Setting aside Marxist and other self-refuting materialist forms of social determinism, it seems clear that ideas are among the primary things that impede or facilitate revolutionary movements. ¶ Nowhere is this more evident than the pro-life cause. But just exactly what ideas constitute the core components of the milieu in which pro-life advocates live and move and have their being? I am not a sociologist nor the son of one, and I am no expert in the sociology of knowledge. However, I am a philosopher and, as such, I have a take on this question upon which I believe it is important for us to reflect.
The “blind spot” metaphor is ubiquitous to the point that we hear it with a yawn. But my accident reminded me that, while the familiarity of the metaphor may dull its impact, it is a powerful hidden factor of everyday life. Whether one is driving, theologizing, or debating social issues and public policy, blind spots are pervasive and dangerous. We are often too lazy to crank our necks for the full truth. It’s easier to keep looking ahead and assume all is well. It seems easier—until we crash.
There is a widespread assumption amongst non-philosophers, which is shared by a good many practising philosophers too, that ‘progress’ is never really made in philosophy, and above all in metaphysics. In this respect, philosophy is often compared, for the most part unfavourably, with the empirical sciences, and especially the natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry and biology. Sometimes, philosophy is defended on the grounds that to deplore the lack of ‘progress’ in it is to misconceive its central aim, which is to challenge and criticise received ideas and assumptions rather than to advance positive theses. But this defence itself is liable to be attacked by the practitioners of other disciplines as unwarranted special pleading on the part of philosophers, whose comparative lack of expertise in other disciplines, it will be said, ill-equips them to play the role of all-purpose intellectual critic. It is sometimes even urged that philosophy is now ‘dead’, the relic of a pre-scientific age whose useful functions, such as they were, have been taken over at last by genuine sciences. What were once ‘philosophical’ questions have now been transmuted, allegedly, into questions for more specialised modes of scientific inquiry, with their own distinctive methodological principles and theoretical foundations.
The pursuit of knowledge is a tricky thing. On the one hand, when we discover truth — whether concerning an issue in science, history, theology, or any other subject matter — we should maintain a conviction about it, holding on to our belief with a certain amount of firmness. After all, knowledge is valuable and precious—sometimes even life-saving. In fact, when it comes to moral insight or what Scripture calls wisdom, a biblical proverb says we should be prepared to sacrifice all we own in order to attain it (Pr. 4:7). ¶ On the other hand, the pursuit of knowledge requires a teachable spirit and a willingness to recognize one’s intellectual fallibility on all sorts of issues. We all make mistakes in the intellectual realm, so it is possible that we have erred even regarding beliefs about which we feel most confident. Where we have the strongest convictions we might in fact be entirely ignorant! ¶ So how does one deal with this tension between the need for conviction and the fact of human fallibility? How do we avoid the vicious extremes of closed-minded dogmatism and total skepticism? The answer, it seems to me, lies in open-mindedness, which is generally regarded as a key intellectual virtue.
I believe in a transcendent creator whose self-disclosure is difficult for humanity to grasp and understand properly given the cultural filters through which that revelation is received. As such, any historical report of revelation will be a distortion, and the task of historical religion is to attempt to work through the distortion by gradually evolving in the light of critical conversation about experience.
Given that we meet evils in every quarter of the world, could it be governed by an all-good and all-powerful deity? Whilst some philosophers argue that the problem of evil is strong evidence for atheism, others claim that all of the evils in our world can be explained as requirements for deeper goods. On the other hand, skeptical theists believe in God, but struggle with the task of explaining the role of evils in our world. Skeptical theism tackles the problem of evil by proposing a limited skepticism about the purposes of God, and our abilities to determine whether any given instance is truly an example of gratuitous evil. This collection of 22 original essays presents cutting-edge work on skeptical theistic responses to the problem of evil and the persistent objections that such responses invite. Divided into four sections, the volume discusses the epistemology of sceptical theism, conditions of reasonable epistemic access, the implications for theism, and the implications for morality.
I won’t say I accept the ontological argument for the existence of God — the argument that derives God’s existence from his essence — but I do like it (it is so clever) and I am prepared to stand up for it when Dawkins dismisses it with scorn rather than good reasons. In part this is a turf war. I am a professional philosopher. I admire immensely thinkers like Anselm and Descartes and am proud to be one of them, however minor and inadequate in comparison. I am standing up for my own. In part, this is political. Religion is a big thing in America, and often not a very good big thing. I don’t think you are going to counter the bad just by going over the top, like in the Battle of the Somme. I think you have to reach out over no-man’s land to the trenches on the other side and see where we can agree and hope to move forward. ¶ I should say that my Quaker childhood — as in everything I do and think — is tremendously important here. I grew up surrounded by gentle, loving (and very intelligent) Christians. I never forget that. Finally, I just don’t like bad arguments.
This, therefore, is, in conclusion, my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true. Alone of all creeds it is convincing where it is not attractive; it turns out to be right, like my father in the garden. Theosophists for instance will preach an obviously attractive idea like re-incarnation; but if we wait for its logical results, they are spiritual superciliousness and the cruelty of caste. For if a man is a beggar by his own pre-natal sins, people will tend to despise the beggar. But Christianity preaches an obviously unattractive idea, such as original sin; but when we wait for its results, they are pathos and brotherhood, and a thunder of laughter and pity; for only with original sin we can at once pity the beggar and distrust the king.
We begin to perceive, too, what a powerful lever was afforded by the dualism of Faith and Reason for emancipating the human intellect from the thralldom of Ecclesiasticism; for, leaving out of consideration the legitimacy of the instrument, we cannot deny its unrivaled potency. Never was there a more conspicuous instance of the effectiveness of the ‘Divide et impera’ method. The dogmas of the Church, with their manifold accretions of ignorance and superstition, were found to have lost at least half of their authority and thereby half of the terrorism they had long exercised over humanity. We cannot, I think, feel surprised that the Church from her standpoint of exclusiveness and infallibility should have hurled her anathemas against the authors and propagators of these opinions. Keenness of insight far less prompt than that which has always characterized Romanism might have easily discerned the issue involved in Twofold Truth. It clearly undermined her own position as the divine and sole accredited source of all truth. The verities she chose to stamp with her own brand were to have no longer the exclusive monopoly hitherto assigned them. Philosophy as a rival trader and bidder for the patronage of humanity set up a store of her own, with her own special commodities, authenticated by her own mark, and trader-like did not scruple to boast the superiority of her goods in certain respects to those retailed by the Church. Whatever other effects might attend this rivalry, at least there was opposition — rudimentary free-trade in human dogmas and opinions. A new condition of human liberty was established, which if not destined to bear much fruit for the present was full of promise for the distant future.
Eusebius tells us that it was the opening sentence of Protagoras’ treatise on the Gods, and it is attested by numerous citations. It runs as follows: “About the gods, I am not able to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors preventing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject, and the shortness of human life.” The last words have sometimes been omitted, but they are important. They indicate the ground upon which Protagoras took up his position and the nature of his agnosticism. All that mattered to him was what could be known; and the Greek word (eidenai) that is used twice in this sentence means, precisely, knowledge: not belief, not faith.
I don’t use the word “atheist” about myself, because I think it mirrors the certitude I’m so opposed to in religion. What I say in the film is that I don’t know. I don’t know what happens when you die, and all the religious people who claim they do know are being ridiculous. I know that they don’t know any more than I do. They do not have special powers that I don’t possess. When they speak about the afterlife with such certainty and so many specifics, it just makes me laugh. People can tell you, “Oh yes, when you get to Paradise there are 72 virgins, not 70, not 75.” Or they say, “Jesus will be there sitting at the right hand of the Father, wearing a white robe with red piping. There will be three angels playing trumpets.” Well, how do you know this? It’s just so preposterous. So, yes, I would like to say to the atheists and agnostics, the people who I call rationalists, let’s stop ceding the moral high ground to the people who believe in the talking snake. Let’s have our voices heard and be in the debate.