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III. Back to the Present

Locke’s thought initiates the classical package: evidentialism, deontologism, and classical foundationalism. It is according to the first two that Christian belief requires evidence; that is, Christian believers are within their intellectual rights and conforming to intellectual duty, only if they have evidence for that belief. It is according to the third that the evidence must trace back, finally, to what is certain for them: what is self-evident or incorrigible or evident to the senses. This connection between justification and evidence has been at the center of the whole justificationist tradition in Western epistemology; it has been of particular importance for subsequent thought about the de jure question for Christian belief. According to this tradition, the de jure question is really the question whether Christian belief is rationally justified—that is, whether believers are justified in holding these beliefs, and whether they are conforming to intellectual duty in holding them. The main intellectual duty, however, is that of proportioning belief to the evidence, to what is certain. Hence the first version of the de jure question gets transformed into a second: do believers have sufficient evidence for their beliefs? We now see the connection between these two forms of the de jure question: the first is the basic question, but if we add (with Locke and the classical tradition) that the main duty here is that of proportioning belief to evidence, then we get the second question.

I say Locke’s influence—and that of the classical package—has been paramount in discussions of the de jure question. If I am right, we should expect at least two things. We should expect, first, that those who raise the de jure question would put it in terms of evidence, argument, propositional evidence, evidence from other things one thinks. And we should expect, second, that they also put it in terms of justification—justification construed deontologically or in terms of some analogical extension of deontology. Both of these expectations are amply fulfilled. Of course I don’t expect you just to take my word for it, and I don’t have the space for extensive documentation; I shall instead just give a bit of corroborating evidence.


For the last hundred years, W. K. Clifford’s essay “The Ethics of Belief” has been cited in discussions of the de jure question; Clifford (that “delicious enfant terrible,” as William James called him) claimed (with charming and restrained understatement) that “it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”8080   Lectures and Essays (London: Macmillan, 1901), p. 183. Here we have the combination of deontologism and evidentialism. This passage doesn’t display classical foundationalism as well (it doesn’t say what the evidence must consist in), but no doubt Clifford was a classical foundationalist; at least he thought that belief in God requires evidence. William James’s essay “The Will to Believe”8181   In The Will to Believe, and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, 1897). has been a sort of companion piece to Clifford’s; it has been cited for almost as long in discussions of our question, and because James comments on and criticizes Clifford, the two essays have often been anthologized in tandem. James titled his essay “The Will to Believe”; “The Right to Believe” would have been more accurate. His central claim is that under certain conditions it is not contrary to duty to believe a proposition (a proposition that isn’t certain) even if one has no evidence for it. If believing this proposition is a forced option and a live option, for you, and if there is no evidence against it, then you have a right to believe it, even though you don’t have evidence for it. In this way James tries to make room for belief in God (even if not full Christian belief) by inserting it in the gaps of the evidence. The evidentialism and deontologism, again, are evident.8282   “It’s not exactly emphasized any longer, but one of James’s original purposes in promoting pragmatism was not to get rid of empirically unverifiable beliefs, but to make room, in a scientistic world view, for faith and God. . . . This was explicitly the context for the 1898 lecture” (Louis Menand, “An American Prodigy,” New York Review of Books [December 2, 1993], p. 33). The “1898 lecture” is “The Will to Believe.”

James and Clifford wrote a hundred years ago and more; but the last half-century has seen a host of evidentialist objectors to Christian belief, thinkers who hold both that this sort of belief, if it is to be rational, must be accepted on the basis of propositional evidence, and that the evidence is insufficient. (Among them would be Brand Blanshard,8383   Reason and Belief (London: Allen and Unwin, 1974), pp. 400ff. Bertrand Russell,8484   “Why I Am Not a Christian” in his Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), pp. 3ff. Michael Scriven,8585   Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), pp. 87ff. Antony Flew,8686   The Presumption of Atheism (London: Pemberton, 1976), pp. 22ff. 90Wesley Salmon,8787   “Religion and Science: A New Look at Hume’s Dialogues,” Philosophical Studies 33 (1978), pp. 176ff. J. C. A. Gaskin,8888   The Quest for Eternity: An Outline of the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Penguin, 1984). Anthony O’Hear,8989   Experience, Explanation, and Faith: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (London, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984). to some degree Richard Gale,9090   On the Nature and Existence of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). and John Mackie in his posthumous book, The Miracle of Theism.9191   Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.) Although the deontological component in these positions is often more muted than the evidentialism, it is clearly present and sometimes wholly explicit. Thus Blanshard:

everywhere and always belief has an ethical aspect. There is such a thing as a general ethic of the intellect. The main principle of that ethic I hold to be the same inside and outside religion. That principle is simple and sweeping: equate your assent to the evidence.9292   Reason and Belief, p. 401. More evidence for the pervasive influence of the deontological component of the classical package can be found in chapter 1 of WCD. There I argue that both the prevalence of internalism in contemporary epistemology and the multifarious and confusing array of concepts of justification among contemporary epistemologists can be understood in terms of their relation to deontology.

Of course it isn’t only evidentialist objectors to theistic belief who embrace evidentialism. John Locke himself was an evidentialist, but no evidentialist objector. Locke thought that religious belief is ‘evidence essential’9393   To use Stephen Wykstra’s term; see his “Towards a Sensible Evidentialism: On the Notion of ‘Needing Evidence,’ ” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings, 2d ed., ed. William Rowe and William Wainwright (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989). in the sense that it can be rationally accepted only if believed on the basis of good evidence; he also thought the requisite good evidence was available. Several contemporary writers follow in his footsteps: they accept evidentialism, but believe the evidence is forthcoming (or at least aren’t sure that it isn’t). Among them would be, for example, Basil Mitchell9494   See his The Existence of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981). and William Abraham;9595   An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1985). Stephen Wykstra defends a “more sensible” evidentialism.9696   “Towards a Sensible Evidentialism.” Anthony Kenny displays some sympathy for evidentialism;9797   See his Faith and Reason (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), especially chapters 3 and 4. as does Richard Swinburne: “the use of symbols . . . enables me to bring out the close 91similarities which exist between religious theories and large scale hypotheses.”9898   See his The Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979). Swinburne, however, can’t be considered an evidentialist in view of his “Principle of Credulity”: “that (in the absence of special considerations) if it seems (epistemically) to a subject that x is present, then probably x is present” (p. 254). Terence Penelhum is no evidentialist, but evidential considerations play a large role in his God and Skepticism;9999   Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1983. the same can be said for Gary Gutting’s Religious Belief and Religious Skepticism.100100   Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.

Still, it is the evidentialist objectors that most clearly display evidentialism. John Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism is evidentialism at its most formidable; by way of conclusion, then, suppose we briefly note the form evidentialism takes in that book. Mackie proposes to ”examine the arguments for and against the existence of God carefully and in some detail, taking account both of the traditional concept of God and of the traditional proofs of his existence and of more recent interpretations and approaches.” He goes on:

If it is agreed that the central assertions of theism are literally meaningful, it must also be admitted that they are not directly verified or directly verifiable. It follows that any rational consideration of whether they are true or not will involve arguments. . . . it [whether God exists] must be examined either by deductive or inductive reasoning or, if that yields no decision, by arguments to the best explanation; for in such a context nothing else can have any coherent bearing on the issue. (pp. 4, 6)

Mackie assumes that the rational acceptability of theistic belief depends on the outcome of this examination: if, on balance, the evidence favors theism, then theistic belief is rationally acceptable; if the evidence favors atheism, then theism is not rationally acceptable. The evidentialism, of course, is palpable.

Now Mackie takes it that theism is a hypothesis, something like a very large-scale scientific hypothesis (the theory of evolution, perhaps, or general relativity). He assumes further that its rational acceptability depends upon its success as a hypothesis. Speaking of religious experience, he makes the following characteristic remark: “Here, as elsewhere, the supernaturalist hypothesis fails because there is an adequate and much more economical naturalistic alternative” (p. 198). Clearly, this remark is relevant only if we think of belief in God as or as like a scientific hypothesis, a theory designed to explain some body of evidence, and acceptable to the degree that it succeeds in explaining that evidence. On this way of looking at the matter, there is a relevant body of evidence shared by believer and 92unbeliever alike; theism is a hypothesis designed to explain that body of evidence; and theism is rationally defensible only to the extent that it is a good explanation thereof.

Now Mackie thinks it is not a good explanation: he concludes, “In the end, therefore, we can agree with what Laplace said about God: we have no need of that hypothesis” (p. 253); he goes on to claim, “The balance of probabilities, therefore, comes out strongly against the existence of a god.” He clearly takes it for granted, furthermore, that if the balance of probabilities comes out as he says it does, then there is no case for theism, and the theist stands revealed as somehow irrational or intellectually deficient or perhaps intellectually out of line; as he puts it, “It would appear from our discussion so far that the central doctrines of theism, literally interpreted, cannot be rationally defended.”101101   Indeed, Mackie takes the title of his book from Hume’s ironic suggestion that
   upon the whole, we may conclude that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. . . . Whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1966), p. 145.

But why make assumptions like that? Why think that theism is rationally acceptable only if there are good arguments for it? Why think that it is, or is significantly like, a scientific hypothesis? Of course these assumptions form part of the classical package: well, why should we accept that package? Clearly there are sensible alternatives. Consider our memory beliefs, for example: obviously, one could take a Mackie-like view here as well. I believe that I had a banana for breakfast; one could hold that a belief like this (and indeed even the belief that there has been such a thing as the past) is best thought of as like a scientific hypothesis, designed to explain such present phenomena as (among other things) apparent memories; if there were a more “economical” explanation of these phenomena that did not postulate, say, the existence of the past or of past facts, then our usual beliefs in the past “could not be rationally defended.” But here this seems clearly mistaken; the availability of such an “explanation” wouldn’t in any way tell against our ordinary belief that there has really been a past. Why couldn’t the same hold for theism or, more broadly, for Christian belief? What is to be said for (and against) the classical package, taken in particular with respect to Christian belief?

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