Have universities and the cutting edge of academia entirely abandoned God?
Many atheist professors, especially in the humanities and sciences, are outspoken and persuasively opposed to Christianity. According to Harvard Magazine, around 40 percent of professors are atheists or agnostics in “elite” schools.
As professors pour into millions of young adults in their most formative years, it seems that more and more students come to believe in religion as mere superstition, or, at best, only a “personal truth.”
Certainly, university faculty need to hear the good news. In addition, Christians need to step up in the intellectual world and pursue scholarship with more effectiveness and follow the “Christ-transforming culture” model in our approach to the academic world.
Philosophy may appear daunting (or even useless) to some Christians, but, as a student of the subject and an aspiring scholar, I hope to provide a better perspective by examining one of the greatest thinkers alive, Alvin Plantinga—who also happens to be a Christian.
Who is Dr. Alvin Plantinga?
Dr. Alvin Plantinga is an analytic philosopher at Notre Dame who received his Ph.D. in philosophy at Yale in 1958. Perhaps his most notable work is God and Other Minds, published in 1967, in which he argues that belief in God is just as rational as believing in the existence of other human minds.
In 2017, he won one of the most prestigious awards for influential thinkers: the Templeton Prize. A committee and a panel of judges, brilliant thinkers in their own right, select the $1.4 million award recipient from a diverse array of thinkers from various fields.
Why did Plantinga win this prize?
The Templeton website testifies: “Alvin Plantinga is an American philosopher whose rigorous scholarship over a half-century has made theism – the belief in a divine reality or god – a serious option within the academy.”
Since his philosophical arguments hold up against rigorous critique, they are therefore complex and difficult to understand. Analytic philosophy often reaches levels of logic that require complex algebra to express arguments.
However, one of his popular arguments can be explained a bit more simply: the evolutionary argument against naturalism.
As you consider this argument, please do not take my explanation as the equivalent to his argument. If you wish to critique it or delve deeper, you can hear him explain his evolutionary argument against naturalism in an interview.
The evolutionary argument against naturalism
Plantinga’s argument shows that it’s irrational to believe in evolution and naturalism at the same time. Let’s first define two terms.
Naturalism holds that nothing immaterial like the soul or God exists; only the “natural” exists. Nearly all atheists are also naturalists.
Evolution is fairly self-explanatory. According to the theory of evolution, at a basic level, natural selection chooses the fittest candidates to pass on genetic material through offspring because that candidate reproduces more. This leads to the “survival of the fittest.”
(As a note, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in evolution or not for this argument to work. What is important is that every naturalist is an evolutionist.)
The argument states that because evolution does not prioritize truer belief, as evolved humans we must therefore doubt all of our own beliefs, including naturalism and evolution.
An example featuring two cavemen brothers
Let’s explain it with cavemen Fred and George, two evolving Homo sapiens.
Let’s imagine Fred really likes Sabre-tooth tigers. From an early age, Fred has made it his sole mission to cuddle with them. Well, in terms of natural selection, let’s just say Fred won’t last very long. Unfortunately, he won’t get to marry his sweetheart Ulga and have kids.
So Fred’s behavior of cuddling with predatory felines means he gets eaten quickly, and natural selection tosses him out. So, the “cuddle with Sabre-tooth tigers” gene doesn’t get passed on.
Now, let’s say his brother George also loves to cuddle with tigers. But, George believes that running away or fighting the tigers will, for some reason, make the tigers want to cuddle with him even more. This belief is absurd and is proven wrong every single time he encounters a tiger and lives to see another day.
George is stubborn though, and he clings to his ridiculous notion that “running from tigers will mean more tiger cuddles later.”
Notice that George’s behavior gives him an advantage. The action of running away or fighting the tigers helps him to survive even though he has a false belief about his actions. So the “fighting or running away from tigers” behavior gene gets passed down and perhaps so does his false belief.
That means that evolution doesn’t care about your beliefs; it only selects for behavior that gives you a higher chance of survival.
Therefore, human behavior will get better and better at surviving, but our ability to discover truth (to hold beliefs with accurate content) stays the same and doesn’t evolve to get better.
What does this conclusion mean?
Now, if humans simply evolved from natural selection, that means we can’t trust our brains to have very true beliefs. If natural selection doesn’t care about true or false beliefs, then who knows? Every belief we have would be around fifty/fifty, and we can’t trust our own reason.
That means that if you believe in evolution and naturalism, then you have a reason to be extremely skeptical about everything, even your own belief in naturalism!
When we don’t trust our own rationality, that’s broadly called skepticism, and if Plantinga is correct, this would entail a deep, “hard” skepticism.
However, believing in evolution and God, or just believing in God without evolution, is entirely rational. For instance, Alvin Plantinga thinks God orchestrates evolution, which allows humans to evolve with minds aimed at gathering truth.
Even if you personally as a Christian don’t believe in evolution, the argument still shows naturalism is irrational.
Why don’t I say that this argument “disproves” naturalism? Because technically it doesn’t. This is one of Plantinga’s sticking points. The argument only shows that it’s irrational to believe in naturalism, which helps show that believing in God is that much more reasonable.
In the world of philosophy, this argument rejoins a rich history of two millennia of thinking that shows that belief in God is reasonable.
Charles Darwin and C. S. Lewis
Even Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, wrote in On the Origin of Species, “I must premise, that I have nothing to do with the origin of the primary mental powers, any more than I have with that of life itself.” In a letter to a friend, he wrote “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.”
C. S. Lewis succinctly makes the point similar to Plantinga’s argument: “Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”
Alvin Plantinga, in his acceptance speech of the Templeton Prize, said “I hope the news of the prize will encourage young philosophers, especially those who bring Christian and theistic perspectives to bear on their work, toward greater creativity, integrity, and boldness.”
Pursue rigorous scholarship
As a young philosopher, it certainly encouraged me.
If philosophy interests you, then consider looking into theologian and philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig. A good place to start is the accessible On Guard: Defending Your Faith With Reason and Precision. If you’re interested in more arguments against naturalism, I recommend The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason that I just wrote a book review of.
And, most importantly, read the great classics and grapple with them—don’t be afraid of differing viewpoints. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schaeffer are some of my personal favorites.
As we pursue our own studies and fields of work, whether carpentry or philosophy, we ought to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23).
The world of philosophy, science and the humanities do not need to be enemies of Christianity—if only believers will continue to pursue rigorous scholarship, representing Christ’s light to a pivotal place in our culture: universities.