Alvin Plantinga: The Atheists’ Unicorn

Alvin Plantinga, Utrecht , 1995

Alvin Plantinga, professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, recently received the Templeton Prize in Religion, which “honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”

He thus joins the ranks of a quite disparate and distinguished group. Mother (now Saint) Teresa, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks are previous winners.

What makes Plantinga so extraordinary, however, is that he isn’t supposed to exist.

He isn’t, that is, according to the New Atheists and their ilk: biologist and blowhard Richard Dawkins, yes, but perhaps especially philosopher Daniel Dennett, who awards to himself and fellow atheists the title of “brights,” leaving religious believers, of course, in the dark.

The not-so-New Atheists carry on, in fact, a tradition at least as old as the more radically unbelieving wings of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and of the ancient Cynics long before that. That tradition is to see themselves as the paragons of rationality while religious believers are viewed as pathetically combining intellectual density and psychological neediness to the psychotic extent of believing in Things That Aren’t There: God as Easter Bunny, perhaps, or Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Alvin Plantinga gives the lie to all that. The two favourite academic disciplines of the diehard atheists are the natural sciences and philosophy, and particularly the analytic school of the latter tradition. This is what real rigour looks like. No nonsense here: prove it or get out.

As a philosopher so accomplished that he was elected president of the American Philosophical Association, Plantinga has been busy proving things for a number of decades now that weren’t supposed to be even up for discussion.

He showed that the classic form of the problem of evil—“One cannot simultaneously maintain that God is all good, God is all powerful, and yet evil exists”—is, in fact, not valid. His so-called Free Will Defense (FWD), launched in the 1960s and refined in several publications since then, has done the well-nigh-impossible: altered the discussion. So convincing is Plantinga’s FWD, in fact, that his opponents concede its power and now argue that, okay, maybe there is a logically valid way to hold to those three propositions, but let’s talk about there being so much evil in the world….

He showed, in a series of books with the Oxford University Press, that specifically Christian thinking—technically known as epistemology—is not a tangle of contradictions, prejudices, and wishful thinking, but a coherent and sensible way to look at the world. It is thus undeserving of the sneers of Dawkins, Dennett et al.

And he showed, most recently, that atheism, and particularly the Darwin-inspired brand of it so popular among the New Atheists, lacks the grounds to support its own contentions.

Very simply, if naturalistic (that is, nature-only) evolution is actually how human beings came about, then there is no good reason to believe that the theory of evolution is true. It might be true, but we have no way of knowing that for sure.

For if all our distinguishing traits, including our big brains, have been selected for maximal reproductive success, then there is no reason to believe that complex theorizing about, say, the origins of humanity would be true since the ability to form true theories of this sort cannot possibly provide anyone with sexual advantage.

(Put unkindly, the most sexually desirable and dominant people aren’t typically those with the greatest capacity for abstract thought. They should be, perhaps, but they aren’t.)

Paradoxically, Christian epistemology provides very good grounds to think that such theories at least might be true. God created humankind not only to breed successfully, but also to cultivate the world (Genesis 1 and 2), which in advanced civilizations includes thinking deeply and correctly about its origins, among many other subjects.

In short, Christianity can provide solid grounds to at least discuss evolutionary theory, while naturalistic philosophy cannot.

Plantinga thus qualifies as a kind of atheistic unicorn, a fabulous creature of fairy-tales (or nightmares): the indisputably intelligent Christian who can hold his own with any atheist.

In fact, Alvin Plantinga (who I think would enjoy this metaphor) is a unicorn with an exceedingly sharp horn with which he has gutted several of contemporary atheism’s sacred cows. And for that, the Templeton Foundation has rightly awarded him its generous prize.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).