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#593 What to Do in a Standoff

August 26, 2018

Hi! I have a question concerning an argument my professor and I are having on religious pluralism and he made this argument. “A and B belong to different religious traditions. A's religion and B's religion can't both be true, because they make conflicting statements about something, for example, whether Christ was resurrected from the dead. A has no more reason to think that what he believes is true than B has to believe what he thinks is true. Likewise, B has no more reason to think that his beliefs are true than A does. (What is more, both A and B see this.) Therefore, it is not rational for either of them to think that he, rather than the other person, has the truth. Hence, religious belief is irrational. Yes?” how should I respond???!


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Dr. craig’s response


There are a couple of ways to respond, Aaron.

First, the most obvious response is to challenge your professor’s assumption that the situation of A and B correctly describes the Christian’s standpoint vis à vis adherents of other religious traditions. Your professor just assumes that the Christian believer has “no more reason to think that what he believes is true than B has to believe what he thinks is true.” Why think that? Suppose B is a Muslim. The Christian has far better reasons for thinking Christianity to be true than the Muslim has for thinking Islam to be true.

Now without a doubt, your professor disagrees with that assessment. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have characterized A and B as he did. But you can challenge his assumption. He needs to prove that the evidence for Islam is just as good as the evidence for Christianity. Can he do that? In particular, to take your professor’s example, can he show that the Christian has no better reasons to think that Christ rose from the dead than the Muslim has for denying that he was ever crucified? (At this point you might ask your prof if he has ever taken a serious look at the evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and give him a copy of The Son Rises.)

Second, even if the Christian finds himself in a situation such as your professor describes, that doesn’t imply that the Christian’s belief is irrational. Refer your professor to William Alston’s article “Religious Diversity and Perceptual Knowledge of God,” Faith and Philosophy 5, no. 4 (1988): 433‑48. (Have a photocopy with you to give him.)  Alston agrees that this situation taken in isolation results in an epistemic standoff. For neither person knows how to convince the other that he alone has a veridical, rather than delusory, religious experience. But this standoff does not undermine the rationality of the Christian’s belief, for even if his process of forming his belief is as reliable as can be, there’s no way he can give a noncircular proof of this fact. Thus his inability to provide such a proof does not nullify the rationality of his belief. Of course, this is also true of the other person as well. Both are rational to maintain their respective beliefs even though they cannot show that the other person’s beliefs are unwarranted.

Alston advises that the Christian in such a situation should do whatever he can to search for common ground on which to adjudicate the crucial differences between their competing views, seeking to show in a noncircular way which of them is correct. If, by proceeding on the basis of considerations that are common to both parties, such as sense perception, rational self‑evidence, and common modes of reasoning, the Christian can show that his own beliefs are better warranted than his interlocutor’s, then he will have succeeded in showing that the Christian is in the better epistemic position for discerning the truth about these matters. That is exactly what I have sought to do.

Finally, it might be worth pointing out that since atheism is a religious belief, the atheist finds himself in the same situation as other religious believers.  It would follow from your professor’s argument that atheism is also irrational. Yes?

- William Lane Craig