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Warranted Christian Belief
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B. The Charge of Moral Arbitrariness

This approach, therefore, appears to be a nonstarter. Is there something else in the nearby bushes that could produce a defeater? Perhaps the most important suggestion in the neighborhood is that there is something arbitrary about accepting Christian belief. This arbitrariness is thought to have both a moral and an intellectual component: it is thought to be both unjustified (contrary to doxastic duty) and irrational. The moral charge is that there is a sort of egoism, perhaps pride or hubris, in accepting beliefs when one realizes both that others do not accept them and that in all likelihood one possesses no arguments that would convince those dissenters. The epistemic charge also focuses on arbitrariness: here the claim is that the exclusivist is treating similar things differently, thus falling into intellectual arbitrariness. And the idea would be that in either case, when the believer comes to see these things, then she has a defeater for her belief, a reason for giving it up or, at the least, holding it with less firmness. I shall focus on the moral charge, dealing with the charge of epistemic arbitrariness ambulando.

1. The Abstract Case

The moral charge is that there is a sort of self-serving arbitrariness, an arrogance or egoism, in accepting such propositions as (1) or (2); one who accepts them is guilty of some serious moral fault or flaw. According to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “except at the cost of insensitivity or delinquency, it is morally not possible actually to go out into the world and say to devout, intelligent, fellow human beings: ‘. . . we believe that we know God and we are right; you believe that you know God, and you are totally wrong’.”560560   Religious Diversity (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), p. 14. A similar statement from John Hick:
   Nor can we reasonably claim that our own form of religious experience, together with that of the tradition of which we are a part, is veridical whilst others are not. We can of course claim this; and indeed virtually every religious tradition has done so, regarding alternative forms of religion either as false or as confused and inferior versions of itself. . . . Persons living within other traditions, then, are equally justified in trusting their own distinctive religious experience and in forming their beliefs on the basis of it. . . . let us avoid the implausibly arbitrary dogma that religious experience is all delusory with the single exception of the particular form enjoyed by the one who is speaking (An Interpretation of Religion, p. 235).

   On the topic of epistemic arrogance, see also Paul De Vries, “The ‘Hermeneutics’ of Alvin Plantinga,” Christian Scholar’s Review (June 1989), pp. 363ff.; Lee Hardy, “The Interpretations of Alvin Plantinga,” Christian Scholar’s Review (December 1991), pp. 163ff.; my reply “Ad De Vries,” Christian Scholar’s Review (December 1991), pp. 171ff.; and De Vries’s reply to Hardy and myself, “Intellectual Humility and Courage: An Essential Epistemic Tension,” Christian Scholar’s Review (December 1991), pp. 179ff.
So what can the believer say for herself? Well, it must be conceded immediately that if she believes (1) or (2), then she must also think that those who believe something incompatible with them are mistaken and believe what is false; that’s just logic. Furthermore, she must also believe that those who do not believe as she does—those who believe neither (1) nor (2), whether or not they believe their negations—fail to believe something that is true, deep, and important. Of course she does believe this truth; hence she must see herself as privileged with respect to those others—those others of both kinds. There is something of great value, she must think, that she has and they lack. They are ignorant of something—something of great importance—of which she has knowledge. But does this make her properly subject to the above censure?

I think the answer must be no. Or if the answer is yes, then I think we have here a genuine moral dilemma, a situation in which no matter what you do, you are wrong. Given the pluralistic facts of the matter, there is no real alternative; there is no reflective attitude that is not open to the same strictures. These charges of arrogance are a philosophical tar baby: get close enough to them to use them against the Christian believer, and you are likely to find them stuck fast to yourself. How so? As follows: as an exclusivist, while I realize that I can’t convince others that they should believe as I do, I nonetheless continue to believe as I do. And the charge is that I am, as a result, arrogant or egoistical, arbitrarily preferring my way of doing things to other ways.561561   “The only reason for treating one’s tradition differently from others is the very human but not very cogent reason that it is one’s own!” (John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, p. 235). But what are my alternatives with respect to a proposition like (1) or (2)? There are three choices.562562   To speak of choice here suggests that I can simply choose which of these three attitudes to adopt, which is wholly unrealistic. Perhaps we have very little control over our beliefs; then the moral critic of belief can’t properly accuse the believer of dereliction of moral duty, but he could still argue that her stance is unhappy, regrettable, a miserable state of affairs. Even if I can’t help it that I am overbearing and conceited, my being that way is a bad state of affairs. I can continue to hold it; I can withhold it, in Roderick Chisholm’s sense, believing neither it nor its denial; or I can accept its denial. Consider the third way, a way taken by those pluralists who, like John Hick, hold that such propositions as (1) and (2) and their colleagues from other faiths are literally false, although in some way still valid responses to the Real. This seems to me to be no advance at all with respect to the arrogance or egoism problem; this is not a way out. If I do this I will then be in the very same condition as I am now: I will believe many propositions others don’t believe, realizing that I have no argument that will necessarily convince those others. For I will then believe the denials of (1) and (2) (as well as the denials of many other propositions explicitly accepted by those of other faiths). Many others, of course, do not believe the denials of (1) and (2), and in fact believe (1) and (2). I am therefore in the condition of believing propositions that many others do not believe; I also realize I have no demonstrations of what I believe. If, in the case of those who believe (1) and (2), that is sufficient for intellectual arrogance or egoism, the same goes for those who believe their denials. This third alternative, therefore, is no help at all with respect to the arrogance-egoism-arbitrariness problem.

So consider the second option: I can instead withhold the proposition in question. I can say to myself: “The right course here, given that I can’t or couldn’t convince these others of what I believe, is to believe neither these propositions nor their denials.” The pluralist objector can say that the right course is to abstain from believing the offending proposition, and also abstain from believing its denial; call him, therefore, ‘the abstemious pluralist’. Does he thus really avoid the condition that, on the part of the exclusivist, leads to the charges of egoism and arrogance? Not really. Think, for a moment, about disagreement. Disagreement, fundamentally, is a matter of adopting conflicting attitudes with respect to a given proposition. In the simplest and most familiar case, I disagree with you if there is some proposition p such that I believe p and you believe -p. That’s just the simplest case, however; there are also others. The one that is presently of interest is this: you believe p and I withhold it, fail to believe it. Call the first kind of disagreement ‘contradicting’; call the second ‘dissenting’.

My claim is that if contradicting others is arrogant and egoistical, so is dissenting. For suppose you believe some proposition p that I don’t believe: perhaps you believe that it is wrong to discriminate against people simply on the grounds of race, while I, recognizing that there are many people who disagree with you, do not believe this proposition. I don’t disbelieve it either, of course; but in the circumstances I think the right thing to do is to abstain from belief. Then am I not implicitly condemning your attitude, your believing the proposition, as somehow improper—naive, perhaps, or unjustified, or unfounded, or in some other way less than optimal? I am implicitly saying that my attitude is the superior one; I think my course of action here is the right one and yours somehow wrong, inadequate, improper, in the circumstances at best second-rate. I realize that there is no question, here, of showing you that your attitude is wrong or improper or naive; so am I not guilty of intellectual arrogance? Of a sort of egoism, thinking I know better than you, arrogating to myself a privileged status with respect to you? The problem for the believer was that she was obliged to think she possessed a truth missed by many others; the problem for the abstemious pluralist is that he is obliged to think that he possesses a virtue others don’t, or acts rightly where others don’t. If one is arrogant by way of believing a proposition others don’t, isn’t one equally arrogant by way of withholding a proposition others don’t?

Perhaps you will respond by saying that the abstemious pluralist gets into trouble, falls into arrogance, by way of implicitly saying or believing that his way of proceeding is better or wiser than other ways pursued by other people; and perhaps he can escape by abstaining from that view as well. Can’t he escape the problem by refraining from believing that racial bigotry is wrong, and also refraining from holding the view that it is better, under the conditions that obtain, to withhold that proposition than to assert and believe it? Well, yes, he can; then he has no reason for his abstention; he doesn’t believe that abstention is better or more appropriate; he simply does abstain. Does this get him off the egoistical hook? Perhaps. Of course he can’t, in consistency, also hold that there is something wrong with not abstaining, with coming right out and believing that bigotry is wrong; he loses his objection to the exclusivist. Accordingly, this way out is not available for the abstemious pluralist who accuses the exclusivist of arrogance and egoism.

Indeed, I think we can see that the abstemious pluralist who brings charges of intellectual arrogance against the believer is in a familiar but perilous dialectical situation; he shoots himself in the foot, is hoist with his own petard, holds a position that in a certain way is self-referentially inconsistent in the circumstances. For he believes

(3) If S knows that others don’t believe p (and, let’s add, knows that he can’t find arguments that will persuade them of p), then S should not believe p;

this or something like it is the ground of the charges he brings against the believer. The abstemious pluralist realizes, no doubt, that many do not accept (3); and I suppose he also realizes that it is unlikely that he can find arguments for (3) that will convince them. Given his acceptance of (3), therefore, the right course for him is to abstain from believing (3), to withhold or disbelieve it. Under the conditions that do in fact obtain—namely, his knowledge that others don’t accept it—he can’t properly accept it. So if (3) is true, nobody can believe it without being arrogant. (3) is either true or false; if the first, I fall into arrogance if I believe it; if the second, I fall into falsehood if I believe it; so I shouldn’t believe it.

I am therefore inclined to think that one can’t, in the circumstances, properly hold (3) or any other proposition that will do the job the objector wants done. One can’t find here some principle on the basis of which to hold that the believer is doing the wrong thing, suffers from some moral fault—that is, one can’t find such a principle that doesn’t, as we might put it, fall victim to itself.

The abstemious pluralist is therefore self-referentially inconsistent; but even apart from this dialectical argument (which in any event some will think unduly cute), aren’t the charges against the exclusivist unconvincing and implausible? I must concede that there are a variety of ways in which I can be and have been intellectually arrogant and egoistic; I have certainly fallen into this vice in the past, will no doubt fall into it in the future, and am not free of it now. Still, am I really arrogant and egoistic just by virtue of believing something I know others don’t believe, where I can’t show them that I am right? Suppose I think the matter over, consider the objections as carefully as I can, realize that I am finite and furthermore a sinner, certainly no better than those with whom I disagree, and indeed inferior both morally and intellectually to many who do not believe what I do. But suppose it still seems clear to me that the proposition in question is true: am I really immoral in continuing to believe it? I am dead sure that it is wrong to try to advance my career by telling lies about my colleagues. I realize there are those who disagree (even if they would never so much as consider lying about their colleagues, they think nothing is really right or wrong); some of these are people whom I deeply respect. I also realize that in all likelihood there is no way I can show them that they are wrong. Nonetheless, I think they are wrong. If I think this after careful reflection—if I consider the claims of those who disagree as sympathetically as I can, if I try my level best to ascertain the truth here—and it still seems to me sleazy, despicable, wrong to lie about my colleagues to advance my career, could I really be doing something immoral in continuing to believe as before? I can’t see how. If, after careful reflection and thought, you find yourself convinced that the right propositional attitude to take to (1) and (2), in the face of the facts of religious pluralism, is abstention from belief, how could you properly be taxed with egoism for so abstaining? Even if you knew others did not agree with you? And won’t the same hold for believing them? So I can’t see how the moral charge against exclusivism can be sustained, and if it can’t, this charge does not provide a defeater for Christian belief.

2. A Concrete Case: Gutting

So far we have been considering this charge of moral arbitrariness in abstraction from any actual presentation of a pluralistic case for the arbitrariness or egoism of accepting Christian belief. To remedy that defect, I propose to consider the argument Gary Gutting563563   Religious Belief and Religious Skepticism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982); page references to Gutting’s work are to this book. gives for this conclusion. As we saw above, the classical foundationalist holds that there is a duty or obligation to accept only what one sees to be at least probable with respect to foundational certainties. Gutting accepts the deontology of the classical picture, but proposes a different duty. Because of “the modern phenomenon of religious disagreement,” he says, Christian and theistic belief requires justification (p. 11). Gutting means to investigate the question whether someone can justifiably, dutifully accept Christian belief, given that there is disagreement about it (and presumably given that she is aware of the disagreement). The question is not (as with the classical picture) whether being justified in accepting Christian belief requires evidence just as such; the question is whether being justified requires evidence or argument once you know that others disagree with you.

His conclusion, in brief, goes as follows. (1) We must begin by distinguishing “decisive assent” from “interim assent.” When I give decisive assent for p:

I view the present case for p as allowing me to end the search for reasons for or against believing p. Interim assent, on the other hand, accepts p but without terminating inquiry into the truth of p. Its effect is to put me on the side of p in disputes about its truth. However, my endorsement of p is combined with a commitment to the epistemic need for continuing discussions of p’s truth. (105)

That is, I believe that “further discussion is needed for the project of determining the truth of p.” (2) A person has a right to give decisive assent to a proposition that she knows others don’t assent to only if she has a good argument for that proposition. (3) She has a right to give interim assent to a proposition which others reject, even if she doesn’t have good arguments for it. (4) Since there is a good argument (one from religious experience) for the existence of God, taken vaguely as “a good and powerful being, concerned about us, who has revealed himself to human beings” (p. 171), we have a right to give this proposition decisive assent. Finally, (5) there is no argument of this sort for specific Christian doctrines (for the belief, e.g., that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself) or for more specific beliefs about God, such as that he is all-powerful, or wholly good, or all-knowing, or the creator of the heavens and the earth.

Clearly there is much to discuss here, and much to question. I shall restrict myself to the following. (1) What does Gutting mean by ‘justification’? And (2) why am I not justified in giving decisive assent to a proposition for which I don’t have a good argument and about which I know people disagree? As to the first, he clearly thinks of justification in deontological terms, in terms of right and wrong, duty and obligation, being within one’s epistemic rights. Someone who accepts traditional Christian belief in the face of disagreement and without having an argument for her beliefs, he charges, is not satisfying her intellectual obligations. What duty, specifically, is it that she violates? The duty to avoid epistemological egoism. That’s the duty that is violated by the Christian who is aware of disagreement but has no good arguments:

First believing p [when I don’t have an argument and know that others disagree] is arbitrary in the sense that there is no reason to think that my intuition (i.e., what seems obviously true to me) is more likely to be correct than that of those who disagree with me. Believing p because its truth is supported by my intuition is thus an epistemological egoism just as arbitrary and unjustifiable as ethical egoism is generally regarded to be. (p. 86, Gutting’s emphasis)

[A] neutral epistemic observer has no intuitions pro or con about p and has not thought about p to an extent sufficient to make his not having any intuitions significant. From the point of view of such an observer, the facts are simply these (taking for simplicity the case of disagreement between two peers): (1) person A has an intuition that p is true; (2) person B has an intuition that p is false; (3) there is no reason to think that either A or B is more likely to be correct in his intuition. Surely the only proper attitude for such an observer is to withhold judgment on p. But even if I am A or B, should I not judge the situation in the same way as the neutral observer? Surely it is wrong to prefer my intuition simply because it is mine. (p. 87)

So there is a moral problem with the believer who knows others disagree with her but does not have an argument for her own views: she is being epistemically arrogant, egoistic, and self-centered in thus arbitrarily preferring the way she thinks things are to the way others think they are. (And perhaps, once she sees this, she will have a defeater for those beliefs.)

Here we must ask some questions. First, is it really true that if I am such a person, then I “prefer my intuition simply because it is mine”? Not really. I think it is wrong to discriminate against someone just because he’s of a different race (even though I know others disagree). I am not aware of any arguments for my belief here, or at any rate any arguments that would convince those dissenters; the view just seems right to me. Still, it isn’t the case that I accept this belief on the grounds that it is my belief or my intuition: that makes no sense. I don’t accept it as the conclusion of an argument, the premise of which is that this is my intuition; I am not reasoning as follows: p seems to me to be right, therefore p. I don’t accept it on the basis of other propositions at all. It is true that I accept it because, when I think about it, it seems right; the ‘because’, however, doesn’t mean that the latter is my reason, or argument or evidence for the former.

If Gutting’s position is to have real bite, he must tell us more about those arguments the possession of which protects me from epistemological egoism when I believe something others do not believe. What kind of an argument is required? Well, such an argument, he says, must be a good argument. Fair enough; bad arguments won’t do the job; but what is goodness, for an argument? In the chapter on Rorty to which I referred above (p. 431), Gutting apparently agrees with Rorty that a good argument (good ‘for me’) consists in reasons that are accepted by my epistemic community. If that is how the wind blows, however, there will be little problem for the Christian; after all, the Christian epistemic community may be quite prepared to accept reasons for Christian belief (e.g., that Scripture affirms it) that those outside that community will not accept. So taken, Gutting’s requirement is easy to meet—trivially easy to meet.

So let’s suppose he has something more stringent in mind. A good argument, presumably, will be valid, and must also have some nonformal virtues: it must not be circular or beg the question against those with whom I disagree. But then what about its premises? If my argument is valid, won’t the same disagreement break out with respect to the premises? If they are also propositions that wouldn’t be accepted by those who disagree with me, then presumably I won’t have a right to accept them either, unless I have a further argument for them. Of course the premises of that further argument will have to meet the same conditions: if others don’t accept them, then I can’t give them decisive assent unless I have a further good argument for them. The result seems to be that my duty precludes my being party to any ultimate disagreements, at least any ultimate disagreements of which I am aware, and at least as far as decisive assent goes. Can that be right? Perhaps there is no way you can find much moral common ground with a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps you can’t find any premises you both accept that will serve in a good argument for your views and against his. Would it really follow that you don’t have a right to give decisive assent to the proposition that racial bigotry is wrong? Hardly.

Well, perhaps it is Gutting’s idea that if I don’t have an argument for p and know that others don’t believe it, then I am being egoistical, even if I don’t reason in the above fashion—that is, don’t believe or accept the intuition just because it is mine. But is this really true? Certainly not just as it stands. We can see this by going back to an earlier example. The police haul me in, accusing me of a serious crime: stealing your Frisian flag again. At the police station, I learn that the mayor claims to have seen me lurking around your back door at the time (yesterday midafternoon) the crime occurred; I am known to resent you (in part because I am peeved about your article in The National Enquirer according to which I am really an alien from outer space). I had means, motive, and opportunity; furthermore there have been other such sordid episodes in my past. However, I recall very clearly spending the entire afternoon on a solitary hike near Mount Baker. My belief that I was hiking there then isn’t based on argument. (I don’t note, e.g., that I feel a little tired, that my hiking boots are muddy, and that there is a topographical map of Mount Baker in my parka pocket, and then conclude that the best explanation of these phenomena is that I was hiking there.) Furthermore, I can’t think of any argument or any other way to convince the police that I was at Mount Baker (sixty miles from the crime scene) when the theft took place. Nevertheless, I believe that’s where I was. So I hold a belief for which I can’t give an argument and which I know is disputed by others. Am I therefore guilty of epistemological egoism? Surely not.

Why not? Because I remember where I was, and that puts me within my rights in believing that I was off hiking, even if others disagree with me. Well, not quite; strictly speaking, it is, I suppose, my believing that I remember, rather than my actually remembering, that puts me in the right, morally speaking. I am justified, am not going contrary to duty or obligation here, because I believe, and nonculpably believe, that I have a source of knowledge or information about my movements that the police don’t have: my memory. If I thought that I knew no more than they knew, and still held firmly to the belief that I was innocent, then, perhaps, I would be epistemically egoistical. But I think I know something they don’t, and know it by way of a means to knowledge they don’t have. (They know about where they were by memory, not about where I was.) It is because of this that I am not flouting any duties or obligations; this is what confers justification on me. It is because of this that I can’t properly be accused of arbitrariness or egoism in preferring my view to theirs.

Because this is the crucial point here, let’s look into it a bit further. Both rationality and epistemic duty, says the critic, requires that one treat similar cases similarly. The Christian believer, however (she says), violates this duty by arbitrarily believing (1) and (2) (above, p. 438) in the face of the plurality of conflicting religious beliefs the world presents. Well, let’s suppose that rationality and epistemic duty do, indeed, require treating similar cases similarly. Clearly you do not violate this requirement if the beliefs in question are not on a par. And the Christian believer thinks they are not on a par: she thinks (1) and (2) true and those incompatible with either of them false. So they aren’t relevantly similar, as she sees it, and she isn’t treating similar cases differently. To make his case, therefore, the critic would have to argue that Christian belief is, in fact, false; but presumably he doesn’t intend his charge of arbitrariness to depend on the assumption that Christian belief is false.

The rejoinder, of course, will be that it is not alethic parity (their having the same truth value) that is at issue: it is epistemic parity that counts. What kind of epistemic parity? Well, perhaps the critic is thinking initially of internal epistemic parity: parity with respect to what is internally available to the believer. What is internally available includes, for example, detectable relationships between the belief in question and other beliefs you hold; so internal parity would include parity of propositional evidence. What is internally available to the believer also includes the phenomenology that goes with the belief in question: the sensuous phenomenology, and also the nonsensuous phenomenology involved, in doxastic evidence, in the belief’s just having the feel of being right. Once more, then, (1) and (2) are not on an internal par, for the Christian believer, with beliefs that are incompatible with them. After all, (1) and (2) do seem to her to be true; they do have for her the phenomenology that accompanies that seeming, and they do have doxastic evidence for her; the same cannot be said for propositions incompatible with them.

The next rejoinder: isn’t it likely that those who reject (1) and (2) in favor of other beliefs have propositional evidence for their beliefs that is on a par with that of the Christian for her beliefs; and isn’t it also probably true that the same or similar phenomenology accompanies their beliefs as accompanies hers? So that those beliefs really are epistemically and internally on a par with (1) and (2), and the believer is still treating like cases differently? I don’t think so: I think there really are arguments available for (1), at least, that are not available for its competitors. As for similar phenomenology, this is not easy to say; it is not easy to look within the breast of another; it is hard indeed to discover this sort of thing, even with respect to someone you know really well. Still, I am prepared to stipulate both sorts of parity. Let’s agree for the purpose of argument that these beliefs are on an epistemic par in the sense that those of a different religious tradition have the same sort of internally available markers—evidence, phenomenology, and the like—for their beliefs as the Christian has for (1) and (2). What follows?

Return to the case of moral belief. King David saw the beautiful Bathsheba, was smitten, sent for her, slept with her, and made her pregnant. After the failure of various stratagems to get her husband, Uriah, to think he was the father of the baby, David arranged for Uriah to be killed by telling his commander to “put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest; then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die” (2 Samuel 11:15). Then the prophet Nathan came to David and told him a story about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had many flocks and herds; the poor man had only a single ewe lamb, which grew up with his children, “ate at his table, drank from his cup, lay in his bosom, and was like a daughter to him.” The rich man had unexpected guests. Instead of slaughtering one of his own sheep, he took the poor man’s single ewe lamb, slaughtered it, and served it to his guests. David exploded in anger: “The man who did this deserves to die!” Then, in one of the most riveting passages in all the Bible, Nathan turns to David, stretches out his arm, points to him, and declares, “You are that man!” And then David sees what he has done.

My interest here is in David’s reaction to the story. I agree with David: such injustice is utterly and despicably wrong; there are scarcely words for it. I believe that such an action is wrong, and I believe that the proposition that it isn’t wrong—either because really nothing is wrong, or because even if some things are wrong, this isn’t—is false. As a matter of fact, there isn’t a lot I believe more strongly. I recognize, however, that plenty of people disagree with me; many believe that some actions are better, in one way or another, than others, but that none is really right or wrong in the full-blooded sense in which I think this action is. Once more, I doubt that I could find an argument to show them that I am correct and they incorrect. Further, for all I know, their conflicting beliefs have for them the same internally available epistemic markers, the same phenomenology, mutatis mutandis, as mine have for me; perhaps they have the same degree of doxastic evidence. Am I then being arbitrary, treating similar cases differently in continuing to hold, as I do, that in fact that kind of behavior is dreadfully wrong? I don’t think so. Am I wrong in thinking racial bigotry despicable, even though I know that others disagree, and even if I think they have the same internal markers for their beliefs as I have for mine? Again, I don’t think so. I believe in serious actualism, the view that no objects have properties in worlds in which they do not exist, not even nonexistence. Others do not believe this; I am unable to convince them; and perhaps the internal markers of their dissenting views have for them the same qualities as mine have for me. Am I being arbitrary in continuing to think as I do? I can’t see how.

And the reason here is this: in each of these cases, the believer in question doesn’t really think the beliefs in question are on a relevant epistemic par. She may agree that she and those who dissent are equally convinced of the truth of their belief, and even that they are internally on a par, that the internally available markers are similar, or relevantly similar. Still, she must think that there is an important epistemic difference: she thinks that somehow the other person has made a mistake, or has a blind spot, or hasn’t been wholly attentive, or hasn’t received some grace she has, or is blinded by ambition or pride or mother love or something else; she must think that she has access to a source of warranted belief the other lacks.564564   And of course the pluralist critic must think the same sort of thing. He thinks the thing to do when there is internal epistemic parity is to withhold judgment; he knows that there are others who don’t think so (and won’t be convinced by any argument he can muster), and, for all he knows, that belief has internal parity with his. If he continues in that belief, therefore, he will be in the same condition as the person he criticizes; but if he doesn’t continue in this belief, he no longer has an objection. If the believer concedes that she doesn’t have any special source of knowledge or true belief with respect to Christian belief—no sensus divinitatis, no internal instigation of the Holy Spirit, no teaching by a church inspired and protected from error by the Holy Spirit, nothing not available to those who disagree with her—then, perhaps, she can properly be charged with an arbitrary egoism, and then, perhaps, she will have a defeater for her Christian belief. But why should she concede these things? She will ordinarily think (or at least should ordinarily think) that there are indeed sources of warranted belief that issue in these beliefs. (And here we have a way in which the epistemologist can be of use to the believer.)

She believes, for example, that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself; she may believe this on the basis of what the Bible or church teaches. She knows that others don’t believe this and furthermore don’t accept the Bible’s (or church’s) authority on this or any other point. She has an explanation: there is the testimony of the Holy Spirit (or of the divinely founded and guided church); the testimony of the Holy Spirit enables us to accept what the Scriptures teach. It is the Holy Spirit who “seals it upon our hearts, so that we may certainly know that God speaks”; it is the work of the Spirit “to convince our hearts that what our ears receive has come from him.”565565   Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, tr. and ed. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), commentary on 1 John 2:27, p. 200. She therefore thinks she is in a better epistemic position with respect to this proposition than those who do not share her convictions; for she believes she has the witness of the divinely guided church, or the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, or perhaps still another source for this knowledge. She may be mistaken, in so thinking, deluded, in serious and debilitating error, but she needn’t be culpable in holding this belief. In this case, as in the Frisian flag episode, the believer nonculpably believes that she has a source of knowledge or true belief denied those who disagree with her. This protects her from epistemic egoism, as well as from the defeater that might accompany awareness of it.566566   Even if she isn’t egoistic in accepting Christian belief, won’t she nevertheless have a defeater, here, if, in fact, Christian belief is on an epistemic par with its denial? Not if she doesn’t believe that it is. She could perhaps be given such a defeater, if Gutting or someone could produce a powerful argument for the claim that there is epistemic parity here. As we saw in chapter 8, however, it is likely that Christian belief is such that if it is true, then it is warranted for those who accept it. This means that an argument for the conclusion that Christian belief is on an epistemic par with unbelief would require a previous argument that Christian belief is false. But if the critic already has an argument for the falsehood of Christian belief, why is he bothering with this charge of arbitrariness?

As a result, of course, the serious believer will not take it that we are all, believers and unbelievers alike, epistemic peers on the topic of Christian belief. She will probably feel considerable sympathy for Cardinal Newman:

in the schools of the world, the ways towards Truth are considered high roads open to all men, however disposed, at all times. Truth is to be approached without homage. Everyone is considered on a level with his neighbor, or rather, the powers of the intellect, acuteness, sagacity, subtlety and depth, are thought the guides into Truth. Men consider that they have as full a right to discuss religious subjects, as if they were themselves religious. They will enter upon the most sacred points of Faith at the moment, at their pleasure—if it so happen, in a careless frame of mind, in their hours of recreation, over the wine cup.567567   Sermons, Chiefly on the Theory of Religious Belief, Preached before the University of Oxford (London, Rivington, 1844), pp. 190–91.

Newman’s idea is that there is something in addition to “the powers of the intellect, acuteness, sagacity, subtlety and depth” that is needed for a proper discussion of religious subjects, or at least for a proper grasp of the truth with respect to them. Here he is echoing Jesus: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21). If these things are hidden from the wise and learned, it won’t be relevant to complain that the wise and learned don’t accept them (adding that it is epistemically egoistic to accept what the wise and learned do not unless you have a good argument). The Christian believer will therefore think there is an important source of knowledge, here, in addition to the powers of intellect mentioned. So on this point he believes, presumably nonculpably, that those who disagree with him are really not his epistemic peers on this topic, even though he might be vastly inferior to them, epistemically speaking, on other topics.

The central question here, therefore, is whether the Christian’s beliefs are or are not on an epistemic par with the beliefs of those who disagree with her. This is the crucial issue. If something like the extended Aquinas/Calvin (A/C) model presented in chapter 8 is in fact correct, then there is a significant difference between the epistemic situation of those who accept Christian belief and those who do not; the objector is therefore assuming, unjustifiably and without argument, that neither that model nor any other according to which there is a source of warranted Christian belief is in fact correct and that there is no such source for Christian belief. That assumption has nothing to be said for it; the arbitrariness charge therefore disintegrates.

Now Gary Gutting, to be sure, claims (p. 84) that the believer does not have a right, in this context, to the view that he is better off, epistemically speaking, than the unbeliever. He gives two reasons.568568   As Marie Pannier pointed out in discussion, perhaps Gutting should really have given a third, which would be to reapply his principle that one can justifiably give only interim assent to any proposition she knows is not accepted by others; for presumably the believer knows that others, such as the objector, won’t agree that the believer is better off, epistemically speaking, than the unbeliever. First, the believer’s view that he is the beneficiary of the sensus divinitatis or the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit, or the teaching of a church inspired and protected from error by the Holy Spirit or “derives from theological doctrines that presuppose theism and so cannot be legitimately called upon in a defense of the believer’s epistemic right to accept theism”; and second, “there are at least some believers who themselves do not see ‘God exists’ as obviously properly basic; it is very hard to see how the believer can nonarbitrarily apply Calvin’s views to deny that they are his epistemic peers.”

These arguments seem mistaken. Gutting’s second reason for thinking the Christian doesn’t have a right to think there are such sources of warranted belief seems irrelevant: the fact that some believers do not think belief in God is properly basic does not so much as slyly suggest that there are no such sources. What about the first reason, the claim that the believer is involved in some objectionable form of circularity if she thinks that she is the beneficiary of one of those sources of belief? But how can she be involved in circularity? She isn’t putting forward an argument for anything; nor is she proposing a definition: so how does circularity so much as rear its ugly head? If she were giving an argument for theism and then proposed as a premise that she enjoyed the benefits of one of those special sources of belief, then her argument might be circular. But she isn’t arguing for that; nor need she be arguing for anything else. Am I engaged in objectionable circularity if I appeal to physics to help explain how it is that I can perceive trees and grass—even if my knowledge of physics rests in part on observation? Not if I am not arguing for the conclusion that perception is a source of warranted belief.

But don’t the realities of religious pluralism count for anything? Is there nothing at all to the claims of the pluralists?569569   See W. P. Alston, “Religious Diversity and Perceptual Knowledge of God,” Faith and Philosophy 5, no. 4 (October 1988), pp. 433ff. Could that really be right? Of course not. For at least some Christian believers, an awareness of the enormous variety of human religious responses does seem to reduce the level of confidence in their own Christian belief. It doesn’t or needn’t do so by way of an argument. Indeed, there aren’t any respectable arguments from the proposition that many apparently devout people around the world dissent from (1) and (2) to the conclusion that (1) and (2) are false or can be accepted only at the cost of moral or epistemic deficiency. Nevertheless, knowledge of others who think differently can reduce one’s degree of belief in Christian teaching. From a Christian perspective, this situation of religious pluralism is itself a manifestation of our miserable human condition; and it may indeed deprive Christians of some of the comfort and peace the Lord has promised his followers. It can also deprive the believer of the knowledge that (1) and (2) are true, even if they are true and he believes that they are. Since degree of warrant depends in part on degree of belief, it is possible, though not necessary, that knowledge of the facts of religious pluralism should reduce his degree of belief and hence the degree of warrant (1) and (2) enjoy for him; it can therefore deprive him of knowledge of (1) and (2). He might be such that if he hadn’t known the facts of pluralism, then he would have known (1) and (2), but now that he does know those facts, he doesn’t know (1) and (2). In this way he may come to know less by knowing more.

Things could go this way, with the exclusivist. On the other hand, they needn’t go this way. Consider once more the moral parallel. Perhaps you have always believed it deeply wrong for a counselor to use his position of trust to seduce a client. Perhaps you discover that others disagree; they think it more like a minor peccadillo, like running a red light when there’s no traffic; and you realize that possibly these people have the same internal markers for their beliefs that you have for yours. You think the matter over more fully, imaginatively re-create and rehearse such situations, become more aware of just what is involved in such a situation (the breach of trust, the injustice and unfairness, the nasty irony of a situation in which someone comes to a counselor seeking help but receives only hurt), and come to believe even more firmly that such an action is wrong. In this way, this belief could acquire more warrant for you by virtue of your learning and reflecting on the fact that some people do not see the matter your way. Something similar can happen in the case of religious beliefs. A fresh or heightened awareness of the facts of religious pluralism could bring about a reappraisal of one’s religious life, a reawakening, a new or renewed and deepened grasp and apprehension of (1) and (2). From the perspective of the extended A/C model, it could serve as an occasion for a renewed and more powerful working of the belief-producing processes by which we come to apprehend (1) and (2). In this way knowledge of the facts of pluralism could initially serve as a defeater; in the long run, however, it can have precisely the opposite effect. The facts of religious pluralism, therefore, like historical biblical criticism and the facts of evil, do not or need not constitute a defeater for Christian belief.


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