New York Times profiles philosopher Alvin Plantinga and discusses his new book

Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga
Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga

Alvin Plantinga is widely regarded as the top Christian philosopher in the world, and a former head of the largest professional association of philosophers – the American Philosophical Association (APA).

 Mary sent me this article from the New York Times about Alvin Plantinga and his new book, published by Oxford University Press – the top academic press in the world.


From Calvin [College], and later from the University of Notre Dame, Mr. Plantinga has led a movement of unapologetically Christian philosophers who, if they haven’t succeeded in persuading their still overwhelmingly unbelieving colleagues, have at least made theism philosophically respectable.

“There are vastly more Christian philosophers and vastly more visible or assertive Christian philosophy now than when I left graduate school,” Mr. Plantinga said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Grand Rapids, adding, with characteristic modesty, “I have no idea how it happened.”

Mr. Plantinga retired from full-time teaching last year, with more than a dozen books and a past presidency of the American Philosophical Association to his name. But he’s hardly resting on those laurels. Having made philosophy safe for theism, he’s now turning to a harder task: making theism safe for science.

For too long, Mr. Plantinga contends in a new book, theists have been on the defensive, merely rebutting the charge that their beliefs are irrational. It’s time for believers in the old-fashioned creator God of the Bible to go on the offensive, he argues, and he has some sports metaphors at the ready. (Not for nothing did he spend two decades at Notre Dame.)

In “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism,” published last week by Oxford University Press, he unleashes a blitz of densely reasoned argument against “the touchdown twins of current academic atheism,” the zoologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, spiced up with some trash talk of his own.

[…] Longtime readers of Mr. Plantinga, who was raised as a Presbyterian and who embraced the Calvinism of the Christian Reformed Church as a young man, are used to such invocations of theological concepts. And even philosophers who reject his theism say his arguments for the basic rationality of belief, laid out in books like “Warranted Christian Belief” and “God and Other Minds,” constitute an important contribution that every student of epistemology would be expected to know.

But Mr. Plantinga’s steadfast defense of the biochemist and intelligent-design advocate Michael Behe, the subject of a long chapter in the new book, is apparently another matter.

“I think deep down inside he really isn’t a friend of science,” Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University, said of Mr. Plantinga. “I’m not objecting to him wanting to defend theism. But I think he gets his victory at the level of gelding or significantly altering modern science in unacceptable ways.”

Mr. Dennett was even harsher, calling Mr. Plantinga “Exhibit A of how religious beliefs can damage or hinder or disable a philosopher,” not to mention a poor student of biology. Evolution is a random, unguided process, he said, and Mr. Plantinga’s effort to leave room for divine intervention is simply wishful thinking.

“It’s just become more and more transparent that he’s an apologist more than a serious, straight-ahead philosopher,” Mr. Dennett said.

When Mr. Plantinga and Mr. Dennett (who said he has not read Mr. Plantinga’s new book) faced off over these questions before a standing-room-only crowd at a 2009 meeting of the American Philosophical Association, the event prompted ardent online debate over who had landed better punches, or simply been more condescending. (A transcript of the proceedings was published last year as “Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?”)

Mr. Plantinga, who recalled the event as “polite but not cordial,” allowed that he didn’t think much of Mr. Dennett’s line of reasoning. “He didn’t want to argue,” Mr. Plantinga said. “It was more like he wanted to make assertions and tell stories.”

Would you like to know how well Daniel Dennett can debate the naturalism/theism dispute? First of all, Plantinga has debated Dennett, and you can find the audio for it at Apologetics 315.

William Lane Craig also presented several arguments against naturalism to Daniel Dennett in 2007, and Dennett responded by calling it a “first-rate piece of philosophical reasoning”. I link to the exchange and complain about Dennett’s weak response to Craig’s arguments in a previous post.

You may also find this recent interview with Alvin Plantinga, conducted by Brian Auten, informative.

The resurgence of Christian theism in analytical philosophy

Now let’s move from the specific to the aggregate. What is going on with these Christian philosophers?

Well, you can read an excellent article about the resurgence of Christian theism in philosophy departments in the peer-reviewed philosophy journal Philo, which, in my opinion, is the best journal for atheists and agnostic philosophers. The article is authored by the well-known atheist Quentin Smith.

He writes:


By the second half of the twentieth century, universities and colleges had been become in the main secularized. The standard (if not exceptionless) position in each field, from physics to psychology, assumed or involved arguments for a naturalist world-view; departments of theology or religion aimed to understand the meaning and origins of religious writings, not to develop arguments against naturalism. Analytic philosophers (in the mainstream of analytic philosophy) treated theism as an antirealist or non-cognitivist world-view, requiring the reality, not of a deity, but merely of emotive expressions or certain “forms of life” (of course there were a few exceptions, e.g., Ewing, Ross, Hartshorne, etc., but I am discussing the mainstream view).

[…]The secularization of mainstream academia began to quickly unravel upon the publication of Plantinga’s influential book on realist theism, God and Other Minds, in 1967. It became apparent to the philosophical profession that this book displayed that realist theists were not outmatched by naturalists in terms of the most valued standards of analytic philosophy: conceptual precision, rigor of argumentation, technical erudition, and an in-depth defense of an original world-view. This book, followed seven years later by Plantinga’s even more impressive book, The Nature of Necessity, made it manifest that a realist theist was writing at the highest qualitative level of analytic philosophy, on the same playing field as Carnap, Russell, Moore, Grünbaum, and other naturalists. Realist theists, whom hitherto had segregated their academic lives from their private lives, increasingly came to believe (and came to be increasingly accepted or respected for believing) that arguing for realist theism in scholarly publications could no longer be justifiably regarded as engaging in an “academically unrespectable” scholarly pursuit.

Naturalists passively watched as realist versions of theism, most influenced by Plantinga’s writings, began to sweep through the philosophical community, until today perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians. Although many theists do not work in the area of the philosophy of religion, so many of them do work in this area that there are now over five philosophy journals devoted to theism or the philosophy of religion, such as Faith and Philosophy, Religious Studies, International Journal of the Philosophy of Religion, Sophia, Philosophia Christi, etc. Philosophia Christi began in the late 1990s and already is overflowing with submissions from leading philosophers. Can you imagine a sizeable portion of the articles in contemporary physics journals suddenly presenting arguments that space and time are God’s sensorium (Newton’s view) or biology journals becoming filled with theories defending élan vital or a guiding intelligence? Of course, some professors in these other, non-philosophical, fields are theists; for example, a recent study indicated that seven percent of the top scientists are theists.1 However, theists in other fields tend to compartmentalize their theistic beliefs from their scholarly work; they rarely assume and never argue for theism in their scholarly work. If they did, they would be committing academic suicide or, more exactly, their articles would quickly be rejected, requiring them to write secular articles if they wanted to be published. If a scientist did argue for theism in professional academic journals, such as Michael Behe in biology, the arguments are not published in scholarly journals in his field (e.g., biology), but in philosophy journals (e.g., Philosophy of Science and Philo, in Behe’s case). But in philosophy, it became, almost overnight, “academically respectable” to argue for theism, making philosophy a favored field of entry for the most intelligent and talented theists entering academia today. A count would show that in Oxford University Press’ 2000–2001 catalogue, there are 96 recently published books on the philosophy of religion (94 advancing theism and 2 presenting “both sides”). By contrast, there are 28 books in this catalogue on the philosophy of language, 23 on epistemology (including religious epistemology, such as Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief), 14 on metaphysics, 61 books on the philosophy of mind, and 51 books on the philosophy of science.

And how have naturalist philosophers reacted to what some committed naturalists might consider as “the embarrassment” of belonging to the only academic field that has allowed itself to lose the secularization it once had? Some naturalists wish to leave the field, considering themselves as no longer doing “philosophy of mind,” for example, but instead “cognitive science.” But the great majority of naturalist philosophers react by publicly ignoring the increasing desecularizing of philosophy (while privately disparaging theism, without really knowing anything about contemporary analytic philosophy of religion) and proceeding to work in their own area of specialization as if theism, the view of approximately one-quarter or one-third of their field, did not exist. (The numbers “one-quarter” and “one-third” are not the result of any poll, but rather are the exceptionless, educated guesses of every atheist and theist philosophy professor I have asked [the answers varied between “one-quarter” and “one-third”]). Quickly, naturalists found themselves a mere bare majority, with many of the leading thinkers in the various disciplines of philosophy, ranging from philosophy of science (e.g., Van Fraassen) to epistemology (e.g., Moser), being theists. The predicament of naturalist philosophers is not just due to the influx of talented theists, but is due to the lack of counter-activity of naturalist philosophers themselves. God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.

Quentin Smith is a good friend of William Lane Craig, who is a philosopher/theologian and the top Christian defender in the world, and probably of all time. Smith is the co-author, with William Lane Craig, of the book “Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology“, also published by Oxford University Press. Craig and Smith debated at Harvard University in 2003, and I transcribed the debate for posterity. If some of you are looking for a way to help promote Christian apologetics, you should pick a debate that hasn’t been transcribed and transcribe it. A lot of people read these debate transcripts. I had them printed out in my binder when I was an undergraduate student, in case my professors got boring! I like a good fight.

On a lighter note, my office plant is named Alvin Plantinga. It was grown in water and then given to me by an atheist with whom I work. We discuss these interesting topics over lunch every few months. And so should you. Why not send the New York Times article and the Philo article to an atheist in your office and get the conversation started? There’s enough in this post alone to help you sound like Alvin Plantinga!

4 thoughts on “New York Times profiles philosopher Alvin Plantinga and discusses his new book”

  1. Too many evangelicals grant the naturalist too much when talking about evolution. Many an evangelical equates evolution with atheism and that is simply not the case. I like Plantinga’s approach which is that if evolution is true, Plantinga believes it is, then naturalism is false. Naturalism is not compatible with evolution. That is his main argument in this book and in his lecture that he gave at Biola last year. The Biola lecture has also been posted on “Apologetics 315″.

    1. I agree. I actually don’t like Plantinga that much because of his weakness and timidity, although he’s getting tougher and more confrontational. Do you know who is tough, though? Tim McGrew.

      1. Then again, wk, Plantinga’s caution and carefulness in what he argues for might be one of the reasons why he was able to get an interview with uber liberal NYT. I’m not sure it’s just a coincidence that there aren’t many (if any) Christian philosophers who would get that kind of opportunity!

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