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Review of Warranted Christian Belief

Review of Warranted Christian Belief (2002)

Tyler Wunder

Review: Alvin Plantinga. 2000. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press. xx+508 pp.

[This review was originally published in Philo Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 2002): pp. 103-118. This Secular Web version contains some minor changes by the author, but otherwise is faithful to the version published in Philo.]

Abstract: Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief (2000) is the capstone to the latest stage in his views on the intellectual credibility of theism in general, and Christian theism in particular. While Plantinga’s stature in the community of Christian philosophers alone makes gaining familiarity with this text a good idea for contemporary analytic philosophers of religion, its vigorous, innovative defense of specifically Christian theism and daring suggestions for renovating the landscape of analytic philosophy of religion merit serious consideration. I aim to provide a useful introduction to the book’s contents and critique some of its main claims.

Is There a Question?

What is the De Jure Question?

Warranted Christian Belief

     De Jure Presupposes De Facto

     A Double Standard?


     Are Defeaters De Jure or De Facto Objections?

     Projective Theories


In 1993 Alvin Plantinga published the first two-thirds of a trilogy: Warrant: The Current Debate and Warrant and Proper Function, hereafter respectively dubbed “Warrant1” and “Warrant2.”[1] Both investigate and develop the epistemic concept warrant, the technical term Plantinga uses to describe that which fills the gap between mere true belief and full-blown philosophical (propositional) knowledge.[2] His own theory of warrant, proper functionalism, is complex: a warranted belief must be 1) produced by properly functioning cognitive faculties that are 2) working in an epistemically congenial environment; further, 3) these faculties must be reliable, and 4) their orientation or telos must be truth. Finally, if a belief meets these conditions it will have warrant, the degree of which will be a function of the confidence with which the belief is held. Therefore, if a true belief meets these conditions, and the belief is held with sufficient confidence, it will qualify as knowledge.[3]

At the end of Warrant2 Plantinga’s project shifts from “secular” to religious epistemology. The final volume of the trilogy–Warranted Christian Belief–is his full defense of “orthodox” Christian belief via the epistemological machinery developed in the previous two volumes (although he does claim Warranted Christian Belief is designed to stand “relatively independent” of Warrant1 and Warrant2). This latest installment, however, not only completes the trilogy, but also provides a sequel to some of his earlier seminal work in Reformed epistemology.[4] The result is a synthesis of Plantinga’s recent, warrant-oriented epistemology with his much earlier arguments that theistic belief can be properly basic, thus needing no more argumentative defense than our belief that solipsism is false, or our belief that the world really is more than five minutes old and is not merely deceptively engineered to appear that way.

Plantinga distinguishes between de jure and de facto objections to Christian belief and theism. The de jure objection is the complaint that Christian belief suffers some epistemic defect independently of its truth or falsity. Plantinga sees an important corollary to this independence which I call the De Jure Restriction: any de jure objection must be compatible with the truth of Christianity. An example of such an objection, according to Plantinga, would be an agnostic who denies knowing that Christianity (or theism) is true, but insists that belief in these things is “unjustifiable, or rationally unjustified, or irrational, or not intellectually acceptable, or contrary to sound morality, or without sufficient evidence, or in some other way rationally unacceptable, not up to snuff from an intellectual point of view.” De facto objections, on the other hand, are “relatively straightforward and initially uncomplicated: the claim is that Christian belief must be false (or at any rate improbable) given something or other we are alleged to know” (ix).

Plantinga concentrates on the de jure objection against Christian belief, thinking it the more prevalent of the two. He argues that his own proper functionalism theory of warrant (see Warrant2) is the atheologian’s “best way” to frame the de jure objection, but concludes that it nevertheless fails as a serious and viable objection to traditional Christian belief.

Warranted Christian Belief is divided into four parts. The first, titled “Is there a Question?” addresses the preliminary issue of whether beliefs can refer to something like a theistic god. Part 2, “What is the Question?” aims to specify what sort of epistemic concept the de jure question and objection ought to be about given the atheologian’s goals. The third part, “Warranted Christian Belief,” introduces two models of warranted religious belief which Plantinga develops and defends against objections. The last section, “Defeaters?” considers some examples of a specific sort of objection to the intellectual standing of Christian/theistic belief which he calls “defeaters.” I will address each division individually.

Is There a Question?

Before considering the exact nature of de jure questions and objections, Plantinga defends the possibility that theistic belief can actually be about, or refer to, something like a theistic god; he devotes chapter 1 to undercutting the Kant-inspired theme that human language and thoughts can neither refer nor apply to an infinite, transcendent, and ultimate deity; chapter 2 considers some similar contemporary arguments from Gordon Kaufmann and John Hick. The verdict: Kant, Kaufmann, and Hick must be wrong, for in saying we cannot refer to God we must refer to God to say so. The Kant-inspired theme is incoherent.

Unfortunately, Plantinga all but ignores the verificationist challenge against meaningful religious language, i.e., the charge that sophisticated, non-anthropomorphic religious language is in some important, manner (e.g., factually) meaningless.[5] He undermines the challenge by emphasizing its relationship with logical positivism: since “logical positivism has retreated into the obscurity it so richly deserves” (8), he argues, it follows that the “dreaded ‘Verifiability Criterion of Meaning'” has suffered the same fate.

But the verificationist challenge need not be wed to the fortunes of logical positivism.[6] Although few atheologians defend this position anymore, Kai Nielsen and Michael Martin have produced revised versions the implications of which Plantinga nonetheless ignores. His rebuttal of the challenge is based on repeated appeals to God and Other Minds (156-68), despite the fact that Nielsen’s work in particular counteracts Plantinga’s most substantial criticisms.[7]

What is the De Jure Question?

Plantinga next asks a “metaquestion” which he complains is seldom asked: “precisely what question (or questions) is it that critics mean to press when they ask whether Christian and theistic belief is rational, or rationally defensible, or rationally justifiable, or whatever?” (67)[8] Three chapters are spent considering which of justification, rationality, or warrant the best de jure objection should deny of traditional Christian belief.

Concerning justification Plantinga thinks that the paradigmatic meanings of “justified” and “justification” involve deontology, i.e., duties and obligations of belief. He imagines a sophisticated, contemporary Christian who is aware of objections to Christian belief, and asks whether her belief must go contrary to any duty:

The answer seems to be pretty easy…. How could she possibly be blameworthy or irresponsible, if she thinks about the matter as hard as she can, in the most responsible way she can, and she still comes to these conclusions? Indeed, no matter what conclusions she arrived at, wouldn’t she be justified if she arrived at them in this way? (100-101).

It is from the objector who says otherwise, who insists that there is some (objective) epistemic duty that this Christian violates despite her sincerity defense, that Plantinga thinks an argument is due (102, n56). Plantinga concedes the existence of both “epistemic sin” and duties of belief (e.g., some sort of duty to the truth) (96,98-100); those who fall into the former or violate the latter presumably lack the responsible sincerity which would automatically grant them justification.

The discussion continues on to consider five readings of rationality: Aristotelian rationality; rationality as proper function; rationality as the deliverances of reason; means-end rationality; and William Alston’s “practical rationality.” Seven pages are spent on the first four; seventeen pages are devoted to Alston’s analysis, which itself yields two different accounts of practical rationality. The conclusion: none of these six constitute viable, legitimate contenders for the de jure question; two of them, however, are deemed to come close.

The first close-call–rationality qua properly functioning cognitive faculties–strongly resembles the answer to the “metaquestion” that Plantinga ultimately accepts. But he is very generous regarding what this sort of rationality requires–namely, freedom from clinical psychoses–and concludes that Christian belief can be non-psychotic, therefore rational. More sensible, less facile interpretations of this kind of rationality could be considered, but Plantinga plans to address such matters in the following chapter on warrant.

The other near-miss account is Alston’s second version of practical rationality. This is the idea that Christian belief-forming practices should be epistemically judged by a panel of fallible but privileged faculties called the “Standard Package”: reason (ratio), sense perception, introspection, memory and testimony (Reidian sympathy). For reasons outlined below, Plantinga denies this account the coveted post of the best de jure objection/question. Thus, it is concluded, the atheologian should have neither rationality nor justification in mind when faulting Christian belief on de jure grounds.

Plantinga finally locates the “proper” perspective on the de jure question in the work of Freud and Marx, the so-called “cultured despisers” of Christianity[9]; he calls their objection the “F/M Complaint.” Freud views religious belief as an illusion which, whether true or not, results from cognitive processes aimed at wish-fulfillment rather than truth. Marx understands religious belief as a product of outright cognitive dysfunction due to certain social problems. Recall (from my introduction) that both truth-oriented cognitive faculties and properly functioning cognitive faculties are components of Plantinga’s proper functionalism analysis of warrant. Accordingly, Plantinga judges that what these men felt was lacking in Christian belief can be characterized, à la contemporary analytic epistemology, as warrant. The F/M Complaint, he argues, provides a serious viable way for the atheologian to attack Christian belief which neither presumes a negative answer to the de facto question, and thus doesn’t violate the De Jure Restriction, nor can be dismissed too easily via rejoinders like “Of course Christians aren’t clinically insane” and “Of course she’s justified if she thinks seriously and responsibly about these matters.”

Plantinga is correct to argue that the “metaquestion” about Christianity’s epistemic credentials (or lack of) needs asking. But the traditional answer to this question is justification, and the idea that mere sincerity can earn any belief the mantle of justification is epistemically dubious. Since the dominant question within religious epistemology is whether belief in God is justified, many theologians and atheologians alike will hesitate to agree that a positive answer to this question could be so had so easily. Although Plantinga specifies that this sincere thinking is done responsibly, he submits a very undeveloped answer to the question of what constitutes responsible (i.e., epistemically justified) believing. Does this responsibility flow from one’s sincerity? If so, then I am entirely justified in rejecting this idea because I sincerely find it implausible.

Regarding Alston’s Standard Package tribunal for determining what is rational, contrary to Plantinga’s judgement this does provide a promising candidate for the de jure question. This perspective doesn’t merely presume that Christian belief is false, and Plantinga neither suggests it could be overrun by the sincerity defense, nor gives any reason to think it fails to satisfy any necessary or sufficient conditions of a relevant epistemic concept. In fact, Plantinga admits that Christian belief may not fare very well on such a de jure question, and that the best answer to this question might well be an agnostic refrain from Christian belief (see 131ff.).

Plantinga’s grounds for rejecting this candidate are two: 1) the various faculties of the Standard Package are no less epistemically circular than Christian belief-forming practices, so the charge of circularity cannot justify refusing to include Christian belief-forming practices from being among the privileged adjudicatory faculties of the Standard Package; and 2) there is no reason to think that the epistemic merit of Christianity should be judged by the perspective of only those faculties of the Standard Package. These are not strong arguments. Even if we accept that Christian belief forming practices are no more circular than sense perception and memory, the fact remains, completely unaddressed by Plantinga, that the faculties of the Standard Package, unlike Christian belief-forming practices, enjoy a universal sanction among cognizers not suffering from clinical psychosis, sanction as faculties that underwrite any pretense to fruitful inquiry[10]; it is not as if they might form an arbitrary adjudicatory panel simply because their defense suffers from the same ubiquitous circularity which apparently plagues the defense of even God’s own “faculties.”[11] Alston’s practical rationality is a much more serious candidate for the de jure post than Plantinga suggests.

Warranted Christian Belief

In the book’s preface Plantinga explains this latest volume can be considered an exercise not only in apologetics and philosophy of religion, but Christian philosophy: the former is addressed to believer and nonbeliever alike; the latter, although it may capture the nonbeliever’s interest, is designed specifically with the believer in mind and assumes that Christian belief is true. It is in part III that Plantinga begins seriously engaging in this second enterprise, but not exclusively so; unfortunately, it is not always clear which he is doing, or whether he’s doing both.

Plantinga introduces two models of warranted basic religious belief: the theistic model is called the “A/C model,” the Christian one the “extended A/C model” (“A/C” refers to Aquinas and Calvin; the name is inspired by what Plantinga sees as their overlapping opinions about our sense of the divine). This latter model is the centerpiece of both the general and Christian-specific philosophical enterprises. As the A/C model is included within the extended A/C model, I will start by describing the former. Beyond advocating the standard tenets of theism, the A/C model claims that human beings possess a natural knowledge of God, a sort of instinct or natural human tendency to form belief about God in a variety of circumstances. Calvin referred to this “divine sense” as the sensus divinitatis (hereafter abbreviated as “SD”). On this model, SD can yield properly basic theistic belief with regard to justification, rationality as properly functioning cognitive faculties, warrant, and can even provide enough warrant for knowledge, and all in a way that resembles the operation of the faculties responsible for our memorial, perceptual, and a priori beliefs.

An obvious initial objection against this A/C model is the fact that, despite all humanity’s allegedly possessing SD, a significant proportion of humanity is presently non-theistic.[12] While Calvin considered “many rejections of God” to be testimony of the unbelievers’ secret conviction that God exists, this claim will be no more prima facie convincing to non-Calvin partisans than any other similar charge that one’s denial of x is really an admission of x.[13] Plantinga thinks the seventy-year long “determined but unsuccessful” Marxist attempt to stamp out Christianity in the former Soviet Union “tends to confirm” the existence of a faculty like SD (173), but I suggest widespread non-theism tends to disconfirm this faculty to a greater extent.

Wisely, Plantinga specifies that the claim behind SD is not that we all possess belief in God from the day we are capable of forming beliefs, but rather that we have an innate inclination to so believe. With a “certain maturity,” combined with the correct circumstances (e.g., viewing the starry heavens, reading the Bible), theism will come. But this qualification deals inadequately with (at least) mature non-believers who have shared many similar circumstances with Christians and other theists, yet still feel no inkling of SD. Plantinga relentlessly insists people who disagree with him on various matters must provide good arguments for their contrary views. If he wishes non-SD devotees to take the A/C model, and its use of SD, seriously, however, consistency does suggest he provide some good arguments of his own to support the existence of this faculty, particularly in the face of “the problem of non-theism.”

Fortunately, Plantinga does go on to provide materials that address this problem in his presentation of the extended A/C model, the first chapter of which is titled “Sin and Its Cognitive Consequences.” The extended A/C model endorses the claims of the A/C model, but adds to them the main lines of ecumenical classic Christian belief along with some broadly Calvinist/Plantingan details. The extended model addresses the problem of non-theism by claiming that SD has been damaged by sin, presumably in a way that sufficiently explains the widespread non-theism in the world.[14] Specifically, the extended model asserts that a person can encounter the main claims of the gospel, which can then allow the work of the Holy Spirit to heal the sin-damaged SD, thus bringing about epistemically respectable basic faith in “the central teachings of the gospel… contained in the intersection of the great Christian creeds” (248).[15] Three chapters are spent fleshing out this extended model, and part III closes with a chapter rebutting objections to the models inspired by the atheologians Anthony O’Hear, J.L. Mackie, Richard Gale, and Michael Martin.

Two features of this section stand out: A) the charge that the F/M Complaint–the “warrant-de jure objection”–somehow presupposes a de facto objection, thus violating the De Jure Restriction; B) an apparent double-standard in Plantinga’s defense of his models.

De Jure Presupposes De Facto

Plantinga has argued that the best de jure question/objection comes from the perspective of warrant as analyzed by proper functionalism (i.e., the F/M Complaint). In part III he further argues for two conditionals:

(C1) if God does not exist then theism is probably not warrant-basic;

(C2) if God does exist then very probably theism is warrant-basic


He concludes that the answer to the de jure question, i.e., whether belief in God has warrant, will thus depend on whether God exists. Therefore, if this is the best the atheologian can hope for, there is no viable de jure question that does not violate the De Jure Restriction; so there is no viable de jure question and objection.

Frequently, this charge of dependency is accompanied by a charge of presupposition: the best prospect for a de jure objection presupposes a negative answer to the de facto question. Consider the characterization of a successful de jure objection in the preface as “One that is independent of de facto objections and does not presuppose that Christian belief is false” (latter emphasis mine): it is because Plantinga thinks the F/M Complaint presupposes exactly that that he finds it wanting as a de jure objection.

I intend to rebut this charge of presupposition and clarify the nature of any dependency the de jure question has on the de facto question. Before doing so, though, I would like to quickly point out, concerning

(C2) if God does exist then very probably theism is warrant-basic

that Plantinga never argues that theism makes warranted basic theism, opposed to warranted non-basic theism, probable. It is easy to imagine a theistic deity who prefers it be that evidentialism, perhaps a “sensible evidentialism” à la Stephen Wykstra[16], ultimately describes the proper way to give theistic belief epistemic merit so that in the face of intellectual challenge basic theistic belief is unwarranted. If it is insisted that this deity would want folks to have less intellectual difficulty in coming to warranted theism than evidentialism would require, and thus that he would prefer us to have basic theistic belief, I counter he would also want there to be fewer children shoveled into ovens, or less of whatever horrible brutality or misfortune you find highly disturbing and yet all too real. The invocation of “divine mystery” to eliminate the force of brutality or misfortune as a difficulty for theism can just as easily, and effectively, eliminate the force God would want to make warranted theism easier than evidentialism allows has against God’s preferring non-basic (inferred) warranted theism over basic warranted theism. While this may appear to be a minor point against the spirit of (C2), and thus not a serious objection to the claim that de jure presupposes de facto, the truth of some sort of evidentialism in religious epistemology seems contrary to the content and spirit of Plantinga’s two models.

Assume, however, that (C1) and (C2) deserve neither serious complaints nor even minor quibbles. Consider (C2): if God does exist, then very probably theism is warrant-basic; obviously, by modus tollens the antecedent of this conditional can be negated if the consequent can. Therefore, an epistemic argument (epistemic because it concerns the presence or absence of the epistemic concept warrant) could successfully conclude with, not presuppose, a negative answer to the de facto question.[17] It is true, given (C1) and (C2), that the success of any such de jure objection would be incompatible with the truth of theism. Still, it is important to see that any such epistemic objection need not presuppose the falsity of theism or Christianity; nor, as I will illustrate more clearly further on, must it depend upon a de facto objection if “depend” is taken to mean “requiring a previous endorsement of a de facto objection (or a negative answer to the de facto question) to get off the ground.” It seems only if the de jure objection is forbidden from entailing a de facto objection will the warrant-de jure objection fail as such, and that hardly seems a serious counter to the objection. While “presupposition” certainly has the ring of a philosophical failing, “entailing” does not.

A Double Standard?

Plantinga defines a model as a state of affairs that shows how something could be the case, and claims four things for his two models of warranted religious belief: first, they are epistemically possible[18]; second, any cogent objection to the truth of these models will have to be a cogent objection to the truth of theism or Christianity; third, these models are either true or close to the truth; lastly, there is a range of models for warranted Christian belief that are similar to, but not identical to Plantinga’s two models, and it is one of these that Plantinga thinks is correct (168-70). Presumably, these last two claims are intended strictly for the choir, not the masses. This presumption is supported by Plantinga’s remark, made in the preface, that what he “officially claim[s] for the extended A/C model is not that it is true but, rather, that it is epistemically possible (i.e., nothing we know commits us to its falsehood),” and that “if Christian belief is true, then very likely this model or something like it is also true” (xii).

As a non-Christian I am more interested in the official than the unofficial claims of Warranted Christian Belief, but I will nevertheless draw your attention to the third unofficial claim that the models are true or verisimilitudinous. Apparently, the reason why this claim is only directed toward the Christian audience is Plantinga’s belief that he cannot show either of these models are true. Why not? The reply:

[T]he A/C model entails the truth of theism and the extended A/C model the truth of classical Christianity. To show that these models are true, therefore, would also be to show that theism and Christianity are true; and I don’t know how to do something one could sensibly call ‘showing’ that either of these is true…. Of course this is nothing against either their truth or their warrant; very little of what we believe can be ‘demonstrated’ or ‘shown'(169-170).

Even if it is true that very little of what we believe can be demonstrated or shown, can we not say something, and something worthwhile, to support the various claims we make? If not, then one must wonder why Plantinga so frequently asks of the various scholars he disagrees with: “But why should I think a thing like that?” What is it, for example, that Plantinga desires in part I of this book when he asks John Hick to give powerful reasons to think Hick’s account of God, doubted by Plantinga but admitted to be possible, is true (43ff)? What are we to make of the following which Plantinga writes about Freud’s portion of the F/M complaint: “does theistic belief arise from wish-fulfillment, thereby failing to have warrant? Is there any reason to believe this? Does he offer argument or evidence for this claim …?” (194-195)

A final example: Plantinga claims that for the F/M Complaint to be successful it must show both that theism does not result from a truth-oriented process (but rather from, say, wish-fulfillment) and that the process producing it, even if not generally truth-oriented, is not aimed at truth when it specifically produces theism. Granting that very little of what we believe can be demonstrated, or shown, what exactly is Plantinga then asking in these (and other) instances? Now, it must be emphasized that Plantinga officially endorses his models as merely (epistemically) possible, and so his project does not commit him, officially, to defending them as true.[19] But if the motive for this maneuver is a recognition that showing or demonstrating something to be the case is a typically unreasonable and seldom attainable standard it is unclear why Plantinga thinks his interlocutors must always meet that touchstone.[20]


The final section of Warranted Christian Belief treats what Plantinga calls “defeaters of Christian belief.” Abstractly, these defeaters are things known or believed that, against the background of other things you know and believe (i.e., your noetic structure), make firm basically held Christian belief “irrational and hence unwarranted.” More specifically, defeaters are things known or believed by many or most “intellectually sophisticated adults in our culture” that prevent rational basic Christian belief (358).[21]

As briefly mentioned in the previous section, the final chapter of part III deals specifically with objections to the models. Accordingly, one may wonder what separates those objections considered there from the defeaters of part IV which obviously constitute objections of some sort. Why weren’t the earlier objections included in this part on defeaters, or why weren’t these defeaters grouped with the objections?

The distinction between the objections and defeaters appears to be that the latter are offered against the background of accepting that the main claims of the book, thus far, have been successfully established. The objections considered at the end of part III were directed against the cogency of the models, but the defeaters considered in part IV apparently grant the official claims about these models (i.e., that they are epistemically possible and probably true if theism/Christianity is true). Plantinga puts the general nature of these defeaters into the mouth of an imaginary advocate:

Well, perhaps [Christian and theistic] beliefs can have warrant, and perhaps (if they are true) even warrant sufficient for knowledge: there are circumstances in which this can happen. Most of us, however–for example, most of those who read this book–are not in those circumstances. What you have really argued so far is only that theistic and Christian belief (taken, in the basic way) can have warrant, absent defeaters. But defeaters are not absent (357-58).

How do these defeaters deprive theistic and Christian belief, taken in the basic way, of warrant? Plantinga describes two modes of defeat: 1) provide a propositional argument for the “falsehood of the relevant proposition” the premises of which the sophisticate accepts and for which rationality requires the acceptance of the conclusion rather than the abandonment of one or more of the premises; 2) provide an experiential, not propositional, argument against the belief, i.e., “point to or provide a kind of experience such that a sophisticate who underwent that experience would be rationally required to give up the belief in question” (366-67).

After analyzing defeaters in the abstract, Plantinga considers four sets of defeaters of Christian theism: projective (naturalistic) theories of religion; historical biblical criticism; postmodernism and religious pluralism; suffering and evil. He concludes that none of these provide insurmountable difficulties. While most are admitted to have potential defeating effect, he thinks all can be completely undermined with the help of a little philosophy and infers this makes Christian philosophers useful to the Christian community. I will restrict myself to discussing only the first of these sets of defeaters, projective theories of religion, but first a preliminary issue needs addressing.

Are Defeaters De Jure or De Facto Objections?

After the initial exegetical challenge of distinguishing these defeaters from the objections of part III, it is not clear how this section of the book intersects with much of the preceding argument. The explicit vocabulary of de facto and de jure has completely disappeared; Plantinga never says in these chapters whether the defeaters are to be considered de facto or de jure objections.[22] Unfortunately, there are indicators supporting each alternative.

If the defeaters of part IV are being considered against the assumption that parts I-III have succeeded in showing there can be no viable de jure objection/question, then it seems redundant to consider yet more de jure objections. The charitable denial of bad organization may be poor evidence that the defeaters are probably intended as de facto; but also recall that the first mode of defeat Plantinga describes is that of arguments concluding with the falsity of their target-propositions, thus obviously speaking to the de facto question and providing de facto objections. As for the second, experiential, mode of defeat Plantinga allows for de facto objections that are expressed through literature (e.g., the problem of evil conveyed through Dostoevski [viii]). So, perhaps here, too, he intends this mode of defeat to be de facto. The first of his two defeat-modes is obviously relevant to the de facto, and the second certainly could be.

When Plantinga gets down to considering specific formulations of these defeaters, however, some of them are clearly not intended to be de facto; indeed, he criticizes these as inadequate precisely because they fail to lead to de facto conclusions (see e.g., 367-73,427-29). Those defeaters which could perhaps be construed as de facto are frequently dismissed as if they were de jure objections which merely presuppose Christianity’s falsity; his main response against them is to fall back upon the conditional if Christianity is true, then the extended A/C model (or something quite like it) is probably true, i.e., the strategy used against the de jure F/M complaint. Rebutting an argument for the falsity of theism/Christianity, a de facto objection, by starting with “Well, if theism/Christianity were true …” is not philosophically persuasive, so it is reasonable to think defeaters so dismissed are being treated as de jure objections. Finally, in the opening page of the chapter where the groundwork for defeaters and defeat is laid, he describes the defeaters as trying to undermine the warrant of Christian belief “even if [this belief is] true” (357).

It seems that however defeaters are construed, there will be some anomalies in the text. Plantinga is evasive on this matter, making it unclear to what extent he even had parts I-III in mind when writing part IV. The emphasis Plantinga places on the de jure-de facto distinction elsewhere in Warranted Christian Belief suggests that his overall project could have been much more seamless had he utilized it fully throughout the text.[23]

Projective Theories

Essentially, projective theories of religion claim that theism is a projection of human wishes and desires onto an impersonal, even hostile, universe. Plantinga examines two potential sources of this defeater: the F/M Complaint, and an argument of fellow Christian philosopher Philip Quinn. I will restrict my comments to the first source; proper discussion of the second would take too long. I must also point out that, although Plantinga’s discussion of these matters is essentially restricted to theism, Christianity and theism appear interchangeable in this context.

The F/M Complaint, as previously discussed, is the claim that religious belief results either from cognitive malfunction (Marx) or non-truth oriented faculties (Freud); Plantinga takes these claims to support the charge that theism is not warranted because of its origins in these negative epistemic circumstances. He deals with this defeater via the reminder that he has already explained why neither Freud nor Marx’s theories of religious origins provide reasons to give up belief in God. While they both deny that theism possesses warrant, they offer no arguments to accept that denial; “more important[ly],” they presuppose that atheism is true (368). To those who believe theistically, the F/M complaint need offer no defeat of that belief.

This is not entirely fair to Marx and Freud: if they presupposed theism was false they did so because they thought that it had been shown to be false, or at least discredited to the point where its falsity was a very safe assumption to make. As Kai Nielsen observes:

naturalistic explanations will become of paramount interest only when the critique of theism has been thought to have done its work. Karl Marx’s and Sigmund Freud’s accounts of religion, as they were themselves well aware, gain the considerable significance they have only after we have come to believe that the Enlightenment critiques of religion by Bayle and Hume, perhaps with a little contemporary rational reconstruction, have successfully done their work.[24]

Plantinga doubts that the critique of theism does in fact succeed; on the other hand, Freud and Marx probably thought themselves well-justified in working with the assumption that theistic belief had been thoroughly debunked. Plantinga, given his own low standards for epistemic justification, would perhaps not disagree with them.

Next, consider how the epistemic melée is supposed to play out with a hypothetical sophisticated adult theist living in the contemporary Western world. Grant that this adult–call her “Georgie”–has basic warranted theism and then one day is confronted by the F/M Complaint-Defeater. Georgie takes the time to read Freud and Marx, Nietzsche, along with some Kai Nielsen, and comes to think that these projective theories, if true or plausible, really undermine the idea that theistic belief is warranted; Georgie also admits such theories do satisfy reasonable standards of a good social science research program for explaining religious beliefs. She is unable to provide any sort of defeater-defeat, perhaps due to time constraints, and so her basic warranted theism is partially or fully defeated. Even if Georgie possesses a fantastic source of warrant for her theistic belief via an impressive familiarity with natural theology, this warrant will be inferred, and thus not basic.

Plantinga acknowledges that this sort of thing can happen, but asserts that rationality does not require this to be the case (368). Georgie can be apprised of Plantinga’s criticisms with the F/M Complaint and thus acquire a defeater-defeater. With the defeater-defeater in hand, the reason for the initial defeat is itself defeated and Georgie regains her basic warranted theism.

However, given that Georgie’s theistic belief is now somehow dependent upon an argumentative defeater-defeater, does this not add at least something of an evidentialist tinge to the positive epistemic status of that belief? Is her warranted belief now inferred, contingent on a successful defeater-defeater, and so not basic? Or, if possible, is it less basic? Perhaps the renewed warrant of Georgie’s theism isn’t as evidential as, say, someone whose warrant derives solely from familiarity with the ontological argument, but, given its dependence upon her conscientious awareness of a defeater-defeater, it doesn’t seem to be the pristine basically warranted belief it was prior to defeat.

Whatever the case, and contrary to Plantinga’s assessment, the advocate of an F/M Complaint-style projection theory defeater of basic warranted theism need not rely on an objection that either presupposes atheism or that he has no reason to think true. As mentioned In the previous section, one can take (C2) and attempt to engage in modus tollens, thus producing an epistemic complaint with warranted theism that doesn’t presuppose a successful de facto objection, even if it does imply one.

Perhaps Plantinga could grant this possibility in theory, but respond that such a modus tollens cannot, in practice, be performed; he could, for example, suggest that given our cognitive limitations, the consequent of (C2)–that theism is (probably) warrant-basic–cannot be negated without first negating its antecedent–that God exists. Could that be true? Is it really impossible for us to determine the warrant of theism without first establishing its truth-value? Is it really necessary to first answer the de facto question, thus making it practically impossible to say “no” to the warrant-de jure question without presupposing a negative de facto answer?

Ironically, Plantinga has provided reasons to answer these questions negatively. Grant that the best de jure objection really is the F/M Complaint, but consider the reliability constraint in proper functionalism, a constraint which entails that unreliably formed beliefs will lack warrant; also consider Plantinga’s own suggestion that widely divergent outputs indicate an unreliable practice/faculty.[25] It appears that either the reliability constraint on warrant or the criterion of conformity for reliability needs retracting, or serious qualifications need making, to avoid concluding that the wide diversity of religious beliefs in the world, even among Christians, indicates the faculties responsible for these beliefs are unreliable, and hence the beliefs they produce unwarranted. Obviously this objection will be potentially subject to defeater-defeat, but until it is actually, and successfully, defeated it provides a defeater of (at least) basically warranted theistic belief. And, as suggested above, it is unclear whether its eventual defeater-defeat would restore basically warranted theism.[26]


Warranted Christian Belief is long and challenging, full of many concepts and distinctions which are relatively new, often going counter to established traditions in the philosophy of religion. Does Plantinga establish the main, official, claim of his book, i.e., that there is no viable de jure question that is independent of the de facto objection? Granting that the best de jure candidate is indeed in terms of proper functionalism-style warrant, whether Plantinga succeeds in showing that there is no viable de jure objection independent of the de facto objection depends on what is intended to be incompatible with a serious, viable de jure objection. If the de jure objection simply cannot presuppose a de facto objection, I have made clear that the de jure objection need do no such thing. Nor must the atheologian who wields a de jure objection provide a prior de facto objection to get the former off the ground; only if the de jure objection is forbad from implying a de facto objection will there be no serious, viable de jure question and objection.[27]


[1] All three Warrant volumes are published by Oxford University Press.

[2] While the idea of a distinction between knowledge and mere true belief goes back as far as Plato’s Theaetetus, Plantinga may be the first to use “warrant” as a technical term for that which is both necessary and sufficient to convert true belief into knowledge. Note that “warrant” is not a mere synonym for ordinary-language “justification”; Plantinga thinks justification fails to fill the gap between mere true belief and knowledge in relevant cases, and therefore fails to satisfactorily analyze warrant.

[3] Technical tweaking of this account is provided in Warranted Christian Belief (156-61), but this is the gist of the theory throughout the books.

[4] Namely God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), and “Reason and Belief in God,” in Faith and Rationality, ed. Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1983). Reformed or Calvinist epistemology is a relatively recent trend within religious epistemology that philosophically articulates the intuitive convictions of many Reformed theologians; Plantinga, along with Wolterstorff and William Alston, is one of its chief architects. Wolterstorff describes it as a dual thesis: (1) “that many people hold many of their beliefs about God basically (that is, immediately, not on the basis of other beliefs)”; and (2) “often they are entitled thus to hold them” (“The Reformed Tradition,” in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997], 167), Accordingly, many theists are entitled to their belief in God without having any evidential support for that belief; this belief can be, in Plantinga’s terms, “properly basic” (cf. Plantinga’s “Reformed Epistemology,” in Quinn and Taliaferro, Companion: 383-89).

[5] See Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 40ff; cf. Martin, “The Verificationist Challenge,” in Quinn and Taliaferro, Companion: 204-212.

[6] This has been noted as early as 1955 in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (New York: The Macmillan Company).

[7] See Kai Nielsen, Contemporary Critiques of Religion (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971); An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982); “God and Verification Again,” in The Logic of God, ed. Malcolm Diamond and Thomas Lizenbury, Jr. (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975). Cf. Martin, Atheism and “The Verification Challenge,” for a defense of Nielsen’s case from these sources.

[8] Of course, it is not obvious that all (or even many) critics who have made such complaints against Christian belief would have had the De Jure Restriction in mind.

[9] Passing reference is made to Nietzsche, but Plantinga thinks he adds little to Marx and Freud; additionally, he admits having difficulty taking Nietzsche seriously for, despite his virtues, “[t]aken overall … [his] violence and exaggeration seem pathological for a candidate for the sober truth” (136). Presumably, this fault of Nietzsche’s is more damning than is the “extravagance of expression” that Plantinga admits characterizes some of John Calvin’s writing, but which does not provide a stumbling block to taking Calvin seriously (172).

[10] I am taking the idea of the universal sanction of “belief kinds” from James F. Sennett’s Modality, Probability and Rationality: A Critical Examination of Alvin Plantinga’s Philosophy (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1992):

A belief kind bears universal sanction when (i) the [intellectual merit] of beliefs belonging to this kind is typically affirmed by virtually all cognizers under normal circumstances; (ii) all cognizers routinely hold many beliefs of the kind as a matter of normal living; and (iii) the wholesale denial of the [intellectual merit] of beliefs of the kind would be unthinkable for virtually all cognizers. Such belief kinds help to structure, and seem virtually indispensable to, the normal function of human beings. It is, in short, inconceivable that human beings would be able to function in the context of general skepticism with regards [sic] to a universally sanctioned belief kind (110).

Sennett specifies the skepticism he is talking about is a pragmatic skepticism; he is not claiming that doubting entire universally sanctioned belief kinds (e.g., all memory beliefs) entails logical contradiction; they can be doubted in theory, but not in practice.

[11] See page 125 for Plantinga’s claim that not even God himself can non-circularly defend his own “epistemic faculties,” strongly suggesting he thinks such a defense is logically impossible.

[12] According to John Taylor’s “The Future of Christianity” (in The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, ed. John McManners [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992], 633ff.), the percentage of the world population classified as having “no religion” has increased more steeply from 1920 to 2000 (projected) than any of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism; “no religion” exceeds all but Christianity and Islam in “members.”

[13] See Calvin’s Institutes, I, iii, 3, 46; cited by Plantinga on page 172. Ironically, against an analogous application of the Oedipus Complex, Plantinga applies his standard undercut: “why should we believe [that]?” (195-96); cf. 390 for a similar disparaging of the “denial = secret admission” strategy.

[14] Plantinga actually introduces the idea of sin compromising, weakening, smothering, overlaying or impeding SD at the end of his discussion of the A/C model (184), and makes it one of the features of that basic model. However, this seems to violate the A/C model’s advocacy of mere theism as opposed to Christian theism; for Plantinga clearly categorizes sin and related concepts as part of the “uniquely Christian component” of Christian theism (vii).

[15] See Evan Fales’ “Reformed Epistemology and Biblical Hermeneutics,” Philo vol. 4, no. 2 (2001): 169-184, for discussion of some problems facing a straightforward understanding of any such intersection.

[16] See “Toward a sensible evidentialism: On the notion of ‘needing evidence’,” in Philosophy of Religion, 2nd ed., ed. William Rowe and William Wainwright (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1989); cited in Sennett, Modality, Probability and Rationality, 162-166.

[17] Evan Fales has suggested to me that this point can be made in probabilistic terms: since Pr(AC/T&b) is high (where “AC” is the AC model, “T” is theism and “b” is background information), independent reasons to judge Pr(AC/b) low are a fortiori evidence against T (personal correspondence, October 5, 2000).

[18] By this he means that “they are consistent with what… all (or most) of the participants in the discussion agree on” (169).

[19] My thanks go to Evan Fales for emphasizing this point, where I was prone to overlook it in an earlier draft of this review.

[20] Admittedly, he does claim that he’s trying to meet such a standard in defending the “official claims” of this book (see viii).

[21] The “rationality” Plantinga has in mind here is the internal rationality of proper function, i.e., rationality qua cognizer responding properly to his internal doxastic experience. See 110ff.

[22] Within the entire book it is only claimed in the preface that the pluralism defeater is de jure and the defeater from suffering and evil can be both de facto and de jure (viii-ix); also, given that the F/M Complaint of chapter 5 is a de jure issue, perhaps one can infer so too is the F/M Complaint which is taken as a projective theory-defeater in the first chapter of part IV.

[23] Elsewhere, Plantinga specifies that the defeaters are to be taken as de facto objections (“Warranted Christian Belief. A Précis by the Author,” Philosophia Christi vol. 3, no. 2 [2001]: 328). While this clarifies Plantinga’s position, it does not solve the problems I have raised with that interpretation of the defeaters of Christian belief.

[24] “Naturalistic explanations of theistic belief,” in Quinn and Taliaferro, Companion, 403.

[25] Interestingly, in Warrant2 he suggests philosophy itself is “a good candidate for a certain measured skepticism: in view of the enormous diversity of competing philosophical views, one can hardly claim with a straight face that what we have in philosophy is knowledge” (19); in Warranted Christian Belief he advises we should not presume the contents of various areas of our beliefs to be reliably formed, with political beliefs providing an example (148-49). No reason for doubting the reliability of political beliefs are given, but if the problem is as it is with philosophy, i.e., the wide diversity among these beliefs, perhaps in addition to plenty of clear instances of dogmatic partisanship, the applicability of similar doubts to religious belief is obvious.

[26] I should point out that Plantinga only specifies that defeaters are relevant to basic belief in the first two paragraphs of chapter 11, “Defeaters and Defeat”; after that no significant mention of basic belief is made, so in virtually all the material of this section no distinction is made between the defeat of basic beliefs and the defeat of inferred beliefs. This is quite unfortunate given that Plantinga’s models of warranted religious belief are focused on defending basic religious belief.

[27] I am extremely grateful to Professors Michael Martin and Evan Fales for generously taking the time to read and comment upon previous drafts of this review. I am also indebted to Sylvia Bryce for helpful conversations about this paper, and for being that proofreader than which none greater can be conceived.

Copyright ©2002 Tyler Wunder. The electronic version is copyright ©2007 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Tyler Wunder. All rights reserved.