Caroline McLeod

’17, Covenant College


In this paper, I address the issue of whether religious experience can warrant theistic, specifically Christian, belief, in opposition to the evidentialist objection to religious belief. I contend that religious experience does provide grounds for warranted Christian belief, in light of Plantinga’s Aquinas/Calvin model, but that non-Christians will never be satisfied with such grounds. This is because the type of religious experience that leads to belief in the Christian God is of such a nature that it cannot be understood unless one has had the experience.


One of the historic responses to the evidentialist objection to religious belief (which asserts that people are not justified in believing in God because there is not adequate evidence for such belief) has been to reply that there actually is adequate evidence for belief in God. One type of evidence cited is that of religious experience. This paper will address the question of whether theistic belief (specially, Christian belief) can have warrant by virtue of religious experience. In order to do so, we will look at Alvin Plantinga’s A/C (Aquinas/Calvin) model of warranted belief in God, as well as the objections raised to experience-based belief given by Baldwin & Thune and Silver. My contention is that religious experience does provide grounds for warranted Christian belief, but that non-Christians will not be satisfied with such grounds. This is because the type of religious experience that leads to belief in the Christian God is of such a nature that it cannot be understood unless one has had the experience.

In Warranted Christian Belief, Alvin Plantinga sets forth a model for the warrant of Christian belief, known as the A/C (Aquinas/Calvin) model, under which there is a sort of natural knowledge of God.[1] Under such a model, the capacity for belief in God is innate through the sensus divinitatus, “a disposition or set of dispositions to form theistic beliefs in various circumstances, in response to the sorts of conditions or stimuli that trigger the working of this sense of divinity.”[2] The sensus divinitatus, then, can function as an input-output device, which takes in various circumstances or experiences (e.g., a glorious sunrise) and produces the output of theistic belief. Plantinga claims that if the A/C model is true, then theistic beliefs formed as a result of the proper functioning of the sensus divinitatus would be warranted, as well as properly basic. (That is to say, they are not inferred from circumstances, but rather occasioned by them, and they are justified in being held in this way.) This model is meant to propose a possible way in which theistic beliefs formed from experiences could be warranted.

David Silver proposes that the experiential theist (one who believes in God on the basis of religious experience) is threatened by a defeater in the form of the problem of evil. Silver presents Draper’s formulation of the problem of evil, under which the observations of the pain and pleasure experience by humans and animals is better explained by the Hypothesis of Indifference (HI) than by theism. HI claims that “…neither the nature nor the conditions of sentient beings on earth is the result of benevolent or malevolent actions performed by nonhuman persons.”[3] Draper’s formulation then, as Silver presents it, is that since the observed pleasure and pain is better explained under HI than theism (and since HI and theism are incompatible with one another), then theistic belief is evidentially challenged. Silver claims that one could still be rational in holding theistic belief in the face of this evidential challenge if one had “some additional epistemic basis for its truth.”[4] However, Silver continues to argue that the “intellectually sophisticated theist” whose additional epistemic grounds rest on the sensus divinitatus cannot avoid the defeater presented in the problem of evil because she must also “rationally believe that she possesses such grounds.” Silver’s contention is that the sufficiently informed pure experiential theist (SIPE theist) cannot rationally believe that she possesses warranted belief based on the sensus divinitatus, so the evidential challenge of the problem of evil turns out to be a defeater for her belief in God.

Silver’s argument rests on his contention that the intellectually sophisticated, sufficiently informed (i.e., has read Silver’s paper) theist who holds that her belief is warranted solely from its being formed by the sensus divinitatus (and I would like to note that I am not even sure such a person exists) cannot rationally believe that her theistic belief is warranted. Silver holds that this is because “there is something inappropriately circular about the way that the SIPE theist holds that her belief in God is warranted due to its being produced by a properly functioning sensus divinitatus.”[5]  Silver claims that the only reason Plantinga gives for the experiential theist believing they possess a properly functioning sensus divinitatus is derived from their belief that God exists. To make this point, Silver quotes Plantinga:

[If theistic belief is true] then there is, indeed, such a person as God, a person… who loves us, who desires that we know and love him, and who is such that it is our end and good to know and love him. But if these things are so, then he would of course intend that we be able to be aware of his presence and to know something about him. And if that is so, the natural thing to think is that he created us in such a way that we would come to hold such true beliefs as that there is such a person as God… And if that is so, then the natural thing to think is that the cognitive processes that do produce belief in God are aimed by their designer as producing that belief.[5]

Silver’s ultimate conclusion from this is that the “SIPE theist bases her belief in God on the belief that she has been so informed by a properly functioning sensus divinitatus, and at the same time bases her belief that she has a properly functioning sensus divinitatus on her supposition that God exists.”[6] Silver shows that this circularity is illegitimate based on the independence constraint on neutralizers:

Z cannot neutralize X as a potential defeater for Y if Z is evidentially dependent on Y.[7]

In this situation, Z is the SIPE theists’ belief in the sensus divinitatus, which is dependent on God’s existence (Y). But Y is what is being called into question by the potential defeater (X) of the problem of evil. Silver thus holds that this illegitimate circularity that undermines the theist’s ability to rationally believe that her theistic belief is warranted, which leaves her unable to defeat the defeater presented in the problem of evil.

Baldwin and Thune’s paper objects to the theist who holds “creedal-specific religious beliefs” on the basis of their exclusivity, that is, “their propositional content entails the falsehood of other, incompatible religious beliefs.”[8]  Christian belief would fall into this category, since the truth of its doctrines necessitates the falsehood of other religions. Baldwin and Thune intend to show that the proper basicity of the Christian belief under Plantinga’s model can be challenged by the testimony of a religious experience that is incompatible with the beliefs of the Christian. They pull the following example from a different article from David Silver:

David Silver supposes that a person (call her Faith) accepts Christian belief in the basic way, roughly according to Plantinga’s “Aquinas/Calvin” model. Further, he continues, Faith’s trustworthy friend, Victor, reports to her that he has had a religious experience and as a result has come to form religious beliefs incompatible with those of Faith… According to Silver, unless Faith has a defeater for Victor’s testimony (other than her own basic belief in the truth of Christianity), her Christian belief will be defeated and thus cannot be rationally maintained.[9]

Baldwin & Thune assert that in the face of this counter-testimony, the Christian is threatened with a defeater to the proper basicality (and, by extension, the warrant) of her Christian beliefs.

The first possible way to defeat Victor’s testimony that the article addresses is by the Principle of Testimonial Evidence, presented by Vogelstein. According to Baldwin and Thune:

PTE     If I believe proposition P in the basic way, then if I hear testimony that  ̴ P and have no further defeater for P or  ̴ P, I ought to weigh the strength of my inclination to believe that P against the strength of my inclination to believe that  ̴ P (based on that testimony) in order to determine whether to believe P,  ̴ P, or neither P nor  ̴ P. [10]

According to Vogelstein then, if Faith has no other defeater for her religious belief other than Victor’s testimony and she is more strongly inclined to keep her Christian belief than to accept its denial on the basis of such testimony, then she is justified to continue in her beliefs. Baldwin and Thune deal, rightly, with this objection by noting first that Vogelstein does not specify when exactly one has “no further defeater” and can resort to the weighing of inclinations. But more importantly, “the claim that inclinations to believe a proposition are sufficient to ward off defeat, even in the face of serious-counter testimony, is implausible… PTE seems to suggest that a person could rationally hold basic beliefs in the face of counter-testimony simply by announcing that she ‘has no further defeater’ and claiming a stronger inclination to accept them than the counter-testimony.”[11]  Baldwin and Thune are right to discard Vogelstein’s response to the instance of counter-testimony. If I am strongly inclined to believe, for example, that I have a certain deadline for a paper, and then a trustworthy classmate tells me the paper is actually due a week earlier than I had believed, it would seem to be epistemically irresponsible for me to continue in holding to my original belief simply because I have a stronger inclination towards it (perhaps because I really want an extra week to write the paper). There should be something more than the strength of inclinations to defeat the defeaters of counter-testimony.

However, I contend that Baldwin and Thune wrongly discard of the second response to the counter-testimony. This second response is that Faith may “appeal to her additional belief that she has a special source of religious knowledge, such as the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit (IIHS).”[12] Baldwin and Thune deny this move on the basis that Victor’s testimony is not compatible with Faith’s belief that she possesses a special source of religious knowledge, and thus Victor’s testimony is a defeater both for her belief in Christianity and for her belief that she has had IIHS. Because of this “it is illegitimately circular for Faith to use her belief that she has a special source of religious knowledge as a defeater-defeater for Victor’s testimony – since she could have this source of knowledge only if Victor’s testimony is false.”[11] Thus it is asserted that an appeal to Faith’s religious experience through IIHS to defend against Victor’s testimony is begging the question, because it assumes that Victor’s testimony is false in order for Faith to have had the IIHS.

I will now address why the main objections presented by Silver and Baldwin & Thune center on the seeming circularity of belief in Christianity based on an experience informed by the sensus divinitatus. Indeed, it is the same reason why testimonies of religious experience by Christians will never be sufficient to convince non-believers of their validity: the non-believers have never had such an experience themselves. Now, in most cases, a person’s not having undergone a particular experience does not lead them to discount the testimony of those who have. (Even though I have never experienced the Grand Canyon, most people would think it odd for me to disregard testimonies that it is, indeed, grand.) However, I argue that the type of religious experience that results in belief in God is a fundamentally different type of experience, and as such it cannot be comprehended and will always be doubted by those who have not had it.

Imagine with me a young boy (say, 8 years old), who hears sappy love songs on the radio but cannot understand them. He understands what the words say, but is skeptical of the meaning and emotion they intend to convey. Upon telling him of his reaction to the songs, the boy’s father simply smiles and says “You’ll understand when you’re older.” The boy will be frustrated by this response (as we all were when we were younger) and continue in his disbelief of the validity of the silly love songs. But everyone knows how this story continues. The boy grows up and falls in love for the first time, and suddenly all of the confusing, exciting, terrifying emotions the love songs convey make sense. Until he had experienced it for himself, all of the explaining and arguing in the world wouldn’t have changed the boy’s mind about the validity of the love songs.

It is my contention that a religious experience that results in belief in the Christian God is of the same nature as falling in love. An encounter with a personal God is fundamentally unlike any other experience, in such a way that it completely changes the way you see and experience everything else. To those who are on the other side of grace, this does not make sense and it results in Christian belief seeming to be circular: we believe that God exists because He has made himself known to us, and we know He really has made himself known to us because we know that He exists. To those who believe, this is completely legitimate; but to those who do not, it is frustrating in the same way that the father’s “You’ll understand when you’re older” frustrates the young boy. This is why believers think that their religious experience gives them an upper-hand in their beliefs in such a way that they cannot be swayed by counter-testimonies and evidences. A quote from Plantinga says it well:

…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 internal 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 [emphasis mine]… she must think that she has access to a source of warranted belief the other lacks… 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.[13]

This is exactly right. Believers and non-believers are not operating from the same epistemic starting point. Believers have the advantage of access to special knowledge that has been revealed to us, but we will never be able to convince unbelievers of this until they themselves experience a movement of the Holy Spirit inside of them – and at that point, they’re not unbelievers anymore.

Because of this, religious experience does lead to warranted belief, but religious experience is also of such a nature that this will be unconvincing to those on the outside of Christianity. The best way to address this issue is to spread the gospel and pray that the Lord moves in the hearts and minds of those who do not believe. Until then, we must be satisfied in the words of 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. Yes, Father, for this is what you are pleased to do.”[14]

[1] Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 170.

[2] Ibid., 173.

[3] David Silver, “Religious Experience and the Evidential Argument from Evil,” Religious Studies 38.3 (2002): 340.

[4] Ibid., 342.

[5] Ibid., 348.

[6] Ibid., 349.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Erik Baldwin & Michael Thune, “The Epistemological Limits of Experience-Based Exclusive Religious Belief,” Religious Studies 44.4 (2008): 445.

[9] Ibid., 446.

[10] Ibid., 447.

[11] Ibid., 451.

[12] Ibid., 446.

[13] Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief, 453.

[14] Luke 10:21



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