Attitudes Toward Natural Theology

The single most accomplished contemporary practitioner and advocate of natural theology is Richard Swinburne, whose series of books constitutes a

monumental achievement in this field.

5 His first trilogy—Swinburne 1977, 1979, 1981—is more strictly devoted to natural theology than are some of his more recent books—e.g. Swinburne 1992 and 1994.

I learn from his work and admire it, especially his intelligent use of twentieth-century science, and I share his sanguine view of natural theology's capacities. But the more familiar philosophical attitude toward natural theology is not so favourable.

Natural theology is as old as the rest of philosophy,

6 See e.g. Webb 1915; Gerson 1990a.

and the most familiar sort of criticism of it must be almost equally ancient, because it's just the sort that any philosophical undertaking is bound to generate within philosophy itself. The methods of natural theology are analysis and argument, the methods of the rest of philosophy; and, like any other branch of philosophy, natural theology submits its results to rational assessment. The people who constitute the primary audience for natural theology, in this as in any period of the history of philosophy, are philosophers who are willing to assess its results on philosophical grounds. Anyone who in that way develops particular objections to particular arguments of natural theology is simply giving natural theology what it asks for. And, of course, it has had plenty of it. But offering a refutation of end p.3


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved an argument for, say, the existence of God is a paradigmatically philosophical objection, which doesn't by itself imply a negative attitude toward the enterprise of natural theology in which the rejected argument arose.

There aren't many philosophical atheists whose atheism explicitly drives part of their philosophical agenda, but, naturally, they can be among the most

dedicated challengers of natural theology's results.

7 For paradigms see Flew 1976; Mackie 1982. And sometimes their criticism has been developed to such an extent that it could be taken as a basis for repudiating the entire enterprise on philosophical grounds. In this respect, among others, natural theology resembles metaphysics, which some philosophers have sometimes rejected wholesale. The reason why both disciplines keep rising from their ashes in ever new guises is that their fundamental questions are undeniably and irresistibly there, in the substructure of rational inquiry, demanding yet another attempt at a systematic answer. And so a general philosophical repudiation of either inquiry is likely to be based, too narrowly, on the unsatisfactoriness of a particular set of answers with their supporting arguments, or, less effectively, on the impossibility of pursuing either inquiry by some favoured method or other—for example, those of the natural sciences.

Atheists haven't been the only philosophers to adopt negative attitudes toward natural theology. Philosophers who are theists are, of course, more likely to take an active interest in natural theology, and no doubt they're the only ones who ever engage in it constructively. Those who do so will, naturally, sometimes raise philosophical objections against particular arguments in natural theology, as Aquinas famously does against Anselm's (see Ch. Two, sect. 2). Religious philosophers may, however, generate or adopt not only philosophical objections to particular arguments; they may also raise religious objections to the whole enterprise of natural theology. There are many kinds of religious objections, a few of which we'll have to sample below, but their general nature and the spirit in which they're often offered can be nicely summed up in Alvin Plantinga's characterization of them: negative religious attitudes toward natural theology look'a little like the attitude some Christians adopt toward faith healing: it can't be done, but even if it could it shouldn't be' (1983: 63). Philosophers who repudiate end p.4


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved natural theology on religious grounds alone do so otherwise than as philosophers, however, and non-philosophical attitudes toward it won't directly concern me in this book except as part of the intellectual climate I'm sampling in this introduction.

I am more concerned with positions recently taken by some philosophical theists who do recognize important connections between theism and philosophy, especially in theory of knowledge, where, naturally, the focus is on the epistemology of religious belief. Among the most interesting positions developed by such philosophers are the ones associated with Alvin Plantinga and William Alston. Their positions differ generally, and so do their expressed attitudes toward natural theology. Putting the issues baldly to begin with, I might say that natural theology takes propositions such as 'God exists' or 'God loves his creatures' to have the same epistemic status as most other propositions seriously considered in philosophy—that is, to stand in need of clarification by analysis and support by argumentation. It's hard to imagine any philosopher denying their need for clarification. As for support by argumentation, however, Plantinga has maintained that such propositions are rationally acceptable without support of any kind—a claim I'll return to below. Alston thinks that they do ordinarily need support, but that natural theology is only one source of it—and not the most interesting one.

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