Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The sensus divinitatis

I'm going to discuss an objection to the sensus divinitatis (hereafter SD):

Contemporary demographic data illustrate the lopsided distribution of theistic belief. The populace of Saudi Arabia is at least 95 per cent Muslim and therefore at least 95 per cent theistic, while the populace of Thailand is 95 per cent Buddhist and therefore at most 5 per cent theistic. The approximate total populations are 26 million for Saudi Arabia and 65 million for Thailand.
The demographics of theism, I claim, make unlikely the existence of any such innate human capacity, however corruptible it may be when exposed to sinfulness. Innate human capacities, such as hearing or the capacity to learn spoken language, tend to be spread evenly across the human species. Again, however, the kind of belief in God that this innate capacity is allegedly designed to produce is quite unevenly distributed among human societies. Its defenders will reply that original sin prevents the capacity from accomplishing its purpose and that only God’s regenerating grace can restore the capacity to good working order. But that reply only pushes the question back a step : why has God bestowed this restorative grace so unevenly, contributing to a pattern of non-belief that, coincidentally, social scientists say they can explain entirely in terms of culture?

i) Suppose Maitzen's objection is sound. What does that amount to? At most it means that Calvin's theory and/or Plantinga's theory of a SD is false. But I don't see that Maitzen can get much mileage out of that concession. It's not like he successfully removed one theistic proof from the list of theistic proofs. The theory of a SD is not, itself, a reason to believe in God, but an explanatory description.

ii) Maitzen's statistics are naive. As I pointed out in a previous post, Maitzen fails to draw an elementary distinct between folk Buddhism and philosophical Buddhism. Even if the latter is atheistic, the former is not. Maitzen needs to show that most Thai are philosophical Buddhists rather than folk Buddhists.

iii) In addition, he is comparing two countries that have state religions. That tells you precious little about what people naturally believe. Rather, the ruling class imposes that on the masses. That may involve a historic event, where a past ruler decreed mass conversion, resulting in a particular national religion. Or it may be currently enforced. 

It isn't even clear how the statistics were gathered. Is this how Thai self-identify? Or is it an inference based on ethnic identity along with the official religion? 

iv) Maitzen fails to distinguish between Calvin's version of the SD and modern exponents like Plantinga. And he doesn't take time to carefully exegete Calvin's version. Consider Paul Helm's exposition in chapter 8. of John Calvin's Ideas. For instance, Helm construes Calvin to mean:

Calvin, no more than Locke, claims that we each have an innate idea of God, nor even an innate idea of some god or another. Rather, as we have seen, according to Calvin the SD is an innate endowment triggered by factors which are not innate, namely the features of the external world and of ourselves. It would have come as no surprise to him to be told that where two people occupy different environments, for example where they have teachers with different ideas of God, then the ideas of God which they form will also be  different.
Calvin is clearly not saying that all those who have a sense of God have a sense of the same God…It is just possible that Calvin may be best interpreted as arguing that the SD gives all men a confused knowledge of the true God. Even the atheist, according to Calvin, is able to distinguish right from wrong and may believe that there is something which enables us to make these discriminations (230,233).

That also combines with Calvin's position on the noetic effects of sin. As such, one's specific religiosity or irreligiosity is very sensitive to cultural conditioning. And cultural conditioning is highly variable. 

v) Apropos (iii-iv), believing in Allah is not equivalent to one's natural predisposition to believe in God. Rather, believing in Allah is due to historical particulars rather than natural inclinations. We wouldn't expect that to be universal. It's less about faith in God than faith in Muhammad. Believing that Allah disclosed himself to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel. That goes back to one man's alleged experience. That's historically conditioned rather than naturally conditioned. Having its point of origin and epicenter at a particular time and place. Same thing with Buddha and Buddhism. Or Hinduism. Or Marxism. 

In principle, there's a basic difference between a natural propensity to believe in God and a historical religion. Those are not equivalent theisms. They don't have the same underlying causes or theistic referents. So the comparison is equivocal. Believing in Allah or Vishnu has no direct or necessarily indirect connection with believing in the God of natural revelation. Rather, the former is a cultural construct or social artifact.  

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