Clark Rejects the Rationality of Evidentialism, Part 1

Kelly James Clark, Return to ReasonKelly James Clark. 1990. Return To Reason: A Critique of Enlightenment Evidentialism and a Defense of Reason and Belief in God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (After December 5: Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For those of us that grew up believing in God at an early age, apologetics seems a bit unreal. How do you prove that your parents exist? The answer is that you do not prove their existence; you simply point to them. Still, the arguments give comfort that your own existence makes sense and includes continuity with those that went before, something like a genealogy study proves royal lineage.

Introduction

Kelly James Clark’s book, Return to Reason, focuses on a crucial critique offered during the Enlightenment:

“Evidentialism maintains that a belief is rational for a person only if that person has sufficient evidence or arguments or reasons for that belief.” (3)

This statement is an epistemological presupposition, which is an untested, presumption about how we know something, has intuitive appeal because we all want to believe that we are rational thinkers. However, as Clark argues, almost nothing that we believe actually meets this criterion which, particularly in view of the damage that it has done to the Christian faith community, leaves us wondering if a bias has been exhibited merely by posing this standard for belief.

Responses to Evidentialism

Clark points to three basic responses to evidentialism. The first response (theistic evidentialism) is that some people believe that sufficient evidence for God’s existence can be demonstrated. The second response (fideism) is to admit that sufficient evidence does not exist, but we must simply have faith that God exists. The third response is to reject evidentialism (reformed epistemology) and develop an alternative definition for rationality. Clark writes in support of this third response and argues that evidentialism is doubly flawed (6-8).

Outline of Book

Clark writes his book in four parts:

  1. “Proving God’s Existence: Problems and Prospects
  2. God and Evil
  3. The Irrelevance of Evidentialism: God—Hypothesis or Person?
  4. Return to Reason: The Irrationality of Evidentialism” (vii-viii).

In view of the importance of these arguments, I will write this review in two parts. Part one will focus on Clark’s argument. In part 2, I will examine Clark’s problems with the classical apologetics.

Background on Clark

Kelly James Clark (1956- ) is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute and Professor at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids Michigan. Clark received his Phd from the University of Notre Dame where his dissertation advisor was Alvin Plantinga. He has held professorships at Calvin College, Oxford University, University of St. Andrews, Notre Dame & Gordon College. He also served as Executive Director for the Society of Christian Philosophers from 1994-2009. Clark’s books include Religion and the Sciences of Origins, Abraham’s Children, The Story of Ethics, When Faith Is Not Enough, and 101 Key Philosophical Terms of Their Importance for Theology.[1]

Assessment

In his book, Return To Reason, Kelly James Clark examines the Enlightenment claim that insufficient evidence exists to believe that God exists, an argument that he describes as evidentialism. He reviews three arguments for the existence of God and their weaknesses. He then goes on to reject evidentialism as a standard for determining rationality and to discuss the rationality of belief in God. Clark’s concise presentation should interest anyone who cares about apologetics.

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly_James_Clark. @KellyJamesClark.

Clark Rejects the Rationality of Evidentialism, Part 1

Also see:

Plantinga Defends Merits of Confessional Faith

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