Clark Rejects the Rationality of Evidentialism, Part 2

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. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One reason that many people dismiss apologetics is influence of the romantic period (early nineteenth century) has led many Christians to focus on heart rather than head in their faith. Pastors have been known to say—“people won’t care what you know until they see how much you care.” While there is truth in this expression, head and heart cannot be separated.

After the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards observed that, if revivals were not followed by sound teaching, the formerly fervent new believers soon wandered off, never to be seen again in church. We witnessed this very same pattern in the weeks after 9-11 as the new faces in church after the attack soon disappeared again. Clearly, we need apologetic insights into the faith that we adopt with our hearts in order to remain faithful when our fervent hearts cool.

In part one of this review of Kelly James Clark’s book, Return to Reason, I gave an overview of Clark’s argument about evidentialism

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

I will examine in part 2 three arguments for the existence of God laid that Clark critiques: the cosmological argument by Richard Taylor, William Paley’s argument from design, and a probabilistic argument outlined by Richard Swinburne. Clark describes attempts to prove God’s existence from facts known about the natural world at natural theology (15).

The Cosmological Argument

This argument begins with a question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (17) Citing Taylor, Clark appeals to the principle of sufficient reason:

“…for every positive truth there is some sufficient reason which makes it true. There are two ways that statements can be true. Statements can be contingently true, which means their being true depends on something else; and statements may be necessarily true, which means their truth is not dependent on the truth of other statements.” (18)

Taylor sees no reason to doubt that the existence of the world is contingent on something else that we do not know (the chain of causality must lead to something eternal and imperishable). This eternal and imperishable being is God (21-22).

While the conclusion from this argument that God exists is obvious to a theist (someone who already believes in God), a non-theist sees no reason to conclude that the world is contingent on anything (23). The theist stops when God is presented; the non-theist asks whether God is contingent (24). Thus, the pre-supposition that God exists renders the argument moot.

The Argument from Design

Clark summarizes Paley’s argument succinctly:

“The world shows design; design implies a designer; hence, the world requires a designer.” (27)

Paley arguments that the existence of a stone poses no evidence that anyone ever put it there, but if one found a watch lying on the beach, the precision and subtly of a watch begs the question of who made it.

Hume argued, unlike with a watch, we have no experience with how the universe was made and so it appears as a unique item. Our explanations are therefore by analogy, not direct knowledge. Suppose, for example, the universe were created by a committee, not just one person. Thus, we cannot intuit the existence of God from design, except perhaps through anthropomorphism (51). Darwin believed that instead of design, the extinction of species pointed to an absence of design and to evolution as the mechanism for the creation of complex animal features (33-34).

A Probabilistic Argument

Clark summarizes Swinburne’s probabilistic argument as follows: 

  1. “The existence and design of the world—including morality, free moral agents, religious experience—are extremely improbable without the hypothesis of theism.
  2. The hypothesis of theism significantly raises the probability of the existence and design of the world.
  3. The hypothesis of theism explains and unites under a sign hypothesis an otherwise disparate and unlikely set of phenomena—the existence and design of the world, religious experience, miracles, and evil.
  4. The hypothesis of theism has sufficiently intrinsic plausibility.
  5. Therefore, it is like that God exists” (38).

Mackie looks at the same evidence and concludes that a materialistic or naturalistic origin for the universe is more likely, particularly because we have never observed a person without a body (38-39). Consequently, once again we see that the probabilistic argument depends heavily on the fundamental beliefs that you hold, prior to the argument rendering the argument moot (40).

Clark argues that because each of the arguments for God’s existence (or non-existence) do not stand alone, independent of prior beliefs, experience from the natural world cannot be used to substantiate the existence of God. In statistics, we are taught that relationships among observe data cannot determine causality, a restatement of Clark’s conclusion. It is accordingly pointless to pursue the requirements for proof under evidentialism (43). He therefore proceeds to explore alternatives.

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.


Darwin, Charles. 1958. Autobiography (Orig Pub 1887). Edited by Francis Darwin. New York: Dover.

Hume, David. 1980. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Orig Pub 1776). Edited by Richard H. Popkin. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Mackie, J.I. 1982. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paley, William. 2002. The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (Orig Pub 1785). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. Online: Cited: 18 November 2017.

Swinburne, Richard. 1979. The Existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon.

Taylor, Richard. 1974. Metaphysics. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Clark Rejects the Rationality of Evidentialism, Part 2

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