Over at Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers has a good post on Alvin Plantinga's recent article in Christianity Today, in which Plantinga summarises his well-known argument (not especially original to him) about the alleged incoherence of naturalism.
The argument is supposed to show that if naturalism - by which he means the philosophical position that there is no God or anything similar - is true we have no reason to trust our capacity to discover truth about the world. We cannot take such a philosophical position, Plantinga argues, while also maintaining that human beings evolved from earlier forms of life. This is supposedly because evolution could not give us a reliable capacity to discover truth; it could only give us sufficiently useful behaviours to survive and reproduce. If we trust our capacity to discover truth, so Plantinga tells us, we are committed to believing in a God who can guarantee that our reasoning capacities are essentially reliable.
It's an interesting argument, and there is much to be said about it. In the end, though, it's nonsense. First, it assumes a false dichotomy: either we have a highly reliable (even Godlike) capacity to discover the truth or we have no such capacity. Why not assume that we have a limited capacity to discover truths about the world, and that, thanks mainly to language, we have a cultural capacity to improve on this over historical time (and with great effort)? That's certainly how it looks from here. And why assume that some general-purpose capacity to perceive the world around us accurately, and to model it via processes that conform with basic kinds of reasoning (induction, hypothetico-deductive reasoning, the fundamentals of first-order logic), would not be good for survival and reproduction?
Our brains may use sorts of heuristics that are misleading outside the contexts in which we evolved, but any organism will do better if, for example, it uses induction when it models its environment. If a small predator makes the mistake of attacking a large predator, gets mauled in the process, and barely escapes with its life, it will be in big trouble if its brain models reality by the equivalent of an argument that it's "due" for success next time. There is an indefinitely vast range of circumstances in which it's better for any organism to model the local environment on the basis of ordinary cogent ways of reasoning.
P.Z. Myers emphasises the limited part. Our capacity to discover the truth about the world is not Godlike, but very constrained. It takes great effort to get robust findings about how the world works, once we step out of the most everyday observational level. That's correct, of course, and I should add that what we actually find when we gradually build up knowledge of the past, the very small, and the very distant, for example, may end up being highly counterintuitive. Indeed, over-active agent-recognition heuristics that would have evolutionary advantages might partly explain the popularity and persistence of beliefs about supernatural intelligences. The human brain is far from being a perfect truth detector. It's so imperfect that it looks far more like the product of evolution than like the design of a benevolent god.
But I'll leave readers to have a look at Myers' rebuttal for themselves, since there's another aspect of Plantinga's article that I want to draw attention to. Plantinga observes:
As everyone knows, there has been a recent spate of books attacking Christian belief and religion in general. Some of these books are little more than screeds, long on vituperation but short on reasoning, long on name-calling but short on competence, long on righteous indignation but short on good sense; for the most part they are driven by hatred rather than logic.
Now, it's true that there's a great deal of righteous indignation in such books as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, and Michel Onfray's The Atheist Manifesto. There's nothing wrong with that, because righteous indignation has its place. The question in any particular instance is whether or not the indignation is justified. If what is being criticised is sufficiently harmful, then why not? Whether or not it's justified, Plantinga's own article contains a certain amount of righteous indignation.
That's all fine, but I do object when Plantinga writes that such books are driven by "hatred". This use of words such "hate" and "hatred" cheapens them; it takes us to the point where almost any denunciation of ideas and organisations can be described as some kind of hate speech, even though nobody is urging that the ideas and organisations be suppressed or that the individuals adhering to the ideas, or belonging to the organisation be harmed. It's only a step away from characterising your opponents as motivated by hatred to calling for their speech to be banned and branding them as enemies of the social order.
These easy accusations of hatred are irresponsible, at best, and we ought to call bullshit on them whenever they appear.
Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("the ICCPR") contains a provision requiring that "Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law." This requires, among other things, that signatory nations to the convention criminalise speech that can be classified as "religious hatred" but does no more than incite "hostility" to a religion or to its practitioners. Potentially, it's a very dangerous provision. If interpreted too loosely, it could have far-reaching consequences for freedom of speech.
Any denunciation of an organisation or a body of ideas is likely to incite at least some hostility. Accordingly, the only thing that prevents the work of Dawkins, Hitchens, or Onfray from being caught by laws based faithfully on Article 20 of the ICCPR is that their critiques of religion do not amount to "advocacy of ... religious hatred". Of course, they don't; in historical context, the phrase has a different meaning. It doesn't refer to legitimate criticisms of organisations and belief systems. However, there is a tendency in recent times for religious apologists to blur the distinction between harsh criticism of religious doctrines and organisations, on one hand, and some kind of expression of hatred, on the other. Plantinga is merely the latest of many to adopt this meretricious tactic.
I'm not sufficiently paranoid to think that Plantinga is angling to get the speech of his opponents banned. For one thing, he would never succeed in the US, where any such ban would clearly breach the First Amendment. Nonetheless, if it became accepted outside the US that works such as those of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Onfray constituted a form of hate speech, a point would soon be reached where they would be classified as illegal under Article 20 and national laws that are based on it.
While that sounds like a crazy outcome, it's not such a large step from the current situation where Geert Wilders is already being prosecuted under hate speech laws in the Netherlands, partly over the content of his short film, Fitna. If Fitna is classified as socially-unacceptable hate speech, the line will have shifted, and a fierce critique of religion such as Onfray's The Atheist Manifesto will no longer appear obviously safe from criminal prosecution in such countries as the Netherlands. Wilders has already been excluded from entry to the UK to speak about Islam, though he has never attempted to incite his audiences to violence.
Tiresome though it may be, we need to point out each time this accusation of hatred is made that the word "hatred" is being misused and debased. Of course, Plantinga and his comrades are too blind to religion's flaws to understand that harsh opponents of religion are not motivated by hatred at all, but more likely by such emotions as compassion for the many people whose lives are blighted by religious dogma. Compassion for those who are harmed may well provoke "righteous indignation", or even hostility and anger, but it is not an anger that settles into hatred. No one has to hate Pope Benedict, for example, to be hostile to many of his beliefs and statements.
Plantinga and others who use the language of "hatred" totally misunderstand the psychological basis for criticism of religion, perhaps because they can't see religion's harms. Perhaps they don't understand what, apart from something like hatred, could motivate strong criticism of something as "nice" as religion. I'm not going to be so snide as to claim that they are projecting their own nastier emotions onto others, because I don't know that for a fact. But perhaps Professor Plantinga ought to think about it; maybe he should have a good look in the mirror, before he smears the motivations of others.
Whatever their own motivation may be, it's lamentable when Christian apologists such as Plantinga stoop to claiming that opponents must be motivated by hatred in their hearts.