Plantinga on Fundamentalism 


I've been reading Alvin Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief. It's a fascinating book, though not easily summarized for a blog. The author's sense of humor shows in numerous places, but probably none more so than his handling the objection of "you're a fundamentalist." It would have helped if I'd had this handy a week or two ago. 

"I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize [my model of Christian epistemology]. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term 'fundamentalist'. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like 'son of a bitch', more exactly 'sonovabitch', or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) 'sumbitch'. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of 'fundamentalist' (in this widely current use): it isn't simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch' (or maybe 'fascist sumbitch'?) than 'sumbitch' simpliciter. It isn't exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical [definition] element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like 'stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine'.

"It is therefore hard to take seriously the charge that the views I'm suggesting are fundamentalist; more exactly, it is hard to take it seriously as a charge. The alleged charge means only that these views are rather more conservative than those of the objector, together with the expression of a certain distaste for the views or those who hold them. But how is that an objection to anything, and why should it warrant the contempt and contumely that goes with the term?" [pp. 244-245; emphasis in the original]

I hasten to add that this is hardly representative of Plantinga's epistemology, though it is of his creativity. And it does give you a taste for how clearly he can address certain objections. I also hasten to add that his discussion of "fundamentalism" has nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism, in spite of my mentioning the link above. 

Recovered Comments Here  

Posted: Tue - April 4, 2006 at 07:53 PM           |


© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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