Polytheism and Reformed Epistemology

Triumph of Faith over Idolatry by Jean-Baptiste Théodon (1646–1713)

[My post “Faith and Properly Basic Beliefs” provoked this response from Dr. Darrell Arnold.]

My Beliefs Are Basic, Your’s Are Not

Sociologists and historians can show us many cultures in which individuals have had beliefs that they probably thought were properly basic. I suppose the major ideologies into which we are indoctrinated seem quite basic to those who have internalized them. Growing up in a slave state, many may think slavery stands in no serious need of justification. Growing up in a misogynist society, a belief in the natural superiority of men may appear (nearly) basic. These just are relatively easily accepted by those in the cultures as the way things are.

But there is some difference between the examples of properly basic beliefs like “I see a tree,” or “I’m in pain” and beliefs like “There is a god” or “slavery and the subordinate place of women in society is natural” — namely, we don’t generally even ask for justifications for the properly basic beliefs, even if we are from a different culture with different views of metaphysics, proper political arrangements and so on. We would only ask for justifications of a statement, “I see a tree” if upon looking, we didn’t see it. We could ask about the views someone expresses about pain if the individual didn’t have bodily expressions that we associate with pain, but maybe ones we associate with joy instead. By contrast, in the case of the statements that God exists and has some particular set of characteristics, unless we are indoctrinated into the same cultures, we tend to want to know why an individual believes that God exists or has the characteristics the individuals attribute to Him or Her. For those kinds of statements, we want to see some evidence.

Christians demand evidence for why a Hindu believes what a Hindu believes or a Muslim believes what a Muslim believes. If told, “look within yourself and you will see,” many of these Christians would accuse the Hindu or the Muslim of having demonic possession, or of not rightly interpreting the internal perception. They typically apply one set of criteria to their own beliefs and another one entirely to those who seem to reach different conclusions based on their alleged properly basic beliefs.

Polytheism Properly Basic for Most of Human History

Furthermore, I rather imagine that if individuals from polytheist cultures met one another, they could see quite a few similarities in their views of the gods. If anything, through human history the polytheistic view has been more common than monotheism. Monotheism, and the view that this one God is omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving is a relatively late “achievement” of history. Looking at early history, you wouldn’t find it. By contrast, people did speak about seeing trees and feeling pain.

Throughout human history, complimenting polytheism, and then the later monotheism, there has also been a widespread belief that the gods regularly intervene in human history to reward or punish individuals or groups for their behavior. And it has been common to think that some set of rituals or actions might appease the gods, win their favor, manipulate them in some way. The magical thinking has been so common that it probably seemed to earlier generations of people to be universal and “basic.”

We can see the great confusion that this widespread belief has led to in human history. It led the Aztecs to justify the removal of human hearts from living people, it led various groups to engage in human sacrifices. It led Medieval Christians to burn witches and engage in the inquisition. It was at play in the Athenian sentence against Socrates. If anything polytheism has been more widespread than monotheism in history. It has seemed less in need of justification than that one God stands behind the many contradictory things that go on in the world.

But the fact that polytheism and magical thinking have been widespread and understood as in no special need of justification does not speak to their truth or of being basic in the sense that seeing and sensing pain is basic. This rather seems to lie in a tendency of humans to want explanations for things that we do not understand in a desire to control things outside of our control.

In addition to seeing and feeling, as basic, we have had widespread tendencies to reason badly, to be misled by wishful thinking, and to commit other logical fallacies. The fact that fallacious reasoning often has given rise to some similar sets of ideas is hardly proof of the truth of those ideas. Those ideas—which have nothing in common with properly basic beliefs other than being relatively widespread at varying times in history—need to be evaluated in light of evidence and clear reasoning. For this Plantinga doesn’t help us much.

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