A Theist and an Atheist Walk into a Bar . . .

Alvin Plantinga was not your stereotypical jock in high school. Though he played three sports, he was a deep thinker who, by the age of 8, was wrestling with the Calvinist view of total depravity, by 10 was grappling with determinism and predestination, and by 14 had read Plato’s Dialogues.

By the time he finished middle school, Plantinga knew what he wanted to be when he grew up:

A philosopher.

That decision would ultimately bring two unlikely parties to the same table—faith and philosophy. Plantinga, now 84, has arguably played a bigger role than anyone in bridging the two fields. He has shown—through his writing and teaching—that faith is a reasonable, rational, intellectual and, yes, philosophical choice.

For more than 50 years, Plantinga, recent winner of the Templeton Prize, has “made theism—the belief in a divine reality or god—a serious option within academic philosophy.”

Some of Plantinga’s fellow believers were skeptical. So were many philosophers.

“Certain kinds of evangelical Christians thought philosophy was a bad idea,” Plantinga said in a recent interview. “They thought it involved questioning the faith. Lots of people don’t realize that philosophy comes in many varieties.”

“Alvin Plantinga’s intellectual discoveries have initiated novel inquiry into spiritual dimensions,” wrote one philosopher who nominated Plantinga for the Templeton Prize. “His precise and carefully developed insights have opened up intellectual-spiritual space. In the 1950s there was not a single published defense of religious belief by a prominent philosopher; by the 1990s there were literally hundreds of books and articles . . . defending and developing the spiritual dimension. The difference between 1950 and 1990 is, quite simply, Alvin Plantinga.”

Not irrational or senseless

“What I’ve always wanted to do as a philosopher,” Plantinga said, “is defend a Christian way of thinking about things and argue that to be a Christian is not to be irrational or senseless or silly. It’s certainly not a unanimous view among philosophers that you can reasonably be a Christian; but that’s now one perfectly sensible view in the neighborhood.”


“Certain kinds of evangelical Christians thought philosophy was a bad idea. They thought it involved questioning the faith. Lots of people don’t realize that philosophy comes in many varieties.”

— Alvin Plantinga

Plantinga, the John A. O’Brien Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, said his atheist colleagues respected him “because I was a pretty good philosopher. But they also thought I had this screw loose.”

But his toughest nut to crack—especially as a theist—was the problem of evil: “It’s really hard to understand . . . why God would permit so much evil in the world. I don’t think there’s a good answer to that.”

Certainly no perfect answer, but Plantinga came close. Philosophers have long argued that the existence of both God and evil are logically incompatible. But Plantinta says that in a world of free creatures, God cannot determine their behavior, so even an omnipotent God might not be able to create a world where all creatures will always freely choose to do good. Those ideas were crystallized in his book, God, Freedom, and Evil (1974), widely regarded as having laid to rest the logical problem of evil against theism.

Plantinga further explains this “free-will defense” in this 4-minute video:

‘Pretty good arguments for theism’

In his September acceptance speech at the Templeton Prize ceremony, Plantinga concisely laid out his thinking over the last half a century. An abridged version of his remarks:

“I’ve argued that belief in God, and more specifically Christian belief, is not irrational. [M]any philosophers have argued that belief in God is indeed, irrational; and of course if it is irrational, we ought not to accept it. They think as follows: it would clearly be irrational to believe in God if there were not good evidence for the existence of God . . .

“Now what I’ve argued, in a nutshell, is this. First of all, that there are some pretty good arguments for theism, for the existence of God. More important, though, what I’ve argued is that if belief in God is true—if there really is such a person as God—then belief in God is not irrational.

“And if my argument is right, then a very common attitude among those who don’t believe in God is mistaken. That attitude goes like this: ‘I don’t know whether or not there really is such a person as God . . . but I do know the belief in God is irrational.’ My argument, very simply, is that if theism is true, then in all likelihood God would make his presence known to us human beings. And if this is so, then it would make sense to think of God as creating us in such a way that there is an innate tendency to believe in him, or at least to have some sort of inkling of his existence. This would have to be something that doesn’t depend on arguments.

“[But] most people don’t pay much attention to philosophers or philosophical arguments. That’s certainly a very sad fact, there it is: you’ll just have to get used to it.”

Answering your questions

Plantinga recently spent a lively hour with the British podcast Unbelievable, answering questions from listeners on such wide-ranging topics as evolution, naturalism, scripture, the ontological argument, and the state of his air conditioning unit.

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame


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