Knowledge, Belief, and God

New Insights in Religious Epistemology

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Matthew A. Benton, John Hawthorne, Dani Rabinowitz
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Knowledge, Belief, and God: New Insights in Religious Epistemology, edited by Matthew A. Benton, John Hawthorne, and Dani Rabinowitz, is not “philosophy for dummies.” It is for advanced analytic philosophers with full knowledge of probability theory and of transfinite set-theory. This collection is, on the whole, a sizable step forward in the epistemology of religion (unhappily given as “religious epistemology”), and warmly recommended. The editors have engaged a cast of high-powered, creative, analytic philosophers who go well beyond what are now the stock battles on the topic. The single hold-over from the more familiar gang is Richard Swinburne, who offers a careful, detailed expansion of his previous defense of the experience of God as having positive epistemic value. 

The book has four parts. Part 1, “Historical,” has four chapters, at the center of which are two dealing with the difference between Aquinas and Duns Scotus on the epistemic ground of accepting testimony for faith. Richard Cross elegantly presents Aquinas’s conception of “divine illumination” and Scotus’s rejection of it, and Billy Dunaway follows with a clear defense of Scotus’s position. Charity Anderson’s chapter carefully argues, from Hume, that the main problem in believing in a miracle is not the improbability of the event, but in relying on testimony that it happened. Dani Rabinowitz’s chapter presents a learned discussion of a brand-new topic in Jewish philosophy: given Judaism’s detailed conditions for achieving repentance, can a person know she has fulfilled those conditions? Rabinowitz’s answer is that a person might not know that they have succeeded, even if they have truly fulfilled the conditions.

Part 2, entitled “Formal,” has four chapters, three on the fine-tuning argument for a designer. The impressive chapter by Isaac Choi on fine-tuning, which I admit I could not fully master, engages problems of probability in an infinite array. The probability of any member of the infinite array obtaining is 0, and so the cumulative probability of some member or other coming up is also 0, even when one does obtain. Thus, probability theory does not work there and this can affect the fine-tuning argument. The chapter “Fine-Tuning Fine-Tuning” by John Hawthorne and Yoav Isaacs is an intricate, convincing argument that the fine-tuned universe is far more likely with theism than atheism, even if to start with theism would be less likely than atheism.To the contrary, Hans Halverson argues that if God had wanted to create a “nice universe” such as ours, why would God have created laws of nature for which only very narrow parameters then worked? Halverson thinks this counts against a God of the kind sought by the fine-tuning folk. This is not a very strong argument, for God does not first create the laws of nature and only after that scramble around to find the appropriate fine-tuned parameters. Both the laws and the parameters are part of the initial design, if design there is. In any case, “how odd of God” it is to have done all sorts of things that yet seem to be designed.

Part 3, “Social,” deals mainly with the epistemology of religious disagreement. Standing out in this section is Jennifer Lackey’s “Experts and Peer Disagreement,” in which she argues the problematics of taking an expert as an authority rather than as an advisor. The chapter makes only passing reference to religious authority. If it had been more centered on religion, Lackey might have stopped to consider that religious authority does not always function as evidence for belief, but as a source whose word one is to accept, to make it one’s own, in humility and self-abasement. This is then a religious gesture and not an epistemic one. 

Part 4, “Rational,” is pretty much a place where the editors put what they did not know where to place elsewhere. The four chapters range from modal skepticism to Swinburne on the evidential value of religious experience. One chapter by Keith DeRose, entitled “Delusions of Knowledge Concerning God’s Existence,” raises suspicions that nobody knows from religious experience that God exists. Curiously, one of DeRose’s arguments comes from focusing on those who used to—at least from the outside—look just like those who still present themselves as experience-based knowers, but who now have left the faith and take themselves never to have known. After all, I would reply, those who really did know from religious experience that God exists would be expected never to lose the faith and never to conclude firmly that they never knew. DeRose’s sample of people is heavily skewed to start with.

I have given only a sketch of the varied topics and impressive achievements of this collection. For those who can handle it, this book is well worth the money (or a walk over to the university library).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jerome Yehuda Gellman is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Honorary Professor at Australian Catholic University.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew A. Benton is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Seattle Pacific University. Prior to that he held postdoctoral research fellowships at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Oxford. He earned his PhD in philosophy from Rutgers University.

John Hawthorne is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, and formerly Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at the University of Oxford.

Dani Rabinowitz earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of Oxford; he then held a Junior Research Fellowship at Somerville College, Oxford. He is currently a trainee solicitor with Clifford Chance LLP.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.