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Philosophy of Religion
15 December 2011
Philosophy of Religion
Professor William Alston’s article, “Why I Am A Christian,” is an argument for why he became a Christian and why he remains thus. His argument, however is reverential in nature, drawing on his upbringing in the church throughout his childhood and adolescent years. Alston claims that his religious experiences led him to his belief in God. He has not had a religious experience, however. Alston has had an experience which his prior cultural and religious biases lead him to interpret as religious, and is therefore not justified in believing in the existence of God.
Alston begins his article, “Why I Am A Christian,” by comparing the development of Christianity in his life to hearing “some things in music that I hadn’t heard before” and seeing “the significance of things that are going on around me.” He explains that he was raised in the Methodist denomination, but rebelled as an adolescent. He later was involved with an Episcopal Church while teaching at the University of Michigan, but left. Later in the article, Alston discusses how finally his experiences in the church brought him back to that community where he now feels he is thriving. He states, “I’m a Christian because it was in the Christian Church that I came to discover the presence and activity of God in my life.” He says it is by God’s Grace that he responded to the Gospel message proclaimed therein.
In Reason and Religious Belief, Alston discusses how those who experience, or perceive, God, do not explain their experiences using typical “sensory language” (Basinger 35). Instead, those who have had perceptual experiences of God “perceived qualities… such as power, beauty, and goodness” (Basinger 34). Alston refers to these as “phenomenal properties,” perceived characteristics of God that capture broad categories of the divine persona rather than specific details (Basinger 35). As the authors of Reason and Religious Belief put it, when referring to the shape or color of an object, an individual will not describe that object using objective properties, but phenomenal properties (Basinger 35). A rectangular door will be described as a rectangle and not as a trapezoid or as a rectangular prism, even if it appears as a trapezoid or rectangular prism from the individual’s current perspective (Basinger 35).
According to what he says in Reason And Religious Belief, Alston’s beliefs are justified by his perceptions. He compares knowing God based on perception of him to knowing a plant is a tree by how it looks (Basinger 35). Alston believes in God, because he perceived God “through the worship of the Church, through the discipline and the regimen it enjoins” (Alston). His life has become more fruitful, because he has, “been able… to deepen and extend the area of effective work of the Holy Spirit” in his life (Alston). Alston claims, “the promise is being fulfilled… I find that God is active in my life.
But Alston’s situation more closely resembles what Proudfoot describes. Proudfoot claims that:
“a religious experience is an experience that the person who has it takes or interprets as religious. The experience is not religious because it has religious content, but because of the belief structure that persons bring to whatever experience they have, because it is based on the person‘s religious belief. ” (Basinger 36)
Here, Proudfoot does reiterate Alston’s account that those who have experiences of God, require that religion play a part in the explanation of that experience, but it is required because they come to the table of explanation expecting that (Basinger 37). Proudfoot makes a distinction between describing an experience and explaining it (Basinger 37).
In “Why I Am A Christian,” Alston states that he was raised Methodist. Proudfoot claims that he is bringing the beliefs he grew up with to the table when, in each later encounter with the church, he experiences God. In his final conversion, Alston testifies that “it was in the Church” that he “heard the proclamation of the Gospel” and that “it was in the Christian Church that I came to discover the presence and activity of God in my life.“ It is not that Alston has had a religious experience, but that he has instead had an experience that his previous religious background leads him to interpret as religious. Alston believes in God, because that is what makes sense given his previous life experience.
Alston says in his article, “Why I Am A Christian,” that “basically, I am a Christian, rather than a Buddhist or a Marxist or a Moslem, because it was in the Christian Church that I was enabled to get into effective touch with God.” In Reason and Religious Belief, he backs that with, “religious experiences are conditioned by distinctive cultural and religious perspectives, so that what people in various religions experience widely differs” (Basinger 36). Katz takes a stance similar to Proudfoot, explaining “it’s the beliefs that shape the experiences; therefore, there is not a ‘religious experience,’ but instead there are Jewish experiences, Hindu experiences, Christian experiences, etc” (Carnahan). It is something about the way Alston was raised, his friends, the people he is in communication with, that bring him to explain his experiences as religious or not (Basinger 38).
If Alston came to believe in God through some perceptual experience that he described using phenomenal properties, if it was clear that his prior life experiences were not the cause for his interpretation of the perceptual experience as religious, and that the existence of God was the best explanation for this experience, Alston’s belief in God would be justified (Basinger 39). For example, “if the best explanation for a perceptual experience of a cat is the presence of a cat, then that experience might provide evidence for the existence of a cat,” this is Alston‘s realism (Basinger 39). Those who are realists claim that religious beliefs can be justified by religious experience, just as beliefs about the world are justified by what we see in the world (Basinger 39).
Here, Swinburne would provide the Principle of Credulity, that is that Alston should “trust until given a reason not to” (Carnahan). If Alston were to see a cat, he would not question whether his senses were working properly, unless given a reason to believe that they were misfiring (Basinger 39). According to Swinburne, it is the responsibly of those that “claim that the experience was not genuine” to prove it was thus (Basinger 40). He argues that “persons who experience God are entitled to their belief about God until they are given good reason to think that that belief conflicts with other beliefs they take to be justified” (Basinger 40).
But because it is Alston’s beliefs that categorize his experience as religious, the religious experience cannot justify Alston’s beliefs without becoming logically circular (Basinger 39). The authors of Reason and Religious Belief put it this way, “The existence of the supernatural is not properly inferred from the experience but is only a part of its description and, hence, a presupposition of the experience (Basinger 39). In other words, he believes in God and, therefore, describes his experiences within the realms of that belief.
In “Why I Am A Christian,” Alston does not claim that he has perceived God through any sensory data. He says he felt drawn to the church because the church allows his life to function better; thus, his experience fails to meet his own criteria and does not justify his belief in God. When Alston experiences God, he is merely having an experience that he interprets and explains within the context of the way he was raised, because his beliefs shape his experience.
Alston, William P. “Why I Am A Christian” Leadership U. 14 July 2002. Web. 12 December 2011.
Basinger, D., et al. Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 4th ed.. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc, 2009. Print.
Notes from class