Interview with Owen Anderson (Part One)

October 30, 2008
Posted by Joe Gorra

We interviewed Owen Anderson about his two recent books: Reason and Worldviews (University Press of America, 2008) and The Clarity of God’s Existence (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008). Owen is Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Arizona State University West.

How did you get into philosophy?

I personally came to be interested in philosophy when I realized that the way I came to hold my worldview was analogous to how others (friends of mine in school) came to hold alternative worldviews. I had no proof, justification, or warrant that they could not also appeal to in order to arrive at a contrary conclusion. My parents/grandparents told me this is true, my religious book tells me this is true, my inner feelings/experiences tell me this is true, the best people I know of tell me this is true, it makes sense to me, etc. I call this “fideism” because we are asked to believe something on which hinges our entire existence but only offered proof that either begs the question or can be used to support alternative beliefs.

This problem built up and I came to a point where I did not want to believe in this way. In the midst of this I discovered the Great Books series in my school’s library. I began reading Aquinas and Freud (I don’t remember why I picked these). At the same time, my dad took me to a debate between William Lane Craig and an atheist, and shortly after that I took my first philosophy class. These events combined so that I became convinced that the kind of fideism I defined above was completely incompatible with the Christian religion, and yet also that the Christian philosophers I studied were often relying on just that kind of fideism. They would give evidences for Christianity, or argue that Christianity is plausible, but these same methods could be used to support alternative conclusions and they generally begged the question. I wanted more.

The consequence was that I pursued studies in philosophy in order to examine questions about how we know, what is real, and what is good. I did not want to beg the question by saying “the Christian view of these is correct and I’m going to prove it.” Instead, I asked myself “are there clear answers to these basic questions, and if so are humans responsible for knowing these answers?” The implication of my studies was that if there are clear answers, and humans have not known them, then humans are guilty for this ignorance. This raises questions about the need for redemption and how that is achieved.

I noticed on your blog that Craig Hazen reviewed the movie Religulous, and said that he came away from it thinking about how important it is for Christians to get away from the idea of faith as fideism. I am encouraged by this. I am hoping that the change will be not simply to saying “we have some arguments in our favor,” but to studying what is necessary to make the claim “there is no excuse for not knowing what is eternal (the eternal power and divine nature).”

What is it like to be a Christian scholar at ASU?

ASU has been a very encouraging place to work in the areas of Philosophy of Religion and Religious Studies. As a secular institution, it provides a context in which critical analysis of basic beliefs can occur. I’m especially interested in working on the intersection between disciplines such as Philosophy, Religious Studies, and History, and ASU is moving in the direction of being a leader in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work. I’m especially excited about this kind of research because in the past I have encountered boundaries where research gets shut down—claims such as “analytic philosophers don’t study that,” or “when we study religion we don’t do philosophical analysis of beliefs.” What I want to study is what can be known from general revelation, what humans are responsible for knowing from general revelation, and ASU has provided a context in which to do that.

How would you characterize your projects in The Clarity of God’s Existence and your Reason and Worldviews?

Reason and Worldviews
is a second edition of my first book Benjamin B. Warfield and Right Reason. This is an interdisciplinary book that draws from history, philosophy, and religious studies. The Clarity of God’s Existence also draws from these disciplines although its main goal is philosophical analysis of challenges to the ethics of belief in God. These books are aimed at a college audience or interested general reader.

Why did you write these books? How did they come about?

These books developed out of my studies at secular university. I am interested in how challenges to belief in God have mounted since the Enlightenment. In Reason and Worldviews I study how Common Sense Philosophy was used at Princeton, and its heritage in thinkers like Cornelius Van Til and Alvin Plantinga. In The Clarity of God’s Existence I study why it is necessary for Christianity to show that it is clear that God exists, and how challenges from David Hume and Immanuel Kant continue to be unanswered. A recent edited volume that claimed to respond to Hume began by stating that there cannot be a conclusive argument showing God’s existence, there is only plausibility. In other words, “it is not clear that God exists so that there is an excuse for unbelief, but here are some arguments that have persuaded us.” Rather than being a response to Hume, I think this has conceded to Hume his skeptical claims about the power of reason. I hope that my books will bring to the forefront the need to show the clarity of God’s existence if the claim that unbelief is inexcusable is to be taken seriously.

Please briefly summarize your discussion in Reason and Worldviews

Reason and Worldviews developed out of the questions: how has Christian apologetics developed in American history? What have been the best examples of arguments for belief? Why have these failed to show that there is no excuse for unbelief? What hindrances remain in showing this? As I studied the tradition of Common Sense Philosophy and how it uniquely developed at Princeton, the puzzle began to be solved. If the best relied on appeals to common sense, is it any wonder that this has been set aside for naturalism? I also went on to study Van Til and Plantinga to discern their contribution and whether they helped overcome the problems facing appeals to common sense. I hope this book will contribute by bringing into focus the development of thought about knowing God and what more needs to be done.

Please briefly summarize your discussion in The Clarity of God’s Existence.

In The Clarity of God’s Existence I study why it is important for Christianity to show that there is no excuse for unbelief. I examine how there has been a failure to understand this need, and how challenges have built up from thinkers like David Hume and Immanuel Kant. It has come to a point that many in society believe that there is no excuse for belief rather than for unbelief. I study how this shift occurred, and how contemporary Christian philosophy does not generally understand this challenge. I then give some suggestions on how this can be addressed, although in this book I do not offer a full account of how to show the clarity of God’s existence. Instead, the bulk of the text is spent on tracing the history of challenges since the Enlightenment and showing why clarity is necessary.

Stay tuned for part two …