The intelligibility of conversion
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The intelligibility of conversion book
One striking feature of the non-cognitive approaches is their incapacity to make the phenomenon of conversion intelligible. It is widely assumed (almost all the students in the course I teach on philosophy of religion assume this) that religious belief is something that you ‘either have got or you haven’t’, and if any explanation is deemed necessary, it is ‘upbringing’. Many people who see the matter this way are so out of sympathy with religious belief that they find it unintelligible that anyone could believe unless they had been brought up to do so and had remained uncritical of their received opinions. Conversion, on this account, is unintelligible; it may be admitted that it sometimes happens, but if so it is taken to be an unintelligible happening like a thunderstorm, not an intelligible one like the decision to vote Labour or disinvest in the arms trade or go for a medical check up. But it is curious that some defenders of religion, by their non-cognitive accounts of faith, make conversion unintelligible in the same way. This could only happen in a period in which religion is on the defensive or at least unfashionable, and probably suffering from an uneasy intellectual conscience. The task of defending religious belief is seen as being that of allowing people who already believe to go on doing so without worrying that they might be deceiving themselves. It is a matter of ‘ghostly comfort’ for intellectual consciences. But if it does convince believers that they need not worry about the arguments against, by the same token it reassures the unbeliever that they don’t have to consider the case for faith. And if believers were considering spreading their faith, it must surely tell them not to bother, for there are no grounds for belief and so nothing they can say to persuade the unbeliever. This is particularly blatant on Plantinga’s account: the self-doubting Christian may be reassured that it is intellectually respectable to go on believing without grounds, but the Christian who wants to win the world
for God will be driven to despair by the thought that he or she can say nothing to unbelieving friends to communicate their faith.