Apr 10th, 2013

Book Review: Where the Conflict Really Lies

By Nick Robison

I don’t normally write book reviews, for a time I gave it a shot, but it turned out to be incredibly tedious for both the writer and the reader; however, over the past 4 months I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in a faculty/graduate student luncheon here at UW discussing Dr. Alvin Plantinga’s new book Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, & Naturalism and I thought it deserved a bit of discussion here.


Starting out, I had really high hopes for this book. I had heard from many sources that it was one of, if not the best, apologetics books of the 21st Century. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to the hype. To begin with, it’s important to point out what this book is not; it’s not a book about the rationality or compatibility of Christianity with science. At its core, it’s a juxtaposition of theism with naturalism and pointing out key points of conflict and harmony. The central tenant is:

there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.

– pg. 3 (emphasis added)

A reader picking up this book and looking for a rigorous defense of Christianity will be sorely disappointed as the religion purported by the author is one quite different then modern day Christianity. What Plantinga describes is a religion that may in fact be merely the product of evolutionary development and have only enough value to provide comfort in times of distress, or give us social norms to cling to. The god of this book is one with only limited interaction with the world and who, once setting the world in motion, seems to have been content with letting things transpire as they will, baring some rare exceptions. While it’s true that many of the trappings of modern religion have developed out of tradition and without a firm link to scripture, there are many elements (such as God’s divine action, or universal moral law) that are not merely peripheral fillers but key to what many (including myself) would call Christianity, to simply wave them away seems at best disingenuous, and at worst deceptive.

Of course, I don’t want to imply that Dr. Plantinga has sold out his faith, or abandoned its central tenants, what he’s attempting to do is argue that the central concept of theism is a better fit with science then raw unguided naturalism, so while it may in fact be that religion is simply an evolutionary spandrel, that has little to do with his underlying premise. To the average reader though, this is a cold comfort. Most people don’t live in a world of rigid naturalism, or have the ability to take the base arguments for theism and extrapolate them to encompass ‘working’ religion. Instead, most people find themselves in the position of justifying the personal faith that they hold. A faith where God is not only present but continually acting in the world, a faith that is more then simply an archaic shield against uncertainty and fear but a hope for redemption and a moral law that all men are held accountable to. The end result is that by stripping religion down to its bare theistic elements Dr. Plantinga has been able to claim ‘superficial conflict’ but unfortunately in doing so has abandoned most readers to fend for themselves.

However; it’s not all bad news. The logical consistency displayed throughout the book is truly exceptional, Dr. Plantinga has an incredibly deep understanding of a myriad of religious, philosophical, and scientific topics. Not only that, but the book is incredibly well referenced with both books and scientific papers, a reader looking to delve deeper into any of the mentioned topics will have plenty of directions to choose from. Dr. Plantinga has taken exceptional care to ensure that each argument, premise, and counterpoint is well thought out and carefully explained, the result is a comprehensive book accessible to a wide variety of readers.

In conclusion, if you’re a potential looking for resources in explaining theism and the pitfalls of unguided naturalism, look no further then this book. If, on the other hand, you find yourself in the position of defending Christian faith and explaining reasons for why you believe what you do this is probably not the best book to consult.

Unfortunately, at this point, I don’t have a ton of great resources to recommend to readers.  A number of years ago I often referenced J.P Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City  as a go-to resource for philosophical points. John Polkinghorne has some great books such as Quantum Physics and Theology _and Belief in God in an Age of Science which are similar to Plantinga’s book, but a little different. A lot of people that I know rave about Tim Keller’s The Reason for Godthough I haven’t read it and can’t speak to its content. Finally, Alister McGrath’s Glimpsing the Face of God_ is absolutely phenomenal, though quite different from the preceding resources.

If there are any books that you’ve found to be especially insightful for helpful, please leave a link in the comments.