Two of Simon Critchley’s recent Stone columns, “Why I Love Mormonism” and “The Freedom of Faith,” offer much-needed reflections, sympathetic but critical, on particular religions. Such reflections are important because religions occupy an ambivalent position in our world.
On the one hand, religions express perennial human impulses and aspirations that cannot plausibly be rejected out of hand as foolish or delusional. The idea that there is simply nothing worthwhile in religion is as unlikely as the idea that there is nothing worthwhile in poetry, art, philosophy or science. On the other hand, taken at their literal word, many religious claims are at best unjustified and at worst absurd or repugnant. There may be deep truths in religions, but these may well not be the truths that the religions themselves officially proclaim. To borrow a term Jürgen Habermas employs in a different context, religions may suffer from a “self-misunderstanding” of their own significance.
I read Critchley’s discussions of Mormonism and Catholic Christianity as good examples of how to think through the ambivalent nature of a given religion. Here I want to suggest a general framework for this sort of thinking.
To evaluate a religion, we need to distinguish the three great human needs religions typically claim to satisfy: love, understanding, and knowledge. Doing so lets us appreciate religious love and understanding, even if we remain agnostic regarding religious knowledge. (For those with concerns about talking of knowledge here: I’m using “knowledge” to mean believing, with appropriate justification, what is true. Knowledge in this sense may be highly probable but not certain; and faith—e.g., belief on reliable testimony—may provide appropriate justification.)
A religion offers a community in which we are loved by others and in turn learn to love them. Often this love is understood, at least partly, in terms of a moral code that guides all aspects of a believer’s life. Religious understanding offers a way of making sense of the world as a whole and our lives in particular. Among other things, it typically helps believers make sense of the group’s moral code. Religious knowledge offers a metaphysical and/or historical account of supernatural realities that, if true, shows the operation of a benevolent power in the universe. The account is thought to provide a causal explanation of how the religion came to exist and, at the same time, a foundation for its morality and system of understanding.
There are serious moral objections to aspects of some religions. But many believers rightly judge that their religion has great moral value for them, that it gives them access to a rich and fulfilling life of love. What is not justified is an exclusivist or infallibilist reading of this belief, implying that the life of a given religion is the only or the best way toward moral fulfillment for everyone, or that there is no room for criticism of the religion’s moral stances.
Critics of a religion — and of religion in general — usually focus on knowledge claims. This is understandable since the claims are often quite extraordinary, of a sort for which we naturally require a great deal of evidence — which is seldom forthcoming. They are not entirely without evidential support. But the evidence for religious claims — metaphysical arguments from plausible but disputable premises, intermittent and often vague experiences of the divine, historical arguments from limited data, even the moral and intellectual fruitfulness of a religious life — typically does not meet ordinary (common-sense or scientific) standards for postulating an explanatory cause. Believers often say that their religious life gives them a special access (the insight of “faith”) to religious knowledge. But believers in very different religions can claim such access, and it’s hard to see what believers in one religion can, in general, say against the contradictory claims of believers in others.
Contemporary atheists often assert that there is no need for them to provide arguments showing that religious claims are false. Rather, they say, the very lack of good arguments for religious claims provides a solid basis for rejecting them. The case against God is, as they frequently put it, the same as the case against Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy. This is what we might call the “no-arguments” argument for atheism.
But the no-arguments view ignores the role of evidence and argument behind the religious beliefs of many informed and intelligent people. (For some powerful contemporary examples, see the essays in “Philosophers Who Believe” and “God and the Philosophers.”) Believers have not made an intellectually compelling case for their claims: they do not show that any rational person should accept them. But believers such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne and Peter van Inwagen, to cite just a few examples, have well-thought-out reasons for their belief that call for serious discussion. Their belief cannot be dismissed as on a par with children’s beliefs in Santa and the Easter Bunny. We may well not find their reasons decisive, but it would be very difficult to show that no rational person could believe for the reasons that they do.
The cases intellectually sophisticated religious believers make are in fact similar to those that intellectually sophisticated thinkers (believers or not) make for their views about controversial political policies, ethical decisions or even speculative scientific theories. Here, as in religion, opposing sides have arguments that they find plausible but the other side rejects. Atheism may be intellectually viable, but it requires its own arguments and can’t merely cite the lack of decisive evidence for religion. Further, unless atheists themselves have a clearly superior case for their denial of theistic religion, then agnosticism (doubting both religion and atheism) remains a viable alternative. The no-arguments argument for atheism fails.
There remains much more to be said about the status of religious knowledge, looking in detail at the cases for and against various religious claims. My own view is that agnosticism will often be the best stance regarding religious knowledge claims (both religious and atheistic). But my present concern is to emphasize that, even if it falls short of knowledge, religion can be an important source of understanding.
Non-believers — and many believers themselves — assume that, without a grounding in religious knowledge, there is no foothold for fruitful religious understanding. But is this really so? Is it perhaps possible to have understanding without knowledge? Here some reflections on the limits of science, our paradigm of knowledge, will be helpful.
It may well be that physical science will ultimately give us a complete account of reality. It may, that is, give us causal laws that allow us to predict (up to the limits of any quantum or similar uncertainty) everything that happens in the universe. This would allow us to entirely explain the universe as a causal system. But there are aspects of our experience (consciousness, personality, moral obligation, beauty) that may not be merely parts of the causal system. They may, for example, have meanings that are not reducible to causal interactions.
This is obvious for moral and aesthetic meanings: even a complete account of the causal production of an action will not tell us that it is good or beautiful. The same is true of semantic meaning. We might be able to predict the exact physical configuration of the writing in a text that will be composed a million years from now in a language entirely unknown to us. Looking at this configuration, we would still not be able to understand the text.
Similarly, although we do not presently have anything like a complete causal account of consciousness, we have a fairly good idea of what such an account would look like from a third-person objective perspective, looking at the brain as just another physical system. But we have almost no idea of how to incorporate into such an account the first-person subjective perspective of our concrete experience: what it is like (from the inside) to see a color, hear a symphony, love a friend or hate an enemy.
It doesn’t, however, follow that we have no ways of understanding these experiences. Not only our everyday life but also our art, literature, history and philosophy contribute to such understanding. To say that, apart from the best current results of, say, neuroscience, we have no understanding of our first-person experiences is simply absurd.
Every mode of understanding has its own ontology, a world of entities in terms of which it expresses its understanding. We can understand sexuality through Don Giovanni, Emma Bovary and Molly Bloom; the horror of war through the images of “Guernica”; our neurotic behavior through Freudian drives and complexes; or self-deception through Sartre’s being-for-itself, even if we are convinced that none of these entities will find a place in science’s final causal account of reality. Similarly, it is possible to understand our experiences of evil in the language of the Book of Job, of love in the language of the Gospel of John, and of sin and redemption in the language of Paul’s epistles.
The fault of many who reject religious ontologies out of hand is to think that they have no value if they don’t express knowledge of the world’s causal mechanisms. The fault of many believers is to think that the understanding these ontologies bring must be due to the fact that they express such knowledge.
As in the case of morality, there is no exclusive or infallible mode of understanding, religious or otherwise. Religions should, and increasingly do, accept other modes of understanding and try to integrate them with their own. Expressions of religion in art and poetry (Fra Angelico, John Donne), have always implicitly done just this.
I suggest that “non-believers” like Simon Critchley, who express serious interest in and appreciation of religions, are thinking of them as modes of living and of understanding. Both they, and the believers who welcome their attention, should keep in mind that this says nothing at all about claims to religious knowledge.
Knowledge, if it exists, adds a major dimension to religious commitment. But love and understanding, even without knowledge, are tremendous gifts; and religious knowledge claims are hard to support. We should, then, make room for those who embrace a religion as a source of love and understanding but remain agnostic about the religion’s knowledge claims. We should, for example, countenance those who are Christians while doubting the literal truth of, say, the Trinity and the Resurrection. I wager, in fact, that many professed Christians are not at all sure about the truth of these doctrines —and other believers have similar doubts. They are, quite properly, religious agnostics.
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960,” and writes regularly for The Stone. He was recently interviewed in 3am magazine.
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
Even if it falls short of knowledge, religion can be an important source of understanding.
I believe that I am agnostic because I don’t know what to think about religion. When it
comes to saying whether I believe in God or not, I feel that I have not yet come to a complete
understanding of God’s existence. This tends to be a vicious cycle which constantly runs through
my head. Ever since I can remember, I was taught through my family and church that this being
does exist, but as I grew older I began to question whether this almighty being really does exist.
How can I believe that this being exists when every day I watch the news and hear of all the
tragedy that is happening in the world.
I have been taught through my family and church that God is the creator and supreme
ruler of the universe. They also taught me that he has set up certain guidelines or rules for which
we must obey. These are commonly known as the ten commandments. We have been told that
if we disobey these commandments , we will ultimately go to hell. Furthermore, if we follow these
commandments, we will go to heaven and live in peace eternally. We all basically have the same
perception of what Heaven and Hell are like. Heaven is commonly thought of as a utopia. A
place which is soft, beautiful and peaceful. Where there is total peace and harmony. Where as
Hell is known as being a prison for evil doers. Hell is supposed to be a dark, hot, and gloomy
place with much misery. A persons worst nightmare. As I have gotten older, I don’t necessarily
believe that God created these...
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