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The Shackles of Superstition

Piers Benn thinks religion would still make sense even if God didn’t exist.

There are those who believe that philosophy of religion was made pointless by Hume and Kant. These two thinkers are widely thought to have driven the final nails into the coffin of rational theology and to have shown not only that all previous attempts to prove the existence of God had failed, but that all future attempts were bound to suffer the same fate. Kant in particular is believed to have shown that all traditional arguments for God’s existence must fall into one of three categories – namely, ontological, cosmological or teleological – and that the demolition of ontological arguments is enough to ensure the failure of all other traditional kinds as well.

Not all contemporary philosophers, of course, accept that Kant and Hume succeeded in refuting such arguments. Some thinkers have no particular regard for the eighteenth century Enlightenment, in any case: Thomism is still alive and well in certain quarters, and quietly confident of the ultimate intellectual bankruptcy of secular, atheistic philosophies. Furthermore, Kant was, in fact, a pious Christian and it is not certain that even Hume was an atheist, though it is quite likely. Nevertheless, since the eighteenth century, rational theology has lost much of its confidence. Some forms of Protestantism denied the necessity or even the desirability of rational demonstrations of God’s existence: faith was undermined by such demonstrations and belief backed by reason could not be meritorious. But nowadays, even among many who wish that philosophy could do more for religion, there is an air of quiet resignation and a reliance upon confused and feeble platitudes. This atmosphere contains the oxygen for anti-religious triumphalism, as manifested in particular by the likes of Dr. Richard Dawkins, the Oxford zoologist and freelance evangelising atheist. Those like Dawkins – who often resort to arguments which are superficial and philosophically naive – are made to seem victorious by the lack of confidence and intellectual confusion of some of those who speak for orthodox religion.

The trouble is that, for all the sixth form bluster of these people, they may very well be right. That is to say, they may be right about certain factual questions, such as whether God exists, whether the Bible is reliable history or whether miracles have occurred. The challenges posed to rational theology by such thinkers as Hume and Kant are powerful, and the theory of evolution by natural selection together with certain aspects of psychology and advances in cosmology are not simply irrelevant to the case for theism. It is true that some thinkers – in particular Dawkins – are careless when they claim that Darwin’s theory finished off theism once and for all, as if traditional theists never had any argument to offer apart from the argument to biological design. On the other hand, it is complacent for theists to maintain that these discoveries have nothing whatsoever to do with the credibility of theism. They should not, for example, be content with platitudes such as “science explains how, but theology explains why.” For there is a perfectly good sense in which scientific theories, if true, do explain ‘why’ and not merely ‘how’. Perhaps they do not supply ‘personal’ or ‘intentional’ explanations, but it may be mistaken to think that explanations like this are available at all. One also sees science attacked for its cold, materialistic character, its supposed valueneutrality and its dismissal of the ‘religious dimension’. But this is at best an objection to scientism (the belief that science alone provides answers worth having) rather than to science. And one can believe that scientific theories do threaten the credibility of theistic theories (by making the latter redundant), without being guilty of scientism.

What is important, however – especially in a magazine like Philosophy Now, which has recently given space to articles on religion – is to advance the level of popular, and even philosophical, debate beyond observations like those above. When studying the philosophy of religion we easily learn the basic moves for and against the classical proofs of God’s existence. We also learn how to discuss the problem of evil and how to debate the proposition that moral norms logically depend upon divine commands. What we do not so easily learn, because it is nebulous and possibly embarrassing, is how to integrate our philosophical findings with our real feelings about religion.

When we ask ourselves what we really think about a particular issue, we can often find ourselves at a loss. Often this is not because we haven’t thought the matter through, but because we have not done so with a clear intention of forming an opinion. The demands of rigour and fairness can inhibit this intention from surfacing: all belief should be proportional to the evidence, and if we despair of ever having all the relevant evidence, yet insist on being rational, we are likely to give up on asking ourselves what we really think. This underlying Humean maxim about rationality, however, needs to be supplemented with other considerations. There are times when the process is justified in reversing itself; intuition should seek knowledge, if we can be reasonably sure that our intuitive judgements are at the surface of a reservoir of rational considerations which awaits our readiness to put order into them, to discover their coherence.

This is what I shall try to do with my own intuitions about theistic religion. I am inclined to think that traditional theism is probably false or incoherent, but more strongly inclined to think it will not, and should not, go away. I would not endorse the promotion of religion as a ‘noble lie’, or argue that we are at sea without faith, or that there cannot be a nobility and rationality in humanism. Yet the very idea of religious truth is intriguing, and invites more serious investigation than can be accomplished by routine discussions of the standard theistic arguments. Religious interpretations of our lives appear to many to have a unique coherence. In parables and psalms, in prayer and ritual, we are offered interpretations of the emotions, motives and challenges that we live with. A Soviet commentator once remarked that Christianity is not primarily a doctrine about another world but an interpretation of the one we know. He was right, for although the supernatural cannot be eliminated from theistic religions, there is still an important distinction between the supernatural and the transcendent. The latter is that which goes beyond our everyday world, but not in the sense of involving occult forces which can affect the physical world we know. Poetry entails transcendent value; people at seances hope to hook into a supernatural world. Even if rational considerations dispose of the supernatural, they are not thereby equipped to dismiss the transcendent. When people talk of the ‘religious dimension’, they often have this in mind – the ability of religious myths and practices to make the everyday world intelligible. The rituals and the calendar provide a sense of the orderliness of the stages of life, and reinforce a sense of community. Most importantly, in the case of Christianity, the central stories of redemption and of God’s own suffering in the person of Christ are potent myths to help us accept that suffering is not pointless, and human life not meaningless, even if we cannot understand how these things can be so.

But to what extent does the validity of such interpretations depend on the underlying truth of theistic and supernatural doctrines? There is a familiar humanist retort, which indeed deserves consideration: that it is futile to take comfort from religion, particularly about suffering and death, unless we are offered something concrete which has the power to abolish these things. Since only God can do this, and since God does not exist, it is fraudulent to claim entitlement to the comfort. As to the validity of theological interpretations of our experience, it is clear that other systems of belief – psychoanalysis, for example – also claim to provide these, often bringing subjective relief to some of those who adhere to them. Any credibility theology can claim, based on its ability to interpret human experience, can also be claimed by other belief systems.

In dealing with this it is worth saying, first of all, that if theological language and myths are coherent, true to the human condition and able to make experience intelligible, then this may itself form an important part of the case for orthodoxy. Although other belief systems claim to provide coherent interpretations of our condition, it does not follow that they do so as successfully. But this is an aside. The important question is whether we can make sense of the notion of religious truth without appealing to the literal truth of (to take central examples) theism and miracle claims.

There is a tradition in philosophy of religion, allegedly derived from the later Wittgenstein, which says that we can. There are obscurities in this approach, and arcane disputes about the proper interpretation of the master’s thoughts. There is also disagreement about the extent to which ‘literal’ claims about God have been rejected or merely reinterpreted; whether we are being offered atheism or a revisionist theism. But one central thought stands, which is that religious practices and interpretations may deserve the utmost respect even if the language in which they are expressed is non-cognitive. Moreover, and crucially, such expressions aren’t reducible to statements of any other type. Theology is not merely a colourful way of expressing moral truths, for example. (An analogous position was once popular with respect to ethical utterances, which were held by emotivists and prescriptivists to be neither statements of ethical fact, nor translatable into naturalistic propositions).

The upshot of this, at first glance, might well seem unsatisfactory. Religious utterances appear to be left in an uneasy position. Should we not come clean, and simply declare them misguided, and without redeeming value? In this final section I want to sketch another way of looking at the matter. The importance of the subject justifies the avowedly tentative nature of what I shall suggest.

One of the most discussed areas within the philosophy of religion is religious experience. This can take many forms. A deep sense that the world is ruled benevolently; a sense of God’s presence; a sense of God communicating with one; a sense of discovering the true, deep meaning of a passage of scripture; a vision, or a mad conviction that a comet about to hit Jupiter is a warning to sinners to mend their ways, these are all examples of religious experience. The usual question is whether such experiences contribute to the case for theism – whether they increase the inductive likelihood of their having some objective source, such as God himself. There is nothing wrong with such an enquiry, but there is a danger, when asking these questions about the causes of such phenomena, of ignoring their rich meaning. It is not necessary for descriptions of such experiences to take the form of propositional claims which can be empirically tested. Sometimes it is better to speak of religious experience as a way of seeing, an interpretation, an ineffable but serene insight. That we are able to do this is partially explained by the important distinction between belief and imagination. Humans are probably unique in having the capacity to entertain a possibility, or a manner of interpretation, without thereby forming the belief which would naturally accompany it. One might pray without believing that anyone else hears the prayer, or be imaginatively absorbed in a religious service, with disbelief not overcome but suspended. The entertaining of some religious experiences is just such an exercise of imagination, which explains why those who have them do not always accept that they have an external source. Such experiences are not automatically considered delusive and worthless, merely because those who have them may remain unconvinced of their divine origin. They may enrich the soul and cast light on human experience without being supposed to have a supernatural cause.

But it will now be said, no less by orthodox believers as by sceptics, that this notion of religious experience is inadequate; that unless it has a divine origin, it is delusive even if subjectively satisfying. This, perhaps, is the heart of the matter, for it is the resolution of this problem which is the point of my enquiry. We began by looking at the inadequacies of the debate about religion, as it often proceeds. What would be attractive – at least in as much as it would satisfy my own inclinations – would be to show how some theological discourse and religious experience have an irreducible and enriching value, independent of their ability to provide inductive support for theism.

One way to do this is to show how such language expresses experience which can lay claim to genuine truth, even if such truth cannot be identified with the claims of orthodox theism. This, of course, opens up a complex inquiry into the nature of truth, which involves asking why the concept seems, to many people, to be indispensable in so many areas traditionally prey to non-cognitivist approaches – such as aesthetics, theology and ethics. Some people even feel compelled to speak of truth in music, although this is not taken to be of a propositional kind; one could not conduct a debate in music. Yet music can be experienced as a revelation, perhaps as embodying a genuine value, and there is no reason not to trust appearances here. Even if we can explain scientifically how certain features of music give rise to certain kinds of mental response, such accounts deal merely in causes rather than in meanings. They do not help us understand the music as music. To do this we must look at the surface of things, at the realm of appearances.

What I want tentatively to suggest is this: that in a similar manner to aesthetic experience,religious experience can provide a distinctive way of looking at reality, whose significance is understood not by grasping its cause (there may be no divine cause involved) but by focusing on its content. The experience may not point to a supernatural reality beyond itself, but may nevertheless possess a transcendent quality. Wittgenstein said we see a person’s experience in his expression, rather than infer it from his expression. Similarly, perhaps, we grasp a transcendent reality in religious experience, rather than infer it from the occurrence of the experience. The analogy has limits, of course, as in the latter case one need not come to believe in God’s existence as a result of religious experience. One can, however, in religious experience, come to an imaginative appreciation of what divine existence would be, and in so doing come to understand the value of what such a reality implies – the importance of a concept of the sacred, and of the peace and beauty we should strive to realise.

Such can only be a suggestion, and I don’t pretend that it is part of a fully coherent system. But the importance of the subject justifies even the most tentative attempts to give due recognition to the transcendent values theological language so tantalisingly hints at. What seems worthwhile is to move beyond the routine attacks on ‘superstition’ that some (though not all) humanists are fond of producing. Anti-religious polemic can be acceptable in a piece-meal way, when it denounces the darker facets of religion – such as its cunning ability to disguise the ‘will-to-power’ as zealous love for God. But it becomes boring and wrongheaded when it raises its fist against religious motivations as a whole. One should be deeply suspicious of those whose life’s purpose is the eradication of superstition. This is partly because, although theistic religions have brought about inquisitions and persecutions, secular religions have wrought mass murder on a scale never dreamed of by inquisitors and mullahs. It is a reasonable hypothesis that the scale of murder perpetrated by tyrants such as Mao tse-Tung and Adolf Hitler is directly related to their disbelief in divinely ordained constraints on the treatment of other humans, and driven by the nihilism which poses as the desire to overcome traditions and superstitions. But another reason for such suspicion is that this strand of humanism is frequently blind to certain philosophical distinctions. If it is able to reconcile its atheism with an appreciation of the difference between transcendence and supernaturalism, and if it can unite its intellectual scepticism with the ‘small c’ conservatism which should be its natural ally, then it retains credibility. But in its bombast, it often overlooks these finer points. Those who are sincerely led to reject the literal claims of theistic religions (and there may well be good reason to do so) deserve something better than militant humanism as a world-view to help them make sense of their finite, transient lives.

© P. Benn 1994

Piers Benn is a philosophy lecturer at the University of Leeds.

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