welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Round Table Debate: Religion versus Philosophy?

Does religion need philosophy? Or vice versa? Are they rival ways of seeing the world? What do faith and reason have to say to each other? In the dying days of the old millennium, Philosophy Now and the organisation Philosophy For All gathered four distinguished thinkers in front of a large audience in a London bookstore to debate this most millennial of questions.

The panel consisted of John Brooke, the newly-appointed Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, Antony Flew, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading, Douglas Hedley, Lecturer in Philosophy of Religion at Cambridge University, and Janet Radcliffe Richards, Reader in Bioethics at University College London. The Chair was Anja Steinbauer, President of Philosophy For All.

AS More than a hundred years ago, Nietzsche declared that God was dead. God had been something like a guarantor of an absolute order, a structure of the world in which the human being could be meaningfully included. Philosophers, however, of whom Nietzsche was one, believed that we could make sense of the totality of existence, of the meaning of our lives, by virtue of being rational beings, and without resorting to revelation. Consequently much of philosophy has been a critique of religion. But does this mean that philosophers necessarily have to be critics of religion? Philosophers such as St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in their own ways believed that faith must precede understanding. What, if any, is the relationship between faith and reason? Are they compatible, can they coexist, can they perhaps fruitfully interact, and where do the problems lie? This is the kind of enquiry that I would like our discussion to start off with. First of all I would like to ask John Brooke to comment.

JB Thank you very much Anja. I should just explain that I come to these issues principally as a historian of science. I’m not a card-carrying philosopher in the strict sense. But I think as a historian I would like to take up this point of overlap. It seems that one of the really fascinating things about the relationship between faith and reason, science and religion, faith and philosophy, however we articulate the duality, is how that relationship of overlap has changed with time. If we look at the 17th century, which is often seen as the foundation of the modern world in terms of new intellectual liberation, it seems to me one could point to all kinds of interesting ways in which religion and reason overlapped. So it might be helpful, just to get this discussion started, if I give you a few examples where one might even say that the relationship between the two was actually constructive,perhaps for each, rather than in some way self-destructive. One of my favourite examples comes from the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who shows that the application of reason and the discovery of new truths in nature can itself be a form of religious experience. When Kepler articulated what we know as the third law of planetary motion, he was so delighted by the elegant geometry of it, that he wrote “I felt carried away by unutterable rapture at the Divine spectacle of heavenly harmony.” And if you analyse out all those words you’ll realise that there is a very interesting graduation from the secular to the sacred. Kepler is presupposing some kind of intelligible order of the kind that Anja referred to a few moments ago. There is almost a sense in which religious belief is functioning as a presupposition of scientific enquiry. Then another example from Francis Bacon. As many of you will know, it was very common in theological circles to refer to two books: one was the sacred text, the “book of God’s word”, and the other was the natural world, the “book of God’s works”. Bacon was able to argue that since these two books had the same author, they could not ultimately be in contention. And what I want to suggest there, as a recent work of scholarship a book by Peter Harrison, on the Bible and Protestantism in the 17th Century, has shown, is that new ways of reading the book of God’s words, the sacred texts, could have implications for how the book of God’s works was read. So at the culmination of the scientific revolution a figure like Isaac Newton believes it his great mission in life – and I suppose it helps if you are born on Christmas day – was to home in on the correct univocal interpretation of the book of God’s word, and likewise the book of God’s works. So there are interesting parallels between the contexts of faith and contexts of reason. One can argue that many of the great thinkers of the 17th century felt that philosophy had to be reformed, there had to be a breakaway from the scholastic traditions, and the motivation for that reform was often expressed in religious and theological language. If you look at Isaac Newton’s philosophy, you find very strong theological critiques of the rationalism of Descartes who for Newton had overmechanised the natural world. And I suppose in the philosophy of John Locke too you could argue that Locke’s critique of the doctrine of innate reason or innate knowledge is actually couched in theological terms, in the sense that it is insulting to God, somehow, to suggest that he has not provided us with the central conduits through which we can gain knowledge of the natural world. Well I think I’ve said enough at least to set the ball rolling. But just to suggest that in that century which we often see as the foundation of modern philosophy there was substantial overlap between the two and, I think, in stimulating and interesting ways.

JRR First your remarks about Kepler and his feeling of wonder at the divine. Now, certainly it is easy to understand Kepler feeling this kind of wonder and interpreting it as part of his religious beliefs. But feelings like that are not in themselves any kind of evidence for something beyond them. You can question Kepler’s account of the origin of the feelings without doubting that he had those feelings. One of the problems we are going to have in this discussion is defining religion, because if you define religion just in terms of feelings of wonder there’s not going to be any argument. But if you define religion as something like belief in a God who is the creator and sustainer and orderer of the universe, then such a belief is not in conflict with science as such: science is an investigation, an enquiry into the way things are. So there is nothing in principle opposed about the two of them. But it may well be that as science develops, all your original reasons for postulating the existence of God are overtaken by other kinds of explanation and therefore you have no more reason to believe in God. So it isn’t that a certain kind of enquiry, science, is opposed to a particular kind of belief in itself. But that enquiry may lead you to conclusions which undermine your original reasons for having that belief.

JB The argument that science can provide rational explanations for features of the natural world which might once have been a source of mystery and awe, doesn’t necessarily exclude the belief in a creator for those who already have some kind of religious faith, whatever the origin of that faith might be. This is how I would begin to answer that question.

JRR Of course these scientific explanations – and Darwin’s is a particularly good illustration because Darwin undermined the argument from design – allow for the possibility that God exists. But if you’ve removed all the evidence for believing that God exists, then you really are left with having to explain why you still believe in God.

AS Could I ask Antony Flew’s views on these ideas?

AF About this belief in God: I think it might be useful at this stage to give what has become the standard definition of the theist God, provided by Richard Swinburne: “A person without a body, ie a spirit, present everywhere, the creator and sustainer of the universe, able to do everything, ie omnipotent, knowing all things, perfectly good, a source of moral obligation, immutable, eternal, a necessary being, holy and worthy of worship.” Quite a basket of characteristics, not all of which are necessarily compatible with one another and some of which I find difficult to understand anyway. But my problem about this is a problem which I believe was faced by Bertrand Russell. Someone asked Bertrand Russell to suppose he survived death and was confronted by the Deity, obviously in benign mood. What Russell suggested he might have said to the Deity in that benign mood was that “there was a lack of evidence”. That is precisely my trouble. It seems to me that when we look at what is the current view of the history of the universe provided by physics, it is that it all began with a Big Bang. I can see no reason whatsoever, that is no evidencing reason as opposed to a motivating reason, for believing that the Big Bang was caused by this particular being. I can see why people might want to believe that this was true, I can’t see any evidencing reasons for thinking it is true. It seems to me the rational thing is to say that the cause is beyond the range of human enquiry in that if the physicists can’t suggest any cause, we can’t know. But everything we know about that has happened since would lead us to expect the cause was something very different from such a God. I expect a physical cause, something which if you can’t literally hit it with a hammer, certainly isn’t personal, certainly isn’t any of those other things.

AS Douglas Hedley, would you like to comment?

DH Yes. Let me put a counterview. It seems to me that on the other side (in this debating mode) I perhaps detect something like a Whiggish view of religious belief and the development of atheism, ie that we are in a unique situation relative to the history of philosophy, and that perhaps people were reasonable to have theistic beliefs in the past, but it’s not reasonable to have theistic beliefs today because atheism is a rational inference from modern science. Richard Swinburne’s definition, to which Antony Flew has just referred, is all rooted in Plato and Aristotle, particularly in Plato. Plutarch once quoted Plato as saying that God was always doing geometry. Now it seems to me that actually the question of religion and theistic belief is absolutely foundational and right at the origins of modern philosophy. It’s there if you look at Plato and the Sophists. This is where I’m attacking the Whiggish view. The Sophists were radical sceptics, 5th Century postmodernists, going round casting doubt on absolute values, because they had seen lots of evidence of relativity by looking at different societies and also were very impressed by Ionian science. So they were saying ‘come on you traditionalists, you are being rather foolish in your conservatism because it is evident if you look at science, it is evident if you look at all the different beliefs that different societies hold, that the traditional beliefs of conservative Athenians are evidently false’. Now Plato, and I think it is perfectly reasonable to say that Western philosophy starts with Plato, starts writing his dialogues, after the death of Socrates because he thinks there is something very dangerous about that kind of relativism. And theism starts off as a philosophical theory not just as the taking up of some irrational superstitious beliefs about the deities, but as the development of a philosophical theory which is strictly anti-anthropomorphic. It becomes more so with Aristotle and Neo- Platonism, but you can see a good element of this attack on anthropomorphism in Plato and it is very much based on the idea that in order for science and ethics to be possible we need something like a transcendent source of absolute value. Plato expresses this theory in terms of myths and rather suggestively, as I’ve said, it only become expressed in a coherent philosophical form by the middle Platonists and by the Neo- Platonists. But this is where I think Western philosophy gets going. This is why after all it is more use for the philosopher today to read Plato than it is to read Bentham or indeed lots of modern philosophers I could mention. It is because these are issues that are still with us. They are not obsolete relics of superstitions.

JRR The idea that you need God as a transcendent source of values to avoid relativism is totally separate from the question of whether God exists. And most people anyway when sufficiently pressed – and we go back to Plato again, in a version of the Euthyphro problem – most people when sufficiently pressed turn out not to think that you need God to establish what is the good. If you ask the average theist, the average believer in a good God, what they would say if they found some hidden scripture which said that God thought you ought to torture children for fun on Sundays, they would not for a moment say “Oh well if God says that then it really is good.” In fact they would probably use it as part of their proof that this couldn’t be the true scripture anyway. When it comes to the point, most people who believe in God think that the reason why God is good is because God does what is good, not that the good is good is just because God says so, and if God had said something different then it wouldn’t have been good. Now if you believe that the goodness of God is a matter of God’s conforming to some kind of absolute standard, then you believe that that standard has existence independently of God, and hence you don’t need God in order to avoid relativism. One of the great problems which atheists have to contend with these days is that many people presume atheism leads to an extreme relativism in ethics. You can avoid relativism in ethics, of the worst sorts, without any need for transcendent beings to guarantee the good. You can show most relativism is simply incoherent and wouldn’t make any sense quite irrespective of whether God existed or not. For instance most relativists tend to go around saying things like “There are no absolute standards and therefore we must respect everybody’s values equally.” And in saying we must respect everyone’s values equally they are invoking a moral standard which their premise says doesn’t exist. This is how you get out of relativism; you don’t need a God for it. Anyway, even if you did, that might just be too bad.

AS Douglas Hedley, would you like to reply to this?

DH I think that a sort of opposition of God and goodness as two elements is one that the Platonic tradition has rejected absolutely adamantly. In that tradition God is the transcendent source of all being, possible and actual, and that transcendent source is absolute goodness. Whether this identity is coherent is another matter, of course. Also I’m not claiming that theism is the only solution to relativism. My point was a rather low-key one; we tend to think today of philosophy of religion as a rather peripheral area. It is an area that high-powered philosophers move into either to prove the existence of God, or like Antony Flew to disprove it. So it is a kind of peripheral area that a philosopher will move into with his logical apparatus in order to do a bit of tidying up. I’m primarily a historian of philosophy by training, and it seems to me that for the tradition of philosophy and in fact generally for philosophy up to the 20th century, that isn’t really an accurate description of what the subject is like. Because religious issues are very much at the centre of philosophical works and very often pervade them. So if we look at not just Locke and Leibniz but any number of 19th century philosophers too, we find that religious issues are there very much at the centre of things. It is really only in the 20th century that this starts to change. I simply wanted to make the point that religious questions are right at the centre of philosophy traditionally conceived.

AS Thank you. Antony Flew, could I ask you what you think of philosophy of religion. How can we meaningfully philosophise about religion?

AF Well, I reckon I’ve been doing it all my life. [laughter] Kant once said that there were three great problems of philosophy, namely God, freedom and immortality. I’ve written quite a lot about all these three things. Basically God, no, freedom, yes, immortality, no [laughter], if you want a summary. About the argument to design, I think I can offer you one contribution. It is a reference to a famous work in the United States: Topsy, a character in this work, was asked by a Yankee do-gooder in the South whether she knew she was made by God. And she hadn’t heard about this; she thought she just “growed”. Well, yes. If you look at the world, the most sophisticated, subtle, complex things in the known universe are human beings, and for all the evidence they were not designed by anything. The argument to design in Paley starts with someone seeing a watch and they infer that there must have been a designer for that. But what would show that there was a human being involved in producing something would be something much less sophisticated and elaborate than a human being, it would be an artifact of any sort. Archaeologists are forever discussing whether very uncomplicated things, such as flints, are artifacts or not, but if you are thinking about complexity, the most complicated things in the known universe are human beings, not watches or anything made by human beings. So it seems to me that the classic argument to design steps off on the wrong foot by arguing that watches are evidence of design. Yes, they are, of human design, but human beings are not evidences of design, they just growed, and the argument to design, which should be referred to not as the argument from design, which would be prejudicial, but as the argument to design, really collapses. It can’t get a start at all when we have a Darwinian explanation of the origin of the most complicated things in the universe.

AS Would you like to add something to that?

JRR Yes, this is going back to the original point I was making about things which seem to have one kind of explanation early on turning out later to have other explanations. You don’t see stones just getting themselves up and putting themselves into buildings, you don’t see dust forming itself into planks and animals, so you think “God did it.” Now this is perfectly reasonable until you start to find other explanations for the same phenomena. Those of you who are interested in this might look at Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. He draws a contrast between explanations which he says depend on ‘skyhooks’ – skyhooks are things that descend from above and haul other things up – and cranes, which are things which remain rooted to the ground and build higher and higher while remaining fixed to the ground. And he says that the difference between Darwinian explanations of complexity and the traditional ones are that Darwin replaced these skyhooks with cranes. He made sense of how from purely natural processes you could get these complex beings like plants and animals. And the point is not that this disproves the existence of God but that you no longer need God, and soul and suchlike as explanations. It is incidentally also worth commenting that one of the things that turned Darwin against traditional religion was the recognition of how much cruelty there was in nature and how impossible it was that a good God could have designed this arrangement.

JB One or two thoughts just to tie together a few of the comments that have been made. This is now heresy in a group of philosophers but one of my concerns as a historian of science and a historian of religion to some extent is that there is a kind of philosophical obsession with rational proof, that if we can’t find a rational proof of God’s existence that means we should at least put the idea to the periphery. I think when one looks at the way natural theology has actually functioned historically, it has very rarely been to establish by some demonstrative process the existence of God beyond all reasonable doubt. A number of scholars placing natural theology in its historically context have pointed out that the arguments were designed, if we can use that phrase, to fulfil some other purpose, and very often within religious communities rather than necessarily in dialogue with some kind of scepticism, although that has also been a powerful tradition. Let me give you an example from the 19th century – one of the great geologists, Adam Sedgwick, appeals to design in nature, but it is in the context of reassuring a Christian friend who was having some doubts about whether nature could be read as having some kind of creator as its source. And Sedgwick uses the fossil record to contest an atheist reading, but there are no demonstrative pretensions. He is simply saying I can show you from the fossil record as a man of faith that there have been many creative acts during the Earth’s history. Now of course one can then say well the Darwinian explanation immediately rules out that kind of religious move, but let’s not forget that Darwin himself rejected a traditional Christian morality due to the deaths of his father and young daughter. These were cruel existential blows, and they account indeed for Darwin’s loss of a conventional faith. Notice one thing though: those are existential crises, they are not necessarily the product of a new form of science. And when Darwin is talking about natural selection, he will also say – and I think this is the counterpoise to your argument – “My beliefs are always fluctuating. On some days I deserve to be called a theist, on other days an agnostic, is a truer state of my mind.” Darwin very often says in his private correspondence “I cannot believe that this wonderful universe can be the product of chance alone.” This is a Darwin speaking on a rather different kind of level from his more agnostic comments. So if we want to reconstruct Darwin himself, I don’t think we can reduce him to a simple kind of agnosticism, and to a religious position which was somehow determined by the exigencies of his science. Too many commentators make the mistake of assuming that particular forms of scientific theory carry immediate and simply specifiable implications for faith or for religion. I think there are ways of interpreting the natural world which allow a range of positions some of course more plausible than others, but the notion that atheism somehow is a necessary consequence of a particular scientific theory that I’m afraid I don’t find particularly plausible or attractive as a view.

AF No one is suggesting that the belief in Swinburne’s God is inconsistent with the facts of nature. What we are suggesting is that there is no evidence for the truth of this doctrine, which is another matter altogether.

JRR Yes, and that takes you back to Anja’s opening question about faith and reason. What we are saying that if you are being asked to believe something – not just about the importance of mind, which no one doubts, but about the kind of God underlying everything that Swinburne believes in – you want to know why you should believe it. Leaving reason behind simply means deciding to believe something irrespective of the evidence. There seems no possible defence of that position. Nobody defends it in somebody else’s position. If somebody else has faith in some God that you disapprove of, you call it a primitive superstition. Faith is only a virtue on the assumption that you’ve got it right, and the question that we have is how on earth you can know you’ve got it right without any reasons.

JB We’re looking at each other as to who might reply to that. It is curious that we seem to have split down the middle as if those of us on this side of the table are somehow proclaiming an irrational theism. We are the goats and we have the sheep on this side. I think that kind of argument is extremely strong, and I don’t wish to be identified with someone who is affirming that theism should be believed because it is somehow devoid of reason. That is certainly not my position. I think an interesting question does arise though in the context of what has just been said, and that is, why do people come to some kind of religious belief in the first place? And many people do – that we cannot deny. What has set me along the particular train of argument that I have floated this evening is that on the whole I don’t think people come to some kind of religious faith because they believe that there is something that science can not yet explain. The fact is that there is a phenomenology of religion which we do have to take seriously, and which we do have to study, because God knows, religious fanaticism is one of the most dangerous forces in the world.

[This is an edited , shortenned version of the debate held at Waterstones Bookstore in Piccadilly, London on 6 December 1999. See p 17 for details of our next Round Table debate.]

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X