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The Nature of Religious Belief

Chris Bloor replies to ‘Cutting God in Half’ by Nicholas Maxwell.

In his article ‘Cutting God In Half’ in Issue 35, Nicholas Maxwell puts forward a case for examining philosophically our belief in God, and recognising that it is problematic. Maxwell suggests that there is a God of value who must be reconciled with a God of cosmic power – a God of creation and a God who embodies moral understanding. Most conceptions of God combine these without recognising their distinct nature. This has caused human suffering, and has required the intellectual dishonesty of organised religion. In turn this has necessitated that religious belief be made the master of human reason. In response, he suggests that we should transform our conception of God by recognising the incompatibility of our twin demands on our deity. He urges not so much that God be cut in half as that we recognise the two conflicting strands in the concept and do our level best to separate them.

I would argue that Maxwell’s project is admirable and wellconstructed, but doomed to failure. Maxwell fundamentally misunderstands the nature of religious belief as professed by an individual. Religious faith isn’t something which can be weighed against other interpretations of the world; it is the result of an individual’s deeply felt experience of living in that world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote extensively on religious faith. Take the famous encounter between Wittgenstein and AC Ewing, which followed the latter’s reference to “the theistic hypothesis”. Wittgenstein would not accept that the Thirty Years War was waged over a mere hypothesis. He said:

“Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and what will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in a human life. For consciousness of sin is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things are describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.”

I am very much with Wittgenstein on this point. I don’t think that it is a valid enterprise to ask, as Maxwell urges, “Are there good grounds for preferring the God conjecture to rival conjectures?” Such a question misunderstands what it means to hold a religious belief.

Religious beliefs are the result of living a life at a particular time, within a certain context. They represent a specific response to the world, which emerges from an inner felt desire to make sense of that world and to act within it. One may suggest parallels with the question “Are there good grounds for preferring to support Arsenal to supporting other English football teams?” and “What problems does Arsenal support solve?” To suggest that an Arsenal supporter might benefit from asking such questions misinterprets what it means to be a football supporter in the first place.

Of course, regardless of how I come by my beliefs, isn’t it a good idea to subject them to scrutiny from time to time, to check them for consistency and veracity? Should I not weigh up the beliefs which guide my life, to see where they might lead and compare them with other possible interpretations of the world?

The role of the philosopher as the logical scrutineer of individual beliefs has a long and respected history from Socrates to Sophie’s World. In the latter, Jostein Gaarder’s philosopher Alberto Knox urges young Sophie to shun the temptations of the fortune teller’s tent and concentrate on examining her own beliefs about the world. But does this necessarily lead to human liberation? To human happiness?

I am with those who ask the question, “What powers available to me might I use to scrutinise my own most deeply felt beliefs?” If I make use of the power of reason to disengage from my life, to weigh it against other possible lives, am I engaged in a project which is useful to living that life? These are the questions raised by Thomas Nagel in his book The View From Nowhere.

The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues that the task facing Western culture is to come to terms with the unique challenge of modernity. We moderns are unique in that our increasing power to understand our world (and control it) is distinct from any capacity to find our place in it. Our ancestors, following Plato, did not make this distinction: understanding the world came hand in hand with seeing its beauty, with accepting its moral prescriptions, with loving it.

Experience of the truth of the world should invoke a moral change in us; we should find it impossible and morally repugnant to act in a manner which runs counter to the wisdom we have gained from seeing the world in its proper form. This is what happens in Plato’s analogy of the Cave to the man who returns to his former state having seen the way the world really is.

Since Descartes, modernity has used the power of reason to strive for control of the world, but this same world has become dis-enchanted. It no longer speaks to us or offers us moral orientation. It has become an arena in which we attempt to manipulate conditions for our comfort, but it is no longer the home for us which it was for our ancestors. Understanding the world no longer carries with it the moral imperative that it did in Plato’s sense. And so we moderns continue to turn to religious faith in one form or another in order to bridge the gap.

But we do not do this as a scientific experiment, in order to solve problems in the same way that we might construct a weather-resistant building. We do so because our successful manipulation of the world has left us alienated from it. The real events in a human life described by Wittgenstein are experienced within the context of a religious faith, and they are resistant to solution by our ever-increasing powers of technological control of the world.

In conclusion I would argue that the problem is not that we lend to God a unity which violates the demands of intellectual honesty, as Maxwell suggests. The problem is that we ourselves are inevitably divided along much the same lines as he would have us cut up God.

© Chris Bloor 2002

Chris Bloor is Director of Development of the Oxford Philosophy Trust.

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