How to Debate Religion Properly

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(This piece was published in the Times Literary Supplement April 17th 2015)

Many philosophers, both theists and atheists, bemoan the low standard of the contemporary debate on the tenability or otherwise of religion. Richard Dawkins and his allies focus on the crudest, most literalistic forms of religion, which are then all too easily dismissed as self-evident idiocy. Fundamentalists gleefully take up the challenge of presenting pseudo-scientific defences of the old man in the sky. The vast majority of religious believers look on in bemusement at this spectacle which seems to have little to do with their own outlooks.

Philip Kitcher’s Life after Faith: The case for secular humanism raises the game. The first chapter rejects religious belief in a supernatural or transcendent reality. The reasons are familiar: lack of evidence and the inconsistency of diverse religious beliefs, which is alleged to undermine claims to knowledge. However, the arguments are careful and charitable to the opponent, which of course only strengthens them.

Later chapters consider what Kitcher calls “refined religion”, a conception of religion which puts practice above doctrine, and takes the doctrines themselves to be ‘profound metaphors’ (albeit metaphors held to disclose the grain of reality) rather than straightforward literal claims. For some refined believers, a claim such that Christ is risen is not to be taken as an empirical claim concerning some specific historical event, an event that a time traveller could in principle take a snapshot of (as the late Marcus Borg put it). Rather the ultimate concern of religion is value, or perhaps a sacred reality which cannot be put into human words. The many and varied religious doctrines are to be understood as poetic attempts to gesture at the inexpressible.

Refined religion and secular humanism are clearly not a million miles apart, and indeed Kitcher emphasises that in many contexts secularists and refined believers ought to recognise one another as allies, for example in ethical or metaphysical debates with fundamentalists. Furthermore, Kitcher grants that there is an important social role played by religion in binding the community together, a role which is perhaps more important than ever amid social fragmentation and economic hardship. Nonetheless, he maintains that a secular substitute for religious practice can be found; the important role religion plays in society can in principle be separated from its myths and fictions. If secular alternatives to religion look pallid in comparison to the genuine article, this is only because religions have had more time to build up meaningful traditions. This is not a call for religion to be gleefully abandoned, but a hope that a secular alternative can be developed.

Just as Kitcher’s book is a refreshing break from the ‘new atheist’ trend in secular thought, so John Cottingham’s Philosophy of Religion: Towards a more humane approach is a welcome development from the theist side of the debate. Cottingham rails against the dominant methodology in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion, the proponents of which ape scientific virtues of detachment and coldblooded rational analysis. The arguments for the existence of God are assessed as though by a disinterested observer, weighing up considerations which it is supposed have rational force independent of one’s background commitments. For Cottingham reasons to believe cannot be assessed from such a dry and dispassionate perspective. Personal commitment and a certain amount of inculcation in a religious tradition are necessary preconditions for seeing the force of the theistic world view.

Some may worry that this involves giving up believing on the basis of evidence. But Cottingham maintains that there is evidence – in a broad sense of that word – for God; just evidence which is inaccessible to a disinterested observer. To make this more plausible, consider the belief many of us share that cruelty is wrong. Assessing in a forensic and detached manner the details of an act of severe cruelty will not reveal to us the wrongness of the act. It is only by engaging empathically with the situation that we are compelled to cry out that the act of cruelty should not have happened. For Cottingham, it is precisely on these kind of acts of engaged involvement with the world, in which reality becomes morally charged, that religious conviction is built.

Indeed, whether we side with Kitcher’s secularism or Cottingham’s theism may depend on how persuaded we are that their framework can make sense of our moral convictions. Both reject the idea that morality is grounded in the commands of God – so called “divine command theory” – and both do so for the same reason: Plato’s famous ‘Euthyphro’ dilemma, which Cottingham outlines in the following:

“In a nutshell, the problem is that if merely being ordered to do something by God is enough to make it good or right, this seems to make morality arbitrary and potentially irrational (‘Do this because I say so!); but if one the other hand the God-given demands of morality are based on moral reasons (‘Do this because it is just/kind/virtuous), then the appeal to God seems to become redundant – why not simply base morality on the relevant reasons of justice, kindness of virtue?” (P. 76)

Despite rejecting the divine command theory, Cottingham denies that true morality can be accounted for without God. He accepts that on a secular world view there are various worthwhile pursuits, and that kindness and love may be amongst the options. But, crucially, none of these options is obligatory. One may choose to spend one’s life acting with selfless compassion; but one may equally well choose a narrow focus on family or even on oneself. Nothing compels the Nazi scientist to be concerned for the Jews upon which he is experimenting, if his only interest is the pursuit of scientific knowledge. In the absence of God, there is a smorgasbord of life goals to choose from, but no overriding obligations. How does the existence of God make a difference?

For Cottingham the theistic world view is one in which there is teleology, or goal directedness, built into the very being of the cosmos:

“If we are created by a source that is itself pure love, if we are made in that image, then our deepest fulfilment will lie in realizing that love in our lives…. Self-interested goods….may perhaps be, as far as they go, authentic goods; but in the absence of love, as St Paul’s famous analysis in the first letter to the Corinthians tells us, they lose their significance and their pursuer becomes merely a ‘sounding gong’, or a ‘tingling symbol’. This fundamental teleological framework, affirmed by a long line of writers from St John to Dante and beyond, has nothing to do with the normative force of commands. It has to do with the way our human lives are inescapably oriented towards a final supreme end, the good whose principal nature is love”. (p. 84-5)

Kitcher appreciates the difficulty of accounting for moral objectivity in naturalistic terms, but bravely tries to “vindicate value” in the absence of God. One move he makes is to suggest thinking of ethics not in terms of an ideal goal we are trying to move towards, but rather in terms of social problems and difficulties we are trying to move away from:

“…it would be absurd to envisage some ideal system of transportation, and to suppose that progress in this domain is constituted by realizing its features even more closely, or to think of doctors as trying to help their patients approximate some idea state of perfect health. Better to think in terms of “progress from” rather than “progress to” – and to make the same switch in perspective in the ethical case as well”. (p. 42)

Ethics for Kitcher is a kind of “social technology”, which tries to develop society from problems caused by “limited responsiveness” to each other’s needs. The most important development in this history is the emergence of discussion under conditions of equality, in which each person’s perspective counts, and in which “we struggle to cope with fundamental features of the human predicament, in particular our existence as social beings whose capacity to respond to other is limited”. (p. 57)

Kitcher has plausibly identified a sociological phenomenon with the term “ethics”, and one many of us case deeply about. But are there any objective reasons to value the egalitarian social project Kitcher calls “ethics” over any other social project? What if I fancy the idea of a caste-based system in which society works for the interests of my social class? Kitcher offers the following justification for preferring an egalitarian conception of ethics:

“Any attempt to realize Nietzsche’s dream for a world in which human possibilities are proliferated ever more richly by a small class of superior beings would be well advised to invest in all possible candidates – and thus to ensure the preconditions of worthwhile lives for all. Ironically, the original function of ethics, in the form of the egalitarian ideal, retains its priority”. (p. 52)

Even if the secularist can make sense of some notion of objective social progress, there is always the question of why any given individual should care about social progress. What if I’m only interested in pursuing the Nietzschian dream of a rich human life for myself and my family, and couldn’t give a toss whether society is set up to increase the chances of others outside of my family having rich lives? Is there anything objectively flawed about such a motivation?

Kitchers addresses this question in the final section of the chapter, and attempts “to defend the reasonableness of accepting normative proposals by reflecting on the history of normative practices”. (p. 54) He describes for example how Victorian readers of Bleak House revised their attitudes towards the justice of the then current treatment of the urban poor. However, describing the processes by which people in history came to have ethical views akin to our own does not address the problem. We could equally well explore the processes by which people in Nazi Germany came to have ethical views we deplore. The question is: what, on a secular world view, could possibly account for the superiority of one conception of the good life over another?

Some secularists will agree with Cottingham that the atheist cannot account for objective moral value, but infer from this – in opposition to Cottingham – that there is no such thing as objective moral value. It is wishful thinking, one might think, to go beyond what science tells us about the world in order to account for something we want to believe in. If science has no place for morality then morality doesn’t exist.

This kind of scientism is often accompanied by the assumption that there is a self-evident epistemological starting point, at which every rational person begins her quest for knowledge of reality. In fact there is no such thing. Even science itself cannot get going without taking seriously a whole series of intuitions which cannot be justified empirically or rationally: that our senses and memories can be trusted, that the future will resemble the past, that all things being equal simpler and more elegant theories are better, that there are no contradictory states of affairs. There is no self-evident principle which tells us that all of these intuitions can be taken for granted, and yet ethical intuitions – which may seem just as evident – cannot. It is this subtlety that new atheists fail to appreciate.

There is no easy way to dismiss as delusional the religious conviction that the world is charged with value and meaning; but nor is there is an easy way to dismiss the potential of secularism to make sense of this conviction, and perhaps even to provide institutions to nurture it. These matters and complex and call for patient and careful reflection. Thanks to Philip Kitcher and John Cottingham, the level of debate is improving.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


  1. seemings says

    Intuitions can be justified, i.e., the view that an intuition that p justifies the belief that p, can be justified. I’ve done it, and Eli Chudnoff and John Bengson have too (perhaps bettter).

  2. John-Paul Stuthridge says

    I whole heartedly agree with this.

    Very eloquent way of putting it. Scientism is very naive and while scientific approaches to a model of morality that works is no bad thing, it will fail to fully discover as well as account for why we are moral beings in the first place.

    It is no surprising truth that some moral systems are better than others. Compare UK to Saudi Arabia perhaps, the atheist must admit that though he recognising stoning women is wrong, on what concrete grounds can he be so sure? If something is absolutely wrong then there has to be an objective source for his absolute morality. Absolutes cannot come from non-absolutes and likewise, something cannot come from nothing (I suspect).

    I am still not a confirmed man of faith, but I have debated with atheists who believe that morals do exist and absolutely so, but when I ask them what is your absolute source or groundings for this, they cannot tell me.

    I asked them, “What is an absolute source other than God?”, and they admitted that they couldn’t think of one.

    I wish more atheists were as honest as that.

  3. Pingback: Religion But Not As We Know It | Conscience and Consciousness

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