Religion But Not As We Know It

comments 3

Last week I published an article for the Times Literary Supplement outlining three alternative approach to religion, one of which was religious fictionalism. A religious fictionalist is (roughly) someone who finds value in practicing a religion despite holding that the contentious claims of the religion (e.g. God exists, Jesus rose from the dead) are false. Publishing this article felt a little bit like coming out for me. Every time someone asks me the dreaded question ‘Are you religious?’, I panic and go all Vicky Pollard (“yeah but no but…”). Now the next time someone asks me I can just direct them to this article.

No sooner had the ink dried than Jerry Coyne has published a response on his blog. I’m grateful to Jerry for taking the time to do this, as he’s made me realise that some things were not quite clear enough and I’d like to take the opportunity here to articulate more clearly the views I was discussing.

In his reply to me, Jerry cut and pasted a lot of stats indicating how literal the religious views of many Americans are, and seemed to take this to refute the claims of my article. In fact, these stats are completely irrelevant to the positions I was outlining. I was not claiming that fictionalism captures the view of the majority of those involved in religion. Although I do think the fictionalist approach is more prevalent than many are aware of (e.g. in my experience, it is extremely prevalent in the Church of England) my article was focused more on what religion could be not what it currently is.

To be fair, I did begin with Karen Armstrong’s view that before the scientific revolution and the protestant reformation, faith was understood in terms of engagement or commitment rather than belief. Even so, stats about the present are completely irrelevant to how people understood religion five hundred years ago. So what is going on here? After giving these stats and declaring they ‘are enough to put paid to Goff’s claim’, Jerry does go on to say:

“As for the history of religion, just read Aquinas and Augustine and see if you think they didn’t really have a literal belief in the truth claims of Christianity.”

If Jerry has read Aquinas, I’m surprised he doesn’t know that Aquinas’s view of God is pretty close to the semi-fictionalist view I describe towards the end of my article. Aquinas didn’t think that predicates like ‘wise’ and ‘all-powerful’ literally and straightforwardly apply to God; rather they reveal to us something about the nature of God by analogy. This was a middle way between the view that God literally has personal characteristics and the view that God’s nature is completely unknowable. The latter view, which is effectively a form of fictionalism vis a vis a personal God, was very common in the history of Christianity. I gave numerous examples of church fathers and influential, mainstream Christians from history who adopted this view, none of which Jerry disputed.

Having said that, I don’t believe that fictionalism extended much further than that in the history of Christianity. I wouldn’t want to claim, for example, that fictionalism about the resurrection or the afterlife have been common among Christians in history. Probably most Christians historically have believed in these things. How does this fit with the Armstrong’s distinction between belief and faith? Actually, there is no inconsistency here. Armstrong’s claim, as I interpret it, is that faith, and therefore religious identity, was not (from 30,000 BC to 1,500 CE) defined in terms of belief. Faith and belief, on this view, are two different things that can come apart. You can have belief but not faith (if you think a certain religion is true but you wish it weren’t) and you can have faith but not belief (if you are rooting for truth of some religion but are not convinced enough to believe it). But just because faith and belief are different things, it doesn’t mean they don’t very often go together. Faith and belief are different, but historically they have often overlapped.

If in general faith and belief overlap, it may seem pedantic to insist on distinguishing them. But, in fact, it is very important. Belief is not something that is dependent on the will; it is, or at least it ought to be, an involuntary responsiveness to evidence. It’s irrational and harmful to make involvement in a religious community dependent on what is believed, to make people fear that they’re failing because of doubts they can’t help. If Armstrong is right, this irrational and harmful obsession is a modern aberration. I reproduced a fair bit of Armstrong’s argument for this claim in my article, and I referred to Daniel Howard-Snyder’s detailed defence of the thesis that what the Jesus of the new testament is praising when he talks of ‘faith’ is not belief (in the modern sense) but resilient engagement. Jerry responded to none of this.

What might be confusing Jerry is that I discuss in the article three incompatible views:

  1. Non-doxasticism – On this view, faith, and hence religious identity, is defined in terms of hopeful commitment rather than belief. (It doesn’t follow that religious people don’t believe, just that they need not).
  2. Fictionalism – Fictionalism is a much stronger view. Religious fictionalists positively disbelieve the contentious propositions of religion, even though they engage in religious practice. (This is incompatible not only with belief but also with non-doxastic faith, as you can’t hope for something you believe to be false).
  3. Semi-fictionalism – There are various forms of semi-fictionalism, according to which some but not all of the contentious propositions of religion are false, e.g. one might believe/have faith in God but be a fictionalist about the resurrection, or one might believe/have faith in a transcendent spiritual reality but be a fictionalist about its personal characteristics.

Let me completely clear on my view on how these categories map onto the history of Christianity. I think semi-fictionalism about God has been pretty mainstream (although not universal) in the history of Christianity right back to the early church fathers. And I tentatively agree with Armstrong that the non-doxastic conception of faith was the norm pre-16th century. I’m perfectly happy to accept that pure fictionalism, or semi-fictionalism that involves fictionalism about the resurrection and the afterlife, has not been, and is not, the norm (although it’s more common than you might think). So what? As I say, I’m talking not about what is but what could be.

The final move in the post is to decisively reject the idea that fictionalism would or could be a good thing. Jerry says:

“Goff’s whole argument hinges on the fact that worshiping God and professing belief gives you a sense of community that is inaccessible by any other route.”

In fact, I didn’t say this and I don’t think it. The humanist Philip Kitcher, in his excellent book Life After Faith (which I reviewed for TLS, accessible here), agrees with me that there are many crucial social roles religion has played historically, such as binding the community together and promoting positive social action. However, after a careful discussion of what he calls ‘refined religion’ (something like what I call ‘semi-fictionalism) he ends up arguing that humanists should work to develop alternative structures and institutions that could play the same role. I think that’s a great idea and I honestly wish him well. But it’s not an either/or. The fact remains that secular humanism has not managed to produce institutions that bring ordinary people from all socioeconomic backgrounds together for weekly meetings, celebrating rites of passages, and marking the changes of the year. And the advantage of reinterpreting religion rather than starting again is that you get to keep the traditions, the beautiful buildings, and the structures and resources of a way of life stretching back thousands of years. I understand the objections to the beliefs of religion, but I find it hard to understand the concern if some people (such as myself) want to maintain the traditions whilst dispensing with some or all the beliefs.

This brings me to the final question I would like here to consider: Why did my article irritate Jerry so much? Why would you want to shut down so hastily the possibility of something that has the potential to bind communities together and direct their energies to a common ethical goal? The only sense I can make of this is that he likes the great Science V Religion war to be black and white and is irked by the introduction of shades of grey. Ideologies, whether communism or scientism or religious fundamentalism, bring a comforting certainty that allows us to avoid the messy complexities of the real world. If only life were so simple.

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. Justin says

    Good response Phillip. In Jerry’s response to your response, it seem that it is panpsychism which may be the root cause of his irksomeness. Interesting that he thinks that he has demolished a substantial position in analytical philosophy of mind with a few blog posts.

    • I’ve been stumping for charity since the 2016 election. I’m getting no takers. The mood is polarized.

      I left this reply at Jerry’s site. I love him, but he’s not a philosopher:

      I read Goff’s piece with more charity. Not all people share my psychology, so it’s not impossible that something like fictionalism can work for them. Masonry comes to mind. It looks silly to me, but I believe the people who say it holds great meaning for them.

      I’m a 7.0 atheist, but I’m not an authoritarian. There are many ways to be human, and I wouldn’t like it if everyone was like me. Even less do I want to tell them they ought to be.

  2. Hi prof,
    I believe that religious spirituality, especially that of Christianity, has been and still is a “counter-power” to temporal power. I think society is always shaped by the opposing impulses of the centers of promanation of power and not by chance when the the establishment of absolutist and universal forms, as we can show for the Roman Empire, the claim and the appropriation of a typology of power over another is also observed. Thus it occurred for the two main manifestations of power in history , the temporal one that represents its political root and spiritual one, which channels religion, in this way when an imbalance occurs between the two powers, a centralized form is established that inclines towards theocracy, in some Middle Eastern countries such as the Iran, or toward political order with a distinctly authoritarian character (China, Russia, United Arab Emirates, etc).

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