Dead-Ends and Through Roads in the Philosophy of Religion

D.Z. Phillips

Pacific Coast Theological Society, 2000 March 29

When someone asked the British jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton where jazz was going, he replied, `If I knew, I'd be there already'. So I am not going to indulge in star-gazing with respect to the philosophy of religion. We must distinguish where in fact the subject is going, about which one might be pessimistic, and where it ought to be going, which is itself a philosophical question. I'm going to limit myself to the second task. I shall list some well-known developments in the subject which I regard as dead-ends and suggest a through-road in each case.

1. The Dispute Over the Intelligibility of Religious Beliefs

The rise of the Society for Christian Philosophy may create the illusion that the philosophy of religion is flourishing in academia. This is like thinking you have convinced the city because you've decided to live in a ghetto. Testimony to reality is found in the advice given to Christian philosophers: do not write your dissertation on the philosophy of religion. Write on something else to get a job. Once in the job you can do Christian philosophy. The fact is that the legacy of logical empiricism, logical positivism and Oxford linguistic philosophy is still powerful. I suspect that the majority of philosophers think that Hume showed, once and for all, the incoherence of religious belief. The only reason that there is no strongly voiced opposition to religion from the Academy is that they think that the war is over.

In so far as discussion does go on in the Academy, it takes the form of Prometheus Press-like attempts to show that all religious beliefs are meaningless, and attempts to meet these objections on their own terms. Thus, one side cannot see any sense in talking of God as an object, while the other side makes him an invisible object. The debates surround a conception of God as the Invisible Man of religion.

The only way out of this dead-end is to try to call attention to God as a spiritual reality. That both sides regard this as mystification shows how far we have drifted from a language of the spirit. If conceptual justice were done to it, opponents of religion would see that acknowledging the meaning of a religious belief is not the same as appropriating the belief in one's life. The clarification of meaning would rescue religion, in the philosophical field, from being the aim of a believing or atheistic apologetic.

2. The Assertion of Rival Presuppositions

The conclusions reached in the last section may sound dangerously close to Reformed Epistemology. Because we have no established criterion for what is to count as a basic proposition, it is said the Christians have just as much right to their presuppositions as secularists have to theirs. Of course, neither side can convince the other, but that is what one would expect. The claim for truth is not abandoned on this view, but it cannot be demonstrated. We learn to take this matter on trust.

The dead-end in this view leaves philosophy as the handmaid of a certain perspective. These perspectives are thought to be hypotheses about a Reality we can never know. But the perspectives in question are the contexts within which various distinctions between the real and the unreal have their sense. Again, the philosophical task is not to read one perspective in terms of another perspective, but to show the perspectives in all their variety when faced with temptations to distort them. If this were done, the contemplative task of conceptual appreciation would bring the discourse of religious out of its ghetto-like existence. In this second section, a reaction against a common criterion of intelligibility leads to an extreme division of different realms of meaning, while keeping a fairly crude `factual' model of the ultimate truth which, on this view, we cannot know.

3. Evidentialism

The most long-standing dead-end is the attempt to show by an appeal to allegedly common evidence that it is more probable than not that there is a God. This attempt does not survive John Wisdom's exposure in `Gods' that two people may see all there is to see in a garden, yet one may conclude that there is no gardener looking after the garden, while the other conclude that there is a gardener. Wisdom shows that the issue is not an experimental one. If we give up this view, we'll be rid of the view that belief in God is a matter of probability. Even on the evidentialist view, it is interesting that the ultimate appeal is to the `elegance' or `simplicity' of the theistic hypothesis. In other words, the original promise of evidentialism is not fulfilled. It ought to be borne in mind that this evidentialist tradition in philosophy is the same one in which the existence of other human beings is also said to be a matter of probability. As was concluded long ago: an inferred God is no more satisfactory than inferred friends.

4. The Appeal to Doxastic Practices

It is argued that our doxastic practices need not be regarded as guilty until proved innocent (scepticism), but should be regarded as innocent until proved guilty. On this view, we have just as much reason to rely on religious experience as we do to rely on perception, since each doxastic practice helps us to make sense of our experience. In each case the success of the practice is judged by its own fruit, but this circularity is present in both cases, so why give up what works.

This view looks as though it provides justifications without really doing so. The appeal to `what makes sense of our experience' makes it look as though these practices are reactions which (though we cannot know it) are most faithful to `how things are'. It is true that we learn from our reactions to nature, but nature does not tell us how to react. Our conception of nature and the world is being formed via these reactions.

5. Theodicies and the Problem of Evil

One of the saddest dead-ends is the continuing attempt to justify evil by showing that it leads to a greater good. We know only too well that this is not the general truth it claims to be. Millions are crushed by suffering. Also, this form of religious utilitarianism distorts the logic of the moral conviction that no matter how splendid a prospect may be, it cannot be pursued by any and every means. Further, when it is said that we could not develop morally unless there were suffering to respond to, we invert the logic of moral responsibility. Such responsibility is supposed to have the sufferings of others as its main concern. Here the suffering subserves my development! Imagine the Good Samaritan saying, `Lord I thank thee for another opportunity for my moral development'! I think the discussion of suffering, more than anything else, provokes the contempt for the dishonesty of religious apologetics.

6. Extra-Philosophical Considerations

In arguments surrounding sections 2, 3 and 4 above, constant appeals are made to non-philosophical factors. It is said in 2 and 4 that we can only see the world religiously if our faculties are working properly. This is a poor analogy. We can say that some people have poor eyesight only because there is an independent measure of normal eyesight shared by the poorsighted. There is no such common measure of `proper workings of faculties' in the dispute between belief and unbelief. And so each side could accuse the other in this respect. This is surely a dead-end.

Also, in the appeal to evidence, Swinburne says that the reason atheists do not weight it properly is that they are afraid of what demands religion would make on their lives were they to do so. Atheists respond by saying that believers want to believe so badly that they close their eyes to the lack of evidence. Claim and counter-claim lead to another dead-end.

7. Retreat from Reality

Those who argue for religion in terms of sections 2, 3 and 4 say that the whole of reality could be different from what we take it to be. By contrast, Wittgenstein emphasises the wonderfulness of the ordinary world around us -- a world which, in many of its respects, it would make no sense to doubt. But this cannot be said of religion. What then?

8. Conclusions

Philosophy should concentrate on its central concerns with the intelligibility of things. No single account can be given of this. Religion offers a certain way of understanding the world. It says: Think like this! Other ways of thinking may compete with it. It is not a matter of showing a theoretical superiority, but of the jostling of questions and counter-questions as different ways of thinking jostle with each other, asking, `How can you say that?' `What about this?' That is the way the conversation proceeds in life, rather than in large-scale theories. I shall close with one example, namely, a different way of thinking of the problem of evil. What if we thought like this:

God's gift of human life is a free gift. It is not part of a divine experiment. Sorrow and love are involved in the gift. Love because the gift is one of human life. Sorrow because of what that life inevitably involves. Divine compassion is compassion for us as creatures, as subject to the vicissitudes of life. When we show this compassion to life's victims, or receive it as one of the victims, we know God. Knowing God and knowing this love is one and the same.

We have to admit, however, that this compassion may not be forthcoming. Some may suffer, be led dumb like a lamb to the slaughter. So it was on Calvary. Love is abandoned. It intercedes for us through showing us what can happen to love. All innocent suffering intercedes for us in the same way. This love, which, in the Resurrection, is exalted, raised on high, still bears unhealed wounds.

No doubt many will say to this, `What about this?' `What about that?' but at least a genuine discussion may then arise, instead of theodicies which, it seems to me, speak so irresponsibly about the suffering of human beings.