New to the Philosophy of Religion? Here are some q uick thoughts to get your discussion started...
In the introduction to his book A History of Modern Britain, 2007, Andrew Marr, political commentator and shrews observer of the modern mores, comments on the experience of living in Britain since the Second World War:
‘In the period covered by this book, the dominant experience has been acceleration. We have lived faster. We have seen, heard, communicated, changed and travelled more. We have experienced a material profusion and perhaps a philosophical and religious emptiness that marks us off from earlier times.’ p. xxxi
If his comment is right – and I believe it is, minus the ‘perhaps’ – then there is no more important challenge today than to get to grips with the Philosophy of Religion.
Philosophy should not be an obscure or exclusively academic subject. At its best, it is simply the willingness to think carefully about what it is we know and what it is we value. It is the process of bringing reason and evidence to bear on the assumptions of everyday life.
So the challenge of studying the Philosophy of Religion is to apply reason to religious beliefs and values, and to do so in a way that is rigorous (not being afraid to ask difficult questions) but also sensitive, recognising the key importance that religion has in the lives of very many people.
Sadly, much of the debate has been superficial. It has focused on taking a literal interpretation of religious ideas (particularly belief in God) and showing and arguing for and against. But religion is not simply a list of things to believe, and few practising members of a religion spend their time justifying them. Instead, religion is about living out a set of values. The most relevant question is not ‘Can you give a rational justification for your beliefs’ but ‘By what vision of human life and by what values do we live and should we live?’ The challenge is then to examine whether or not existing religions have a constructive part of play in shaping that vision and those values.
Is God needed to give life meaning?
Faced with our individual death and the equal certainty that both the human species and eventually the Earth itself will one day cease to exist, we know that nothing we do can produce a permanently result. Life is a zero sum game. Does that make it meaningless, futile and absurd?
Some religious believers argue that only the existence of a supernatural God, outside the contingencies of this physical universe and able to offer an eternal life beyond death, can give life meaning.
But, to experience life as meaningful does not depend on external guarantees, but on the sense that you live for something – and for most people that has something to do with their relationships with family and friends, their work, their hopes and so on. That kind of meaning is intrinsic to the individual – if you feel it, you have it; and it does not matter that it is self-generated (e.g. you’ve given yourself a project) or discovered within your environment (e.g. you are appreciated by family or friends), it is a reality for you.
Meaning is an interpretation, not a fact. It is the point at which you can tell a story about your life. Does that require belief in a supernatural God offering an external guarantee? I think not. A believer may say that God is also found in the everyday, a non-believer will simply find that the everyday proves his or her life with a sense of meaning and value. Belief in God may encourage that, but it is certainly not a necessary condition for finding life worthwhile.
The problem of evil
The fact of evil creates a problem for anyone wanting to believe that this world is created and controlled by a loving God. Arguments about the origin of the universe are inconclusive. The atheist may well claim that the idea of God is unnecessary to explain how things are, but that cannot in itself rule out the existence of God. The fact of evil, however, challenges the heart of that belief.
If God is omnipotent (can do anything), omniscient (knows everything) and all-loving, it seems utterly impossible to reconcile that belief with a world so full of suffering. The heartless nature of disease and natural disasters suggests that whatever power controls the universe is indifferent to human suffering.
Buddhism and humanism do not have a problem with this, since they recognise suffering as an inevitable feature of the fragile and limited human nature. But theism wants to see everything as part of God’s loving plan, although, confronted with evil and suffering, most believers either call it God’s will, or a mystery, and offer no rational answer. Whether that, in itself, is fatal for belief in God, I leave you to judge.
Science and Religion
Whether it’s Genesis versus the big bang theory, or Adam and Eve versus evolution, the popular image of the science and religion debate is one of faith on the one side confronting reason and evidence on the other.
In fact, the key to much of this is a consideration of how religious scriptures and doctrines should be understood. If they are taken literally, then confrontation with scientific evidence is inevitable. If they are symbolic expressions of the human quest for meaning and value, then they may be used to complement our scientific understanding of the world, just as the greatest works of fiction or music add a creative depth to our understanding of life that no search engine or encyclopaedia can provide.
But equally, science needs to recognise that its own sphere of operation is limited. It provides hugely important raw information – but decisions about the significance and value of that information, about how it should be used, or the morality of resulting technology, requires a sensitivity that the scientific method itself cannot provide.
When fundamentalist scientists confront fundamentalist believers, both reason and the best of human sensitivity and intuition go out of the window. When there is an open and probing discussion, the result can be a wider appreciation of the wonder of human experience and the quest for knowledge.
Does Fundamentalism get to the bottom of it?
When under threat, religions, like individuals, tend to get defensive. In the face of modernist, relativist thinking, fundamentalism is the attempt to grasp a few simple beliefs in the most literal way and to defend them as being the central core of religion.
In terms of a mature reflection on the nature of religion, it is adolescent. In terms of the desire to defend the basic religious insight, in the face of secular and superficial dismissal of its value, it is understandable.
The Philosophy of Religion seeks to explore religious beliefs rationally, and is therefore the very antithesis of fundamentalism.
Fundamentalists, however, are all too ready to dismiss the judgement of human reason. Like a paranoid schizophrenic who will not entertain the idea of that his or her internal voices are self-generated, religious fundamentalist are generally closed to rational argument.
The only thing to be said about them is that, throughout the history of the great religions, a majority of believers have always been fundamentalist. The religious intellectuals in every generation – whether in the 4th, 13th, 19th or 21st centuries – have always been a minority. Fortunately, truth is seldom established on the basis of a democratic decision.
As taught in most Western universities, particular when part of a Philosophy course, the Philosophy of Religion has largely ignored Eastern thought. The examination of world religions, once studied under the misleading heading of ‘comparative religions’ (misleading because you cannot effectively compare concepts that are produced by such different cultural backgrounds), has become an established part of Religious Studies courses, rather than Philosophy ones.
That is a shame, because the rational exploration of fundamental ideas about the nature of the universe, the nature of the self and so on, have been conducted by Hindu, Buddhist and Chinese philosophers since before the emergence of western philosophy in ancient Greece, and their contributions are as much philosophical as religious.
Eastern thought has always been happy to integrate intellectual exploration with practical, moral and artistic responses. It is also fascinating to see how very different belief systems can emerge from quite similar questions and experiences. Once you are aware of the Western philosophical questions, turning to the East may prove an interesting and refreshing new experience, but one which will, at times, also seem quite familiar.
Can you experience God?
Your senses respond to stimuli; your brain process the incoming data and interprets it appropriately. It distinguishes the boundaries of objects, ascribes to them value and significance and – eventually – names them. Without such interpretation, you would not have a consistent view of the world.
‘God’ is a word that people have used in describing what they consider to be religious experiences. But the key question is this - Is God part of what they experience, or simply an interpretation of that experience? Could an atheist experience exactly the same thing without calling it ‘God’?
In classical theism, God is described as eternal and infinite. He is therefore everywhere and within everything. He is certainly not a separate thing alongside others – indeed, to identify a limited thing with God is regarded by the great monotheistic religions as idolatry.
To say that something ‘exists’ means that it stands out, it has boundaries, we see that it makes a difference. We can have evidence for it. But to say that God exists or does not exist, in that literal sense, is equally wrong – whatever is eternal is beyond being a bit of the world that can be separated off and identified. A God who ‘exists’, is a contradiction in terms. So the experience of God means something quite different; but to explore that further, you’ll have to read Understand Philosophy of Religion or a similar book.
Can there be a multi-faith truth?
Some religious believers are exclusivist; they do not accept the validity of the beliefs of other religions, even when those beliefs seem very close to their own. For them, religion provides a closed circle of beliefs and meanings, and you can only appreciate them once you have committed to that particular way of looking at things.
Others trust that in some way every religion is probing its way towards the truth, following its own particular path, and that they all contribute to our understanding of life, the universe and everything.
Religions arise within particular cultures and their beliefs are inevitably conditioned by them. In a multi-cultural environment, it would be ideal if there could be multi-faith truths – so that, just as each culture contributes to the whole, so each faith could slot it own beliefs neatly alongside those of others.
If truth were judged from an absolute perspective, that might be possible. But – unfortunately for that quest – each religious truth is embedded in its particular language, philosophy and culture. It can therefore only be fully appreciated in its own context – taken out of that, the danger is that it may become a token to be shared or compared (e.g. the idea that everyone who believes in ‘God’ believes in much the same thing), and that is likely to produce the lowest common denominator of belief, satisfying none.
What are the benefits and hazards of religion?
Even before Freud and Marx, there was little doubt that there were hazards in religion. Escapism – whether in refusing to acknowledge one’s own responsibility once bereft of a human father-figure, or in hoping for another world after death to compensate for the troubles of this one – has often attached itself to religion.
On the other hand, any objective assessment will show that not everybody succumbs to such hazards, and that some will find in religion a route to profound human sensitivity and maturity.
Equally, in a world that is increasingly materialist, consumer-led, and cosmopolitan, it is easier than ever to feel utterly lost, or to seek satisfaction from the most unsatisfactory sources of comfort, be they chemical or social. Many would argue that the body of beliefs, moral guidelines and social relationships offered by a religion provides a package of benefits that can offer genuine happiness in an ambiguous world.
Not everybody either wants or needs such a package, but to deny its potential benefit is to be wilfully blind to common human need.
When it comes to balancing the benefits and hazards, it’s very much down to the individual. Perhaps the key principle should be that ‘all may, but none must’ – to be prohibited from taking part in a religion is a loss of an important human right; to be forced into one is an affront to one’s own integrity.
The distraction of militant atheism
In recent years there has been a spate of publications criticising religion, and showing its followers to be unreasonable and superstitious. Using arguments familiar to any child of the Enlightenment, militant atheists have argued that religious beliefs are not just factually wrong, but dangerous.
In response to this, some believers have rushed to defend their beliefs, some using reason, but others – in a more strident tone – citing scripture and threatening hellfire. Others have pointed out that the God attacked by the atheists is no more than a crude caricature, and that they are wilfully blind to the subtleties of religious language and experience.
This is a sad state of affairs for anyone interested in the philosophy of religion. Neither side comes out with intellect or sensitivity untarnished if neither is willing to discuss in a balanced way the limits of human reason, language and intuition.
Yet while this phoney war is being played out, religion (including its most extreme political offshoots) continues to thrive – for good or ill. The real question is whether religion has a contribution to play in the huge agenda with which the human species is confronted – an agenda including the global issues of environmental change, extreme poverty, exploitation and the cultural and political differences that still lead to the madness of terrorism on the one hand and legitimised warfare and repression on the other.
In the name of our common humanity, we need to give serious thought to values and intuitions about the meaning of life, whether their source is religious or secular.