Religious Belief and Demonstration: The Contemporary Debate

Dharma Endowment Lectures - 2001

William Sweet

Professor of Philosophy, St Francis Xavier University, Canada

Secretary General, World Union of Catholic Philosophical Societies

President, Canadian Jacques Maritain Association / Association canadienne "Jacques Maritain"

1. Introduction: The University Debate

2. Fideism

3. Falsifiability revisited

4. Reformed epistemology

5. The challenge of pluralism

6. Religious belief, meaning, and religious truth

In the last 25 years, there has been a strong criticism of traditional philosophy of religion or philosophical theology (e.g., by D.Z. Phillips and Alvin Plantinga), and a move away from such classical concerns as proofs for the existence of God and the problem of evil. Such critics claim that the philosophy of religion (and, especially, Christian philosophical theology) have long reflected an epistemology that is both foundationalist and evidentialist. Religious pluralism and the influence of anti-foundationalist epistemologies, however, challenge both of these epistemological theories and, therefore, attack not only philosophical theology, but our understanding of religious belief itself.

One may argue that such a challenge is nothing new--that the issues raised have been of long-standing concern in the philosophy of religion and in philosophical theology. But it is not clear whether or how we might be able to answer this challenge. Therefore, in order to understand the contemporary debate in this aspect of the philosophy of religion--particularly as it affects the Christian tradition--and to determine whether there a response can be given to the challenges of pluralism and anti-foundationalism, throughout my lectures I focus on three related questions. The first question is about truth--‘How might we determine whether religious beliefs are true?’ This presupposes an answer to a second question--namely, ‘What do utterances of religious belief mean?’ This leads, in turn, to a third question: ‘What is the relationship between a ‘true’ religious belief and ‘proof’?’ Underlying all of these questions is, of course, an account of what religious belief is.

In these lectures, I survey some of the work of contemporary philosophers of religion, and show that there is a consistent failure to account for the complexity of religious practice in their respective accounts of religious belief. Specifically, I argue that a problem in many of these approaches is that they exhibit a tendency to provide a reductionist account of the nature of religious belief. I conclude that, in order to respond to the challenges of the meaningfulness and truth of religious belief, there must be a broader account of the nature of such belief. Such an account will enable one to avoid some of the problems raised not only against classical philosophical theology, but also against (Christian) religious belief.

Lecture 1 - Introduction: The University Debate

In the first lecture, I begin by providing a brief statement of the central issues to be discussed in this series of lectures--namely, how we might answer three questions central to the philosophy of religion and philosophical theology: The first question is about truth--‘How might we determine whether religious beliefs are true?’ This leads, in turn, to a second question: ‘What is the relationship between a ‘true’ religious belief and ‘proof’?’ Both questions presuppose an answer to a third question--namely, ‘What do utterances of religious belief mean?’ Underlying all of these questions is, of course, an account of what religious belief is.

Answer to many of these questions have been proposed in the work of contemporary philosophers of religion. My claim is that in their respective accounts of religious belief there is a consistent failure to recognise both the nature of the cognitive character of religious utterances and the complexity of religious practice. Specifically, I argue that a problem in many of these approaches is that they exhibit a tendency to provide a reductionist account of the nature of religious belief. My lectures will defend the claim that, in order to respond to the challenges of the meaningfulness and truth of religious belief, there must be a broader account of the nature of such belief.

The remainder of the first lecture is devoted to situating the preceding questions. I suggest that although the discussion of the truth of religious beliefs, and relation of religious belief to proof and evidence, goes back at least to the early modern period, the focus on cognitive meaning is characteristic of mid-twentieth century philosophy. One of the best known statements of the positions on this issue--and of possible answers to it--is found in an exchange between Anthony Flew, R.M. Hare, and Basil Mitchell (published half a century ago, in 1950), and in a response to these three views by John Hick.

Flew’s suggestion is that metaphysical, theological or even ethical statements have no assertive or cognitive meaning (although they have emotive meaning). R.M. Hare replies that Flew makes certain (incorrect) assumptions about what religion is--and, therefore, what religious utterances mean. His view is that religious utterances are not assertions, but something else--they are 'picture preferences' or 'attitudes' or 'trusts'. The third ‘intervenor’ in the discussion is Basil Mitchell--later, Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford. Mitchell holds that the believer is making an assertion when he makes a religious utterance, and he agrees with Flew that evidence is relevant to belief. But Mitchell distinguishes between 'evidence' that counts against a belief and evidence that counts decisively against a belief. John Hick later provides a fourth response to the question of whether religious beliefs are meaningful and what their relation to evidence might be. The method he proposes to us is called "eschatological verification." Thus, statements like "God exists" are meaningful (i.e., can be either verified or falsified) though this verification may be personal and ‘eschatological.’

I argue that something correct about religious utterances is captured in each view, and that this has been developed in subsequent work in the philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. In this first lecture, however, I only set up some of the parameters of the subsequent debate.

Lecture 2: Fideism

In the second lecture, I present one version of contemporary philosophical religious ‘Fideism.’ Fideism has a long history, particularly in Protestant Christian traditions. The position sketched by R.M. Hare (as described in the first lecture) might be called ‘fideistic,’ and Ludwig Wittgenstein presents a similar analysis of religion and religious belief in his Lectures on Religious Belief (given in the late 1930s) and in remarks in On Certainty and Culture and Value. This work has been influential on a number of philosophers--often called ‘Wittgensteinian fideists’--such as Ilham Dilman, Peter Winch, and D.Z. Phillips.

I begin with a brief account of the approach of the so-called Wittgensteinian fideists, such as that of D.Z. Phillips. On Phillips' view, religious beliefs are not propositions. They are `pictures' and they have an expressive or performative character. They are not, then, empirical hypotheses for which one could have evidence, and their meaning is not determined by finding out whether they describe a certain state of affairs or whether they can be falsified. On the fideist view, religious beliefs take place, and are intelligible, within a discourse or conceptual schema that is radically different from that of the non-believer. I illustrate this analysis of religious belief by considering the belief `God is love'.

Advantages to this position are that it provides an analysis of the meaning and truth of religious belief that reflects certain central elements of religious practice, and that it also seems to put religious belief out of reach of skeptical attack.

I argue, however, that despite its insights into the nature of religious belief, the Wittgensteinian fideist view gives an inadequate picture of what utterances of religious belief involve, reduces all religious belief to a uni-dimensional non-cognitive type, and its account of the `truth' of such beliefs leaves it open to a charge of cult(ural) relativism. Furthermore, so far as it does not reflect what believers say and do, it fails to--as a good Wittgensteinian would--"leave the world as it is".

Lecture 3 : Falsifiability Revisited

In the third lecture, I consider another challenge to the claim that utterances of religious belief are open to rational discussion and demonstration. Here I revisit the position presented by Anthony Flew, and examine its development in works published in a span of over 40 years by Kai Nielsen. Nielsen provides two distinct challenges to those who hold that religious belief is meaningful and true: one reflects the influence of a criterion of meaning implicit in Flew’s account and that can be traced to the logical empiricism of the early and middle decades of the 20th century; the second reflects (contemporary) post-modern anti-foundationalism. On Nielsen’s view, a rational demonstration of religious belief is, strictly speaking, not possible and, further, religious belief is not a reasonable option for "someone who has both a good philosophical and a good scientific education." Religious belief, as a whole, is irrational, and the task of contemporary philosophy of religion is, therefore, to show the incompatibility of rationality and religious belief.

I begin by stating both of Nielsen’s challenges. The second challenge, found in Nielsen’s most recent work, is implied by his recent metaphilosophical and epistemological views. He follows a number of recent authors in arguing that classical foundationalism is at best arbitrary and, at worst, self defeating. Consequently, there is no way that one can meet the criteria for rational belief that foundationalism sets, and the view of philosophy of religion as capable of demonstrating certain religious beliefs to all rational beings is fundamentally flawed.

I focus, however, on Nielsen’s first challenge--that because we cannot understand what is being referred to in religious utterances, we can have no understanding of "God-talk." According to the criteria of rationality suggested by Nielsen, one cannot claim that religious belief meets the standards of "rationality". Consequently, much of the traditional philosophy of religion (e.g., proofs for the existence of God, discussion of the divine attributes and the problem of evil) must be abandoned.

I suggest that Nielsen fails to understand religious utterances and religious beliefs aright, and that Nielsen has not established that the concepts used in religious belief, and religious language itself, are meaningless. Moreover, I argue that there is inconsistency in Nielsen's view here. Finally, I argue that, whether reducible to foundationalism or not, the method of determining rational belief that Nielsen proposes here seems to be simply inappropriate to what religious belief is concerned with.

Lecture 4 - Reformed Epistemology

In my fourth lecture, I examine a third approach to the issue of the meaningfulness of religious belief and the relation between religious belief and evidence--one that does not find an obvious antecedent in the University debate, but which offers (at least implicitly) a powerful statement on the issue. It comes from what some call "Calvinian Christian philosophy" or "reformed epistemology." Authors (e.g., Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff) are favourable to religious belief and religious truth. They focus on the relation of reason and evidence to such belief, and draw on the discussion of this relation that one finds in the works of Jean Calvin and, to a lesser extent, in Thomas Reid. "Reformed epistemologists" reject both classical foundationalism and traditional natural theology, but they are also unwilling to adopt fideist or empiricist alternatives.

According to these "Reformed thinkers", natural theology--which they claim is based on the view that "theistic belief is rationally acceptable only if there is sufficient evidence for it"--is "radically misguided". The philosophical demonstration of religious belief is not even in principle possible. Nevertheless, they insist that it is "right, reasonable, rational and proper to believe in God without any evidence or argument at all." They do hold that apparent counters or objections to God’s existence can be attacked and refuted, and that philosophical positions consistent with religious belief--such as anti-naturalism--are more plausible than those underlying the views of their (predominantly) non-religious opponents.

In this lecture, I focus on the work of Plantinga, drawing on both early essays and his recent major work Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford, 2000). Plantinga argues that there are certain of our beliefs--including religious beliefs--which are "basic," i.e., beliefs which one does not accept on the basis of other (propositions or) beliefs. Nevertheless, Plantinga argues, it can be ‘reasonable’ to believe them. Religious belief, then, is at least on a par with ‘non-belief.’ In advancing this claim, Plantinga suggests that we enlarge or broaden our concept of rationality. It is, then, appropriate to speak of the rationality of religious belief without it being necessary to provide the kind of evidence or philosophical demonstration demanded by evidentialism and, specifically, classical foundationalism.

I argue, first, that Plantinga has not provided a sufficiently clear account of ‘basic belief.’ and that it is paradoxical. Second, Plantinga’s approach fails to allow for an understanding of basic beliefs (particularly religious beliefs) as fundamental in the sense that they constitute, as a whole, the framework or noetic structure of the individual. Third, I argue that Plantinga does not show clearly how one might speak of religious beliefs as ‘true.’ Finally, I suggest that Plantinga operates with a concept of religious belief that fails to capture the sense in which it is properly used in religious discourse.

I conclude that, while it is clear that Plantinga has correctly identified some aspects of religious belief and why believers may come to hold that it is rational to believe, there are several problems involved in turning to "Reformed epistemology" to provide a rational account of the nature and function of religious belief.

Lecture 5 - The Challenge of Pluralism

In lecture five, I discuss how the existence of religious pluralism and of religious truth in a cross cultural setting might influence an account of the meaningfulness and truth of religious utterances.

I begin with one example--that of disagreements or conflicts between the claims of the anthropologists and those of religious groups. In elaborating on this, I raise one rather widely held view--a view which has been developed with some measure of success by John Hick--of how one can hold a theory of religious pluralism and yet still talk about the meaning and truth of religion.

Hick's view is interesting and valuable because it attempts to take both religious plurality and the claims of religious dogma and science (or of empirical truth) seriously. While some aspects of his views have changed radically from his early response to the University discussion, in certain respects his views are remarkably unchanged.

According to Hick, there are three principal stances that one might take on the issue of religion and truth: religious exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. The only real option, Hick thinks, is religious pluralism--that there is no unique and best way of having access to the divine, but a multiplicity of ways, each of which provide a legitimate means of access to it. The plausibility of this option is confirmed, Hick thinks, because it is both simple and most consistent with the hypothesis of a loving God and the general goal of having salvation available to all cultures. My concern here is not Hick's interpretation of specific religious doctrines, but how what Hick says about religion and religious truth might be helpful in understanding the meaning and truth of utterances expressing religious belief, and their relation to what we might call scientific (or empirical) truths. Hick allows that it is appropriate to speak of contradictions among religious traditions, but also of verification and falsification--particularly at the historical level.

Contrary to Hick's comment that it is not necessary that we answer or that we be able to answer the question of the truth of most religious beliefs in order to be saved--that they are not of great religious (i.e., soteriological) importance--many religions would argue that it does make a difference whether, for example, Jesus had a human father or whether Muhammad appointed Ali, and so on. Moreover, some have argued that Hick's analysis begs the question of how and whether one can be sure that one has religious knowledge. Others hold that Hick's view simply reduces religion to the lowest common denominator. These are not, however, my primary concerns.

I argue that Hick's account fails in at least two additional respects: first, it does not clearly indicate what makes a religious experience genuinely religious; second, it assumes that one can, in fact, separate different ‘levels’ of belief within a system of faith. Despite these reasons to reject Hick's views on the plurality of religions and the analysis of the nature of religious belief, there are nevertheless some instructive features in his view. Following on these insights, I suggest that we are led to another view of religion and religious truth. Thus, first, we must recognise that religious belief has two dimensions--religious belief as a whole (which is roughly equivalent to faith) and particular religious beliefs (e.g., doctrines and dogmas).Second, I argue that religious beliefs reflect how believers have interpreted the world and serve to express this, and that any adequate account of the meaningfulness of religious belief, of their truth, and of the relation between these beliefs and proof, must reflect both of these points. It is such an account that I develop in my final lecture.

Lecture 6 - Religious Belief, Meaning, and Argument

In this concluding lecture, I offer some suggestions concerning the concept of religious belief, the meaning of particular religious beliefs, and the relation of proof or argument to religious faith. First, I provide an analysis of religious belief that draws on both the practice of believers and the account of religious truth given by them, and I show how such an analysis is compatible with the kinds of beliefs that religious believers would say they hold to be true. This analysis will explain something of the distinctive character of religious truth, but also suggest why it is difficult for people to agree about the truth of certain religious beliefs. I will also argue that the meaning and truth of religious beliefs are not determined purely within religious practices or discourses, and what the role of argument or philosophical proof is in this. This will address, then, both some concerns in Anglo-American epistemology of religion about talking about ‘meaning’ and ‘truth’ in religion and about the relevance of argument, as well as a number of conceptual issues in the understanding of the character of religious belief.

I begin, then, with a discussion of the term ‘religious belief,’ which (as noted earlier) can be understood in at least two distinct senses: religious belief `as a whole’ (which is roughly equivalent to religious ‘faith’) and, second, particular religious beliefs.

Religious belief ‘as a whole’ can be seen as involving a set of practices and, as such, is historical, public or social, and generally includes some kind of cultic or ritual activity. It also includes a discourse (i.e., a linguistic practice) and contains criteria which believers use to determine the appropriateness or inappropriateness of actions and utterances. These practices are reflected in and sometimes rooted in religious institutions and traditions, indicate a way of thinking that is shared with others, allow for activity in common, and serve to bind adherents into a community. But they are also connected to practices, beliefs and institutions outside of religious belief and, ultimately, are determined by ideas dominant in minds.

Religious belief should not be confused with ‘religion’ or with simply engaging in ritual activity, nor should one infer from the preceding comments that religious belief is just a set of practices. There is, for example, an intentional character to religious belief. This intentional element is, for the believer, part of a more general ‘disposition’ i.e., we can speak of one’s belief as a disposition or habitus of ‘trust’ in (or, better, commitment to) something that she or he holds as providing an ultimate frame of reference for his or her life. This disposition, then, reflects an interpretation or view of the world, and reveals the believer’s noetic or epistemological framework (or, in other words, it shows how he or she understands the world).

Religious belief is also a ‘response’ to the world. As noted above, the believer’s noetic stance and the practices that she or he engages in are not arbitrary, random, or purely subjective, but are affected by one’s surroundings. This tells us that religious belief can be affected by other beliefs though the circumstances in which religious belief arises and the way in which other beliefs influence it can be sometimes difficult (if not impossible) to determine in advance. But since it can be affected by the world, it can in turn affect the world.

My claim is that what makes a belief ‘religious’ is not just that it is intelligible and that it refers, directly or indirectly, to certain persons or events. It must also i) have an expressive role or function in a person’s life, ii) indicate one’s disposition (or intention) to act in a certain way that is relevant to a certain set of practices, and iii) be such that the persons or events referred to (are claimed by the speaker to) have a relation to a reality which is beyond the empirical, observable, and material. In other words, what makes a religious belief religious is not just its subject matter (i.e., that it is a belief about certain beings or events) nor is it just that it is a belief or set of beliefs that is held in a certain way (i.e., in a way that expresses a trust or commitment that shows that the beliefs are fundamentally significant to one’s life). It is the holding of a certain set of beliefs in this latter way that makes them religious.

This, I argue, allows for an account of religious belief that reflects religious discourse and practice and that shows not only what one must attend to in attempting to arrive at the meaning of a religious belief, but also what factors must be kept in mind when one wishes to determine whether such a belief is ‘true’ where ‘truth’ is not merely a property internal to a discourse. This also explains why debate about such beliefs may not be easy to settle, and why equally reasonable people might not be able to reasonably agree.

If we fail to be attentive to these features of religious belief, then we will continue to err or arrive at dead ends when it comes to speaking of religious truth and of the proof or demonstration of religious belief. But if we are aware of them, we can better understand religious discourse and practice, the relevance of argument and ‘rationality’ to religious belief, and what it means to speak of religious ‘truth.’