Aesthetic reasons for religious faith
August 19, 2012 — 17:34

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 34

I am interested in the connection between religious faith and aesthetics, especially in how aesthetic considerations can play a pragmatic role in people’s attraction to a religious lifestyle. C.S. Lewis wrote eloquently about this in his Surprised by Joy and in his short sermon The Weight of Glory, where he identifies the desire for aesthetic experience as a desire for God. Augustine (Confessions) makes this identification as well. “My sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in him but in myself and his other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.”
For me the aesthetic dimension has always been a strong motivating reason for adopting a religious lifestyle: the beauty and power of the words of Scripture, the drama of the liturgy, organ music and polyphonic hymns. I am interested in natural theology, but I do not go to evensong because I am convinced by natural theological arguments. It would be interesting to do a survey “What motivates you to attend religious services?” my hunch is aesthetic reasons would figure high up in the list.
Nevertheless, much analytic philosophy of religion portrays faith as a primarily doxastic attitude, as consisting of assent to propositions such as “God exists”. I know not all PoR authors do this – for instance, Audi’s recent book Rationality and Religious Commitment (2011) paints a richer picture. But it seems to me that most PoR does not pay much attention to the aesthetic, non-doxastic dimension of religious faith. Which prompts me to ask: can aesthetic reasons be sufficient pragmatic reasons for adopting a religious lifestyle? Can they also be sufficient for adopting a doxastic form of religious faith (e.g., theism)?

I recently came across a paper by Howard Wettstein (1997) which explores the connections between awe, aesthetics and the religious lifestyle from a Jewish perspective. Wettstein makes the radical claim that one can have a religious lifestyle, which involves actions that nurture a sense of awe at the world, a sensibility to morality and an aesthetic sensibility, without believing that God exists. He argues that in Judaism one can be “in awe of God” without actually believing in God. Stump expressed skepticism about this suggestion, arguing that belief in God is a central element of Judaism. More modestly, it seems plausible that the aesthetic element of the Jewish religious lifestyle is greatly enhanced by doxastic faith: it will be a lot easier, and effective to maintain motivation to study the Talmud if one believes God exists than if one simply regards its study as a way to train one’s mind to have a particular sensibility about the world.
Similarly, it might be possible for an atheist to be moved by religious music such as Bach’s Matthew Passion, but it will be hard for her to have an aesthetic experience of the holy. Stump writes (in the same response paper to Wettstein):
“Consider, by way of comparison, Homer’s description of Apollo shooting plague-causing arrows at the helpless Greek army because Agamemnon has dishonored Apollo’s priest. The passage is poetically powerful; it catches one’s attention and remains in one’s memory. But it’s hard to imagine its stimulating religious awe in us or giving us a sense of the holy. And that’s precisely because we think that there is no supernatural being such as Apollo, that no deity causes diseases by shooting arrows into people, and that there are perfectly good naturalistic explanations of diseases which have nothing to do with Apollo’s seek- ing revenge for being dishonored.” (Stump, 1997, p. 285).
I’m not sure whether Wettstein is right in his claim that religious aesthetic sensibility is compatible with atheism. Rather, I find that in practice some people are making the following pragmatic consideration “I am greatly moved by the aesthetic dimension of religious life. I find that this aesthetic experience is greatly enhanced by adopting some of the appropriate doxastic attitudes (e.g., belief in God). Therefore, I will believe in God so as to more effectively live a religious lifestyle.” This is, what you may call, a pragmatic aesthetic argument. It does, like all pragmatic arguments, require that one regard belief in God as a live option, and that doxastic faith is under some degree of voluntary control.

  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hi Helen,
    That was a really interesting post. I’d be curious to know whether you thought that aesthetic considerations could function as reasons to believe. Someone could argue as follows: Nothing can be a reason to believe unless it can function in reasoning that culminates in belief or action (i.e., doxastic deliberation). Aesthetic considerations qua aesthetic considerations cannot function in doxastic deliberation–they can only do so in connection with considerations that the thinker takes to show that these considerations are indicative of the truth of some proposition. So, aesthetic considerations alone cannot constitute reasons to believe.
    While I’m not wholly sold on the argument, I’d be interested to know where, if at all, you thought that it erred. If a thinker had some sort of bridge premise to the effect that some aesthetic consideration indicates that some proposition is true, I don’t think anyone could then have a principled reason to deny that aesthetic considerations could serve as reasons for religious belief but I suspect that you didn’t want to characterize the role that the aesthetic plays in these terms.

    August 20, 2012 — 3:27
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Clayton,
    Thanks for these comments. Very interesting. I suppose one could try to defend the view that aesthetic considerations indicate the truth of some proposition (mathematicians and theoretical physicists seem to be sold on this idea), but this takes some additional assumptions where beauty is a guide to truth, and beauty is not the same as, say, parsimony. So, I would like to keep it, for the sake of clarity, that there is no prima facie reason to suppose that aesthetic consideration indicates that some proposition is true.
    An alternative route is Plantinga’s consideration of the way beauty figures as a way to elicit the sensus divinitatis. “It isn’t that one beholds the night sky, notes that it is grand, and concludes that there must be such a person as God: an argument like that would be ridiculously weak. … It is rather that, upon the perception of the night sky or the mountain vista or the tiny flower, these beliefs just arise within us. They are occasioned by the circumstances; they are not conclusions from them. The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands: but not by way of serving as premises for an argument (Plantinga, 2000, 176). But this would be a strictly non-inferential form of belief, that is distinct from the pragmatic and reasoned considerations I outlined. I’m having in mind someone who does not have belief in God, but for whom belief in God is a live option (say, an agnostic who never thought about it, or who is indecisive) and for whom aesthetic experience would constitute a pragmatic reason to adhere to theism).
    I’m curious what you think about the premise: “Nothing can be a reason to believe unless it can function in reasoning that culminates in belief or action”. This seems to be quite a narrow conception of reasoning.

    August 20, 2012 — 3:44
  • Clayton:
    Surely there are pragmatic reasons to believe. If I am going to be tortured until I believe p, that gives me reason to believe p. It may be that on deontic grounds I am still prohibited from believing p (I am inclined to think that just as it would be wrong to lie no matter what the consequences, it would also be wrong to come to believe a clear falsehood no matter what the consequences), but that I am going to be tortured if I don’t believe p is surely a reason to believe p.
    And in the same way, if my believing p makes possible a great work of beauty, then that gives me a reason to believe p, since this is just a special case of: believing p makes possible a good G.
    That said, I do think that the fact that believing p is a means to a good G is some evidence for p. While there are obvious contrary cases, most of the time true belief is more likely to lead to good outcomes than false belief. Thus, given no further information: P(believing p is a means to a good | p is true) > P(believing p is a means to a good | p is false). And I don’t see why this should stop holding when the goods in question are further specified to be aesthetic.

    August 20, 2012 — 9:18
  • Also in the vicinity of this is the idea that beauty of a proposition or of the state of affairs it reports (rather than just the beauty resultant from believing the proposition) is some evidence of the proposition’s truth. Einstein certainly thought so and many physicists agree with him.

    August 20, 2012 — 9:21
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    Hi Helen,
    I actually meant something narrower as I meant to drop the disjunct “or action”. I take this thesis about what can be a reason (only that which can function in reasoning) to enjoy some widespread acceptance. (I got this from Bernard Williams and Judith Thomson.) I guess I don’t see the narrowness worry–to broaden our conception of reasoning, it would have to include processes that don’t take reasons or apparent reasons as inputs and yield outputs that we’ve reasoned to. Isn’t that too broad? Just to be clear, I take it that certain facts might be evident to you and you might believe these facts obtain without basing that belief on any further facts. The transition to this belief might not count as reasoning, but the fact that serves as the basis of the belief might count as a reason because it can function in reasoning elsewhere. What I’d object to is the idea that X is a reason to believe and it is impossible for X to figure in any reasoning that culminates in belief at all.
    Alex said:
    “Surely there are pragmatic reasons to believe. If I am going to be tortured until I believe p, that gives me reason to believe p.”
    There aren’t, and don’t call me ‘Shirley’! (I’ve waited about 28 years to say that.) I’d say that pragmatic considerations of just the sort you identified are reasons to cause yourself to believe, not reasons to believe. They are extrinsic reasons for an attitude that don’t bear on the epistemic standing of the belief.

    August 20, 2012 — 13:38
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Clayton, “What I’d object to is the idea that X is a reason to believe and it is impossible for X to figure in any reasoning that culminates in belief at all.” –
    We’ll have to establish whether theistic belief is in the domain of practical or theoretical rationality. Suppose it is within the domain of practical rationality, then we can have all sorts of reasons for having a belief (such as Alex’s torture example), even if they are not strictly belief-forming reasons. We can have a belief simply because we can obtain a good G that would not be obtained without it (for instance, enhanced aesthetic enjoyment in this case). If it’s OK to make this move, I think the pragmatic aesthetic argument has good prospects. However, if you can only allow reasons that can figure in belief-forming processes, lots of pragmatic arguments (including Pascalian, Kantian, Jamesian) will not go through.

    August 21, 2012 — 4:23
  • (1) I’m skeptical about what I take to be an empirical claim that the feely character of one’s experience of religious art is different for believers and (2) whether one has to hold this to run this kind of argument you want.
    (1) I can tell you that some Greco-Roman myths move me in the way that Christian stories, or other stories I regard as true, do. Think of the story of Demeter and Persephone. Doesn’t that one get to you? Also, imagine Hades—Cerebrus at the iron gates, Lethe, the white willow, the wraiths blowing around in dank semi-darkness—just writing about it makes my flesh crawls.
    (2) More importantly, I don’t think you need to appeal to a difference in feely character because, arguably, aesthetic “experience” (where experience is understood in the broad sense to go beyond phenomenal character) depends on more than the character of the aesthetic surface. We want original works rather than perfect fakes, not just because they’re better investments—they’re better investments because they have greater non-monetary value. By the same token, the phenomenal character of my experience say at Evensong might be the same if I weren’t a religious believer, if I regarded it as a concert in fancy dress, but it won’t be the same experience.
    It’s possible, and reasonable, to prefer a religious believer’s church experience to a secular observer’s—compare to Nozick’s experience machine. I don’t just want those feels, or the illusion that they represent some supernatural being or state of affairs: I want to have an experience OF the supernatural through my participation. It may all be an illusion, but religious belief is still a sufficiently live option to make the bet worth my while.
    Also, I’m not sure about the end being to “more effectively live a religious lifestyle” because this goes beyond aesthetic experience. It seems to me that the goal is much, much narrower, viz. to get a certain sort of experience (in the broad sense) through specifically religious art, music, literature, architecture and liturgy. This, in any case, is what’s in it for me. And also to feel oneself entitled to consume religious art, to participate in liturgy, visit churches etc.–to be an authentic participant in churchiness, rather than an observer.

    August 22, 2012 — 11:29
  • “I’d say that pragmatic considerations of just the sort you identified are reasons to cause yourself to believe, not reasons to believe. They are extrinsic reasons for an attitude that don’t bear on the epistemic standing of the belief.”
    This is your area and not mine, so what I say may be somewhat sophomoric.
    But it seems I could agree with all that (I don’t think I do, though), and I don’t think this would affect the discussion here. What we need rational guidance on is, broadly speaking, what to do, including what doxastic attitudes to cause, promote, nurture, hamper or squelch in ourselves and others. Of course, the epistemic standing of the belief and what reasons there are to believe (as opposed to reasons to cause, promote, etc.) should at least typically be a part of what one considers in deciding whether to cause the belief, just as the nutritional qualities of a particular item of food should at least typically be a part of what one considers in deciding whether to eat it.
    In other words, I am not clear on the relevance of the observation. Helen said that aesthetic considerations can be a good reason to adopt a doxastic attitude. As long as we take the adopting of a doxastic attitude to be a causing of the doxastic attitude, then it doesn’t seem we have a disagreement here.
    It could be that I am missing something. Or maybe the disagreement is over what it is to adopt a doxastic attitude.

    August 22, 2012 — 14:01
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Harriet: Thanks for the observations. To respond to your points
    (1) The Greco-Roman example by Stump and your observations are very interesting as they remind me of C.S. Lewis’ appreciation of pagan mythology, and how it led him to seek out the desire/aesthetic experience what he calls “Joy”, or also “Northerness” in “Surprised by Joy”. Lewis felt moved by pagan mythology, and it was ultimately one of the things that led him to theism. But apparently, pagan mythology doesn’t move Eleanor Stump in this way. The problem with running aesthetic arguments (especially of the kind that Lewis did) seems always to be the ineluctable phenomenological component.
    (2) Background information is important. Nevertheless, a performance, of say, Bach St John’s passion in a purely secular context (in a concert hall, by a professional ensemble) can be religiously and aesthetically moving.
    I like the Nozick experience machine analogy, but my worry is that it cuts both ways: in the closest analogous case, I would bet on believing I was not in the machine, because this would cause me to have the best experiences (because my experiences on the background assumption of realism are better, more authentic,more intense, etc than those under the background assumption that I’m in an experience machine). What we’d want is an argument that says that my experiences (their quality etc) are a good reason to believe I’m not in the experience machine, and this reason should not be reducible to wishful thinking.
    Perhaps the notion of entitlement is a more promising one – liturgy is a participatory experience, and the experience is better if one is part of the community. For western theists this means: assenting to at least some of the religious propositions (the Creeds etc). Perhaps it’s different for religious traditions where there is less of an emphasis on belief.

    August 22, 2012 — 14:10
  • H.E.B.:
    “Think of the story of Demeter and Persephone. Doesn’t that one get to you? Also, imagine Hades—Cerebrus at the iron gates, Lethe, the white willow, the wraiths blowing around in dank semi-darkness—just writing about it makes my flesh crawls.”
    This is interesting. For me there is an enormous difference. I am little moved by such mythology. I am moved by the Gospels, but in large part because I take them to be true. Insofar as I can get myself to be moved by the myths, it is because I see them as grasping at the real numinous dimensions of human life. If I thought all experience of the numinous was non-veridical and there were just atoms and the void, I think I would at most be moved to compassion for a humanity for whom that is not enough. But notice that at this point, what would be moving me would be what I take to be the truth about humanity, as revealed by our mythopoeic impulses.
    At the same time, I am moved by fiction, including both realistic and speculative. Maybe that is because I take the realistic fiction to be revelative of the deep things of the human spirit and the speculative fiction to be expressive of the range of possible worlds that God could create (I am less moved by speculative fiction that goes beyond the realm of metaphysical possibility).
    Likely, you and I are quite different.
    But here is a thought experiment. You read a harrowing story of suffering and redemption on an online fiction site. You are much moved. Then you read a brief post-script that says that this story actually happened to the author. Would you not be moved more? And then you realize that the name in the byline is an anagram for a close friend’s name–all this is something that your close friend went through, but never managed to tell you, though now you see how it fits. Isn’t even the feely aspect changed greatly by this?
    Or compare your attitude to the Greek myths with that of those Greeks who really believed them. I think there is a feely difference here. It may even be that the things you’re moved by are not at all what they were moved by.

    August 22, 2012 — 14:19
  • Helen, I think the Experience Machine thing is a question about the satisfaction of prior preferences—once you’re plugged in you believe you’re not on the machine so the feely character of your experiences will be the same as one who is off the machine and has ordinary views about the reality of an external world. The thought experiment asks whether, unplugged, I would choose to plug in—knowing that once plugged in I would believe that I wasn’t plugged in, and so the phenomenal feel would be the same. I am NOT choosing between different phenomenology but between real life and a phenomenologically indistinguishable fool’s paradise.
    Regarding the bet, the difference is that in the experience machine case I can choose between reality and illusion whereas in the case of religious belief I can’t: religious belief may very well be a fool’s paradise and I can’t do anything about that. However I’m still asking, prior to or apart from the experience: would I prefer to that my religious/aesthetic experience is veridical or is a phenomenally indistinguishable fool’s paradise just as good? I prefer the former, and since I’m a preferentist I believe that well-being is preference-satisfaction and that, ceteris paribus, that a belief that the satisfaction of my preferences makes me better off because I have the higher order preference that my preferences be satisfied. So it’s worth my while to take that leap of faith—to believe prior to any experience that my church experience will be a window into another world and not a mere illusion.
    But, A. P., once again I don’t think that the feely character of that experience is what matters. I don’t know how to run these thought experiments in any rigorous way, but I still doubt that it’s belief as such that makes the difference rather than something more along the lines of what is culturally alive to a person or how they were brought up. I am just plain not moved by the Gospels—frankly the whole Jesus story, much of which I believe, leaves me cold while a good deal of Greco-Roman mythology, and literary fiction (e.g. Anna Karenina) moves me. But—so what?
    Back again, I do think that the entitlement and participation aspect is what’s important. For one thing, just materially, experience sacred music and other art as art, in a gallery or concert hall, is definitely not the same experience—in the narrow as well as the broad sense—as experiencing it in a liturgical setting. But this isn’t really a matter of belief but much more crudely a matter of whether we’re sitting in a concert hall listening or in a church sitting, standing, kneeling, and singing along. Or for that matter, the Hagia Sophia which is in some ways the saddest place on earth, this pants-wetting glorious piece of architecture with its history—that isn’t a church anymore, or a mosque, but a museum. Or compare San Vitale in Ravenna, a museum furnished as a church, a superb jewel beyond beautiful, to San Apolloniaire in Classe—which is a church. Or San Marcos, or St. Paul’s which are still churches.

    August 22, 2012 — 16:12
  • Heath White

    Regarding the Wettstein vs. Stump dispute, I think all sorts of affective attitudes *can* coexist with explicit atheism. This is because the theistic worldview gives birth and context to the affective attitudes, but affective attitudes are more deeply entrenched than cognitive attitudes, and can last a while after the cognitive attitudes go. (Chesterton likened it to a cut flower that will last a while in a vase, after the roots are gone.) The more limited but correct view, I think, is that such attitudes are not likely to arise within a context of atheism and they are not likely to persist more than a generation or two after the end of the related theistic belief. Wettstein is just doing for Judaism what “death of God” theologians did for Protestantism fifty years ago.
    I tend to think the right way to go on aesthetic reasons is a sort of reliabilist route. If (certain kinds of) theism are correct, then there will be a reliable connection between being attracted to (certain kinds of) aesthetic experience and forming true beliefs. E.g. one finds oneself moved by a Bach cantata or an Easter service or Dante or Michelangelo’s Pieta, and thinking, “this is genuinely beautiful; whoever did this must have been onto something”; or “this is a taste of true Joy; there must be some ultimate source of Joy behind it.” Such inferences will be reliable and that is good enough for some kind of positive epistemic status. That is I guess a version of Plantinga’s sensus divinitatis route.

    August 22, 2012 — 20:11
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Heath, yes, Plantinga makes the rather strong claim that aesthetic experience, especially of the sublime in nature, elicits the sensus divinitatis. This is particularly interesting, because cognitive science of religion hasn’t paid any attention to this aspect of religious belief (they regard religious belief as a cognitive illusion rising from agency detection, theory of mind, or as a way to increase cooperation – nothing on the link between aesthetic and religious). But like all basic belief arguments, there is a phenomenological component. Plantinga can say “Look, feel God exists when I behold the night sky, the Grand Canyon etc”, but others can say “I don’t feel any such thing, I just feel connected to the universe”. It may work as an argument for personal belief in God, but not as a generalized reliabilist epistemology (this is because, I believe that as an empirical matter of fact, religious belief is not properly basic for everyone – it can be, but need not be).
    The Lewisian argument from desire tries to take this problem away by arguing that we can sometimes misidentify or desire for God as a desire for other things, e.g., (Weight of Glory): “We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never appeared in our experience. […] Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.” But the argument from desire faces other problems. It relies on the rather controversial premise that whatever we have a desire for will have a real-world object as a target of that desire (e.g., desire for food, sexual partners).

    August 23, 2012 — 5:04
  • H.E.B.:
    “I think the Experience Machine thing is a question about the satisfaction of prior preferences”
    A typical person’s present preferences are not fulfilled while in the Experience Machine. For one prefers to be respect by people one respects, to make genuine achievements, etc. And a typical person would have those preferences while in the machine, too. She would just incorrectly think that the preferences are satisfied.

    August 24, 2012 — 8:35
  • My point was that the phenomenal character of experiences on the machine would be no different from the phenomenal character of veridical experience because we would believe, falsely, that we were not just plugged in. But that we could still reasonably prefer one phenomenally indistinguishable state over the others—as suggested by the fact that most recognize the decision whether to plug in or not is significant. Some would plug in; most wouldn’t; but no one says it makes no difference—I’d just flip a coin. Similarly there is a difference between original works and perfect fakes, and between religious experience that’s an experience of some supernatural whatever and a perfect fake such that I person could reasonably prefer one over the other.

    August 25, 2012 — 11:26
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Plantinga argues that we hold many beliefs because of non-propositional evidence, such as experiences which directly lead us into forming a particular belief. In the context of theistic belief he writes the following in his paper “Epistemic Probability and Evil” (reprinted in the anthology “The Evidential Argument from Evil”): “The theist may properly add that belief in God has or may have a great deal o positive epistemic status – at any rate for many believers – apart from whatever propositional warrant it does or does not enjoy. There is a huge variety of perfectly ordinary circumstances and experiences that seem to confer or enhance belief in God: perception of the grandeur and beauties of nature (the mountains; the sea; the delicate, articulate beauty of a tiny flower), guilt, feeling forgiven, danger, gratitude, prayer, listening to Mozart’s D minor piano concerto, Bible reading, hearing certain kinds of sermons.”
    Thinking about my own condition, what initially moved me to belief in God was my experience of the amazing beauty of the moral message in the Gospels. Indeed I’d like to suggest that our moral sense is an aesthetic one, i.e. that we recognize what is ethically good by its beauty. Moreover I’d like to suggest that the greatest and most moving kind of beauty we know of is the beauty of personal goodness. I notice that whereas in the Christian scripture it is said that “God is love”, in the Muslim scripture it is said that “God is beauty”. I think that both are equally true and equally significant. Whereas in love we partake in God’s nature, in our experience of beauty we perceive God’s nature. Actually I think that’s how the experience of beauty confers belief in God: one realizes that all beauty in its myriad manifestations is but the reflection of the one who is Beauty.
    Continuing with my own case, I find that propositional evidence has mainly worked by not letting me move away from belief in God. Thus when I feel doubts about theism they are quickly dispelled as soon as I recall how much propositional evidence there is against naturalism. I other words propositional evidence has worked in my case primarily as a defeater of atheistic beliefs.
    As for Howard Wettstein’s exploration about how atheistic belief can comport with the personal condition of the theist – I am sympathetic with the idea. Here is why:
    My understanding of what is expected from us is not so much that we should hold the right beliefs, and not even that we should do the right things – but rather that we should become right persons, by a process which is normally called “repentance” (or “conversion of mind” in the original Greek of “metanoia”). So theism is not ultimately a way of thinking, and not even a way of living, but really a way of being. The way of living (or life-style) of the theist, and the way of thinking of the theist, are more or less natural effects of the theistic way of being, and thus may well suffer variations. So it’s not like all those who undergo repentance (i.e. the genuine theists) must live in the same way, nor that they must think in the same way. (As a first approximation –there is clearly some kind of dialectic and mutual influence between our way of thinking, our way of living, and our way of being.)
    Repentance then is the ontological process by which our being moves closer to God. In the Orthodox tradition it is said that we are called to transform ourselves from the *image* of God in which we are made into becoming the *likeness* of God – and that this is achieved by following Christ’s commands or by becoming like Christ. Roughly in the way that a seed only holds the image of a tree but becomes like a tree by growing in fertile soil. Now it seems both from the theoretical and from the practical standpoint that there is no reason why somebody who does not hold theistic belief cannot undergo repentance, given that this is the natural end and disposition of the human soul, and given the pull of God’s grace. One is often moved without realizing what is moving one. The all permeating power of the love of God which prods us all into trying to become better people, the beauty present in the human condition and which we all experience and for which we all long even when unaware of its source, they may well move the atheist’s soul into the path of repentance. Actually it is I think a symptom of lack of faith in the power of God to assume that only those who hold right beliefs may be saved. If anything it is the other way around: How great and wonderful is God’s grace that makes it possible, and how much merit do those have who without being aware of Christ follow Him! And, conversely, how deplorable are those who being blessed with the awareness of Christ do not follow Him.

    August 28, 2012 — 10:14
  • Helen De Cruz

    Danielos: I am sympathetic to your view that theism is ultimately not a way of thinking, or even a way of being. There is an implicit assumption – held by many philosophers of religion, both theists and atheists, that theism involves an extra bit of ontology compared to the naturalistic worldview – which I find problematic.
    Under a theistic worldview, Wettstein’s approach could be interpreted as you do: the human mind is drawn to God (innately or dispositionally God-directed), so that the atheist’s quest for rituals, beauty, moral truth etc can be regarded as God-directed, even if they do not have theistic beliefs, and even if they do not realize that they are drawn to God. However, it is still puzzling to me how a self-avowed naturalist like Wettstein can make sense of this. He thinks clearly that religious practices like ritual blessings, prayers and study of the talmud can help one to become a person who is more aware of the aesthetic qualities of his/her surroundings, and becomes a more morally aware person. But it is unclear how one can maintain the motivation to take Judaism (rather than another tradition, or simply non-religious mindfulness techniques etc) to achieve this goal if one does not believe Judaism contains some true propositional beliefs. I think moral, aesthetic etc considerations are very important and understudied reasons for following a particular faith or lifestyle, but I am not sure if they can be sufficient to keep one motivated to adhere to a particular faith.
    So while I agree that religious faith is more than doxastic attitudes, I think that such attitudes (and more explicit arguments, as in natural theology) can constitute important motivating factors to remain faithful to a particular religious tradition (you point this out about yourself and I have heard this about others too). This is especially the case today, where theists are regularly challenged for their religious views.

    August 29, 2012 — 15:45
  • Well, I’ve met him and think I may have some idea of what he’s up to.
    I don’t see why doing Judaism rather than some other particular tradition is particularly problematic for a naturalist. You glom onto a package of rituals and other practices that present a satisfying aesthetic unity and a conceptual integrity, you explore the richness of the tradition, and stay with it. Why should commitment to propositional content be required to make that stick? Heavy syncretism isn’t just intellectually incoherent—it’s aesthetically unsatisfying.
    Closer to (your) home, what d’ya think of the Sea of Faith clergy in the CofE? They seem to be up to something similar. Except unlike Howie, who’s straight about what he’s up to, (1) they don’t let on (at least to hoi polloi) that they’re atheists and (2) they’re getting paid to function as priests.

    August 29, 2012 — 21:40
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Harriet: I don’t know any SoF clergy (or perhaps some of them are, and I don’t know). They seem to be pretty open about what they believe on their website.
    One problem with SoF and movements like this: they are founded on postmodern and kindred philosophical ideas that seem to assume that realist conceptions of theism simply aren’t live options anymore. Yet, current philosophers of religion (at least in the analytic tradition) do treat realist forms of theism as a live option.
    SoF clergy start from a premise that is something as follows “Given that realist forms of theism aren’t a live option any more, can we still salvage liturgical, experiential etc elements of religious faith?” But it is not at all clear that this premise is correct. It’s almost, to take a crude analogy, as if you are a scientist and let your scientific practice be dictated by logical positivism, thinking this still the main game in town. Suppose you are a naturalist, like Wettstein, you can ask “Given that for me theism isn’t a live option, etc”. That seems a reasonable starting point. But the assumption that this generalizes to the population at large seems to me deeply problematic.

    August 30, 2012 — 9:19
  • Why would generalizing to a larger population be problematic? Consider the cults of the old city gods in the late Roman Empire and the various practices that persisted well into the 4th century and beyond–the Altar of Victory in the Senate and various civic rituals that were so religiously attenuated that bishops ruled Christians could participate. I’m not talking about the mystery cults, but the state religion of the Olympians, with libations to the Emporor’s genius, Vestal Virgins tending the sacred fire, and lots of other rituals in which all citizens (apart from Jewish and Christian refusniks) participated but no one believed.
    BTW I know someone who’s had considerable contact with Sea of Faith clergy, who tells me that when employed in parishes they keep mum–because when discovered their congregations force them out.

    August 30, 2012 — 10:11
  • I don’t know whether the Romans believed or did not believe in their gods. Suppose they didn’t. Perhaps state pressure (an understatement!) had something to do with the widespread participation in the rituals?
    I wouldn’t expect agnostic ritual Christianity to fare any better–if anything, I would expect it fare worse–in attracting and retaining worshipers than liberal Christian denominations have. There is a lot of at least anecdotal evidence supporting the claim that the latter have done rather poorly.
    Maybe it has something to do with Pascal’s Wager. 🙂

    August 31, 2012 — 10:17
  • Historically, there was no significant state pressure—Greco-Roman religion was, as one historian put it, a “spongy mass of tolerance.” The sporadic persecution of Christians was anomalous.
    As far as Douthat’s line about liberal Christianity, while mainline Protestant denominations aren’t thriving, the Roman Catholic Church, which has been pushing hard right for decades, is doing even worse. It has the highest attrition rate of any major religious body in the US, around 30%, and is only holding its own because of mass immigration from traditionally Catholic countries. The thesis of Why the Conservative Churches are Growing is blown.
    I’m not promoting “agnostic ritual Christianity” much less Wettstein’s atheistic religiousity. In fact I’d argue that liberal Christian denominations are in trouble because they’re too agnostic and not sufficiently ritualistic. But I am a f*ing cranky, spikey Anglo-Catholic, dammit! 😉

    August 31, 2012 — 13:10
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I think that since philosophy is mainly about beliefs, philosophers tend to consider beliefs and their truth values to be of fundamental importance. The dominant idea seems to be that beliefs affect how we choose and thus how we live, and therefore what we experience, and thus finally how we become – our very being. But I’d like to suggest the as a matter of fact the human condition is more complex than that. So, for example, things evolve in the opposite direction too: One’s being (how one is) affects the quality of one’s experience of life, which affects what one values and thus how one chooses and thus how one lives, which finally moves one to form certain beliefs, namely the beliefs that best fit with all of that. In the human condition there is a complex interplay between holding beliefs, valuing/choosing/living/experiencing, and being.
    My further argument is that on theism what ultimately counts is “being”, and in particular one’s transformation into a state of being which we call “salvation”. This, by the way, is the common view of all great religions, including non theistic ones such as Buddhism, albeit there that state of being is called “illumination”. My general point is that while true belief is a positive force for achieving that state, it is not necessary. An atheist may well undergo that process of self-transformation (which in Christianity we call “repentance”) without knowing or understanding what she is doing, or even while holding false beliefs about what is taking place.
    I would like to suggest that the above process is quite ordinary. Take for example our experience of theater. While watching a play we know it’s all a “lie” in the sense of “make-believe”, but this does not keep the play from being significant, from having a powerful effect on us by literally changing the way we think or how we experience life, and from morally empowering us. If a play has on us the effect that truth has, then in some sense or in some level it does speak the truth. Perhaps that’s what John Hick when he talks about “true myths”. Or let me mention a personal example. As it happens I am a very convinced Christian, but this does not keep me from experiencing the beauty or receiving the power for good present in Sufi poetry, or getting food for thought and the deep wisdom present in the Bhagavad Gita. Even pagan myths may communicate deep truths about our personal condition, and thus, on theism at least, about the ultimate structure and fundamental nature of reality, God. And who is to say that an atheist or a Hindu may not experience the beauty and force of Jesus’ ethical teaching in the Gospels as clearly as a Christian might?
    I don’t wish to go further on this path, but would like to suggest that “truth” is not just a property of propositions, but really a fundamental and indeed personal property of reality. In the Orthodox tradition the following story is sometimes told: When Pilate asked Jesus “What is truth?”, Jesus remained silent simply because that was a false and hence unanswerable question. Had Pilate asked “Who is truth?” then Jesus would have readily answered “I am.” – What I am implying is that what makes propositions true cannot be separated from but is grounded in the personal nature of reality.
    Now, as I understand it, you find Wettstein’s position puzzling. You write “It is unclear how one can maintain the motivation to take Judaism (rather than another tradition, or simply non-religious mindfulness techniques etc) to achieve [the experiential and moral benefits of religion] if one does not believe Judaism contains some true propositions beliefs”. Buy which I take it you mean “if one does not believe Judaism is based on true propositional beliefs”. Well, as John Hick observes, the world is a religiously ambiguous place. So the same facts about the human condition can be interpreted in non-religious naturalistic terms without apparent intellectual discomfort. Wettstein knows about and (wisely) wishes to taste the fruits of religion while holding that the propositional content of religion is ultimately false, and while (correctly) holding that there is a perfectly viable naturalistic explanation of why religion produces these valuable fruits. And he chooses Judaism as the space in which to receive these fruits simply because that’s his cultural background. So it’s not like Wettstein’s choice has no propositional foundation, but only that it has a naturalistic foundation which (we theists believe) is false.
    And here’s what: If as Christians we love Wettstein and wish him well, and if we find that his (false) atheistic beliefs do not hinder him from becoming closer to God, why should we try to convert him? If it is the case that it is more natural for a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu to become closer to God within their respective religious traditions than by first converting to Christianity, why should we actively try to convert them? I am not saying that propositional metaphysical truths are not worth discovering and expounding. Quite on the contrary, on the intellectual level I consider my Christian beliefs to be the most satisfying and valuable beliefs I have. What I am saying is that the way of Christ, the only path towards God, is not an intellectual one but one of self-transformation. There is much more to the human condition than the value of holding true metaphysical beliefs. So we can relax and marvel at the wisdom of God and how well the world is built: how God’s epistemic distance is much less of a disruption than one might think, and how the atheologian’s argument from God’s hiddenness is much weaker that it might appear. That in the same way one can eat an apple and get all of the respective benefits without knowing anything about biology, one can eat from God without knowing anything about theism.

    September 1, 2012 — 6:56
  • overseas

    …perhaps Sea of Faith priests forced out by their congregations should be told to become anti-realists about paychecks…

    September 3, 2012 — 1:20
  • Helen De Cruz

    Hi Harriet: Sorry for the slowness in response. Your mention of the late Roman imperial city God cults is interesting, because some authors who wrote on the rise of Christianity (like Rodney Stark) think that the lack of belief content was a contributing factor to the gradual waning of these cults, see e.g., here for a summary:
    For example, there is the abundant blasphemous graffiti, still intact, that no-one felt compelled to remove or cover, indicating a lack of reverence (reverence can still exist independently of belief, but belief seems to encourage reverence). There was a very large pluralism, a massive influx of foreign religious beliefs from other parts of the empire, which led people to “have been somewhat overwhelmed by their options and therefore to have been somewhat unwilling to stake very much on any given cult”. Stark sees a decline in pagan temple structures, which were massively expensive to maintain (personal, real estate etc, just like the Christian mainstream churches today). Granted, these cults continued for several centuries without belief, but plausibly, one of the factors of their gradual decline and lessened investment in them was precisely a decline in belief in these gods.

    September 3, 2012 — 3:12
  • H.E.B.:
    The net attrition rate, after correcting for people coming into the Church, is 24%. Still higher than for other groups, alas.
    It would be good to get more data about Catholic attrition, such as when exactly it happened, attrition in conservative Catholic parishes versus liberal Catholic parishes, etc. (In regard to when the attrition happened, it’s interesting that whereas evangelical affiliation rises noticeably with age of respondents in the Pew survey that I assume you’re referring to, Catholic affiliation is basically steady across age groups.)
    There was also the impact of the sexual abuse scandals, which is something orthogonal to conservative-liberal issues, and which seemed to be much more played up by the media in the case of Catholic clergy than of other groups which probably have comparable abuse rates.
    As for Roman tolerance, official state expectations, even when not backed with serious punishments, are surely effective.

    September 3, 2012 — 8:24
  • Dianelos:
    If Christianity is right, here’s a reason to seek to convert, say, Sufis.
    I assume the Sufi loves God, but if he did not love God, there would be even more reason to convert him, since his own tradition did not get him to love of God.
    Now, insofar as he loves God, one of his deepest desires is to know more about God. For, as Aquinas says, the lover seeks a deep knowledge of the beloved. But when we love someone, we seek to fulfill their deepest desires when these deepest desires are at least as good as they are deep. But this desire to know more about God is at least as good as it is deep. Hence we, out of love of the Sufi, should seek to fulfill his deep desire to know more about God. If one truly loves God, one wants to know whether he is a communion of persons or a single person. One wants to know whether God is so utterly other that he cannot become one who eats and drinks and dies and rises among us.
    Now, presumably, he also has a desire to not become a Christian. But this desire either is or is not subordinate to his love for God. If this desire is subordinate to his love for God, then we have reason to convert him notwithstanding it. If this desire is not subordinate to his love for God, then probably his love for God needs to grow more, and we have hope that conversion will help it thus grow.

    September 4, 2012 — 8:40
  • Helen, I’d dispute the claim that “Christianity did not grow…because Constantine said it should…[but] because Christians constituted an intense community.”
    It’s generally agreed that Christians were a minority at the time of Constantine’s conversion—the figure I’ve seen is about 10% in the Roman Empire. Christianity took off when Constantine financed and promoted it—but even more later in the century when Theodosius forced it on people. Also about the decline of support for temples in the 3rd century, this was part of a larger trend: the city elites cut back contributions to civic facilities generally. The 3rd century was bad times.
    I suspect the official state religion (Olympians, Vestal Virgins, deified emperors, etc.) persisted because it was Roman civic religion—think American civic religion, including the Pledge of Allegience to the flag representing “one nation under God.” For those who want something more there are innumerable religious products from spiritual-but-not-religious to faux-Buddhism to megachurch Evangelicalism. One suspects that something like this was going in the late Roman Empire. The aristocracy at least were very attached to their civic religion—they really, really wanted the Altar of Victory in the Senate—though most were atheistic Epicureans or vague Neo-Platonists. For those who wanted more there were mystery cults.
    Fewer than half of Americans who consider themselves Jewish believe in God. Lots participate in rites of passage and other religious for cultural and aesthetic reasons, even though they aren’t religiously committed. I’m not so sure that unbelief seriously undermines the kind of culture-religion that those Roman Senators or Howie Wettstein like.

    September 4, 2012 — 15:19
  • “Fewer than half of Americans who consider themselves Jewish believe in God. Lots participate in rites of passage and other religious for cultural and aesthetic reasons, even though they aren’t religiously committed.”
    But do these non-believing Jews pray the morning and night prayers, recite the blessings for food, natural wonders, meeting an outstanding secular scholar, etc., engage in the rituals surrounding the Sabbath, attend synagogue regularly or at least pray the liturgy privately, use the mikvah, fast on Yom Kippur, etc.? Without this, engagement in rites of passage seems rather vestigial, and they are missing out on the aesthetic rhythm of liturgical engagement in the cycles of day, week and year.

    September 5, 2012 — 7:48
  • Helen De Cruz

    Danielos & Harriet:
    Just to be clear: in my original post (and my thoughts are not clear or decided on this matter yet), I was not raising any *moral* issues about adhering to religious practices with an atheistic background. So my post was not about whether or not a religiously practicing atheist could come closer to God (that is an interesting issue too), but whether or not belief adds something to the aesthetic experience of religious rituals. I think it does: as Alex points out in comment 7:48 AM, people like Howard Wettstein are probably the exception.
    This is not to say there aren’t religious atheists. I read this book by Brian Mountford on atheist Christians (Christian atheist: belonging without believing) who like to attend services, get aesthetic enjoyment out of them. So the practice is not restricted to Judaism, but is also present at least in mainline Christian churches as well.
    But liturgically active atheists are the exception, and the reason I believe them to be the exception that there are significant costs to a religious lifestyle, as well as benefits. Even for those who believe, there are numerous obstacles that may contribute to ceasing all religious practices. From a Christian perspective, for example, such demotivating factors might be: One may dislike the priest of the local church (e.g., she might be boring or nosy). One would rather sleep out on Sunday morning. One’s peer group may think all Christians are bigots, mentally ill or stupid. One’s life is so crammed with work one does not find the time for prayer and attending services. All these are put in the scale, and may outweigh the aesthetic benefits of liturgical practice. I’m saying that belief, plausibly, can be an additional (although by no means sole) motivating factor.
    Now there might be a disanalogy between Judaism and Christianity that may account for a higher percentage of Jewish practicing atheists compared to Christian atheists. As Wettstein points out, Judaism is more oriented towards practice and less toward belief than Christianity, so the doxastic elements are perhaps less essential to the overall religious and liturgical life. Also, it seems to me atheists from a Christian background are much more hostile to religion in all its facets (think, for instance, about Dawkins, who has an Anglican background) than atheists from non-Christian backgrounds. So once you accept atheism as a worldview, and you are a Christian, it becomes a lot harder to maintain liturgical practices than if you are, say, an atheist, but liturgically active Jew.

    September 5, 2012 — 12:08
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I agree with Aquinas that the lover seeks a deep knowledge of the beloved, but, clearly, the knowledge we most value and most long for is not propositional knowledge *about* the beloved, but experiential knowledge *of* the beloved. We long to be with the beloved, to gaze upon her, to make her happy, to be united with her, to be with her for ever. Indeed, whom do we envy more: the one who is with the girl or the one who knows more about her biology? I count myself blessed to know about the Trinitarian nature of God, but would gladly change places with a Muslim who doesn’t know that but loves God deeper, or prays with a purer heart.
    Something which philosophers who mainly deal with propositional knowledge should not lose sight of is that theism is not a system of beliefs as well as a way of being that fits with it; rather theism is a way of being as well as a system of beliefs that fits with it. Of course, since Christ is the truth, a system of beliefs which fits with Christ’s way of being will not fail to be truthful. Still, it is I think important not to lose sight of the grounding relationship.

    September 10, 2012 — 0:04
  • “but, clearly, the knowledge we most value and most long for is not propositional knowledge *about* the beloved, but experiential knowledge *of* the beloved”
    Right, but we still long for propositional knowledge about the beloved. Moreover, we particularly desire to avoid error about the beloved’s nature. If I loved someone, I would desire not to be mistaken about whether she is human, say. Moreover, I would desire not to be in error about important events in her life and in her interaction with me.
    Furthermore, I would desire not to be ignorant of what my beloved has has done for me in the past. If, say, she suffered horrible torment at some point on my behalf, that is something I would want to know. Moreover, this kind of propositional knowledge contributes to experiential knowledge of the beloved. After all, we normally gain experiential knowledge of the beloved in large part through propositional knowledge of the beloved–we learn the beloved’s character through learning of her actions.

    September 10, 2012 — 9:28
  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    “After all, we normally gain experiential knowledge of the beloved in large part through propositional knowledge of the beloved—we learn the beloved’s character through learning of her actions.”

    Perhaps I am missing something, but it seems to me it’s the other way around: We first have the experience of a person and then form propositional beliefs about her character.
    Nevertheless I do agree that “propositional knowledge contributes to experiential knowledge”. Indeed the dynamics between beliefs and experience are quite interesting, and I would say quite important since beliefs and experience form a large part of our life. It is indeed the case that propositional knowledge affects one’s experience, sometimes to a remarkable degree. An obvious example is how one’s propositional knowledge of a foreign language affects one’s experience of listening to speech in that language.
    I also fully agree with you about the importance of knowing that, because of love for us, God underwent kenosis, incarnated, and suffered with us. Indeed this is a brightly beautiful historical fact which illuminates and binds together all of creation. It is a pity to be a theist and be unaware of it. And following up the point above, knowing about the atonement affects very positively one’s experience and relationship with God.
    My point in this thread has not been that propositional knowledge is unimportant, but only to point out the in my view correct ontological grounding relationship between beliefs and being, or, to put it differently, between truth and personhood. And particularly that truth is a property of Christ’s way of being, and is only indirectly a property of some propositions. Namely I suggest that what makes a proposition true is its fitness or similarity with Christ – through Whom all things are made, and in Whom is life, and Who is the light of all humankind.
    But that fitness or similarity (and here I come back to my inclusivist position) is primarily to be found in the person’s way of being and not in a person’s way of believing. Reality is a dynamic and not a static place. True beliefs are those that have the propensity to move creation to its divine end, namely the perfection of all in Christ and the ultimate theosis.

    September 12, 2012 — 1:27
  • Abid Dhiya

    So, how the aesthetic can support for human faith. In here, the environtment will be primery factor for sacramental every human in that space. I’m student of architecture, so, can you explain the compabiliti of architecture to relation for human religius factor?
    (sorry about language, i can’t english very well)

    April 14, 2014 — 17:14
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