Wettstein’s practice-based attitude to religious faith: Is realist theism no longer the only game in town?
March 31, 2014 — 14:24

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 11

[this is X-posted at NewApps] In philosophy of religion, realist theism is the dominant outlook: belief in God is similar to belief in other real things (or supposedly real things) like quarks or oxygen. There is a rather triumphalist narrative about the resurgence of realist theism since the demise of logical positivism (see for instance, Plantinga’s advice to Christian philosophers) when logical positivism and its verifiability criterion held sway, philosophers were dissuaded from talking about God in realist terms: religious beliefs were not just false, but meaningless. With the demise of logical positivism, however, theists could again defend realist positions, using a variety of sophisticated arguments.

Nevertheless, the question is whether theists in philosophers of religion are not conceding too much to atheists by talking about theism mainly in terms of beliefs. To ignore practice is to ignore a large part of the religious experience, and what makes it meaningful to the theist. Such an exclusive focus can indeed be alienating, as it seems to suggest that theists believe a whole bunch of ideas that are wildly implausible, e.g., that a man resurrected from the dead, or was born of a virgin. This picture of religious life as believing in a set of strange propositions is, as Kvanvig memorably put it, a view that most theists will not recognize themselves in:

I hardly recognize this picture of religious faith and religious life, except in the sense that one can cease to be surprised or shocked by the neighbor who jumps naked on his trampoline after having seen it for years.

That is not to say that many theists do believe these things, even in a literal sense, but without looking at the larger picture of practices that help to maintain and instil these beliefs, our epistemology of religion remains woefully incomplete.

It is therefore refreshing to read philosopher Howard Wettstein’s recent interview in The Stone, who, coming from a Jewish background, emphasizes the practice-based aspects of a religious lifestyle. He argues that “existence” is the wrong idea for God, following Maimonides, and instead argues that “the real question is one’s relation to God, the role God plays in one’s life, the character of one’s spiritual life.”

Further on Wettstein says

The theism-atheism-agnosticism trio presumes that the real question is whether God exists. I’m suggesting that the real question is otherwise and that I don’t see my outlook in terms of that trio.

It is very interesting that this looking for alternatives is not unique to Wettstein, but was in fact a fairly common response in my recent qualitative survey on the beliefs and attitudes of philosophers of religion. Many of them, including those coming from a Christian tradition, hesitated to call themselves theists, atheists or agnostics. For example, one associate professor in my survey writes that her unbelief does not equate with atheism:

I could not call myself an atheist now, primarily because my thinking about the baggage connected to that word leads me to believe that it does not accurately describe my condition.

I’m not saying we should throw realist theism overboard. Rather, practice is an important element of religious life whose philosophical significance has not received as much attention as it ought. Practice, I believe, can help us make sense about how people sustain and accept beliefs that seem prima facie very hard to make sense of.  Using insights from the extended mind thesis and other views of scaffolded and embodied cognition, our epistemology of religion should incorporate these practices into a more complete picture of credal and affective attitudes toward God.

Like many other critics, Gutting thinks there is a tension in Wettstein’s practice of prayer and his outlook of naturalism. I was similarly skeptical when I read Wettstein’s paper on awe and the religious life, and later his book. Now, however, I think we need to understand more about the range of attitudes that underpin religious practice and their relationship to religious doxastic attitudes to determine whether there is a tension. Can the practices stand independent from credal attitudes, as Wettstein suggests is the case for some mathematicians, who work with numbers without any ontological commitments to them? Do we need something like hope or another positive non-doxastic attitude at the very least to support religious practices like prayer?

  • Tom

    Thanks, Helen, for this post. I think that the general issues raised in the interview were interesting. In fact, it reminds me a bit of when Hilary Putnam had a radio dialogue with Al Plantinga. http://www.bu.edu/wbur/storage/2000/07/theconnection_0712_1.mp3
    Putnam seemed less concerned about belief (and didn’t clearly see God as a person anyhow) than Plantinga and by extension seemed less concerned with objections to belief. In any case, I am still puzzled by the thought that religious practice matters all that much if one literally has a naturalistic metaphysics (and so disbelieves in the divine). Here I suspect I am more inclined to Schellenberg’s idea of skeptical faith, which says that this form of faith is consistent with doubt and even nonbelief, but not with disbelief (or belief for that matter). I don’t fully understand non-realist faith.

    March 31, 2014 — 23:56
    • Tom: I don’t really fully understand non-realist faith either, but what I’ve come to appreciate is that the constitutive element of practice within faith can be more important than the belief-element at least for some people. Wettstein’s position (especially as defended in his earlier paper, his current interview and the book have a slightly different take) presents an interesting limiting case: can one have faith that p, while disbelieving that p? How can one explain the faith if not by a belief-attitude? For Wettstein, a positive attitude towards p seems to be sufficient to support faith.

      April 1, 2014 — 2:36
  • I have a hard time seeing how religion-sans-doxa isn’t just another variety of non-theism. The associate professor in your survey might not want to identify as an atheist or an agnostic, but that doesn’t mean that their expressed view doesn’t satisfy the definition. There are other reasons to be uncomfortable with a word — such as its cultural associations (atheism certainly gets a bad reputation in our culture) — and the professor’s comments seem to suggest such reasons (“my thinking about the baggage connected to that word”).

    You state that “the question is whether theists in philosoph[y] of religion are not conceding too much to atheists by talking about theism mainly in terms of beliefs”. Actually, I think the situation is quite the reverse: anyone who concedes doxastic commitment to theism has not only conceded too much, but they have become non-theists. Plenty of folks in the popular atheist community have long thought that /practice/ was perfectly acceptable and that certain kinds of doxastic committments were the problem with theism. For example, Richard Dawkins openly celebrates Christmas as a cultural tradition, Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society still maintains meeting spaces in a variety of locations, and Humanistic Judaism maintains Jewish rituals while avowing atheism. Now there are atheist churches on the rise in both the UK and the US. All of this tells me that the real point of /contention/ between religious folks and atheists is not praxis, but doxis.

    April 1, 2014 — 7:15
    • Helen De Cruz

      Hi Dan: Thanks for these points – I agree I did not provide enough info from the survey (I have other responses from this respondent that do not fit your interpretation, but as I said to respondents at most one response of theirs would be published, so as to preserve their anonymity, I cannot disclose them)
      Quite apart from that, I would still like to resist the view that theistic religion without belief in God is a variety of nontheism. Looking at it another way, would someone who calls herself an orthodox Christian but who does not believe some of its major tenets, like the virgin birth, not qualify as an orthodox Christian? If that were so, many Christians would in fact not be Christians – I, in any case, know many ordinary laypeople who call themselves Christians, but who don’t believe that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, but more that he was an exemplary teacher and moral example. If doxastic attitudes are so important, that would mean those people aren’t Christians, even though they go to church, are communicants etc. That doesn’t seem very plausible to me.
      The crucial difference between an observant Jew or Christian who does not believe that God exists (or is skeptical about his existence, or, like Wettstein, doesn’t think it’s meaningful to talk about God’s existence), and the person who attends an atheist church is that the practice in the former is directed to God, and not in the latter. The music, rituals etc of the church express attitudes of love, reverence and awe for God, whereas the music, rituals etc of atheist churches express attitudes towards other things (not sure what, never having attended them).
      I find it baffling that one can feel awe for God and yet do not believe God exists (as Wettstein says in his earlier paper), but if that is the case, then non-doxastic attitudes like love and reverence may be sufficient for theism, and it may be the case that theism does not require an additional doxastic commitment to God’s existence. Practice may be the crucial thing that helps to support those non-doxastic attitudes.

      April 1, 2014 — 11:57
      • An orthodox Christian and a Christian are two different things. If you want to say that people who don’t believe the major tenets are Christians because they go to a building and sing some songs with people who do believe those tenets, then it seems like you are defining “Christian” as a sort of social club to which people are either members or not. That’s fine, that is a definition of Christian- a member of some Christian Church. Another definition of “Christian”, not used much anymore, is ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘civil’, and this is another definition that can be applied to a person who doesn’t believe any particular tenets. But there is a third definition of “Christian” that is, as far as I can tell, specifically related to what beliefs a person has.

        A person can be card-carrying member of some church or another with or without believing what that Church teaches. A person can be a civil, gentlemanly sort with or without believing the Nicene Creed. A person cannot believe that God exists without believing that God exists. So, everything clearly stated with no equivocation, where does controversy lie?

        April 2, 2014 — 19:26
        • I’d also add that if you find it baffling that people can feel awe for God while not believing God exists, we’ve no obligation to define that baffling behavior into Christianity. We can just say “Isn’t it baffling how people can contradict themselves like that” and leave it there.

          April 2, 2014 — 19:28
      • I am not sure that a mature person who thinks that Jesus was a merely human great teacher is a Christian.

        That said, I do not actually find it that baffling that one might feel awe for God and not believe God exists. Think of something like blindsight, but where the thing blindseen produces a strong emotional reaction. Then someone might feel fear, affection or even awe at something blindseen, which she does not actually believe to be there.

        April 25, 2014 — 11:03
  • Heath White


    If the question is whether an account in terms of belief is sufficient to understand religious faith, I’m sure the answer is no, but then I don’t think anyone ever thought it was. If the question is whether an account in terms of beliefs is necessary to understand religious faith, I suspect it depends on what we mean by “religious faith.” I think people have a hard time understanding non-realist theism because what needs to be understood is not philosophical but sociological. What is going on is questions of identity: Wettstein wants to identify as a Jew even though he does not believe what Jews have historically believed, and your anonymous philosopher does not want to identify as an atheist even though she fits the traditional definition of that term. This is one of those fairly rare times when a focus on clear language will dissolve a lot of problems. (Here I agree with Ryan.)

    Wettstein may be right that the question whether God exists may not be the most important question. But it is *A* question, and theist/atheist/agnostic outline a range of answers to it. Wettstein appears to be an atheist.

    “Would someone who calls herself an orthodox Christian but who does not believe some of its major tenets, like the virgin birth, not qualify as an orthodox Christian?” The key word here is “orthodox” and the answer is no, that person does not qualify. (Or if orthodoxy comes in degrees, she does not qualify fully.) What follows is that many Christians are not (fully) orthodox Christians—which is correct.

    You raise an important question about whether certain religious practices, like prayer, are in tension with the non-realism of non-realist theism. If by “pray” we mean its literal meaning of “ask,” then yes there is “tension” or rather incoherence. Asking involves communicating with another entity who can then respond with action. If God is not some kind of agent, asking God for something is nonsensical. But many non-realists might think of prayer as something like an expression of gratitude. Again, if by “gratitude” we mean a feeling toward another agent for something they have done—the normal meaning of gratitude—this requires that God be an agent. But again, many non-realist theists probably have in mind gratitude, thanks, awe, etc. as attitudes without indirect objects: e.g. we can be “grateful” for something but not necessarily to anyone. And this is compatible with non-realist theism. It is also compatible with atheism, and there doesn’t seem to be much difference except, again, the question of identity.

    April 3, 2014 — 12:03
    • Helen De Cruz

      Heath, thank you very much for this clarificatory response. I agree the question about what religious faith is, and whether non-realist theism is compatible with it, is not an entirely philosophical question. It is in part an empirical question, in the sense that if it turned out that there were many people like Wettstein (who say they have religious faith but call themselves metaphysical naturalists) that would challenge us to rethink our philosophical definitions of faith and related concepts.

      While Wettstein is a limiting case, it’s an opportunity to reflect on whether we have (as philosophers of religion) overemphasized the doxastic dimensions of faith. I gave the example of non-Orthodox Christians, precisely to show that these people do assent to Orthodoxy (they say the Creeds during service for instance), but that they, outside of the church context are quite happily saying things that would be considered heresies in their tradition, or at least not the mainline of their tradition. The importance is going through the motions. This could explain why, for instance, a choir director in a church choir I used to sing it would sometimes say “Now realize what you’re singing: the Lord has risen. Think about that! Now again, with feeling!”

      I’ve been fascinated with feelings like gratitude etc that do not have an object. I know atheists who frequently feel such feelings of joy, gratitude and awe, but without an object (some say gratitude for nature, or for chance, but it still seems strange). It may indeed help to say that one can feel gratitude in normal circumstances without an object (e.g., I may feel gratitude towards the honest person who found my wallet and turned it over to the police, even though I may never know who he or she is). But what if one believes there is no-one to be grateful to?

      April 3, 2014 — 13:17
  • Mark Rogers

    Perhaps of greater concern would be “what if your gratitude was not found acceptable by one who was there?”.

    April 3, 2014 — 17:39
  • Josh

    Prof. De Cruz,

    Do you count God as ipsum esse subsistens as “theistic realism”? I can’t help but thinking these kinds of problems arise because we have a bad view about ontological commitment.

    April 16, 2014 — 7:43
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