[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?