Philosophers and their religious practices, Part 1: Homilies for a hoping agnostic
March 2, 2015 — 2:23

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Religion and Life  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 4

[cross-posted at The Philosophers’ Cocoon] This is the first installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. Curiously, there’s relatively little attention for religious practices, with most work in philosophy of religion strongly focusing on beliefs (this is changing thanks to excellent work by Terence Cuneo, Howard Wettstein, Sarah Coakley and others, but this work is still decidedly in the minority).

In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers who are religious practitioners—they go to church or temple, pray, utter blessings, engage in stoic meditation, read the Torah, serve in the capacity of priest—about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. I have interviewed (and am in the course of interviewing) agnostics, theists and atheists, hopefuls and skeptics. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited, except for some occasional shortenings (indicated by ellipses)

The first interview is with Marcus Arvan, who is an assistant professor at the University of Tampa. Arvan self-identifies as a hoping Agnostic and attends Catholic mass weekly.

Could you describe your current religious self-identification/affiliation?

“My current religious affiliation is complex, both in terms of belief and in terms of practice. In terms of belief, until a few years ago I would have self-identified as a Skeptical Agnostic—that is, as someone who considered God’s existence very unlikely.

Things have changed for me, however, and today I would self-identify as a Hoping Agnostic—as someone who still does not think I have sufficient evidence to flat-out believe that God exists, but who now attaches a much higher credence to the God Hypothesis than I have in the past. Finally, although I was raised in an irreligious family and never engaged in any form of religious practice for most of my life, I now count myself as an unofficial, practicing Catholic. I attend Catholic mass weekly, and derive a great deal of personal meaning and joy from it.”

What accounts for all of these changes? Too many things to count. My overall level of credence in the God hypothesis has changed mainly as a result of my work in the philosophy of science. The more I’ve learned about physics and cosmology—and the more I’ve come to believe that the best explanation of quantum mechanics may be the hypothesis that we live in a peer-to-peer networked computer simulation (something which I’ve defended in print)—the more I’ve come to believe that our Universe may indeed have had some sort of Designer. Peer-to-peer simulations are super-complicated things, after all. If anything would be indicative of intelligent design, that would be. At the same time, cosmology—including my particular version of it—is still very speculative. Hence, my Hopeful Agnosticism.

I also think life experience and religious practice have played an important role in my conversion to Hopefulness. When I was younger (and more proud), I recoiled at spirituality and church. As I grew older, however, I experienced hardships that profoundly tested me, and I met, fell in love with, and married a Catholic woman who started taking me to church. And, lo and behold, it all finally spoke to me. I began to pray sincerely; I began to look forward to church, I was moved by my pastor’s homilies (many of which seemed to me to contain important truths relevant to my life), and I committed myself to trying to live up to Catholic ideals of love, forgiveness, and charity. And I found that these changes transformed my life in a variety of positive ways—so that although I am still not a Believer, I am indeed today very much a Hoper.”

How do the practices, specifically the homilies, contribute to your attitude of hopefulness? Is it, as Blaise Pascal put it, that these practices feed your emerging hope, or is there some complex two-way interaction?

“Actually, I don’t think the homilies have had much of an effect in that regard. My hope that a good and forgiving God exists is based more on my views on speculative physics and metaphysics—namely, that the God Hypothesis is a serious possibility, given my evidence.

The homilies don’t speak to my Hope so much as they speak to my experience of life. They often address trials and tribulations I’m facing—questions and problems that most human beings face in life, from existential crises to moral quandaries—and challenge me to think about and respond to those issues in ways I wouldn’t otherwise do.

In particular, whereas as a philosopher I am accustomed to rationally analyzing issues to death—in terms of abstract principles and arguments—the homilies typically get me to reflect on and feel the ways in which love, kindness, charity, and forgiveness can (and now, I believe, should) transform how I approach those same issues.

Indeed, more than anything else, I would say the homilies have challenged me to understand what it means to live lovingly, kindly, charitably, and forgivingly, and how sincerely and earnestly committing oneself to living in these ways can positively transform one’s life, transform how one sees moral and existential problems, transform how one treats those around you, and indeed, in a certain manner of speaking, “save” you: save you from anger, frustration, bitterness, and all other kinds of things that make life—your life, and the lives of those around you—worse rather than better. A simpler way to put all this is: I think the homilies have truly challenged me to become a better person.”

The homilies have an effect on your daily life; do they also impact your philosophical work?

It has indeed made a difference on my work, in at least three related ways.

First, my experiences have increasingly convinced me that too much moral and political philosophy are based on “principled argument” without appropriate emotional sensitivity—as though these things can be (or should be) teased apart. I now believe, and have argued in some of my work, that the very principles one finds attractive or plausible may be based on a lack of appropriate emotional sensitivity—and thus, that if moral and political philosophy are to be based on “true principles”, they must be based on principles rooted in emotional sensitivity of various sorts which we need to discover through empirical methods and negotiation (rather than, say, by appeal to abstract principles which “seem plausible” from a detached philosophical perspective).

Second, my experiences with the homilies have increasingly convinced me that standpoints matter—that again, what “seems plausible” (morally or politically) from one standpoint (a loving standpoint, a male standpoint, a bitter standpoint, a selfish standpoint, etc.) may seem absurd from another standpoint. And so, I have come to believe, moral and political philosophy should take standpoints seriously, working them into theory and practice rather than trying to transcend them in the pursuit of “objective moral truth.”

Finally, it has led me to believe (and argue) that morality is a matter of process—that moral answers are not to be found through principles alone or “thinking things through” in one’s study, but rather through actual, organic negotiation with other flesh-and-blood human beings. In other words, that moral answers don’t exist prior to negotiation, but only emerge as a result of it. I’m currently writing a book on moral theory where I try to put all of this together.

As a final question: The majority of philosophers are atheists, and it’s not uncommon for philosophers to regard religion as quaint, epistemically defective or worse. What has been your experience in the philosophical community when you discuss these matters?

“Truth be told, it doesn’t come up in conversation. I’ve rarely heard religion or philosophy of religion so much as mentioned by other philosophers, say, at conferences. It just doesn’t seem to be discussed—except by people who work in philosophy of religion. I’m guessing this is because—as you note—most philosophers seem to regard religion as quaint and epistemically defective.

In any case, I think this is unfortunate. One of the reasons I think it is unfortunate is substantive: I personally think the only epistemically defensible position is Agnosticism, not atheism. Related to this, I think it is unfortunate because, as a Hopeful Agnostic, I tend to think it’s precisely here—in the realm of uncertainty between Belief and Disbelief—where the really interesting questions are in philosophy of religion.

Allow me to explain. I’ve heard that a lot of non-philosophers of religion think contemporary philosophy of religion is little more than religious apologetics. Although I wouldn’t go that far, my personal experience is that it doesn’t seem too far from the truth. Most of the phil religion talks I’ve attended have basically assumed that God exists, and then addressed some problem of other (e.g. the Problem of Evil) against that background assumption. Although I guess this kind of argumentation might appeal to Believers, it’s not hard to imagine why it—and philosophy of religion in this vein more broadly—might be seen as hopelessly quaint (if not completely uninteresting) by outsiders.

What we have then is a small group of people (Believing philosophers) who think philosophy of religion is super-interesting, and a much larger group of people (Atheistic philosophers) who seem to consider it super-uninteresting. In my view, this is unfortunate, a lot of the most interesting questions in philosophy of religion arise for the person who falls into neither category: the person who is skeptical whether God exists, and whether there are any reasons to even presume God to be perfect (or even good) given our evidence, but who regards it a live-possibility not ruled out by our evidence and may even be willing to Hope it is a true hypothesis.

These, at any rate, are the questions that attract me to the philosophy of religion—and indeed, to religion itself (as I have said before, I do engage in religious practice as a Hoper but not a Believer). And I would be willing to bet philosophy of religion would be considered a whole lot less quaint/epistemically defective by the philosophical majority if it spent more time on them.”

Thanks to Marcus Arvan for the interview, and next week we will look at another philosopher’s religious practices!

  • Thanks both to Helen Cruz and Marcus Arvan.
    I’ve long thought that Louis Pojman’s Religious Belief and the Will is an excellent defense of the role of hope in religious life. Pojman defends precisely the kind of agnostic hope that Arvan espouses here. In fact, I regard it as a pity that Pojman didn’t include any extracts from this in his Philosophy of Religion anthology.

    March 2, 2015 — 7:29
    • Thank you very much for this response – I agree hope has an important role to play, and moreover I suspect that in interviews to come we will see the role of affective states clearly, because practices are closely related to affective states, in a way that pure philosophical discussion about religion rarely is.

      March 2, 2015 — 8:00
  • We tend to gravitate to professions and jobs that have people that share our values and beliefs. That there are so many atheistic philosophers makes me wonder if that has to do with atheists finding a haven for atheism, a place to chat with acceptance. On the other hand, if philosophy is a haven for atheists, that could be why agnostic or especially theists or those of faith shy away. It is not or may be perceived as a place to chat with acceptance. The attrition of believers could take place at the undergraduate level, or even before, there being a lack of models.

    March 3, 2015 — 10:21
  • Arvan is a “hopeful agnostic” who thinks questions about agnosticism, or questions “in the realm of uncertainty between Belief and Disbelief” are where the really interesting questions in PoR are. Presumably that’s because he also thinks agnosticism is “the only epistemically defensible position.” But Christians who think that questions about, say, the coherence of Christian theism are the really interesting ones–or who might think Christian theism is the only epistemically defensible position–are not doing PoR, really, but “little more than religious apologetics” (or at least that’s not “too far from the truth”). Hmmm… Ok, yeah, that seems reasonable to me.

    March 3, 2015 — 23:23
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