This is the eleventh installment of a series of interviews I am conducting with academic philosophers about their religious practices. In this series of interviews, I ask philosophers about their religious practices and the influence on their philosophical work. Follow the links for parts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. The contributors are in various stages of their career, tenured and untenured. Interviews were conducted through e-mail and responses are not edited.
This interview is with David McNaughton, currently Professor of Philosophy at Florida State, having previously been Professor at Keele University. He is a member of the Church of England, and a regular attender at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, Florida.
Can you tell me something about your current religious affiliation/self-identification?
I was brought up agnostic, but my parents sent me to Methodist Sunday School (for as long as I wished) so I might find out for myself. After considerable prayer and heart-searching I joined the Methodist Church around 1960 and stayed there for ten years, including being a very active member of the Methodist Society at my undergraduate university. I did my graduate work at Magdalen College Oxford and attended College Chapel, at the end of which I was received into the Church of England.
Shortly thereafter I drifted away from Christianity, eventually becoming both sceptical and slightly hostile until my mid-30s when I began slowly to re-evaluate my position. Strong influences here were C. S. Lewis and William James, as well as teaching philosophy of religion with Richard Swinburne. I remained a highly sympathetic agnostic until 2004, when I decided to recommit to the church.
Could you say a bit more about the factors involved in your recommitting to the church in 2004 (I’m especially interested in the influence of your teaching philosophy of religion – many people allege that personal faith has an influence on one’s philosophy of religion, but here it seems the other way around!)
The immediate cause of my returning to the church was the death of my wife in July 2004. She was diagnosed with terminal secondary cancer of the lining of the lung in 2002. I had signed up to come to FSU and she was keen to be in the USA where her parents lived. As you can imagine, the move in conjunction with her illness and the medical treatment was horrendous.
During this time I prayed regularly and received much help in return. Shortly after her death some of her relatives invited us to a vacation at Port St. Joe. Walking along the beach at dawn, it seemed to me that God was reminding me that he had come through for me and now it was my turn. It turned out that the nearest Episcopal church, which was small and rather charismatic, had lost its preacher and some of the congregation, and had just been burned down by a schizophrenic boy who was off his meds. I immediately took to the interim priest, and we became firm friends. I learned to appreciate a style of church going that was alien: musically and, to a degree, doctrinally. When the schism in the Episcopal Church occurred nearly everyone left to join the Anglican movement, and the church was closed, whereupon I decamped to the Episcopal church in the center of Tallahasse, St. John’s, which was more to my liking in both respects.
In the course of my conversation with God I distinctly remember saying that I would give up my old complaint that I had never had the ‘Wesley experience’ (I was originally a Methodist). Indeed, I recall saying that I assumed He knew best, since as a philosopher I would probably regard any emotional experience with profound suspicion. The temporary priest at my church was part of a husband and wife team at Grace Mission in the most deprived part of Tallahassee, so I started going there. On my second or third visit, I suddenly had the impression that some physical weight had been removed from my shoulders. Puzzled, I thought about this, and realized that, for the first time in my life, I did not feel guilty about the many things I have done that I regret. I realized that my sins really were forgiven, i.e. The Wesley Experience. (This merely confirmed a view that I had long held: that God has a rather Puckish sense of humor)
I learned a number of things from teaching philosophy of religion.
- Hume’s objections were nothing like as strong as I had supposed
- There was more to traditional arguments for theism than I thought.
- A combination of Pascal’s Wager and William James seemed to me to make a very strong case for commitment. One objection to Pascal is that the wager only makes sense if there is only one form of religion to choose from. James, however, points out that, for the recipe to work, the option must be a live one. Since Christianity was the only live one for me (I had tried Buddhism) then a combination of James and Pascal’s arguments was irresistible
I say ‘irresistible’ but of course I did resist, or at least, made no move, until impelled by my wife’s death.
Nor did any of this come about rapidly; I played the skeptic to Richard’s theist for many years, but when he left and I taught the course on my own, the tone changed.
Could you elaborate on your current religious practices (e.g., churchgoing, prayer?)
I am a regular attender at St. John’s, Tallahassee, which has a generally well-educated congregation (lots of Professors, lawyers etc.), and is open and friendly. It follows the traditional liturgy (I agree with C. S. Lewis on the importance of liturgy) and has beautiful music, including a lot of English church music. I have been fairly active, including teaching a couple of classes on C. S. Lewis. Our priest, who is, in my view, everything a priest should be, describes our position as firm at the center, open at the edges. It is fairly ‘high’ (in terms of ceremonial), and doctrinally fairly orthodox, but socially liberal and welcoming to all regardless of race or sexual orientation. It also does a great deal of pastoral work in the heart of the city.
My prayer life is somewhat patchier than I would like it to be. I realize that I need a set time to do things if I am not to leave things until it is too late and I am too tired. Ideally, I like to read the daily readings, give prayers of intercession and for grace, and meditate for ten minutes. It is a good day when all that happens! I feel called to give significant sums to charity, as I am – by any reasonable standard – well–off. While I give to my Church, a significant portion of my giving is to secular charities that aid the sick, the poor, and the needy. I am conscious, of course, that I should do more.
Could you say something about how your interest in religion affects your teaching?
I spend a lot of time discussing issues in Christian doctrine and philosophy of religion with a number of grad students. A significant percentage is Christian, and some come because others tell them that Christians will not feel unwelcome in the Department (which, I am told, is not always the case). I usually run an informal C. S. Lewis reading group, as well as teaching philosophy of religion on a regular basis. I have started teaching a new course called World Without God?
The idea behind the course is quite simple. It used to be thought that the existence of God explained or underpinned many things that, without his existence, would be left unexplained or ungrounded. The course looks at the following four questions.
- Can we explain the existence of the universe without recourse to God?
- Can there be an objective moral code that we all have good reason to follow even if there is no God?
- Can life have a meaning if there is no God?
- Can we have a spiritual or religious attitude to the world in the absence of belief in God?
Until recently, most people thought that the answer to each of these questions was No. But these answers are open to challenge. Scientists have claimed that we can have a complete and satisfying explanation of the existence and nature of everything without appealing to intelligent design. Moral philosophers have claimed that right and wrong are wholly independent of God’s will. Indeed, some have thought that religion has retarded ethical development and understanding. Many have claimed that life can have a meaning whether or not we have religious beliefs. Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, many thinkers now suggest that agnostics and atheists can have a religious attitude of awe and reverence to the universe, and find life fully meaningful, without any belief in supernatural beings. For example, people are rediscovering the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of Stoicism. And there are even churches for atheists!
My aim is not simply to have an interesting intellectual debate, though that is certainly a part of the goal, but to encourage people to think, in a personal way, about some of the deepest questions in philosophy. A colleague once likened his pleasure in philosophy to the enjoyment we get from doing crosswords. That is a part of the enjoyment, but if philosophy has nothing useful to say about these questions, then it is not worth spending time on, in my view.
Could you say something about how your research and religious practices relate?
I was fortunate to be an undergraduate at a time when the sermons of Joseph Butler were still part of the ethics curriculum. I have been interested in Butler ever since. I am currently finishing a reading edition of the Sermons, and other relevant writings on ethics for OUP. I hope to go on to edit his Analogy. Thereafter, I hope to write a book on his philosophy and theology.
One of the pleasures of getting close to retirement is that I no longer feel constrained to do philosophy in the manner that has become standard in the profession. I do not find academic articles, or even books, the best way to engage with what seem to me the most important questions. I find that blogging gives me a welcome freedom to explore, and even occasionally to pontificate. My initial moves in this direction can be found at http://dmcnaughton.ghost.io