Virtual Colloquium: Samuel Lebens, “Rationality, Reasonableness and Religion”
December 9, 2016 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Religion and Life  Tags: , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 6

Welcome again to the Prosblogion Virtual Colloquium! This will be our last paper of the fall term. The Virtual Colloquium will return beginning Friday, January 20. There are still plenty of slots open for the spring, so please send me (Kenny) nominations (including self-nominations)!

Today’s Virtual Colloquium paper is “Rationality, Reasonableness and Religion” by Samuel Lebens. Dr. Lebens received his PhD in philosophy from Birkbeck College, London in 2010. After completing his PhD, he attended Rabbinical Seminaries in Israel and received Rabbinical Ordination in 2013. Currently, he is Research Director of the project on analytical Jewish philosophical theology at the University of Haifa, and also chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism. His papers have appeared in journals such as Philosophical Studies, Religious Studies, and International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. Additionally, Dr. Lebens in a contributing blogger for Haaretz.

Rationality, Reasonableness and Religion

Samuel Lebens

This paper was born during a summer seminar on the nature and value of faith run by Baylor University and Western Washington University, hosted at the University of Missouri. Accordingly, it owes its existence to Trent Dougherty, Daniel Howard-Snyder, and Jon Kvanvig, who ran the seminar. I won’t name all of the participants, but it was conversations with them that really helped me to hone my ideas into their current form. So I’m grateful to them all.

The paper was, initially, going to be a work of Jewish philosophy. I was interested by a number of Rabbinic texts that made it seem as if feeling alienated from the community, and setting yourself aside from the community, was in and of itself an act of apostasy. That struck me as counter-intuitive because apostasy is supposed to be an intellectual crime. I was interested in bringing those texts into conversation with Midrashic portrayals of Ruth’s conversion to Judaism. The authors of the Midrash seem to go to great lengths to downplay Ruth’s theological commitments, and to present her conversion as stemming first and foremost from her personal relationship with Naomi. These somewhat surprising threads of the Jewish tradition jibe well with work I had already published that sought to downplay the role that belief plays in the religious life, and to emphasise the role of the imagination. These new sources were downplaying belief in order to emphasise, not imagination, but communal affinity. It was these reflections that lead me in the direction of the central tri-partite distinction in this paper between (1) the propositional content of a faith, (2) communal belonging, and (3) imaginative engagement.

Before long, I realized that the picture wasn’t peculiar to Judaism at all. For that reason, the paper has evolved and barely contains any reference to the Rabbinic texts that inspired it. The paper considers religious traditions as far apart from one another as Zen Bhuddism and Quakerism. My idea is simple: all religions require (1) propositional faith, (2) communal belonging, and (3) imaginative engagement. There are putative counter-examples to this claim, but I think that they can all be dealt with (I try to deal with many of them in the paper). What’s more, I think that failure to conceive of religion in these terms stems either from a failure to recognize that religion is a sociological phenomenon, or from the failure to appreciate that religiosity has a distinctive psychology. The paper then became about the philosophical merit of regarding religiosity in terms of these three elements. The basic conclusion is that philosophers conceiving of religiosity in this way opens up new ways for thinking about what could make religiosity rational and/or reasonable.

In its own small way, I hope that this paper contributes towards a move within philosophy of religion to concentrate upon religion as a lived human experience. I love philosophical theology. But philosophy of religion needs to have broader horizons than mere theology. Religions often come along with theological commitments, but religions are much richer than that, and the philosophy of religion would do well to relate to religions as sociological and psychological phenomena too. The paper is still a little rough around the edges, and I look forward to hearing people’s comments and suggestions.

The full paper is available here. Comments welcome below!

  • Hi Sam,

    Thanks so much for this very interesting paper! I agree that these kinds of questions really need more attention than they’ve been getting in analytic philosophy of religion. I’ve been meaning to read Cuneo’s book ever since I saw his fascinating article on ritual knowledge in F&P, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

    In connection with your footnote 3, I would strongly recommend Ted Chiang’s short story “Division by Zero”. I would be very curious to know whether you think the character in the story is aptly described as having “lost faith” in mathematics or in particular mathematical propositions.

    December 10, 2016 — 3:59
    • Thank you Kenny. It sounds like a really interesting story. I’m certainly open to the idea that a person can have faith in a proposition of mathematics. Furthermore, I’m committed to the idea that faith doesn’t require anything like uncertainty (even though it doesn’t require belief either). It’s for that reason that I’m able to talk quite meaningfully about God having faith in us, even though he is omniscient.

      December 11, 2016 — 11:34
      • Yes, I like this about the view. It seems right to me that faith should be compatible with a wide range of (rational/intellectual) credences, ranging anywhere from something like conjecture (as on Audi’s view) to certainty.

        The story is about a mathematician who attempts suicide after proving the inconsistency of arithmetic. She has a biologist husband who can’t understand why she’s so devastated by her result, since math obviously works fine in practice. So part of what’s interesting here is the role that her particular beliefs about mathematics are playing in her life, which is why it seems like we might want to say that in her particular case she had faith, though for most of us our belief in math would not be properly described as faith.

        December 11, 2016 — 14:15
  • I think that some philosophers of mathematics and mathematicians are particularly drawn to the subject because it promises to offer certainty. Ray Monk’s biography of Russell certainly paints that picture, as if Russell’s loss of religion set him on a path towards mathematics in search of at least some truths of which he could be certain. I actually think that Monk over-exaggerates that line of the narrative a little bit – but still.
    One can imagine the sense of the world crumbing for Frege when he received Russell’s letter about the paradox. The entire edifice of mathematics seemed to be falling in on itself.
    I could certainly picture that as a crisis of faith. I must read the story.

    December 12, 2016 — 6:22
  • Heath White


    Thanks for a very interesting and well-reasoned paper. I had a couple of thoughts:

    – I agree that religion does have the three dimensions you mention, and that this is understudied in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion. As you also mention, they are necessary but not sufficient conditions, since the more passionate forms of political engagement, for example, would meet them as well.

    – On the community aspect, I once had a similar question to yours about why, in Christianity, heresy was a (grave) sin, since I thought heresy was unorthodox belief, beliefs are not acts of the will, and sins were acts of the will. When I looked it up in Aquinas, I discovered that he thinks of heresy as unorthodox belief publicly maintained after attempts at correction by authorities. It’s the community-breaking aspect of it that’s sinful. So, another data point for your thesis.

    – On the reasonableness of propositional faith, I worry a little bit. Analytic philosophy focuses so strongly on the evidence for propositional religious claims, because 50 years ago the standard critique of religion was that it was irresponsible thinking, based on insufficient evidence. This critique assumes (1) religious commitment is or includes belief, and (2) evidentialism, i.e. beliefs are only justified based on the evidence.

    Now, your defense of the reasonableness of the propositional-faith strand of religious commitment seems to attack both these assumptions. (1) Faith doesn’t require belief, and (2) the cognitive commitments of faith (whatever they are) can be justified pragmatically. It might be worth unpacking these claims more explicitly. The stance, “Our faith is justified because/so long as it doesn’t rise to the level of belief” strikes me as a Pyrrhic victory for the reasonableness of religion—sometimes you seem headed in that direction but I’m not sure. And if you think evidentialism is wrong then it might be worth saying so explicitly. Also, these criticisms are independent, and you might ultimately want to make one of them without the other.

    Again, I liked the paper, and best wishes on it.

    December 12, 2016 — 11:10
    • Thank you Heath, for your comments.
      I take it that my paper is neutral over evidentialism. For what it’s worth, I take myself personally to be committed to it.
      But evidentialism governs belief formation, and not faith formation.
      I see why this response might seem like a Pyrrhic victory for religion, but on further reflection I don’t think that it’s some underhanded cheat; I don’t think it’s just the religious person somehow changing the rules of the game when the anti-religious evidence becomes overwhelming.
      Instead, I think there are good reasons to believe that Howard-Snyders’s non-doxastic account of faith is independently the best account of faith, (in part) since it does the best at accounting for trenchant crises of faith.
      Once one recognises that faith isn’t a species of belief, then evidentialism isn’t immediately relevant, even if you’re an evidentialist.
      However, my account doesn’t say that the only justification for religious faith is pragmatic, because faith (however it may be justified) can be undercut by purely epistemic considerations. Since faith that p is incompatible with belief in the denial of p, it turns out that counter-evidence to p sufficient to warrant belief in the denial of p will make rational faith that p impossible. So even though pragmatic concerns enter heavily into any possible justification of faith, my account shouldn’t seem like a Pyrrhic victory because it’s (a) true to the nature of what faith has always been (i.e., it isn’t revisionary), and (b) it doesn’t shut the door on evidence altogether; it merely raises the bar for counter-evidence.
      I really appreciate your comments. The point about Aquinas is really useful.

      December 12, 2016 — 11:43
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