Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: Part III

In Part II of the Dialogues, Cleanthes presents a rudimentary design argument in response to Demea and Philo’s skepticism concerning the nature of God. Assuming the principle that like effects precede from like causes, Cleanthes asserts that the Universe sufficiently resembles a human artifact, by virtue of the adjustment of its parts to each other and the curious adapting of means to ends, so that we may infer that the Cause of the Universe resembles the human mind to a certain extent. Demea responds with disappointment that this is only an probabilistic, as opposed to a demonstrative, argument, while Philo casts doubt on the inference because he does not think it obvious that the Universe sufficiently resembles a human artifact. In most other cases where we infer similar causes from similar effects, we have had a great number of experiences with similar effects, while we obviously have no experience of the origin of the Universe. Furthermore, it seems presumptuous to assume that human intelligence is paradigmatic for all forms of intelligence, and it is risky to extrapolate our experience with the causes of a small part of the things that happen in the Universe to the cause of the Universe as a whole.

Cleanthes’ reply to these objections is rather interesting. He claims that it is not necessary to demonstrate the resemblance of the Universe to a human artifact, “because this similarity is self-evident and undeniable.” He compares Philo’s objections to “the abstruse cavils of those philosophers, who denied motion; and ought to be refuted in the same manner, by illustrations, examples, and instances, rather than by serious argument and philosophy.” (p. 54) In other words, Philo’s objections might be compared to those of skeptics who deny the existence of the external world. Famously, there is no knock-down philosophical argument that proves the existence of the external world. But this is not because its existence is in doubt, but because on the contrary its existence is so obvious and the belief in it forms in us so naturally that we can only ever respond to the skeptic by pointing to the immediacy of that experience. Similarly, Cleanthes claims that it is not appropriate to try to prove that the Universe is designed, but instead we should point again and again to those self-evident instances of design that everyone acknowledges. As an example, Cleanthes points to the eye: “Survey its structure and contrivance,” he challenges Philo, “and tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of a contriver does not immediately flow in upon you with a force like that of sensation. The most obvious conclusion surely is in favor of design; and it requires time, reflection and study, to summon up those frivolous, though abstruse, objections, which can support infidelity.” (p. 55)

Ironically, Cleanthes can actually appeal to Philo’s own epistemology in support of this claim: “The declared profession of every reasonable skeptic is only to reject abstruse, remote and refined arguments; to adhere to common sense and the plain instincts of nature; and to assent, wherever any reasons strike him with so full a force, that he cannot, without the greatest violence, prevent it. Now the arguments for natural religion are plainly of this kind; and nothing but the most perverse, obstinate metaphysics can reject them.” (p. 56) Recall that Philo acknowledges the validity of human reason in the sphere of our direct experience, because the immediacy of that experience is powerful enough to overrule refined skeptical worries. But it seems that when many people observe the natural world the conclusion that it is designed does ‘immediately flow in upon them with a force like that of sensation.’

[Interlude: It seems that Hume was well aware of the forcefulness of the impression of design amongst most people. However, this did not assuage his skeptical worries. For one thing, this impression seems to be not quite on the same level of immediacy as our sense experience. As he puts it in his letter to Gilbert Elliott, “The Propensity of the Mind towards [the conclusion of design], unless that Propensity were as strong and universal as that to believe in our Senses and Experience, will still, I am afraid, be esteem’d a suspicious Foundation…We must endeavor to prove that this Propensity is somewhat different from our Inclination to find out own Figures in the Clouds, our Face in the Moon, our Passions and Sentiments even in inanimate matter. Such an Inclination may, and ought to be controul’d and can never be a legitimate ground of Assent.” (p. 26) In other words, the impression of design is not quite as forceful or immediate as the impression of the external world or the reality of motion, and given that we sometimes erroneously perceive order and design when there is none (like when we see figures in the clouds, or imagine that inanimate objects have intentions, feelings, etc.), we do need some argument for accepting design.]

Despite his claim that Philo’s objections are ‘mere cavils’, Cleanthes does accomodate them by attempting to demonstrate that we can reliably infer design even the apparently suboptimal conditions implied by those objections. As an example Cleanthes presents the following scenario:

Suppose, therefore, that an articulate voice were heard in the clouds, much louder and more melodious than any which human art could ever reach: Suppose, that his voice were extended in the same instant over all nations, and spoke to each nation in its own language and dialect: Suppose, that the words delivered not only contain a just sense and meaning, but convey some instruction altogether worthy of a benevolent Being, superior to mankind: Could you possibly hesitate a moment concerning the cause of this voice? And must you not instantly ascribe it to some design or purpose? Yet I cannot see but all the same objections (if they merit that appellation) which lie against the system of theism, may also be produced against this inference. (p. 54)

It seems obvious that if we were to experience such a phenomenon, we would immediately and rightly conclude that it was produced by an intelligent agent. And yet it seems to fall prey to all the objections Philo laid out in Part II: we would have had no prior experience of this celestial Voice, and it is not like any human voice by virtue of its intensity, extent and ‘translatability.’ Cleanthes concludes, therefore, that his design argument is untouched by Philo’s objections.

Hume describes Philo as somewhat embarrassed by this forceful response, but Demea chimes in with another interesting objection: the human mind and its sentiments are what they are because of the kind of world we must survive in, and these constraints clearly do not apply to God: “All the sentiments of the human mind…have a plain reference to the state and situation of man, and are calculated for preserving the existence, and promoting the activity of such a being in such circumstances. It seems therefore unreasonable to transfer such sentiments to a supreme existence, or to suppose him actuated by them…” (p. 58). It is true that God would not be motivated by any sort of fear of deprivation, or feel threatened by anything, but it seems that even a self-sufficient, all-powerful Being could coherently experience pleasure or express disapproval if His designs are not carried out.


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Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: Part II

In Part I of his Dialogues, Hume introduces his three speakers, who each take a distinct philosophical approach to religion. Demea can be described as a ‘Pyrrhonian fideist’, who looks for every opportunity to disparage and belittle human reason, in order to encourage humble deference to the teachings of religion. Philo advocates ‘mitigated skepticism’, which allows that in the sphere of our direct experience we can rely on human reason (indeed, we are compelled by instinct and habit to do so), but takes a dim view of what reason can tell us in a sphere so far removed from direct experience as theology. Cleanthes, finally, advocates for a form of particularism, which does not pronounce a priori on what human reason can and cannot tell us, but encourages people to continue their investigations in the hopes of success, no matter how far removed the subject from direct experience and without firmly expecting either success or failure.

Part II of the Dialogues starts with both Demea and Philo maintaining that, while there is no question regarding the being or existence of God (since everything, including the Universe, must have a cause), we have no experience and hence no knowledge of God’s nature and attributes. Indeed, Philo suggests that even though we ascribe things like wisdom, thought and knowledge to God, this is only because “these words are honorable among men, and we have no other language or other conceptions, by which we can express our adoration of him. But let us beware, lest we think, that our ideas any wise correspond to his perfections, or that his attributes have any resemblance to these qualities among men.” (p. 44) In other words, calling God wise and all-knowing is simply a linguistic convention, because we suppose God to be perfect and knowledge and wisdom are some of the attributes most highly regarded among people. But it would be a mistake to think that God is wise or knows in any sense like we experience.

In response to this skepticism concerning the nature of God, Cleanthes introduces his design argument, which attempts to establish that the world was created by an intelligence in some respects similar to our own. The passage is worth quoting in full:

Look round the world: Contemplate the whole and every part of it: You will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions, to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy, which ravishes into admiration all men, who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human design, thought, wisdom and intelligence. Since therefore the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man; though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work, which he has executed. (p. 45)

The fundamental principle behind Cleanthes’ argument is that similar causes produce similar effects. He claims that we look at the world around us, we find that it resembles an artifact produced by human beings. This resemblance is found primarily in what he calls the “adjustment to each other” of the universe’s separate parts as well as the “curious adapting of means to ends.” For example, all the parts of a well-made clock fit together, without any being out of place, and the parts as well as the organization of the whole are means well adapted to a certain end: counting off the time.

Where in the universe as a whole do we see the ‘adjustment of parts’ and the ‘adapting of means to ends’? One celebrated example is that of the fine-tuning of universal constants. The values of these constants are adjusted to each other, because all of them together have to have exactly the right values to support life, which also tells us the end toward which the means of the universal constants are adapted: the production of life. Cleanthes himself does not give any specific examples, but presumably he has in mind whatever instances of regularity and order 18th Century science was able to discover, such as the law of gravitation and the anatomical workings of animals.

In any case, according to Cleanthes, since the Universe as a whole resembles a human artifact, from the similarity of effects we can infer the similarity of the causes, so the Cause of the Universe must resemble the human mind at least to a certain extent.

Scarcely are these words out of his mouth than the objections begin, both from Demea and Philo. Demea does not like that this argument is only a probabilistic or inductive one, rather a deductive one which conclusively demonstrates the existence of God. Philo follows up by claiming, and this is the substance of his response, that not only is it merely an analogical, inductive argument, but it is not even a very strong one. The main problem is that the less similar the effects are, the less confident we can be that the causes are similar. Philo doubts that the universe is similar enough to artifacts of human design we are familiar with, such as houses, to infer the similarity of its creator to the human minds that produce the artifacts we do have experience with. One reason is that in everyday situations when we infer similar causes from similar effects, we have had thousands and thousands of experiences with the latter, so that when a new instance comes up we very quickly and confidently infer the similarity of the causes. For example, we have had so much experience with fire so that when we see smoke rising we have no doubt that it was caused by fire. Similarly we have seen so many houses built by human beings that whenever we see one, we confidently conclude that it was designed by a human being. However, we certainly do not have such extensive experience with the formation of worlds.

Another problem Philo sees with the argument is that, in our experience, the sphere of influence of human intelligence in the world is very limited, and in any case is only one of the factors that shape  it. How can we use our observations of only a part of the universe to infer something about the cause of the universe as a whole? Similarly, we should not be too quick to make our own intelligence the model for all kinds of intelligence. Why should we assume that the designer of the Universe has intelligence in any way analogous to human intelligence?

In summary, Cleanthes’ argument is that the universe resembles a human artifact sufficiently for us to infer that the Cause of the Universe resembles a human mind. Philo’s objection is that the universe and human artifacts are not nearly similar enough for this inference to be anything other than a conjecture. We have no experience with the origin of worlds, human intelligence is not necessarily paradigmatic of intelligence in general and it is perilous to model the Cause of the whole universe on the basis of our experience of causes within the universe.


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Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: Part I

David Hume is one of the most influential philosophers to have written in English, and his detailed examination of both the philosophy and psychology of religion, laid out primarily in his Natural History of Religion (NHR) and Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (DNR), is considered seminal. I plan to blog through both of these works, summarizing and interacting with his arguments. In the opinion of many secular philosophers, Hume launched the most formidable attack on the rationality of theistic belief in the history of ideas, but he also laid the groundwork for an attractive, sophisticated naturalistic philosophy to take its place. It would seem, then, that Christians who want their faith to be intellectually robust should come to terms with his project. In addition, Hume is a very clear and elegant writer, and in my opinion it is hard to improve upon many of his formulations of classic problems in the philosophy of religion. Here I start with the Dialogues (the page numbers refer to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Hume’s writings on religion, including NHR, DNR and several shorter pieces).

As the title implies, DNR is a series of dialogues on the question of whether theistic religion is rationally justified. The three speakers, Cleanthes, Demea and Philo, represent three distinct approaches to the question. In Part I they set out their positions on the relationship between faith and reason, which sets the tone for their contributions to the rest of the dialogues. If we were to give these positions titles I would call that of Demea ‘Pyrrhonian fideism’, that of Philo ‘mitigated skepticism’ and that of Cleanthes ‘optimistic particularism’.

Demea tries to demonstrate the incompetence of human reason in order to reinforce the authority of religion. Referring to the education of his children, Demea notes that

To season their minds with early piety is my chief care; and by continual precept and instruction, and I hope too, by example, I imprint deeply on their tender minds an habitual reverence for all the principles of religion. While they pass through every other science, I still remark the uncertainty of each part, the eternal disputations of men, the obscurity of all philosophy, and the strange, ridiculous conclusions, which some of the greatest geniuses have derived from the principles of mere human reason. Having thus tamed their mind to a proper submission and self-diffidence, I have no longer any scruple of opening to them the greatest mysteries of religion, nor apprehend any danger from that assuming arrogance of philosophy, which may lead them to reject the most established doctrines and opinions. (pp. 32-33)

Demea hopes that by stressing the uncertainty involved in all human inquiry and by highlighting the unending disputes among the philosophers on obscure issues, as well as the absurdity of the conclusions they reach, he will force the minds of his children to submit without argument to the authority of religion. This approach thus combines a Pyrrhonian skepticism about the competence and reach of human reason with a fideistic deference to religious teaching. Hence ‘Pyhrronian fideism’.

Philo is also skeptical about human reason, but not in the same way as Demea. He is of the opinion that even though human reason considered in the abstract is fraught with perplexities and contradictions, nevertheless in everyday life we are compelled by the force of habit to rely upon it, and it generally ‘works’ in everyday contexts. We can carry on with the business of everyday life by reasoning on the basis of experience and “so long as we confine our speculations to trade, or morals, or politics, or criticism, we make appeals, every moment, to common sense and experience, which strengthen our philosophical conclusions, and remove (at least, in part) the suspicion, which we so justly entertain with regard to every reasoning that is very subtle and refined.” (p. 37) In other words, as long as we confine our philosophical speculations to objects we have immediate experience of, philosophy is on a stable footing. But since religion involves objects which are very remote from our everyday experience, such as the creation of the world and a being who is supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent and immaterial (i.e. God), “We must be far removed from the smallest tendency to skepticism not to be apprehensive, that we have here got quite beyond the reach of our faculties.” (ibid.) When it comes to theology, Philo argues,

We are like foreigners in a strange country, to whom everything must seem suspicious, and who are in danger every moment of transgressing against the laws and customs of the people with whom they live and converse. We know not how far we ought to trust our vulgar methods of reasoning in such a subject; since, even in common life and in that province which is peculiarly appropriate to them, we cannot account for them, and are entirely guided by a kind of instinct or necessity in employing them. (ibid.)

In everyday life despite the most subtle skeptical arguments we are compelled by our own experience to trust our reason. Even if an airtight philosophical argument cannot be given for the existence of the world outside our minds, people still instinctively and compulsively act as if there is one and should be respected if we want to survive. As Cleanthes notes, “it is impossible for [the skeptic] to persevere in this total skepticism, or make it appear in his conduct for a few hours. External objects press in upon him: Passions solicit him: His philosophical melancholy dissipates; and even the utmost violence upon his own temper will not be able, during any time, to preserve the poor appearance of skepticism.” (p. 34) So in the sphere of our direct experience, extreme skepticism is overwhelmed by the immediacy and forcefulness of that experience. “But it is evident,” Philo goes on to say, “whenever our arguments lose this advantage, and run wide of common life, that the most refined skepticism comes to be upon a footing with them [our experiences], and is able to oppose and counterbalance them. The one has no more weight than the other. The mind must remain in suspense between them; and it is that very suspense or balance, which is the triumph of skepticism.” (pp. 37-38)

J.C.A. Gaskin calls Philo’s position ‘mitigated skepticism’, because it does not go all the way to deny the efficacy of reason in any sphere whatsoever, which would be self-refuting (it takes reasoning to establish that reasoning is incompetent). We can rely upon it in the sphere of our direct experience, but beyond that we should be skeptical of it.

Cleanthes agrees with Philo against Demea on the absurdity of extreme skepticism about human reason. Indeed, “If we distrust human reason, we have now no other principle to lead us into religion.” (p. 42) Everything we think and believe is filtered through human reason, so we cannot debate its efficacy in the abstract, because we are using human reason to do so! But he also rejects Philo’s a priori confinement of human reason to our direct experience, because there are many particular cases where we have attained  knowledge of phenomena outside our direct experience:

In reality, would not a man be ridiculous, who pretended to reject Newton’s explication of the wonderful phenomenon of the rainbow, because the explication gives a minute anatomy of the rays of light; a subject, forsooth, too refined for human comprehension? And what would you say to one, who having nothing particular to object to the arguments of Copernicus and Galileo for the motion of the earth, should withhold his assent, on that general principle, that these subjects were too magnificent and remote to be explained by the narrow and fallacious reason of mankind?…This species of skepticism is fatal to knowledge, not to religion; since we find, that those who make the greatest profession of it, give often their assent, not only to the great truths of theism, and natural theology, but even to the most absurd tenets, which a traditional superstition has recommended to them. (p.38)

In other words, it is silly and even dangerous to arbitrarily mark out the domain of competence of human reason, since on the one hand we see that scientists like Newton, Copernicus and Galileo have successfully applied reason outside Philo’s narrow domain of direct experience, and on the other hand many people take the limits of reason as a license to believe all kinds of silly and unsubstantiated things outside of direct experience. A much better way to proceed, Cleanthes argues, is to take our investigations one by one, examine the particular evidence that can be brought into consideration, and see whether we can come to any definite conclusions:

These skeptics, therefore, are obliged, in every question, to consider each particular evidence apart, and proportion their assent to the precise degree of evidence which occurs. This is their practice in all natural, mathematical, moral, and political science. And why not the same, I ask, in the theological and religious? Why must conclusions of this nature be alone rejected on the general presumption of the insufficiency of human reason, without any particular discussion of the evidence? Is not such an unequal conduct a plain proof of prejudice and passion? (p. 39)

Cleanthes, then, advocates a form of particularism in epistemology. Instead of pronouncing a priori what human reason can and cannot tell us, the best course is just to proceed with our investigations and see whether we are successful. There is no a priori reason why human reasoning would be incompetent in matters of religion. It seems Cleanthes gets the upper hand at this stage, since the rest of the Dialogues consist precisely of a discussion of the particular evidence often brought to bear on religious questions.

Of the three options I incline most towards Cleanthes’ position. It seems clear to me that, despite its limitations, human reason is effective in obtaining knowledge, and against Philo there is no subject, including religion, on which we can a priori expect human reason to fail us. If Cleanthes’ position is sound, it implies that science-and-religion discussions which try to delineate separate spheres for the two modes of knowing are misguided. There is no a priori limit to what science can tell us, and no predetermined mode of interaction between the two. We must examine their interaction on a case by case basis.

The interesting question that arises as the characters in the dialogues introduce themselves is which one of them speaks for Hume. Given his reputation one might automatically assume that it is Philo. However, in a letter to Gilbert Elliot he asserts that “I make Cleanthes the Hero of the Dialogue,” even though “I could have supported naturally enough [the character of Philo].” (p.25) The truth is that all the characters make interesting points and occasionally get the upper hand, even Demea, although Hume clearly regards his position as the least defensible. Hume also makes certain direct statements in his other writings which at the very least stand in serious tension with Philo’s principled skepticism about religion. For example, in his prologue to the NHR, Hume declares that “The whole frame of nature bespeaks an intelligent author; and no rational enquirer can, after serious reflection, suspend his belief a moment with regard to the primary principles of genuine Theism and Religion.” (p.134)

It is probably futile to try pin down either Cleanthes or Philo as Hume’s consistent spokesperson. Gaskin suggests that the ambiguity was deliberate, as Hume is encouraging readers to engage with the arguments themselves and not look directly for some straightforward conclusion stamped with his personal authority.

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Why scientism is unscientific: the demarcation problem

I just finished reading Samir Okasha’s excellent Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Although it was (probably) not the author’s intention, the book reads as a brief but potent refutation of scientism, which is roughly the thesis that science provides a uniquely authoritative method for obtaining knowledge about the world. Another way to put it is that scientific reasoning is the ‘gold standard’ of rationality, and we should be dubious of any claims not backed by such reasoning. An implication of this thesis is that the only legitimate questions to pursue are those that can be addressed using the scientific method. If science has trouble answering a question, we should not expect any other method to be more successful.

In order for this thesis to get off the ground, however, we must have a clear definition of what science is and how the scientific method differs from other kinds of reasoning. In other words, we need some criterion that allows us to distinguish science from pseudo-science. But as Okasha notes in his book, such a definition is very hard to come by. The philosopher Karl Popper made what is perhaps the most famous attempt to come up with a demarcation criterion: falsifiability. He argued that scientific theories differ from other kinds of theories by making precise empirical predictions that could potentially be disconfirmed by experiment. For example, Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicted that starlight would be deflected by a certain amount as it passed near the sun. Arthur Eddington famously confirmed those predictions in 1919, leading to the acceptance of general relativity by the physics community.

However, there are other episodes in the history of science that do not conform to this neat and tidy account. For example, prior to the discovery of Neptune, Uranus was observed to follow a different path in its orbit than that predicted by Newton’s theory of gravity. If the falsifiability criterion were rigidly applied, scientists should have rejected Newton’s theory. But instead, astronomers Adams and Leverrier postulated the existence of an as-yet undetected planet that was influencing the trajectory of Uranus. Although at the time it must have seemed an ad hoc maneuver introduced to ‘save the appearances’, their postulate turned out to be correct when Neptune was discovered.

The reason why this episode is a problem for scientism is that introducing ad hoc hypotheses to save the appearances is frequently associated with pseudo-scientific or at least non-scientific thinking. Popper himself decried Freudianism and Marxism for just that reason: for any apparent empirical challenge, their defenders could come up with an ad hoc explanation for the discrepancy. But if perfectly respectable scientists also do this, and obstinately cling to their theories in spite of apparent empirical disconfirmation (see here for documentation of Charles Darwin’s obstinacy in the face of what, on his own admission, seemed to be ‘staggering’ difficulties with his theory), the falsification criterion cannot be used to distinguish science from non-science. Okasha concludes:

Is it actually possible to find some common feature shared by all the things we call science, and not shared by anything else? Popper assumed that the answer to this question was yes. He felt that Freud’s and Marx’s theories were clearly unscientific, so there must be some feature that they lack and that genuine scientific theories possess. But whether or not we accept Popper’s negative assessment of Freud and Marx, his assumption that science has an essential nature is questionable. After all, science is a heterogeneous activity, encompassing a wide range of different disciplines and theories. It may be that they share some fixed set of features that define what it is to be a science, but it may not. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that there is no fixed set of features that define what it is to be a ‘game’. Rather, there is a loose cluster of features most of which are possessed by most games. But any particular game may lack any of the features of the cluster and still be a game. The same may be true of science. If so, a simple criterion for demarcating science from pseudo-science is unlikely to be found. (pp.16-17)

Going back to my earlier remarks, if there is no clear, unambiguous criterion that allows us to distinguish science from non-science, scientism cannot get off the ground because it requires such a criterion to set science apart as a uniquely authoritative and reliable way of obtaining knowledge. It seems more likely to me that the methods of science are continuous with our everyday methods of reasoning (involving such practices as induction, inference to the best explanation, etc.), focused and refined by concentrating on questions that are uniquely amenable to empirical investigation.

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What is religion?

On this blog I will try to articulate a rationally compelling and spiritually satisfying religious worldview. But just what is religion? We may be tempted to answer as Justice Potter Stewart did with regard to hard-core pornography-we know it when we see it-but when discussing religion philosophically we need to be clear just what we are talking about. It seems that religion can be defined in many different ways for many different purposes. The two definitions that I find most helpful are from Paul J. Griffiths, a contemporary Catholic philosopher of religion, and Josiah Royce, a turn-of-the-century American philosopher and friend of William James.

Both Griffiths and Royce note that many features are attached to religion that are not essential to it. For example, it is not enough to define religion by the intensity of religious feelings, because people may experience equally intense feelings about all sorts of other things, like their country or even a sport: “If the strength and moral value of a feeling made it religious, patriotism would be a religion.” (Royce, The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, p.1) Similarly, “For native speakers of English at the end of the twentieth century, the adverb religiously often means something like habitually or seriously. We say that she follows the White Sox religiously. But in this sense almost anything can be done religiously.” (Griffiths, Problems of Religious Diversity, p.2) Even belief in the supernatural does not pick out a religion from any other human activity: “Not merely is superstition as such very different from religion, but even a belief in God as the highest of beings need not be a religious belief. If Laplace had needed what he called ‘that hypothesis,’ the Deity, when introduced into his celestial mechanics, would have been but a mathematical symbol, or a formula like Taylor’s theorem-no true object of religious veneration.” (Royce, pp.1-2)

In light of these difficulties, and with the caveat that this is only one possibly useful definition among many, Griffiths defines religion as “a form of life that seems to those who inhabit it to be comprehensive, incapable of abandonment, and of central importance.” (Griffiths, p.7) A form of life is “a pattern of activity that seems to…have boundaries and particular actions proper or intrinsic to it.” (Ibid.) For example, marriage is a form of life that has certain boundaries (no sexual involvement outside of marriage) and certain actions proper to it (making love to one’s spouse, taking part in household chores, raising one’s children, etc.). There are many such forms of life, including education, sports, participating in civic government, etc. But not just any form of life qualifies as a religion. A religious form of life is comprehensive: “it seems to [its adherents] to take account of and be relevant to everything-not only to the particulars of all the forms of life they live in, but to everything in the strict sense.” (Ibid., p.9) C.S. Lewis famously that declared that “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (Lewis, The Weight of Glory, p.140) In other words, a religion provides a vantage point from which all of life and experience are ordered and explained.

But in addition to being comprehensive, a religion must also seem to its adherents to be non-negotiable-that is, incapable of abandonment-and of central importance. The latter explains the former: if the insights a religion provides are of central importance, concerning the most crucial issues a human being must address in order to live well, then to abandon that religion would be to resign oneself to a life of futility and ruin. In light of these criteria, we can understand why belief in the supernatural is inadequate in and of itself to identify some form of life as religious: one might grant the existence of telepathy, for example, without that assent being considered the most important in one’s life. Others, for example allegiance to one’s country, might take priority.

It is clear from the preceding that Griffiths understands religion primarily as a human activity: it is something human beings do, and primarily concerns how people act in the world. Royce is in substantial agreement: “So much at all events seems sure about religion. It has to do with action. It is impossible without some appearance of moral purpose.” (Royce, p.2) In other words, religions claim to teach people how they ought to act and behave. But they also provide the inspiration for right conduct: “By history, by parable, by myth, by ceremony, by song, by whatever means you will, the religion gives to the mere code life and warmth. A religion not only commands the faithful, but gives them something that they are glad to live for, and if need be to die for.” (Ibid., p.3)

Many people in the modern world would be content to reduce religion to its behavioral functions. How many times have we heard that worn-out cliche, “Religion is not about dogma, but about a way of life,” or some variation on that theme? This understanding implies that the essence of religion is motivation to right conduct. Any other fixtures are secondary and dispensable.

But as Royce argues, religion is unthinkable without some set of beliefs about the way things are: “Not only does religion teach devotion to a moral code, but the means that it uses to this end include a more or less complete theory of things. Religion says not merely do and feel, but also believe. A religion tells us about the things that it declares to exist, and most especially it tells us about their relations to the moral code and to the religious feeling. There may be a religion without a supernatural, but there cannot be a religion without a theoretical element, without a statement of some supposed matter of fact, as part of the religious doctrine.” (Royce, p.3) We can easily see why this must be so by considering the well-known example of the Sermon on the Mount. Many thinkers skeptical of Christian doctrine nevertheless considered the Sermon to be the most sublime expression of human morality ever composed. But they overlooked the fact that assenting to its ethical mandates would be absolutely insane outside of Jesus’ theological framework, with a personal, providential God at its center. Who in their right mind would turn the other cheek when struck if they did not trust in the ultimate victory of good and the vindication of God? The Apostle Paul famously pressed home this insight when he challenged his Corinthian converts on the issue of the resurrection: “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:32b) Religion cannot motivate people to right conduct if there is no ontological rationale for that conduct.

To sum up: religion is a form of life that is comprehensive, non-negotiable and of central importance to its adherents. It provides the latter with a vision of right conduct and the inspiration to realize that vision, grounded in its account of the way things are. It follows that the rationality of a religion will depend on those two factors. We can adjudicate between competing religions by comparing their moral code and their account of ultimate reality, to see whether they measure up to experience and whatever knowledge we have accumulated about the natural world.

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