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Chapter I | Philosophy and Religion

§ 1. The task

One function of philosophy is to think dispassionately about religion. This is the task that will be attempted here.

During the last two thousand years and more few philosophers would have questioned the propriety of such an endeavour; but this is not true of to-day. Serious objections may be raised both on behalf of philosophy and on behalf of religion, and some of these will have to be considered later. Even among people who have not reflected deeply there are many who take religion to be the illusion of a past age so that thinking about it philosophically would be a sheer waste of time. Some assume that any intelligent person must look upon religion, not merely as illusory, but as in some degree immoral. Their condemnation may arise partly because they think of a religious man as one who is indifferent to the truth, but partly also because they regard him as hide-bound and intolerant and hypocritical. If they were invited to study theology rather than to contemplate religion, their distaste would be even greater. To them all theology—even when described as ‘natural’ rather than as ‘dogmatic’—appears as an unholy alliance in which pedantry comes to the aid of folly and thought is debased as well as emotion. This attitude is commonest among the young—I have found it most open in some of my American pupils, who are less inhibited than the English. It is not likely to be dispelled without a good deal of honest thinking.

Even those who would allow that it is possible to reflect honestly and dispassionately about this subject may distrust an enquiry which, like the present work, appears under the guise of Gifford Lectures and so is officially concerned with natural theology. This distrust was bluntly expressed by the late Professor Susan Stebbing in the preface to her book Philosophy and the Physicists. She remarks—quite casually—that ‘Lenin and other dialectical materialists have as much an axe to grind as any Gifford Lecturer.’ We must ask whether natural theology as the subject prescribed by Lord Gifford to his lecturers affords any ground for the charge most wounding to a philosopher—the charge of being prepared to tamper with the truth.

§ 2. Natural theology

Natural theology is sometimes supposed to be the theology that comes natural to us, and in this respect it would be like natural piety, or even natural timidity. But there is another and more technical use of the word. When we speak of natural science, we do not mean the science that comes natural to us: we mean the science of nature. So too natural theology was originally the theology of nature—the theology based, not on the book of Holy Scripture, but on the book of nature, and in particular on the evidence of God's purpose in the physical world. That is to say, it was traditionally concerned with what is known as the argument from design. From a scientific study of the order and purpose in the world human reason was supposed to pass to knowledge of the existence and attributes of a Creator who orders all things in accordance with a divine purpose; and that purpose was not uncommonly believed to be the welfare of man.

In this narrow sense natural theology—sometimes known also by the more grandiose term ‘physicotheology’—was limited in scope: it tended to despise the more abstract traditional arguments for the existence of God and prided itself on close contact with the new facts revealed by science. One of its earliest exponents, Raymond de Sabunde, who published his Theologia Naturalis in 1438, regarded it as an infallible science which, as he said, ‘anyone can acquire in a month and without labour.’ In the long line of his successors, which runs from Francis Bacon to Paley, we find men influenced by the new empirical sciences and seeking to derive from them some support for religion. Because of its concern with the details of God's purpose in the world, natural theology tended to break up into a series of minor theologies, each studying the manifestations of the divine purpose in a particular field. These subordinate theologies—which are said to have been zealously cultivated by the English—were given impressive names. Thus astrotheology studied God's purpose in the stars; hydrotheology His purpose in water; ornithotheology His purpose in birds; and so on. Treatises were composed on the religious lessons to be learned from snow, thunder, insects, locusts, bees, fishes, shell-fish, and earthquakes. These edifying works are no longer read. Perhaps we may presume, even without reading them, that they contributed little of permanent value to the cause they espoused. They serve to remind us that natural theology may become highly artificial.

Fortunately there is also a broader usage in which natural theology is extended beyond the argument from design till it is identical with what is called ‘rational theology’ or ‘philosophical theology’—that is, with a science which asks how far knowledge of God is possible for men by means of human reason unaided by revelation. Presumably it is then called ‘natural’ on the ground that reason is natural to man and not supernatural. Natural theology is thus opposed to a supernatural or sacred theology which rests on divine revelation and so is sometimes described as revealed theology.

In this there appears to be some risk of confusion. With all respect to theologians it may be doubted whether any theology is properly described as supernatural. Natural religion, which comes to man by his own unaided efforts, may perhaps be distinguished from supernatural religion, which comes to him by divine revelation or divine grace. But even if we accept so dubious a distinction, it is still a mistake to identify theology with religion or to transfer the attributes of one without question to the other. Theology is human reflexion about religion, and it is only too subject to human weakness, even when the religion reflected upon is said to be revealed. If there are some religious men who hold that their theology is revealed as well as their religion, they must either claim a double revelation or else deny that there is any sharp distinction between religion and theological reflexion about it.

Fewer questions will be begged if we contrast natural theology with dogmatic theology, although nowadays the word ‘dogmatic’ may have unhappy associations. Dogmatic theology professes to set forth the dogmas of a revealed religion; and although in so doing it proceeds rationally or reflectively, nevertheless it rests ultimately on authority or revelation. Natural theology, on the other hand, excludes, by definition, all appeals to any authority other than reason itself.

This essential prohibition means that natural theology is a branch of philosophy and cannot employ a non-philosophical method. On the other hand, it is free to adopt any method of enquiry considered appropriate to philosophy. Thus it may follow the high a priori line of metaphysics if this can be justified by logical argument. And equally it may start from the history of religion and the known facts of religious experience—no matter whether the religions in question profess to be natural or revealed. It may even base itself nowadays on a study of religious language. Yet it cannot itself be a kind of history or sociology or psychology or philology; for as a branch of philosophy it is not concerned with facts as such, but with their significance and value and with the principles in the light of which they are to be understood.

In all this there is no ground whatever for saying that a natural theologian—if this term may be used—must be a man with an axe to grind. But we have still to ask whether anything in the conditions laid down by Lord Gifford can justify so grievous a charge.

§ 3. The stipulations of Lord Gifford

It is abundantly clear, in the first place, that Lord Gifford wished natural theology to be taken in its widest, and not in its narrowest, sense. He describes the subject as ‘The Knowledge of God, the Infinite, the All, the First and Only Cause, the One and the Sole Substance, the Sole Being, the Sole Reality, and the Sole Existence’. He also speaks of it as ‘the greatest of all possible sciences, indeed, in one sense, the only science, that of Infinite Being’.

It may seem barely consistent with this—if one may entertain even a momentary doubt about the consistency of a benefactor—when he goes on to say, in the second place, that he wishes the subject to be treated as a strictly natural science and to be considered just as astronomy or chemistry is; for it is impossible to know the Infinite by the methods of natural science. But we may avoid the appearance of inconsistency if we suppose that the comparison with natural science is intended to hold only in one respect—namely, as he says, that the subject is to be treated ‘without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation’. As we have already seen, this must be so if natural theology is a branch of philosophy and is to be treated as such.

Even on this interpretation it might appear that a Gifford Lecturer is tied down to a particular view and is expected to produce a particular conclusion. Fortunately this is not so. Most philosophers to-day are unable to claim knowledge of God which would properly be described as scientific, or even as philosophical. But Lord Gifford, with admirable tolerance, allows the utmost freedom of treatment: it is permissible to argue either for or against his own views. He also goes on to specify further topics which I have so far omitted—they include ‘Knowledge of the Nature and Foundations of Ethics or Morals’. What most concerns us here is the following stipulation. His lecturers may freely discuss ‘all questions about man's conceptions of God or the Infinite, their origin, nature, and truth, whether he can have any such conceptions, whether God is under any or what limitations, and so on’. It is within the range of man's conceptions that I hope to say something about the nature and principles of religion, its present predicament, its grounds in experience, and its philosophical defence. This is why I prefer to describe my book as a study in the philosophy of religion rather than to claim for it the proud title of natural theology, even although I shall have to touch on many of the topics commonly considered under this head.

This preference is, I believe, typical of the present age—so far as it takes any interest in religion at all. There is something to be said for approaching these fundamental questions from the side of man, with his obscure experience, his confused conceptions, his imperfect ideals. Without claiming ability to prove God's existence or to know His nature, we may still ask ourselves what is the nature and value and justification of religion in the life of men. Is it not more becoming, and more in conformity with our limited abilities, that we should be content to consider, on the basis of experience, and particularly of religious experience, what finite man by his unaided reason may rationally believe and hope?

In thus restricting my subject I do not think I am going against the intentions of Lord Gifford or following the example of those politicians and bureaucrats who assume that any benefaction may be legitimately diverted to any purpose which in their wisdom they happen to prefer to the purpose of the original benefactor. On the contrary, I believe that I am trying to treat the subject as he would have wished it treated, had he been alive to-day. Nor do I feel that I am bound by his stipulations to grind any axe other than the axe of philosophical truth.

There are some who will maintain that this reserved attitude to natural theology is pure subjectivism, the weakness and disease of the present sick world, the mark of a failure in philosophical energy. Even so, we may perhaps plead that natural theologians require some time to adjust themselves to the ever accelerating progress of modern science, which has completely changed the background of religion; and we may doubt whether such an adjustment can be based on the philosophical concepts of pre-scientific thinkers like Aristotle and St. Thomas. In any case, if this caution, or timidity, in theological speculation is a disease, it is one which is endemic at the present time. An account, or even a display, of its symptoms may at least contribute to its diagnosis and so perhaps ultimately to its cure.

§ 4. Popularity

A further requirement of Lord Gifford raises a problem of greater delicacy. He wished his lectures to be ‘public and popular’; and although he equates this phrase with being ‘open not only to students of the Universities, but to the whole community without matriculation’, it seems not unreasonable to surmise that he wanted the lectures to be intelligible to the public as well as open to them. Whether all his distinguished lecturers have succeeded in fulfilling this stipulation it would perhaps be tactless to enquire.

The ideal of being intelligible to the public has much to recommend it. There is a danger that philosophy, especially in questions of religion and morals, may become too technical, too inhuman, too remote from the problems of actual life. When this happens, philosophy itself may tend to decay and wither, or at least to become a kind of game rather than a serious occupation; and a muddled world is left to blunder on without such modest help as philosophical thinking can offer. It may at times be good for the philosopher himself to come blinking out of his study and talk, like Socrates, to his fellows in the market place or on the playing field. If he has not wholly forgotten the language of ordinary intercourse, he may perhaps induce some of them to consider critically the hand-to-mouth and rule-of-thumb methods by which they usually five. Some of our problems may be solved, or at least transformed, if only we can look at them with detachment and intelligence.

On questions of such difficulty the ideal of popularity is far from easy to attain, but there may be a mean between popular journalism and a technical treatise which can be mastered only by years of study. It is at this mean that I will try to aim, though it will be harder to succeed when I come to the more strictly philosophical questions in the later parts of my book. I should like to write in such a way that any intelligent man who is willing to take a certain amount of trouble will be able to understand what I am trying to say, even if he has had no previous philosophical training. For this reason I have had to omit many qualifications and reservations, and I have discarded the customary paraphernalia of footnotes and references which are found intimidating by so many. The result may appear naive to the more precise among my philosophical colleagues; but perhaps all human thinking on ultimate questions is bound to be naive. Anyhow, for the present purpose I would rather be ingenuous and intelligible than sophisticated and obscure. Perhaps I should add that those who wish to avoid some initial difficulties may be advised to go straight on from here to the beginning of Chapter IV.

§ 5. The starting point

In these days there are few who would deny that we must start our enquiry from the facts of experience; but neither the word ‘experience’ nor the word ‘fact’ should be too narrowly interpreted. It is a fact of experience that bodies move; but it is also a fact of experience that men make judgements which claim to be true and may be false. It is a fact of experience that men have—or at least believe they have—an idea of perfection; and some thinkers have sought to prove from this the existence of God. Whatever we may think of such a proof, it would be arbitrary to exclude it from consideration on the a priori ground that no theological argument should be a priori.

Nevertheless, and this too perhaps will be generally conceded, the philosophy of religion must start primarily from the facts of religious experience—one might almost say from the fact of religious experience. Unfortunately the facts of religious experience are so varied as to be unmanageable. Apart from innumerable primitive religions, there are not a few highly developed religions, which may be described as great religions or world religions, and these differ profoundly among themselves. Few, if any, philosophers are likely to be familiar with them all, and we must be content to begin with a highly impressionistic view.

Our difficulties do not end there. When a scientist is studying physical bodies, he is content to look at them from the point of view of a scientist. He does not ask himself how all this business about electrons appears to a body from its own point of view: he assumes, no doubt rightly, that it has no point of view of its own. That is to say—if the spatial metaphor may be forgiven—lie looks at bodies from outside: his point of view is external. As the Behaviourists have shown, it is possible to look at human activities literally from the outside: they treat human beings exactly as they treat rats and find no unbridgeable difference between the two. But if you are to understand human thinking, you must put yourself at the point of view of the thinker and re-think his thoughts. If you are to understand art, you must put yourself at the point of view of the artist. If you are to understand religion, you must at least try to put yourself at the point of view of the religious man, though you may require to have a detached point of view of your own as well.

If this is true, our difficulties, already great, are enormously increased.

Which of us can claim to have an inward experience, or a sympathetic understanding, of even the great religions of the world? If we have been brought up on the Old Testament as well as the New—and more and more people are coming to be brought up on neither—we may have some slight idea of the Jewish religion, and we may find the religion of Islam not altogether alien; but the religions of the East are to most of us a sealed book. Even if we have taken the trouble to study some accounts of them, this is far from enough; for we cannot enter into the point of view of a religion unless we know intimately the language in which it is expressed and the civilization in which it is manifested. At the most, we may be able to recognize a religious spirit in the watchwords of a religion that is strange to us; for example, in the great invocation of Islam ‘In the name of Allah, the Compassionate One, the Merciful’; or even in Homer when he tells us that the beggar and the stranger come from Zeus. We may also be conscious of a religious attitude in devotees of a religion that is utterly remote from us, if we are fortunate enough to be personally acquainted with them. All this is to the good, but it does little more than reveal to us the extent of our ignorance and the dangers of being dogmatic.

When all is said, anyone brought up in Europe or America, however indifferent or hostile he may be to Christianity, cannot but get his main ideas about religious experience from the one religion that is so closely interwined with Western civilisation. This means, it may be maintained, that he is restricted to a limited point of view from the very start: his philosophy will not merely be based on inadequate experience, but will be influenced by bias and prejudice. And the more we insist on the need for an understanding that is not wholly external, the more obvious does all this become. Indeed the starting point is more unsatisfactory than we have said, for no thinker can have equal sympathy even with all the different forms of Christianity. Each man must approach the topic of religion with his own limitations—his own background, his own tradition, his own experience, and his own peculiar temperament.

This is one reason why we must try to look at religion, not only with inner sympathy, so far as we can, but also from a detached and critical point of view. We cannot accept any one religion without further question as the norm by which all other religions are to be judged.

This can be seen easily enough if we look at religions with which we are unfamiliar. I was once told by a Hindu undergraduate that Christianity must be inferior to Hinduism because it has no sacred river. No philosopher can be content to beg such a question: he is bound to ask whether it is essential to religion, or at least to the highest form of religion, to have a sacred river. So far as he may, he must be on his guard against falling into a dogmatism based on his own tradition. In popular theological discussions it is far too common to find even professed sceptics assuming that if any one believes in God, he must be an orthodox Christian. A moment's reflexion would convince them that such a view is too narrow.

But here we begin to pass from the starting-point of a philosophy of religion to its aim or goal. Only when we are clearer about the goal can we hope to mitigate, if not to remove, the difficulties of the starting-point.

§ 6. The goal

In philosophy, although it is hard enough to know where you begin, it is generally even more difficult to be sure where you are trying to go. This is a problem to which different philosophers offer very different answers.

The philosophy of religion, as I see it, is concerned primarily with the norms or standards which religion must follow and by which it must be judged—with the conditions necessary for a religion to be genuine and not spurious. Some might say that it is concerned with the essence of religion. There is no harm in this if we are using popular language, but it has technical implications which few philosophers would accept to-day. Perhaps it would be best to say that the philosophy of religion is concerned with the first principles—or even simply with the principles—of religion. Strictly speaking, the word ‘first’ is redundant. The principles of religion state the conditions without which religion ceases to be religion and becomes something altogether different.

This usage of the word ‘principle’ is one of the oldest and best established in philosophy, but many modern philosophers find it obscure. It is impossible to consider here the objections to it. A simple illustration of what is meant may be found in Mr. Toulmin's book The Philosophy of Science. There he points out that the Rectilinear Propagation of Light is called a ‘principle’—not merely a ‘law’—of geometrical optics because without it there could be no such science at all. It is my belief that there are also principles of science, of art, of morals, and of religion, without which such things could not be at all, and that to formulate these principles is the first concern of philosophy.

To put forward such a claim for the philosophy of religion is no doubt bold: it sets forth an ideal which is likely to be realized very imperfectly, if at all. Yet perhaps it is not quite so bold as it may seem. It assumes that there are principles already present in ordinary religious experience, in the acts and beliefs of the ordinary religious man. These principles are not by him made explicit. They are merely taken for granted or presupposed, and yet it is by them that he determines and criticizes both his conduct and his beliefs. The business of philosophy is to disentangle and to make explicit principles which are already unreflectively adopted, and this need not be a task incapable of human achievement: it may only be to discover what is unconsciously known or acted upon by those who live a religious life.

If such principles can be formulated, what else remains to be done with them? The most obvious task is to consider whether they are consistent among themselves and consistent with the rest of our knowledge. There are also more fundamental and difficult questions concerned with their status and with the reasons why they should be accepted or rejected. Do we grasp them independently by some sort of direct intuition? Do we accept them because they are necessary if our experience, and in particular our religious experience, is to be coherent with itself? Are they to be regarded as arbitrary recommendations, or decisions, about the proper use of words? Are they capable of any further justification and defence?

About these ultimate questions I propose to say little: they belong to a more general and more technical enquiry. I do try to say summarily what I think religion must be if it is to be religion at all, and I criticize what seem to me departures from its principles. But, as is perhaps inevitable at the present time, I find myself concerned most of all with the reasons put forward for accepting religious beliefs, with the difficulties of such acceptance, and with the possibility of reconciling religious belief and scientific knowledge. Perhaps the difficulties have loomed larger and larger as I proceeded, but I see little hope for religion unless these are honestly faced. On the other hand, to discuss the grounds of religious belief is also, I hope, to throw light on the nature of religious experience and on the principles of religion itself—all these problems are so closely intertwined. Even if it is a rather fitful light, I should be fully content if I could bring out some principles which would be recognized by religious men as present in their experience, or as illuminating it in any way, or perhaps as helping to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, the sense from the nonsense which is so often taken up into religious beliefs and practices. I should also like to think that I might induce some of the indifferent to consider the possibility that religion may not be all nonsense, but may contain something precious without which life may be incomplete.

Even if we take a restricted view of what can be done in a philosophical study of religion, it is clear enough that we shall be hampered by not having a wide knowledge of religions, including primitive ones. If through lack of knowledge I have been blind, or even unjust, to the religions of the East, or indeed to any religion, I can only express my regrets; but every one must do his best with such material as he has. Nevertheless the philosophical search for principles is distinct from an attempt at scientific generalization, and it does not depend on wide and exact knowledge as do the discoveries of physics or the descriptions of natural history. A man might contribute something to the philosophy of art even if his knowledge were confined to the art of Europe. It is hard to see why this should not be true also of the philosophy of religion, so perhaps we need not altogether despair. I am content to put forward what I call principles as mere hypotheses to be judged and corrected and supplemented by each man according to his own experience; but it would not show modesty in an author if he were continually reminding his readers that he is not infallible.

Needless to say, I make assumptions about philosophical method which are questioned by many; but a defence of these would be highly technical, and they will have to be judged by the way they work out. As to religion, I am making the minimum assumption that in spite of the horrors and aberrations, the cruelties and absurdities, which have accompanied it, it has at least a serious claim to be regarded as one of the great authentic human experiences, like art or morality or love. If religion were nothing but an illusion and a sham, there could be no philosophy of it. The study of it would belong to abnormal psychology.

§ 7. Philosophy and religion

If at least some philosophers to-day are hostile to religion, it is hardly surprising that at least some religious men should be hostile to philosophy. There is something to be said for the contention that philosophy and religion are fundamentally opposed; The spirit of philosophy is a questioning and critical spirit, while that of religion is one of simple faith. Is it possible that a philosophical investigation will tend to dry up that faith, whatever it may be, in the heart of the philosopher and in those who are unwise enough to listen to his desiccated voice? Is there perhaps a principle of indeterminacy in the philosophy of religion, as there is in physics, so that—to adapt the picturesque language of Professor Eddington—when we turn the flashlight of our observation upon it, religion, like the electron, ‘will not go on doing what it was doing in the dark’. The same point was put more pharmacologically by Hobbes. ‘It is with the mysteries of our religion as with wholesome pills for the sick, which, swallowed whole, have the virtue to cure, but chewed are for the most part cast up again without effect’.

Some philosophers have been deeply religious even in their thinking, yet it can hardly be denied that what may be called the psychological atmosphere of religion is very different from that of philosophy (or even of theology). Within limits it may be true that to practise one is to unfit oneself for the other—any form of specialization is bound to circumscribe a man's capacity for other ways of life. The simple believer may be well advised not to bother his head about squabbles among the doctors, which seem more likely to disturb, than to facilitate, his devotions. And the philosopher may be wise to remind himself that he is in danger of getting so absorbed in his own thinking that he begins to forget what he is thinking about.

Nevertheless philosophy is only an attempt to understand; and once the questioning spirit is awake, as it certainly is in these days, it is impossible to fall back into dogmatic slumber. Religion cannot afford to claim exemption from philosophic enquiry. If it attempts to do so on the ground of its sanctity, it can only draw upon itself the suspicion that it is afraid to face the light. If it attempts to do so on the ground of its absurdity, as in some surprising modern developments, it can only open the flood-gates of folly. If there is such a thing as sound religion—and why should we be interested in any other?—it must be tough enough to support, and even to profit by, philosophical criticism. To some men, as to Socrates, it must always seem that an unexamined life—even an unexamined religious life—is not worth living. And whatever we may lose by our first attempts at dispassionate examination, it is always possible that as we come to understand anything better, we may also come to value it more.

In any case a philosopher has no choice: he cannot always swallow his religion whole. Whatever may be the clinical results, there are times when—in spite of Hobbes—he has got to chew it.

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