(... continued from part 1...)
Other issues in the Philosophy of Religion
An interesting current in the philosophy of religion concerns the philosopher Wittgenstein and how some of his remarks and ideas might apply to religion. Later in his life he suggested a conception of meaning via "language games", according to which the meaning of a term is decided by the use to which we put it within a given context. The word takes its meaning from this and so we have to be careful to appreciate which "game" we are playing when using a particular term. He wrote that:
Suppose, then, that we ask the question "does God exist?" The answer we give depends which game we are playing and what the terms mean within them. Similarly, if we ask, "was Jesus God?" we would get a different answer from Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as others. Even non-theists sometimes mean different things by the term "God" and we need to understand how it is being employed before we can make sense of the question. Likewise, if we say, "where is the evidence for God?" we have to remember that not everyone means the same thing by "evidence" or evaluates the same "facts" in an identical fashion.
Philosophers taking a Wittgensteinian perspective argue that asking for justification of a religious belief can only be done from within the language game, since each game has its own standards for deciding what we can or cannot say, as well as what is meaningful or rational. It would be a mistake to apply the methods of the natural sciences to a religious proposition, then. In opposition, many people feel that religious claims do say something about the universe, irrespective of what language game we are playing. That would suggest that the question "Is there a God?" should be answered "yes" or "no" (or possibly "don't know" or "I'll tell you next week"), as well as understood to be making a claim about the universe, much like "there is a limit to how much of Hugo I can take"; and hence not avoided by saying that it means different things to different people.
According to Jim Morrison, "you cannot petition the Lord with prayer." Nevertheless, many people do. Some pray for good health for themselves or others, or for world peace, or perhaps for the strength to cope with some particular adversity. However, the traditional understanding of prayer gives rise to several philosophical problems.
Some claim that prayer requires a miracle on each occasion that something is prayed for, but that is not obvious. We discussed above the idea that miracles are impossible; nevertheless, many of the things people pray for do not require a large-scale intervention in the laws of nature (if we suppose there are any). A second concern is that if God already knows what we might pray for, as well as whether He will or will not bring it about, then what is the point of prayer? One way responses to this difficulty have gone is to say that God is outside of time. In that case, it makes no sense to say that He has determined a course of action before the prayer. A counter to this is to ask how God can have an effect within time if He is outside of it, to which a rejoinder could be to simply ask why not?
Perhaps the most serious objection to prayer, though, is to wonder why we should pray at all to a God who is supposed to be benevolent? If God is good, as well as all-powerful, why would he create a world that is deficient in goodness to such an extent that people have to pray that it be made better? We can see that this objection is related to the problem of evil: if the prayer could make the world worse then He would not grant it; if it would make it better then why was His creation deficient? A possibility that has been suggested is that prayer bridges the distance between us and God, achieving something that even an all-powerful God could not otherwise manage: the good that comes from personal relationships with His creations.
The Plurality of Religions
It appears to be an empirical fact that there are many different religions. Indeed, not just separate religions, like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but distinctions even within these such that two Christians, say, may disagree about many aspects of their faith. This plurality of belief leads to a problem: which of the forms of religious belief is the correct one?
This difficulty is an important one. If Catholicism in its current form is true, for example, then every other belief, past and present, would seem to be straightforwardly wrong, whether wholly or in part. Nevertheless, most religions make their own truth-claims and no more than one of them can be correct in so doing (or so we would usually say, with the alternatives and what truth means considered in our tenth discussion). In general, people have a whole host of religious experiences that differ and diverge widely; can these possibly be the basis for believing that any of them actually gets at reality?
One answer to this question is to say that it is rational to trust our experience of the world except for where we have reason not to, and that religious experience comes under this rubric like anything else. Thus, if we happen to have experiences that are explained by supposing Christianity to be true, then it is reasonable to suppose that it is and act accordingly. However, by exactly the same argument it would be reasonable for others to suppose that conflicting religious beliefs are also true if that is what their experience enjoins upon them. This is a severe problem for the idea that a given religion can be considered properly basic, or that it is rational to hold particular religious beliefs.
To respond that it is reasonable to stick with the religious beliefs we have because they form a guide to the world and can be expected to continue to do so is undermined by the fact that it would follow that religious experience for almost everyone else (that is, anyone not sharing our religious perspective) gives rise to false beliefs. We would start by insisting that it is reasonable to trust our experiences, and hence our religious experiences, too, and finish by saying that actually we should only trust those that fit our religious perspective and distrust those that do not. To take an example, it would be reasonable to be a Christian because our experience can be characterised that way, but we only know that such experiences are to be trusted because they can be called Christian and not something else—those other characterisations that are not to be trusted. That this strange situation arises is indicative of how troublesome this problem provided by plurality is.
Several thinkers have, over the years, provided a rejoinder to this difficulty in various forms, each having a similar structure. According to this, there is only one true religion after all but many circumstances combine to give the appearance of plurality. There is an esoteric (or "hidden") core to religions that is ultimately the same, but the exoteric (or "outer") forms differ because cultural concepts, practices and other factors mean that each of us interprets this reality in his or her own way, sometimes incompatibly so, even though the reality itself is actually the same. In this case, then, the conflict due to pluralism does not come about because each form of religious belief is just a different way of seeing the same thing.
To conclude this discussion, we can see that why people believe is often as interesting as what they believe. Although disagreements on religious issues continue to feature significantly in contemporary politics and society, perhaps a philosophical approach has some value after all?
Dialogue the Twelfth
The Scene: Trystyn, Steven and Anna are walking to the university campus to hear a talk entitled "Is rugby more important than God?" A vocal minority is protesting the event and our intrepid philosophical threesome is accosted by a serious-looking individual in a habit who seems to be observing the protest but playing no part in it
Steven: Here we go...
Brother Peter: Hail, friends. Are you going to listen to the talk in yonder building?
Trystyn: We were considering it.
Brother Peter: Do you think questions of religion are best tackled in this fashion? Look at the protest it's drawn.
Steven: It's an interesting proposition. I understand the same guy has already proved rugby to be more important than sex.
Anna: Sadly that's far too easy to believe. You men are too long on rhetoric and not...
Brother Peter: (Cutting her off...) If I may... You're rather missing the point. This talk mocks beliefs that people hold to be very important. You can see that lots of local folk have taken offence to it. Why should our Lord be subject to ridicule in this way?
Steven: Well, shouldn't we hear what he has to say first?
Brother Peter: Perhaps. Do you believe in God, friend?
Brother Peter: Do you mean that you just don't believe or that you've determined there is no God?
Steven: I don't believe, but I don't say it's impossible. In any case, how come you're here? Are you protesting, too?
Brother Peter: No; I'm just watching. I thought it might lead to a chance to discuss religious ideas. You can see from my garb that I rather make a hobby of it.
Anna: How is it that you came to believe?
Brother Peter: That's an interesting question. For me, personally, it isn't because of any one specific thing I can point to. I've read all the arguments for and against God, of course, and disputed them with others until I'm blue in the face. Still, you must understand that belief is something you come to, gradually as it were but then all of a sudden, as though it makes sense of everything else.
Steven: What about all that's wrong in the world? Why does God let bad things happen—earthquakes that kill thousands, diseases, wars and famines that kill millions? Why does he let innocent children or animals be murdered? For what?
Brother Peter: I appreciate what you're saying, friend, but that would be to misunderstand. I don't believe in denial of these things, but in spite of and because of them; because I seek to make sense of them and fathom whether the world can ultimately be a just and good one, even though we seem to make such a mess of it each day and even though it often seems so far away from how I feel it could be. Do you see how these things can lead to a person seeing the world in a different way?
Trystyn: I can.
Anna: Don't you take it all a bit too seriously if you worry about a talk like this, though? I mean, surely God exists of not irrespective of whether some harmless fun is taken seriously or not?
Brother Peter: Of course I take your point, and it may seem a triviality. Even so, I feel as though I would be helping others in showing them what I have found in the way I now see the world.
Steven: Aren't you presuming to tell others what to think? What business of yours is it whether people turn up here tonight or not?
Brother Peter: No—that is to miss the point entirely. Do you see the dilemma someone like me is placed in? I feel as though I've caught a glimpse of a profound truth that seems as though it would make the lives of others incalculably richer. At the same time, I want to respect their decisions and I hope that they can come to a similar realisation on their own. That leaves me trapped between a respect for your privacy and right to do as you choose, within reason—rights I very much accept as a member of society—and a desire to see everyone get the most they can out of this life, which—for me—includes helping them to understand God.
Anna: Can we understand God? I seem to remember reading about uncertainty in this area.
Steven: (Indicating Trystyn...) Probably heard it from him, I'll bet.
Brother Peter: I was too quick there, friend, and you are quite right to pick me up for it. Insofar as I can know or be certain of anything, I feel that God exists. This belief is basic to me, and to my experience of the world. Even though I appreciate that there are problems with my understanding, and that any intellectual arguments I may call upon can fail to convince you, nevertheless my belief is somehow more than the sum of these parts that we might say make it up. (He pauses.) I guess it's hard to explain.
Trystyn: Isn't that the point? If you could explain it, I rather suspect it would fall short.
Brother Peter: (He is smiling.) I think you know exactly what I mean, friend.
Steven: Shall we go and see this guy talk or are you stopping here, Trystyn?
Anna: (To Brother Peter...) Would you mind?
Brother Peter: Of course not. Perhaps I'll speak to you about it afterwards and go and see it myself. I just hope you think about what we've discussed, as I shall think about you. I hope we can learn from one another.