Monthly Archives: April 2012

What is religion?

By our Guest Blogger: Mark Vernon. Author of The Big Questions: God

One day, a philosopher was asked to define religion. His answer needed to be definitive, precise – the kind of formula that would satisfy lawyers, or the atheists of his day who sought a clear target at which to aim their critique.

The philosopher was a wise soul and so immediately begged for some time. That period elapsed, and he appeared again. But he didn’t have an answer. Instead, he asked for more time. That period passed too, and he asked for more. And then more. And more.

The people became irritated, annoyed. “If you can’t find an answer,” they muttered impatiently, “then why keep on asking?” “But don’t you see?” he replied, and wandered off alone.

This parable, or one a bit like it, is told by the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. It’s one way of saying that doubt is at the heart of the phenomenon we call religion, not certainty.

That is reflected in the New Testament, because if you look, it turns out that the Bible has remarkably little to say about the supposed horrors of doubt, at least doubt in the sense meant mostly today, as in “I doubt x is true”.

Instead, the Greek words typically translated as doubt mean “being of two minds” or “disputing so as to cause division.” This makes a huge difference to the way the texts are read, I suspect.

For example, when in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus talks about moving mountains if you do “not doubt in your heart”, it is tempting to read it today as a kind of magic trick – as if it’s saying believe God exists, or that Jesus is God, and the earth will move for you, supernaturally. But the text really means you can achieve extraordinary things if you truly set your heart to it.

Or take James, the letter with one of the most sustained riffs apparently against doubt, part of which reads “you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea.” That sounds today like being able to assert every sub-clause of the creed with full confidence, no questions. Except again it is really a comment on trusting in God and sticking to your guns, keeping faith with your deep commitments.

The broad point seems to be that the New Testament’s reflections on religion see it as a way of life, not a set of truth statements. And holding to a way of life will inevitably involve doubts, uncertainties, unknowing – actually, needs to, in a sense. Think of what it’s like to love someone or to write a book or to devote your life to the study of the dark matter that fills the universe. Doubts may be an everyday occurrence, and the capacity to live with feeling unsure, crucial to success: personal growth, creativity, discovery depend upon it.

Faith too, then, is close to doubt because you keep faith, no less. It is not about confidently asserting metaphysical propositions but rather developing the capacity to trust yourself, others, God.

To put it another way, the religious way of life is about stepping into life, not stepping back from it, as if you might gain a “view from nowhere”, a definitive, precise answer. Doubt, not knowing and uncertainty are not a kind of failure, as much of the debate about religion these days implies. Rather, it is part and parcel to choosing life in all its fullness and becoming wise.

Martin Luther is one figure not generally known for his doubts. “Here I stand, I can do no other,” he reportedly declared. And yet, he knew this too: “Knowledge and doubt are inseparable to man. The sole alternative to knowledge-with-doubt is no knowledge at all.”




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Believers should be glad that proofs for God don’t work

By our Guest Blogger: Mark Vernon. The Big Questions: God

The so-called proofs for the existence of God are widely thought to fail.

Philosophers point out that there is no need for an ‘unmoved mover’, to use Aristotle’s phrase, because modern physics teaches us that motion is natural to matter, not stasis. Alternatively, the ontological argument comes to look like a conjuring trick with words: it is no more the case that God needs to exist because God’s imagined greatness demands it, than it is the case that a perfect island needs to exist because it is described as perfect. Both might be fantasy.

As for the arguments from design – the notion that the apparent purpose, fit and beauty of the natural world requires a designer – that can be dismissed in a single word: evolution. Darwinian processes of natural selection produce the illusion of design by a combination of random change and environmental filtering, at least when it comes to the living world.

So far, so familiar for students of the philosophy of religion. What is not widely observed, though, is that the failure of the ‘proofs’ is only what theists should expect. They might even be glad of it. There are a number of reasons why proofs that worked would actually lessen, not increase, the appeal of religious belief.

For one thing, a deity that could be proven to exist would, by implication, be a deity that was comprehensible to the human mind. To be able successfully to reason the existence of a god would necessitate being able to understand the reasons for the existence of that god.

But religious traditions have a word for such theological confidence. It is idolatry. The only gods that human beings can fully grasp are gods that human beings have made in their own image. Hence, idolatry is the worse sin in the Bible, second only to usury. Believers should expect purported proofs to fail.

Put it this way. There is a reason that God is called ‘immortal’, because whatever God might be – and who knows – God is certainly not mortal. Similarly, God is said to be ‘invisible’: whatever God might be, God is not visible. This kind of God-talk says nothing about God’s actual attributes, and so nothing that might contribute to a proof. Rather it focuses on how God seems from the perspective of finite and visible mortals. And how could it be otherwise?

A similar point can be expressed in more existential terms. If God was obvious to the human mind, then would not the human experience of God be tyrannical? Direct experience of, say, divine omnipotence – should it turn out that God were all-powerful, whatever that might mean – would obliterate human freedom. To feel the full force of divine omniscience – again, supposing for the sake of argument there is such a quality – would belittle human striving.

This must be the reason that the Bible talks about the impossibility of being able to see God and live, or that it is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom, not the comprehension of the Lord.

A different reason why it is important that the proofs fail is that it makes clear that the human quest for the divine is not a purely rational pursuit. If that were the case, if God could be discovered by logic, then the spiritual quest would be a demoralising, dispiriting affair. What role then for the emotions, for the arts, for the darkness, for the revelatory? If reason could tell all, then reason would rule all, and that would surely leave us less than human.

In truth, whether or not you believe in God is primarily a matter of the heart, not the head – the heart understood metaphorically as the place where we humans attempt to integrate the panoply of thought, intuition, experience, evidence. Reason will have a star role in the process of discernment. But reason of itself needs something else to go on.

What then do the ‘proofs’ actually achieve? Thomas Aquinas summed it up well. All that we have proven, he says, is that the fundamental nature of divinity is mystery. Religious belief, then, is the attempt to cultivate a relationship with that mystery. That is the gift of the proofs’ failure.


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Dialectic is a form of enquiry that makes use of question-and-answer, or objections-and-replies as its basic structure. In other words it is an enquiring conversation, reflective and critical. The word ‘conversation’ pinpoints the essential character of dialectic: there is more than one speaker.

Sophists and Socrates

Dialectic as the standard method of philosophical enquiry probably began with Socrates. He took exception to the methods of the Sophists (from which the word ‘sophisticated’ originates) for engaging in argument. They were a professional group of philosophers that took a fee to teach the skills of rhetoric; the art of the public speaker. What Socrates took exception to was their indifference to truth; they were concerned only with teaching how to win an argument not with which argument was true. Two ancient Geek words capture the distinction between the approach of the Sophists and Socrates respectively: eristic and dialectic. The first of these is ‘combative’ and the second ‘collaborative’.

Plato’s Dialogues

In fact, we only know about Socrates from Plato’s written works in which he depicts the character of Socrates, and most of his philosophical works were written in dialogue form, detailing discussions between Socrates and various other characters from Athens. Although they represent an internal dialogue in the head of Plato, his dialogues are, prima facie, an externalisation of the enquiry process; that is, something going on outside of the heads of the interlocutors and between the different speakers.

Classroom Philosophy and Magnets

When doing philosophy in the classroom it is the Socratic model that we begin with because it is very difficult to get children to engage in a philosophical discussion or thought process on their own. Put a group of children together and they naturally engage in dialectic, pushing the enquiry into directions it could never go with just one child. We use the external process of dialectic to magnetise children into philosophical enquiry. And it works.

Descartes swallowed Plato!

Now take a look at Descartes’ Meditations. This is not written in dialogue form, there is only one speaker addressing the reader who cannot object or question; it looks very different to Plato. But take a closer look and you will see that it is not quite as simple as this. The dialogue is taking place but implicitly. Descartes seems to have swallowed Plato and internalised the process of dialectic. If you read the first Meditiation carefully you will notice that there are different speakers but given only one voice: the narrator’s. Descartes makes a point in on sentence and then raises an objection in the next; he then responds to the objection in the next sentence and the enquiry continues in this fashion. This is what has sometimes been called the dialogue in one voice.

The classroom in one voice

One of the overall aims of the philosophy project in primary school is to internalise the dialectic process so that any one child can learn to question and challenge their own thoughts and assumptions as if they were someone else. This has prodigious implications for self evaluation, moral development and critical thinking. If this is achieved then the child has learned to engage in second-order thinking.

Why philosophy should be taught in primary school

As you can imagine, a process like this, i.e. the internalisation of the dialectic process, needs time to be properly assimilated by a student, and it is best if the habit is formed at an early stage of a child’s development so that it is more easily naturalised (think of language learning). Because of the obvious difficulties of trying to confer this kind of habit to teenagers, it is therefore best to do this before adolescence, so, learning dialectic is best done when in primary school.

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by | April 20, 2012 · 8:10 am

First Guest Blogger

On April 23rd Mark Vernon will start a blog for us based on his forthcoming book: The Big Questions: God (Quercus, April 2012). This blog will examine a number of subjects such as whether one can be spiritual but not religious, and the ABC of religious literacy.

Mark is a former Anglican priest and is now a journalist, author and broadcaster. His books cover subjects from friendship and belief, to wellbeing and meaning, and he writes regularly for the Guardian and the Evening Standard.

The Big Questions: God

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