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Philosophy of Religion

Toward a Peaceable Mosaic of Worldviews and Religions: Incommensurability, Pluralism, and the Philosophy of Religion (1)

Ronald A. Kuipers
Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto

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ABSTRACT: I defend the uniqueness and irreducibility of religious forms of life from rationalistic criticisms. I argue that such a defense of religion affirms the fact of incommensurability between differing forms of life. Put differently, such a defense tacitly affirms ineradicable pluralism as well as cultural diversity. I contend that the defender of religion who argues from the incommensurability of this form of life must also give up all traces of "worldview exclusivism," the dogmatic claim to possess the one truth about the world. Finally, I argue that if we are to move into a future of peace, we must acknowledge that various forms of life are lived on a level playing field. That is, all forms have important contributions to make, and none have revelatory advantages over another. A critical discussion of differing forms of life will be concerned with cultural desirability of these forms.

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The Role of Philosophy in an Edifying Cultural Discussion of Religion

A rationalistic agenda has traditionally dominated discussions in the philosophy of religion. Most of the discussions in this field have focused on an assessment of the rational coherency of religious belief, where "belief" is understood to name the intellectual assent religious believers are alleged to give to the propositional formulations of natural theology and creedal dogma. "Belief" in this sense is no different from the belief the analytic philosopher gives to the conclusion of logical arguments based on empirically verifiable premises. According to this way of understanding belief, both religion and philosophy are seen as competing forms of method with the same goal—uncovering or apprehending the one truth of mind-independent reality.

Kai Nielsen is a well-known philosophical critic of religious belief who bases his criticism of religion on the aforementioned intellectualistic understanding of religious life. While he recognizes that there is more to religious life than intellectual assent to dogmatic creedal formulas, he maintains that ultimately religion stands or falls with the rational coherency of the concepts he alleges are at work in the language games of the major world religions. That is, while Nielsen acknowledges that there is a difference between "belief in" something and "belief that" something exists, he nonetheless insists that "‘belief-in’ is logically dependent on ‘belief-that.’" In the case of religious belief in God, Nielsen argues "there could be no believing in God without believing that God exists: that there is such a reality." Because of this logical dependence, Nielsen concludes that "if believing that God exists is a very problematic conception through the groundlessness of our believing or through the incoherence of our conception of God, then that problematicity transfers to our believing-in. If believing that God exists is incoherent ... then believing in God is also incoherent."(2)

Because Nielsen thinks that religion as a form of life stands or falls with the rational coherency of the concepts he claims operate within such a form of life, the crux of his argument against religion is devoted to arguing for the rational incoherence of religious belief, especially belief in the God of the three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He summarizes his argument, saying, ". . . the God of developed religions is claimed to be an infinite individual, omnipresent, yet still an individual, a bodiless person, who, though still a person, is transcendent to the world. . . . [S]uch a string of words makes no sense . . . . Such a conception of God is incoherent."(3) While many religious people do not recognize themselves in Nielsen’s description of what religious faith involves, he nonetheless insists that, in order for one to be properly religious, and not a closet secularist or atheist, one must "believe-that" the God described in the aforementioned traditionally theistic concept exists; one must give one’s intellectual assent to this conception of God. Religion as a form of life is logically dependent upon this intellectual assent, and so that form of life dissolves as soon as one comes to see that such belief is actually incoherent.

It is precisely this conceptualization of what religious commitment involves, however, that Nielsen’s critics claim is rationalistically overdetermined. Barry Allen says that "Nielsen’s atheism seems to be a variation on Enlightenment Platonism. . . . Nielsen allows that there may be more to faith than holding a system of propositions to be true, but he seems to think that whatever more a religious life is, it requires the submission of the intellect to an orthodoxy enforced as ultimate truth, and it is in the name of truth and unforced reason that he attacks it."(4) In defense of religious forms of life, and against Nielsen’s attacks upon religious orthodoxy, Hendrik Hart claims that "Nielsen can deal with Christian faith’s irrationality only if it has a common denominator with ideologies, metaphysics, or science in being a belief system." Hart denies that religion is essentially such a system of articulable propositional beliefs, insisting instead that it is a praxis, a specifically trust-oriented form of life. In opposition to intellectualistic understandings of religious faith, he insists that "religion is not also a set of practices, but primarily if not only a way of living."(5)

Hart and Nielsen present us with two radically different understandings of religious faith. The reasons each thinker has for insisting on their own particular understanding are instructive not only for philosophers of religion, but for anyone interested in assessing the normative role philosophy may legitimately play in cultural discourse—anyone, that is, interested in the way philosophy contributes to the education of humanity. When it comes to adjudicating the legitimacy of religion, in particular, Nielsen envisages a larger role for reason than does Hart.

Despite his many disavowals of rationalism, Nielsen insists on reducing religious faith to intellectual assent in order to set philosophy up as the judge of religion. In contrast, Hart insists on the irreducibility of religious faith to articulable propositions in order to defend the uniqueness of religion as a practical form of life from the withering glare of Enlightenment rationalism. Emphasizing the irreducibility and uniqueness of religion as a form of life, however, is also a tacit defense of incommensurability and pluralism, for, presumably, if one form of life is unique and irreducible, one should find many such forms throughout human society. Nielsen rejects this defense from incommensurability partly because for him such pluralism would not be a reasonable pluralism, and would be marked by closedness and ideological dogmatism. I will argue, however, that understanding religion as a unique and irreducible form of life is ultimately more helpful for an edifying discussion of religion, one that does not necessarily throw up a roadblock to the critical inquiry of particular religions either.

The major issue between these two understandings of religion is whether or not the only path to the adjudication of differing forms of life is through a rational critique of the propositional "creeds" or "fundamentals" which have been articulated within those forms of life. Defenders of the uniqueness and irreducibility of religious forms of life do not put the same stock in human reason here that Nielsen does.(6) For them, to submit religious life to the normative authority of reason means redescribing that life as disenchanted, secular, and naturalistic. Therefore, they insist on the uniqueness and irreducibility of religious forms of life, forms of life which are shaped by centuries of tradition, and which are defined just as much if not more by the kind of life they recommend than by the rationality of their creedal proclamations.

I agree that we should judge religion according to the cultural fruits of its practice, and not the alleged coherence or incoherence of its dogma. Religion will always fail the latter test, because religion is mainly the human historico-cultural response to life in relationship with the mysterious existential boundary conditions of human experience. Because religion is a way of coming into positive relationship with all that eludes and exceeds our rational comprehension, the language used to communicate the various sides of this form of life, including God-talk, will of necessity be metaphorical. But, as metaphor, such language does not lose touch with the world, rather, it helps us take up a particular orientation toward our life within it. It is on the plane of the cultural desirability of the particular life-orientation, not the rational coherency of articulated propositions, that religion should be adjudicated.

Judging all cultural worldviews, religious and secular, on this plane involves putting religious forms of life on a level playing field with secular ones. If we authentically eschew Enlightenment rationalism, we must admit that we are without recourse to a transcendent epistemological vantage point from which to judge differing forms of life. We can only discuss them from here below, by assessing the cultural fruits borne through the living out of these different forms of life. Reason can help us do this, but it may no longer lay claim to the role of superjudge.

Incommensurability, Pluralism, and the Philosophy of Religion

Defenders of religious forms of life who choose to insist on the incommensurability of such forms of life, are, at least implicitly, defenders of pluralism and cultural diversity. This defense of religion allows no room for the sort of exclusivism and epistemological hubris often associated with dogmatic religious faith. It provides no such metaphysical comfort. The arguments used to support the incommensurability of religious forms of life simultaneously question such Western epistemological arrogance. On a level playing field, no one group may claim revelatory advantages over others, although one might with effort attempt to communicate the way in which one’s chosen form of life uncovers aspects of the world which are not disclosed to another’s.

Nielsen, however, remains concerned that such an insistence on perspectival incommensurability will harmfully divide humanity and discourage moral solidarity. His main concern is to keep lines of communication and criticism open. Only, for him, such openness requires that all differing forms of life will, in some measure of generality, admit of and thus reduce to propositional articulation:

If . . . all of us are caught up in a particularistic perspectivism, [if] nothing non-question-begging can be said here by anyone, then, of course, if this is so, nothing can be said, on any side and for any form of life, and, if this is so, then we cannot even intelligibly deceive ourselves into believing that silence will yield truth, insight, or salvation.(7)

If differing forms of life really are incommensurable, argues Nielsen, then no arguments can be proffered in defense or in criticism of a particular form of life and everything boils down to blind, inarticulate trust. Yet, in critically discussing religious forms of life, are we really playing the sort of zero-sum game that Nielsen describes? Just because religious forms of life do not reduce to propositional articulation need not imply that nothing can be said about them, or that we cannot use language and reason to critically discuss them.

Still, questions remain. How are we to negotiate the fact of cultural and intellectual diversity in a world wracked by violence and divisive strife, a world in which the fact of diversity always threatens to devolve into the menacing specter of balkanization? How are we to protect perspectival diversity while at the same time encouraging human solidarity? What critical resources are at our disposal in order to negotiate amongst all the incommensurable diversity we find?

To start addressing these legitimate concerns, I would point out that there is another understanding of incommensurability in contemporary philosophical discourse that is somewhat more nuanced than Nielsen’s construal. Nielsen seems to follow Karl Popper, who once accused Thomas Kuhn of subscribing to a "myth of the framework," according to which "we are prisoners caught in the framework of our theories; our expectations; our past experiences; our language."(8) Nielsen seems to agree with this Popperian construal of incommensurability, with the idea that admitting the reality of irreducible perspectives serves effectively to hermetically seal everyone within a particular perspective and also to condemn human society to an uncritical, blind-trust form of silence.

But there are other ways of honoring the reality Kuhn meant to describe which do not subscribe to this "myth of the framework." As Richard Bernstein argues, honoring incommensurability need not condemn us to silence, but may instead duly respect the difficulty of negotiating and communicating between differing forms of life. Incommensurability for Bernstein (pace Kuhn) means only that we lack a "common measure," that we are without recourse to "free-floating standards of rationality detached from actual historical practices to which we can appeal in order to decide who is scientific, logical, and rational and who is not."(9) Without recourse to ahistorical rational standards (recourse that Nielsen also insists is not available) perspectival incommensurability is in some measure unavoidable.

Insisting upon the incommensurability of religious forms of life, then, is not the same thing as submitting the intellect to an irrational orthodoxy. As Bernstein points out, the reality of perspectival incommensurability is not some sort of intellectual death sentence, because, qua language using creatures, there will always be some overlap between the different paradigms that exist among us. This overlap makes cross-paradigmatic translation, conversation, communication, and criticism in some measure possible. To paraphrase Richard Rorty, one might say that alternative religions are not to be thought of on the model of alternative geometries. "Alternative geometries," he says, "are irreconcilable because they have axiomatic structures, and contradictory axioms. They are designed to be irreconcilable." Like alternative cultures, I maintain that alternative religions are not so designed, that is, they do not have axiomatic structures. "To think otherwise," Rorty urges, "is the Cartesian fallacy of seeing axioms where there are only shared habits, of viewing statements which summarize such practices as if they reported constraints enforcing such practices."(10)

Importantly, however, Bernstein and Rorty both insist that such linguistic overlap is not to be accounted for by the existence of "a single, universal framework of commensuration."(11) Nonetheless, pointing to the existence of this overlap does effectively deny the argument that an admission of perspectival incommensurability (Rorty might wish to use the word "particularity") commits one to the sort of (interpretive) scheme-(perceptual) content relativism Donald Davidson criticizes in his essay "On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme."(12) Yet while Davidson may have shown that incommensurability does not radically go all the way down (as it does in alternative geometries), this does not mean he has successfully argued that commensurability goes all the way up. To defend the incommensurability of religious forms of life is not to deny a measure of translatability or communicability from experiences in one form of life to those in another. Still, Bernstein’s Gadamerian treatment of the reality of incommensurability, along with Rorty’s pragmatic defense of the unavoidablity of a certain ethnocentrism, allows for a more sensitive, hermeneutic understanding of the salient and irreducible differences that do exist among various forms of life, differences that, despite the aforementioned overlap, are not fully translatable from one differing paradigm, language game, or form of life into another.(13)

It is important to avoid understanding cultural diversity in terms that insist on complete translatability between differing forms of life, on the one hand, or, failing that, utter silence and inability to critically discuss these various forms of life, on the other. We have to keep alive the tension between acknowledging commonality and irreducible diversity. As Bernstein argues,

the "truth" of the incommensurability thesis is not closure [being trapped in the prison-house of one’s interpretive framework] but openness. . . . [W]e can understand the ways in which there are incommensurable paradigms, forms of life, and traditions and . . . we can understand what is distinctive about them without imposing beliefs, categories, and classifications that are so well entrenched in our own language games that we fail to appreciate their limited perspective. Furthermore, in and through the process of subtle, multiple comparison and contrast, we not only come to understand the alien phenomenon that we are studying but better come to understand ourselves.(14)

If Bernstein is right about perspectival incommensurability, we may just be able to honor the irreducible differences that exist among the various forms of life in a pluralistic, global society, without being condemned to silence when we feel compelled to critically adjudicate them.

Hopefully, we are coming to a point in history where a pluralism of religions, ideologies, and worldviews may come to be seen as legitimate in its own right. Many people are starting to view the metaphysical desire for unification of this diversity of worldviews as an unhealthy desire, for such unification is only purchased at the price of one of the worldviews becoming hegemonic, which has historically been the case with Christianity, and is now the case with Liberalism, in the West at any rate. As Barry Allen argues, "No moral source honestly available to liberals and social democrats in these late modern times can sustain the universality and unconditional rationality inherited from Christianity and claimed by the Aufklärer for the modern goods of autonomy and benevolence."(15)

There always has been, and will most likely continue to be, a plurality of in-part incommensurable worldviews. What is unique in the modern situation is that such pluralism has come to be seen as a threat, and a presumed universal norm consciousness has been invoked to overcome it. One might describe this modern obsession with universality as "worldview exclusivism," the feeling that, despite the existence of differing forms of life, my form of life is the only true one, and to the extent that other forms of life differ from mine, they are false. In religious circles this conviction is known as fundamentalism or dogmatism. In secular circles, such a conviction is labeled "ideological."

The epistemological hubris evident in worldview exclusivism is, however, eroding. Many now see our world as far too complicated to be taken in and reduced to what is seen and experienced from one perspective. Incommensurability, worldview uniqueness and diversity, in short, pluralism, are coming to be seen as facts of life that should be acknowledged and maintained. With this acceptance of pluralism comes the recommendation that we drop the epistemological hubris shown by fundamentalistic groups (whether religious or secular). It is this hubris, and not the facts of incommensurability and pluralism themselves, that makes dialogue between adherents of differing forms of life almost impossible.

As this epistemological hubris erodes, however, we may enter an era marked by "worldview inclusivism," an age in which differing forms of life are no longer seen only as rival and competing (for the one truth), but rather one in which they may also be acknowledged for the ways in which their incommensurable differences can be complimentary and culturally beneficial. Of course such "worldview inclusivism" should not be unreflective or uncritical of the negative, harmful sides of these differing forms of life, but, to paraphrase Allen, one does not have to denounce the irrationality of a particular form of life in order to reject the politics of fundamentalism.

To summarize, I am arguing for the recognition that differing forms of life exist on a level playing field. This means we drop the epistemological hubris evident in worldview exclusivism. This also means that both traditional religious believers and Enlightenment rationalists should give up their claim to possess the one truth about the world. Insisting on the uniqueness and irreducibility of a particular worldview may save that worldview from reductionistic criticism, but the knife cuts both ways. Such an insistence also levels the playing field, and in fact changes the cultural legitimation game altogether. To put the point rather crassly, if we look to the ways in which particular forms of life encourage life-orientations that help heal the wounds of this world, then perhaps the truth will take care of itself. If criticism could be directed toward revealing how particular forms of life contribute to violence, degradation, and strife, instead of being directed toward the discovery of rational incoherence, then we may come to see that we still have critical resources to adjudicate among differing forms of life while simultaneously allowing a plurality of such forms of life—a peaceable mosaic of worldviews and religions—to continue and flourish.

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(1) Research for this essay was supported in part by a fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, whose support is gratefully acknowledged.

(2) Kai Nielsen, "God and the Crisis of Modernity," Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 23, 2 (1994): 147-48.

(3) Kai Nielsen Naturalism Without Foundations (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1996) 514-15.

(4) Barry Allen, "Atheism, relativism, Enlightenment and truth," Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 23,2 (1994): 170-171.

(5) Kai Nielsen and Hendrik Hart, Search for Community in a Withering Tradition: Conversations Between a Marxian Atheist and a Calvinian Christian (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990) 177-78.

(6) I recognize that Nielsen sees a normative role for rational argument that is somewhat more chastened than full-blown Enlightenment rationalism. He sees a normative role for rational argumentation in something he calls "Wide Reflective Equilibrium." I do not have the space to do justice to the nuances of Nielsen’s conception. See Naturalism Without Foundations, 65. When it comes to discussing religion, however, it is upon the rational coherency of alleged religious conceptions that Nielsen concentrates his attack, so it is not unfair to describe his position vis a vis religion as rationalistic, even if this does not square with his many metaphilosophical disavowals of Enlightenment rationalism.

(7) Kai Nielsen, "Hounding Heaven Again: Responses to C.G. Prado and A.W. Cragg," forthcoming.

(8) Karl Popper, "Normal Science and its Dangers," in Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970) 56.

(9) Richard Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988) 67.

(10) Richard Rorty, "Solidarity or Objectivity?" in Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth: Philosophical Papers Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 26

(11) Beyond Objectivism and Relativism 85. See also Rorty, "Solidarity or Objectivity" 25-26.

(12) In Inquiries Into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) 183-198.

(13) For an example of what I have in mind here, see Kenneth Liberman’s "Decentering the Self: Two Perspectives from Philosophical Anthropology" in The Question of the Other, eds. A.B. Dallery and C. Scott (Albany: SUNY, 1989), 133-34. In describing the differences that exist between European and Australian Aboriginal anthropologies, Liberman makes the following interesting epistemological point, one which flows from his experience of indwelling and translating between both anthropological paradigms: "I have my Aboriginal self, and I have my European self; but in both instances they seem to be provided for me by the competent system of interaction at work in Aboriginal and European societies. Deflecting my [European] self-orientation toward the collaborative purposes of the Aboriginal group did not require deliberate action or restraint on my part; rather, once I had mastered the Aboriginal language and discourse practices it was almost impossible for me to sustain anything other than the decentered self available to Aboriginal social actors." The point I here wish to emphasize is that the very process of learning a foreign language through an active indwelling and engaging of its cultural practices simultaneously constitutes an understanding of the meaning of those practices for the person involved. In Liberman’s case, he can relay this experience back to his European audience without thereby performing a translation that reduces the experience to one that is available to the participants of European cultural practices within the confines of European culture. That such access is precisely unavailable is what gives value to the effort to understand cultural differences in their uniqueness. Liberman emphasizes the very uniqueness and irreducibility of his Aboriginal experience when he describes how, upon reentry into European systems of social interaction, "these [European] interactional practices were [experienced as] originary to a similar degree, and they obliged me to exercise European selfhood." The point is that cross-cultural experience and all that such experience implies—for example, foreign language learning and the personal transformation that one may undergo in the context of a different social paradigm— all this is possible without denying the incommensurability that exists between the two systems of social interaction in the first place. Importantly, by learning the foreign culture, Liberman is in the unique position of intimately understanding that culture, and can therefore highlight salient differences that emerge between the culture he has indwelled and the one he has momentarily left behind. Only by immersing himself in both cultures—that is, only by forsaking the search for a neutral vantage point—is he able to stand in a place from which comparision and criticism can be made of both sets of cultural practices (but, of course, only of these particular cultural practices—Aboriginal and European). Human reason is in operation here all along the line, yet nowhere in the foundational sense insisted upon in Enlightenment metaphysics and epistemology.

(14) Beyond Objectivism and Relativism 91-92, my gloss in brackets.

(15) Barry Allen, "Atheism, relativism, Enlightenment and truth," 175.

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