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Philosophy of Religion

The Elimination of Natural Theology

David E. White
St. John Fisher College

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ABSTRACT: The dispute between fideists and rationalists seems intractable since those who argue for faith alone claim that they are offended by the use of reason in religion. The advocates of reason claim that they are equally offended by the appeal to faith. This dispute may be resolved by showing that those who rely on faith may be seen as engaging in an experiment of living, so they can become part of a rational experiment without having to alter their practice; in contrast, those who use reason to justify religion can be seen as addressing a spiritual need. From an evangelical point of view, it would be wrong to disparage the mathematician’s use of the mathematical proof of God’s existence (such as Gödel’s). Wittgensteinian objections to natural theology can be met by showing that the use of reason in religion is distinct from the general kind of philosophical speculation to which Wittgenstein rightly objected. Those who claim that one must already have faith in order to seek understanding successfully can be answered by showing that their claim can be tested empirically only when there is a robust practice of natural theology among those who do and do not have a prior faith. There is reason for thinking religion should be subjected to a more rigorous scrutiny than used in secular matters.

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For the purposes of this paper, opinions on the right relationship between faith and reason may be organized as:

  1. pure fideism = enter into no discussion regarding the rationality of religion.
  2. ratiocinative fideism = avoid the practice of natural theology, but provide a rational defense of such avoidance.
  3. conditional rationalism=accept a rational scrutiny of religion but only under certain conditions
    1. Anselmian conditions=reason works properly only for those who have faith.
    2. Jamesian conditions=we have, with good reason, a right to believe more than is justified by the received canons of rationality
    3. Butlerian conditions = (i) for all practical purposes, it is sufficient to reply to objections to religion; it is not necessary to provide positive arguments. (ii) for all practical purposes, it is sufficient to provide probabilistic arguments, it is not necessary to provide demonstrative arguments.
  4. integrative rationalism = consider religion an integral part of the whole enterprise of rational inquiry and accept the following:

(A) All claims with religious content and all religiously motivated actions and practices are subject to the same kind of rational scrutiny and evaluation as any other claim or form of behavior i.e., the religious and the secular are at parity as far as the jurisdiction of reason is concerned. By contrast, pure fideists reject (A) without comment; ratiocinative fideists reject (A) but attempt to explain their rejection, and conditional rationalists refuse to accept (A) until the kind of rational scrutiny to which religion is to be subjected is spelled out.

The Controversy

Discovering the right relationship between faith and reason matters as much as finding the right religion matters, yet the conflict seems irresolvable. Rationalists and fideists can both claim legitimate descent in the history of religion, but the essence of one view seems categorically unacceptable to the other.

The rationalists ask only that the same methods as used in ordinary secular life be applied to religious questions. They see no reason to issue religion an exemption from having to pass muster. The rationalist cannot understand why the criterion of truth should be less rigorous with regard to religious questions, especially since believers claim religion is the most important aspect of life. The rationalist cannot understand why God would use such an awkward means of communicating the most important of information. The rationalist is likely to deny that reliance on faith either above or in opposition to reason is merely a private concern of believers. Being allowed to appeal to faith over or against reason tends to corrupt the mind and thus results in citizens who create problems for others. (Russell, 1967, p. 160 ff.) In a pluralistic society, claims based on faith have no role in public intercourse unless the believers are willing to grant that their religion carries no implications beyond private meditation, worship services and ceremonies that interfere with no one else. Such a complete marginalization of religion is theologically unacceptable and if acted on would render many religious claims meaningless. Rewarding, or even requiring, religion to stay within the bounds of reason is, by definition, best for all concerned, and so far as religion is true or even claims to be true, there is no reason for believers to fear reason or to seek to exempt themselves from its application.

Believers may claim they are not subject to secular standards of reason because they are citizens of a different "city," a "heavenly kingdom." The outline of the rational point of view on religion given above is sufficient to show why such a wide range of believers in so many different faiths not only find secularism objectionable and unfair to them but actually feel threatened by it. Since the logic of secularism supports the worst fears those who do not accept a rational review of religion, their opposing view is clearly understandable.

The rationalist views with abhorrence the suggestion that claims of immunity to public discussion, deliberation and decision procedures should hold sway in public policy, and the religious make an equivalent but opposite claim on behalf of dogmatism; they view with deep abhorrence the suggestion that their faith be subjected to such scrutiny by themselves or others. Both complain of persecution, and both are justified in doing so.

A Solution

Those who believe in integrative rationalism must, of course, accept the canons of reason. They must avoid any method that begs the question against anyone and, therefore, the burden is on them to develop the rational process in such a way that no one can object to it, regardless of what position they hold. That there are statable canons of reason is the stuff of manuals of logic and rhetoric and of treatises on the law of evidence. The integrative rationalist cannot impose any conditions on another since to do so is to confuse the role of advocate with the role of arbiter. The only way to show that a rule of reason is reasonable is to show that one's opponent does in fact accept it. Nevertheless, there is a way to bring even the pure fideist into the fold of reason, and if the pure fideist, the limiting case, can be subsumed, then so can all intermediate positions.

In his On Liberty, J. S. Mill proposed that people be allowed to live however they pleased as long as they did not harm anyone else. Except for the immature and those in custodial care, Mill extended this liberty even to those who appear to us to be irrational, and called their lives "experiments of living." (1895, ch.iii) The pure fideist may thus be considered as performing an experiment of living. The pure fideist cannot object to being considered an experiment of living since the pure fideist does not object to anything, but neither can the pure fideist refuse to participate in an experiment of living since all that is required of the pure fideists is that they practice their religion undisturbed, exactly what they claim to want. But neither can the integrative rationalist object to considering the fideists an experiment of living, since to conduct such an experiment is paradigmatically a rational procedure.

The ratiocinative fideists are difficult to argue with since they refuse to argue. The pure fideists have no case against the ratiocinative fideists since they do not claim to have a case for or against anyone. Since the ratiocinative fideists have offered a justification for their appeal to faith alone, they are left vulnerable to refutation by the rationalists. The rationalists, of whatever variety, cannot object if they are successful in refuting the ratiocinative fideist, and if the rationalists fail to refute the ratiocinative fideists, then those fideists too become a rival experiment of living. The integrative rationalists have only one possible objection to the conditional rationalists: that they have misunderstood the canons of reason. As long as the conditional rationalists are willing to negotiate, as the Jamesian and Butlerian varieties typically are, the second- order debate is subsumed under integrative reason. To the extent that the conditional rationalist is not willing to negotiate, as perhaps the Anselmian variety are not, they can be considered fideists at heart and become yet another experiment of living.

Objections to the Solution

Two objections to the solution proposed here merit serious consideration. One is that given by Wittgenstein and his followers such as Malcolm and Phillips, which maintains that the solution proposed is useless since it betrays a misunderstanding of the logic (or grammar) of religious discourse, and the other is the pastoral or spiritual objection, which maintains that the above procedure does violence to the nature of religious faith.

The Wittgensteinian Objection

Even granting that Wittgenstein successfully challenged the notion of a philosophical explanation or a philosophical justification (Malcolm, 1994, ch. 5), he still seems to have erred in considering natural theology an objectionable form of rationalization. (Wittgenstein, 1980, pp. 28-29, 32) Wittgenstein's point may be made with the following example. Seeing an unusual display in a shop, we ask the explanation or the justification for the display. We may ask for a commercial, legal, aesthetic, or moral explanation or justification as well as a religious or even a personal one. The arguments given for the display may be narrowly drawn from one or a few of these varieties, or they may broadly draw on all or many other types, e.g., historical or psychoanalytic or superstitious, and so on. There is no need, however, to ask for a rational argument for the display. Of course, we want a rational argument, but that is only to say that we want an argument that makes sense, and argument that is relevant to the concerns that motivated the question in the first place. To say that an argument is irrational is to say in a vague way that the argument is unsatisfactory for the purposes we had in mind. Depending on what we care about and why we care, some arguments may be appropriate and others not. If the display in the shop employs an open name, we might ask for the justification of that display in terms of public safety, or we might ask for a legal justification. Going on about the aesthetic and commercial benefits of the display might be inappropriate, not because such arguments are unsound, but because they do not address our concerns. Some types of appeals, in this case, e.g., the appeal to history, may be deemed relevant by some and irrelevant by others. No matter how complex and perhaps tedious the dispute becomes, there is never going to be a need to demand a "rational" argument. To call an argument "irrational" is to rule it out as playing any role in the dispute. Attempts to elevate the discussion to the realm of pure reason are what the Wittgensteinians object to.

Clearly Wittgenstein did not object to all justifications and explanations, he objected only to what he called "philosophical," arguments, i.e., those that appeal to pure reason alone. Whatever kind of argument I do want from the shopkeeper, and even if I am unsure what will do, the one thing I do not want is a philosophical argument for the flame in the display. Natural theologians need not appeal to pure reason. They may say to the skeptic, "You really ought to pay attention to and take seriously claims derived from personal religious experience or claims based on the revelation delivered to a particular religious community," and their justification may be that they are only asking the skeptic to consider what the skeptic would accept as good evidence if it were not being presented in support of a religious claim.

Similar remarks may be made with regard to salvation. We do not need to provide a soteriological theory in order to describe what salvation is and what its implications are. Both Wittgenstein and a traditional natural theologian such as Bishop Butler would refuse to endorse research into why and how we were saved, and they would do so for the same reason: such inquires are useless. Where they differ is on how to demonstrate that futility. Butler appeals to the paucity of human knowledge and the historical insufficiency of human understanding (1736, pp. 185 ff.), whereas Wittgenstein appeals to the forms of life, the language games we play (Malcolm, 1994, pp. 84-88). A legitimate project in philosophy of religion would be to investigate who has uncovered the most basic reason for our inability. It may be that the problems Butler described explain the grammar that Wittgenstein described, or it may be that the logical limits that Wittgenstein explored were what Butler took to be empirical limits.

Wittgenstein's example of the resurrection also is telling (1980, p.33). The important point is to see that nothing about reasoning is mechanical. It is all a matter of whether one is willing to hold out and resist a new belief, give up and accept the consequences of accepting the new, or find a way to accept the new and not have to give up much of the old. Belief is not simply a matter of choice, but neither is there any program to tell one how to decide, or how much apparent inconsistency to live with.

The spiritual objection

In his article for Faith and Philosophy, Gordan Kaufman addresses some of these issues. He tries to show the philosophers why theologians are not concerned with the kind of ratiocination they seem to think is so important. Kaufman's contribution is especially helpful since he makes not direct appeal to the classical fideist line of Tertullian, Barth, Kierkegaard or Wittgenstein. Nor does Kaufman lay down any general rules about what methods should be used in theology. What Kaufman does do is to outline some of the issues that do concern theologians and to point out that the work of philosophers of religion seems irrelevant to those issues and that work. Kaufman, concerned with his own problems and those of his colleagues, fails to acknowledge that natural theology addresses the legitimate spiritual needs of others, i.e., the rationalists. Kaufman recognizes that people encounter spiritual problems because of the plurality of religions, the variety of symbols used to refer to God and various evils the responsibility for which can be attributed to "Christian civilization." These are certainly legitimate pastoral concerns, but there ought to be an equally legitimate pastoral concern for those who refuse to corrupt or suspend their rational faculties in the service of religion. Kaufman writes as one concerned with public transportation who sees all concern with private motor cars as mere tinkering with antiques. He does not consider that what appears to him to be a quaint enterprise may actually be an attempt to invent cleaner and more efficient means of personal transportation. To refuse to conduct theology by the same canons of reason as are appealed to in secular research is to relegate religion to the museum of the prescientific, whereas to accept those standards of clarity and rigor is to acknowledge the standing that theology ought to have among the intellectual disciplines. What is called here "integrative rationalism" is not the importation of inappropriate standards into theology, nor is it an attempt to make theology appear as merely another of the special sciences. From an evangelical point of view, it is an attempt to confront the unbeliever with the full implications of his or her unbelief. The atheist mathematician may be shown, for example, Kurt Godel's version of the ontological proof of God's existence (Wang, 1996, p. 195). On what grounds can the mathematician refuse to take this (alleged) proof seriously? None whatever, as a mathematician. But, according to some theologians, the mathematician might even accept Godel's proof and still not acknowledge any spiritual implications. But this is absurd. The same might be said of George Boole's formalization of Clarke's version of the cosmological argument (Boole, 1916, ch. xiii). This argument also applies to remarks by John Macquarrie, who is other wise more sympathetic to integrative rationalism than Kaufman is (1966, p. 41).

Faith seeking understanding

Anselmian rationalists may raise another objection to integrative rationalism. Anselm himself went as far as anyone is likely to go in trying to rationalize Christian doctrine, but he wanted to discount the rational competency of those who were not believers (1965, ch. i). In reply we may argue that Christians, or anyone, can claim that the unregenerate intellect cannot understand, cannot reason properly, but that very claim is an hypothesis to betested like any other. If the Christians prevail in the face of reason, they can attribute success to divine illumination, but what they cannot do is to claim a Popperian conspiracy and argue that since the truth cannot lose in a fair fight and since they are the truth, it must not have been a fair fight since they lost. (Popper, 1968, p. 8)

A Concluding Gambit

Richard Swinburne has suggested that theology must return to the high standard of Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Berkeley, Butler and Paley. (1993, p. 7) The case can be made, however, that there are good spiritual reasons for theology accepting an even higher standard of proof than is required in secular matters, a position that seems without historical precedent. These reasons include: (1) All religious thought is open to the danger of self-deception, the risk of an inadvertent lowering of standards of rational acceptance. This risk is especially great when one is defending an orthodox version of doctrines one originally acquired by the accident of one's birth. (2) The right to believe, assuming it has been acquired, is like the right to vote. On the one hand it needs to be jealously protected no matter how one votes, but on the other, it is useless unless one has a method of determining who or what to vote for. (3) The conviction that one has received differential grace, a cosmic benefit that is denied to others, is especially suspect and should, logically, be treated with the greatest caution. (4) Exclusive reliance on success in an idiosyncratic experiment of living may step over the line between courage and foolhardiness. (5) A religion that fails to win respect from those outside the faith must invest more and more resources in subsidizing itself, materially and spiritually. (6) Any compromise of the highest intellectual standards is a betrayal of believers who accept such standards.

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Anselm of Canterbury. Proslogion, ed. M.J. Charlesworth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Boole, George. An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, vol. 11. Chicago: Open Court, 1916.

Butler, Joseph. The Analogy of Religion. London: Knapton, 1736

James, William. The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Longman's, 1917

Kaufman, Gordon D. "Evidentialism: A Theologian' Response," Faith and Philosophy 6 (1989) 35-46

Macquarrie, John. Principles of Christian Theology. New York: Charles Scribner's,1966.

Malcolm, Norman. Wittgenstein: A Religious Point of View? Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London: Longmans, 1859.

Popper, Karl R. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. New York: Harper & Row, 1968

Russell, Bertrand. "Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?" reprinted in Why I am Not a Christian. London: Unwin, 1967.

Swinburne, Richard. The Coherence of Theism, revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Tessin, Timothy, and Mario von der Ruhr, eds. Philosophy and the Grammar of Religious Belief. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Wang, Hao. Reflections on Kurt Godel. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1987.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Vermischte Bemerkungen, translated by Peter Winch in Culture and Value, second edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980).

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