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RATIONALITY AND RELIGIOUS COMMITMENT

FAITH, REASON, AND THE SCIENTIFIC UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD

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By Robert Audi

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The Montréal Review, January 2012

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"Rationality and Religious Commitment" by Robert Audi (Oxford University Press, 2011)

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Why should there be yet another book in the philosophy of religion, and why should I in particular write one? Rationality and Religious Commitment has grown from a great deal of my work on both these topics. The Architecture of Reason (Oxford, 2001) proposes a comprehensive account of practical and theoretical rationality. Religious Commitment and Secular Reason (Cambridge, 2000) presents a theory of how religious commitment is related to political conduct and the ethics of citizenship. Years of work on these topics has convinced me that a great many people, including many philosophers, theologians, and students of religion, need a better understanding of rationality, of religious commitment, and-especially-of the relation between the two. This book sets out a multi-dimensional view of the nature of religious commitments, and it presents the core of a theory of rationality framed to help us evaluate them.

Rationality is not just a matter of normative acceptability for beliefs; and even for beliefs, rationality does not consist in simply having evidence sufficient to dispel all doubt. Rationality is a more permissive notion than many think. It is also highly comprehensive: it concerns not only intellect but also attitudes, values, motivation, emotions, and more. Religious commitment is determined not just by what we believe or even by that together with our actions. It is an overall stance in life, a matter of many connected elements: of faith, of intellect and will, of our relations to others, even of emotional, aesthetic, and sociopolitical aspects of our lives.

Anyone aware of how religion is viewed by the intelligentsia in the Western World will realize that many educated people-and certainly many philosophers-doubt whether far-reaching religious commitments are rational. Such doubt may be reinforced by arguments, for instance those aimed at showing that the evils of history make it at best unlikely that there exists a wholly good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God. But often the basis of the doubt is not mainly arguments, but chiefly a sense that religious belief in some way runs counter to the scientific habit of mind that should prevail in our formation and testing of worldviews.

This book addresses both sources of doubt. It distinguishes the existential problem of evil-the problem that almost anyone can acutely feel from seeing suffering and untimely death-and the intellectual problem of evil that bedevils philosophers and theologians. The existential problem is ineliminable for virtually anyone reflectively religious, but it is also mitigable on the basis of a rational religious commitment of a kind I argue is possible. The intellectual problem is a perennial challenge, and I have tried to bring to it resources that at least greatly reduce its power to undermine a rational faith. These include considerations drawn from my work bearing on divine knowledge and creativity, on agency and freedom, on the meaning of human relationships, and on the nature of intrinsic value.

Throughout the book, readers will find a contrast with many other writers in the philosophy of religion. It has been common in discussions in the philosophy of religion to decide the question of the rationality of a religious commitment by concentrating on the evidences for religious beliefs. Religious beliefs are important for appraising religious commitments, but I stress major dimensions of them, including behavioral, attitudinal, and emotional dimensions, whose rationality need not rest entirely on that of beliefs. An overall religious commitment is a commitment to act in certain ways as well as to accept a certain outlook on the world; and it requires doing certain deeds, cultivating or maintaining certain attitudes and emotions, and maintaining openness to responses from other people.

A further difference between my approach and most other approaches in the philosophy of religion concerns my conception of faith, introduced in Part II but figuring in many other parts of the book. I see faith as irreducible to belief, even where the object of faith is a proposition, such as that God loves us. There is propositional faith that entails believing the proposition toward which it is directed, but this is not the only kind of propositional faith. Other attitudes besides belief can carry the intellectual content of at least one's major religious commitments. Faith in God, moreover, or in any person, is not propositional. Acceptance and hope are two other attitudes I explore. These differ from belief-as does at least one kind of faith-in having less demanding conditions for their rationality. Here, then, the book does extensive work in two areas of the philosophy of religion addressed far less frequently than arguments for the existence of God. On the philosophy of mind side, it portrays the nature and range of attitudes central in the psychological make-up of religiously committed people; and in the area of religious epistemology, it explores the standards of evidence and justification appropriate to these different attitudes: faith of various kinds, acceptance of religious tenets, and hope regarding particular religious propositions or religious life as a whole.

A full-scale religious commitment affects life overall. It calls for a certain outlook on the world and for certain conduct, attitudes, and emotions. All these have important implications for every major dimension of life. With this in mind, I have cast the book as an exploration of the rationality of religious commitment from a life-choice perspective, not just a cognitive-choice perspective. How is the daily life of a religiously committed person different from that of a secular person of otherwise similar constitution? What kinds of ethical views are open to such theists? How might their aesthetic and emotional experiences complement their religious life? How can they balance their religious commitments with political activities appropriate to the kind of pluralistic world we live in? On the intellectual side, how can theists view the enormity of the evils in the world if they see it as under divine sovereignty? Questions also arise concerning ethics: Do moral standards depend on divine will, or is ethics in some way autonomous? Concerning science, an important question is how theists might reconcile their religious understanding of the universe with the cultivation of a scientific habit of mind of the kind appropriate to studying the natural world.

The book does not defend any particular religion or any associated theological position, such as a Calvinistic or Thomistic one. It is impossible to do justice to the notions of rationality and religious commitment in the wide-ranging way I attempt without abstracting from particular theologies and from the tenets peculiar to any single religion. But I have written with an awareness that too great a distance from any existing theology or religion must also be avoided if the ideas I develop are to enhance understanding of actual religions. Thus, all but a few parts of the book make two presuppositions commonly (though not universally) made in philosophy of religion and theology: that the religions in question are centered on a conception of God as, in nature, all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good, and, in relation to us, as sovereign in the universe and as caring about human beings.

In places, I cite the Bible as a paradigm of religious scripture, and I take Christian theology-understood very broadly—as a paradigm of theology. But I have tried to write in a way that renders the main points applicable to other scriptures, other theologies, and indeed theistic religions outside the Western religious tradition epitomized by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Many points in the book apply to non-theistic religions as well, but they are not directly addressed. Let me sketch a bit more of the content of the book.

Part I outlines the normative notions—especially those of rationality, justification, and reasonableness—that I regard as central for appraising the rationality of religious commitments. Part I, then, has two aims: to present (with refinements drawn from my recent work) part of my overall account of rationality and, secondly, to show how the account bears on religious commitment. The results of Part I provide more to work with in approaching the rationality of religious commitment than we would otherwise have. If, for instance, someone doubts whether such a commitment is intellectually respectable—and I believe there are many who doubt this or simply presuppose a negative answer—we can ask whether the question is one of rationality, of reasonableness, of justification, or of the possibility (or existence) of knowledge regarding one or another religious tenet or attitude. These notions are quite different from one another and go with different evidential standards.

Part II explores the dimensions of rational religious commitment. One important topic here is the nature of faith, and I describe many kinds of faith and explain how faith differs from belief on one side and mere hope on another. Faith is not merely cognitive but attitudinal and volitional, and it is crucial for religious life and not just for sustaining a metaphysical view of reality. Part II also considers interpersonal and institutional aspects of religious commitment. Beyond that, it explores the usually private, experiential dimension that religion has for many people—the dimension of religious experience. Religious commitment may be both supported and enriched by religious experience, and a chapter is devoted to the nature of such experience, its relation to perception of the natural world, and its evidential significance.

In Part III, I consider religious commitments in relation to matters of ethics and everyday activity, including not only our moral obligations but also our values and the aesthetic, communal, and sociopolitical aspects of our lives. This requires considering a divine command view of ethics. I argue that this view is not required even for theists of great piety; but given how natural the view is for many religious people, I propose a moderate (some would say liberal) version consistent with treating ethics as having the kind of autonomy—involving knowability by natural reason—that the Thomistic tradition has taken to belong to necessary truths, such those of logic. On this moderate divine command view, basic moral truths, like truths of logic and mathematics, can be seen as not above God, but within God.

Part IV aims at meeting two major challenges to the rationality of religious commitment. One is the problem of evil, the other the challenge of naturalism as a competing worldview.

My treatment of the problem of evil covers commonly discussed aspects of the issue but also reframes the problem. My approach is theocentric, as opposed to cosmocentric. I argue that the central question should be not the usual one asked or presupposed—Is the world good enough to have been created by God?—but rather this: Is creating the world good enough for God? The questions are connected, and the latter does not ignore the evils of history, including natural disasters. But the theocentric approach emphasizes divine experience, whose value cannot be ignored, as an element with a major place in dealing with the overall problem.

As to the challenge of naturalism—in outline the view that nature is all there is and the only basic truths are truths of nature—I detach that view from a scientific orientation toward the world. A scientific habit of mind—even the most rigorous practice of science in exploring the natural world—does not commit one to naturalism in that sense. Methodological naturalism, by contrast, as an empirical, experimental approach to scientific questions, is compatible with many kinds of religious commitments and is not at issue.

The fourth part of the book also has much discussion of the nature of persons, divine and human. It explores how personhood is related to embodiment and how, in a way that is scientifically plausible, we may take mental phenomena to have causal power of the kind that seems required for conceiving human action as explainable by appeal to beliefs, intentions, and other mental elements that account for its rationality. The progress of science, then, is seen as fully compatible with a considerable range of rational religious commitments.

Throughout the book, I seek to address these matters in a way that is sufficiently definite to bear on major religions but leaves open a number of options we should not foreclose. One option concerns the kind of faith—for instance, belief—entailing or not—that is most appropriate for a particular religious tenet or toward God or human beings. Indeed, I leave open whether a religious person might, in at least some instances, have only a kind of hope in matters where faith would be the more common religiously central attitude. Another option open to religiously committed people concerns the kind of ethics one might want to embrace, say a Kantian or a virtue ethics. And I leave open various conceptions of the divine nature, of the mind-body relation in human beings, and of the causal structure of the universe and its bearing on human freedom. For all of these alternatives and many others, I contend that rational religious commitment is possible. If the book succeeds in its main purposes, then the nature of rational religious commitment should be clearer, and that commitment itself should be less difficult to attain for those who seriously consider it and easier to respect for those who cannot themselves undertake it.

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Robert Audi is John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of many books, including Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character, The Architecture of Reason: The Structure and Substance of Rationality, Moral Value and Human Diversity, The Good in the Right:  A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value, Practical Reasoning and Ethical Decision, and Democratic Authority and the Separation of Church and State.

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