Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy: Chapter 4

I realize my titles are unimaginative, but personally, I’d prefer to find every part of a series easily than to have witty titles.  I don’t think anyone will find my blog just because I use witty titles.  But anyways…

This week we finally starting getting to the good (read difficult) stuff.  Chapter 4 is “Religion, Faith, and Evidence” and marks a shift in focus from philosophy to religion.  I struggled with Kaufmann this week.  While I agreed with most of his critiques of belief, I struggled with what seems to be a significant inconsistency with the previous chapters.  Although he begins by pointing out that “in religion, practice, feeling, and belief are intertwined, and every definition that would see the essence of religion in just one of these three facets is too partial” (103), the bulk of his critique seems to focus on belief.  While he admits “all religions are concerned with truth” (104), he does not extend to religion the same grace he has previously extended to philosophy.  Instead, he transitions into serious critique with the statement that “the kind of truth we have discussed is a property of propositions” (104).  Previously he has pointed out that the failed “intellecualistic” definition of religion “defines religion as a kind of knowledge or identifies it with a body of propositions” (101), yet here he seems content to reduce religion to a set of propositions regarding which the primary action is “belief.”  Furthermore, this cripples the very pursuit of truth he valorizes in the previous chapter when he writes that “Philosophic propositions mean more than they say, and the reader who reverences the proposition is always in danger of missing its meaning. The philosophic reader recognizes the inadequacy of all propositions…” (70).  Admittedly, everything Kaufmann says is qualified–there is certainly a sense where propositions serve a valuable function, but his critique in this chapter seems as if he conceives religion chiefly as a question of belief in propositions which are self-explanatory and clear, quite in contrast to philosophical propositions which have the virtue of meaning “more than they say.”   Having explained philosophy as an inspiring pursuit of truth which can never be fully grasped in propositions or even in entire books, he seems to then focus on religion as a question of belief in propositions rather than a pursuit of truth.  On this I would strongly disagree–and I cannot not see how Kaufmann would not disagree with himself.

All this being said, I nonetheless appreciated what Kaufmann had to say in this chapter.  Although his critique was anemic and lacking in depth and dimension, he raises provocative questions for contemporary Christianity.  My thinking has coalesced around two ideas–evidence (or reason for belief) and the value of belief.

I am most familiar with Christianity, so much of my response will focus on it.  However, I would contend that the focus on belief and propositions becomes far less relevant in engagement with Eastern religions–which tend to conceive belief and truth and religion in different ways.  In short, they tend to (in my experience) focus strongly on right living–on practical concerns more than questions of belief.  Buddhism seems a primary exemplar of this (though not unanimously or singularly).

Regarding the value of belief, I see a strong tendency in contemporary, Western Christianity to focus on belief apart from lifestyle–thus there is good reason for Kaufmann to focus on this question.  I have especially appreciated Fernando Canale’s critique of this tendency in Secular Adventism? (which I mean to review soon).  He argues that since Luther (who built upon Augustine), belief (as cognitive assent) in God has been the central measure of salvation.   Admittedly, many Christians exhibit a somewhat more complex practice of religion–but the underlying narrative remains the same: we are saved by our belief in (assent to, agreement with) the proposition that Christ is our Saviour.  This developed from a Greek-Platonic dualism (via Augustine) which conceives reality as split between two worlds–a world of ideas (truth) and a world of matter.  The world of matter is only at best a shadow of the world of ideas and thus salvation is purely concerned with the world of ideas.  Thus belief is severed from action, from lifestyle, from practice–except in the pursuit of a mystical union, of a transcendence of this world of matter.  I reject this conception (and I will write more on that later).  I expect Kaufmann, following Nietzsche, would also reject this view of reality.

Truth must not be relegated to a domain separate from our own, only to be touched through some portion of ourselves which does not rightly belong to this world.  Instead, truth is a matter of living in this world, in our bodies.  However, Western culture and Western Christianity in particular are grounded in the two-world conception of reality.  Thus belief is of central importance and Kaufmann is right to focus on it; however, I think he too readily accepts a definition he does not actually agree with.  All too often, belief in Christianity (and by proxy, any religion) is figured as something apart from and even contrary to worldly concerns.  Unfortunately, this leaves Christianity speaking a language which is increasingly unintelligible in today world.

Beyond that, I appreciated Kaufmann’s analysis of the terrible reasons for belief many Christians give.  If Christianity is to remain viable, it has to be able to answer for itself in the world we inhabit.  This requires a depth of theological, philosophical and cultural understanding which is far too often lacking.  I found two of Kaufmann’s ideas about belief particularly interesting.

First, he separates religious propositions into historical, general and speculative.  He then critiques as follows: Historical propositions must answer to history and can be proven true or false.; general propositions must answer to reality and can be proven true or false;and speculative propositions are just that–speculative and cannot necessarily be proven true or false.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, this conceives religious propositions as truth claims of a fundamentally different nature than philosophical propositions which “mean more than they say.”  I would contend that each of these types of religious propositions points to a larger conception of reality and we lose much when we make the proposition the point.  This is not to say the question of evidence can be laid aside–indeed Christianity has often failed to adequately respond to relevant evidence–but that, in keeping with Kaufmann, we must first seek to understand a proposition before we can hope to evaluate it.  That understanding is all too often lacking in both Christians and critics of Christianity.

Second, I wish more Christians would read Kaufmann’s seven causes for belief.  One of the great plagues of Christianity (and probably all religions) is that our reasons for belief are all too often lacking.  In the absence of understanding–of clear thinking and of careful study–people are prone to fabricate and cling to reasons for belief which are incomprehensible and unintelligible to anyone with a different perspective.  Admittedly part of that lack of unintelligibility can be overcome by thoughtful conversation, but often much of it lingers because our reasons for belief are not clear.  Or perhaps I might expand it to say our reasons for what we do are not clear.  We are unable to answer for ourselves.  While this often speaks to the weakness of our understanding and practice of life, that is not always the case.  An inability to explain ourselves does not make us wrong, anymore than a well-reasoned argument necessarily makes us right.  There are a great many who might agree with Kaufmann without comprehending the depth of his argument–without being able to answer for themselves.  Atheists and agnostics are as prone to this as religious people.  That is part of why we need each other, and why we so desperately need careful, thoughtful conversation rather than violent assertions of our possession of “truth.”

Although I found Kaufmann’s analysis in this chapter lacking, I can see that it is laying a foundation for continued exploration.  We need more rigour in our thought and conversation.  We need to understand our beliefs and practices better–religious or otherwise.  I am curious to see where Kaufmann will go from here.  Next week: “The God.”

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