I recently wrote a critique of philosopher Philip Goff’s TLS article on “religious fictionalism”, his idea that all of us, including atheists, might benefit from becoming religious fictionalists, embracing a practice that Goff describes as follows:
Religious fictionalists hold that the contentious claims of religion, such as “God exists” or “Jesus rose from the dead” are all, strictly speaking, false. They nonetheless think that religious discourse, as part of the practice in which such discourse is embedded, has a pragmatic value that justifies its use. To put it simply: God is a useful fiction.
Goff didn’t just say that we should forgather in lovely churchlike buildings and commune in a non-believing way, but we should also engage in religious activities like prayer (though he didn’t say to whom we should pray):
While many atheists will no doubt see the benefit of shared traditions, they may find it hard to see the point of prayer and worship. In response, the fictionalist will point out that we are not cold-blooded creatures of reason motivated purely by an accurate understanding of the world around us. Moral character is cultivated and sustained, at least in part, through emotional engagement with fictional scenarios. For the fictionalist, immersion in the religious ritual is akin to losing yourself in a book or a film, the only difference being that the effect is accentuated through our active and corporate participation in the act of worship.
He also argued that religious fictionalism was the mainstream trend in theology, with no literal belief in the truth statements of, say, Christianity, until the sixteenth century (here he relies on the ever-obscurantist Karen Armstrong).
Now, irked by my critique, Goff has responded on his own website Conscience and Consciousness; click on the article below:
Here Goff walks back his earlier claims, admitting that yes, fictionalism may not have been the dominant strain of even ancient theology, but that some theologians were semi-fictionalists. He then gives up that claim entirely and argues that his article was really about how adhering to religious fictionalism could make our society better. To wit:
The final move in [Jerry’s] post is to decisively reject the idea that fictionalism would or could be a good thing. Jerry says:
“Goff’s whole argument hinges on the fact that worshiping God and professing belief gives you a sense of community that is inaccessible by any other route.”
In fact, I didn’t say this and I don’t think it. The humanist Philip Kitcher, in his excellent book Life After Faith (which I reviewed for TLS, accessible here), agrees with me that there are many crucial social roles religion has played historically, such as binding the community together and promoting positive social action. However, after a careful discussion of what he calls ‘refined religion’ (something like what I call ‘semi-fictionalism) he ends up arguing that humanists should work to develop alternative structures and institutions that could play the same role. I think that’s a great idea and I honestly wish him well. But it’s not an either/or. The fact remains that secular humanism has not managed to produce institutions that bring ordinary people from all socioeconomic backgrounds together for weekly meetings, celebrating rites of passages, and marking the changes of the year. And the advantage of reinterpreting religion rather than starting again is that you get to keep the traditions, the beautiful buildings, and the structures and resources of a way of life stretching back thousands of years. I understand the objections to the beliefs of religion, but I find it hard to understand the concern if some people (such as myself) want to maintain the traditions whilst dispensing with some or all the beliefs.
Of course Goff said what he denies saying. As you can see above, he said this: “Moral character is cultivated and sustained, at least in part, through emotional engagement with fictional scenarios. For the fictionalist, immersion in the religious ritual is akin to losing yourself in a book or a film, the only difference being that the effect is accentuated through our active and corporate participation in the act of worship”. He’s arguing for professing belief and worshiping God, even if the beliefs you profess are fictions.
But let’s leave that quibbling aside. The question is whether gathering together in a group and participating in quasi-religious activities like praying and worshiping a God in which you don’t believe (after all, we all know God doesn’t exist, right?), is a good way to satisfy the human need for cohesion. Goff argues that “secular humanism has not managed to produce institutions that bring ordinary people from all socioeconomic backgrounds together for weekly meetings, celebrating rites of passages, and marking the changes of the year.”
Well first of all, do we really need weekly meetings of people? They don’t have them in Denmark, Sweden, or Germany, and yet these countries seem pretty sound. People have found other ways to cohere. As for celebrating rites of passage and marking changes of the year,” nonbelievers have found ways to do that, too. Is a secular wedding inferior to a religious one, or is the nonbelieving new couple somehow unsatisfied? And, of course, other rites of passage, like college graduation, don’t even involve or require gods. Does having a priest at a funeral, telling us that the deceased is with god, make that a more satisfying funeral?
But what about the religious buildings, the stained glass, the incense? Can’t we have those? Yes, of course; I bow to nobody in my admiration of the great cathedrals of Europe and the beautiful mosques of the Middle East. We can keep these as architectural monuments, or allow the faithful to maintain them, without having to use them as stone vessels to contain a bogus worship. These buildings are relics of a time when humanity in its infancy needed God, and needed these buildings to assure them that there was a God and an afterlife. But we can still admire them without signing on to the numinous feelings that brought them forth.
But numinous feelings are what Goff really wants to maintain, as he notes in another essay on his site, “Coming out as a liberal Christian“. Here Goff says that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural or the whole Jesus myth, and so on, but finds it hard to say what he really does believe in. Why does he consider himself a liberal Christian? His answer is this:
My positive creed is a little harder to state. I believe in what William James called ‘the More’; what Plato called ‘the Form of the Good’. That is to say, I believe that we are aware, in our experience of beauty and our deepest moral experiences, of something real, of great value, which goes beyond the reality which empirical science makes known to us. We are aware in these experiences of a certain depth and profundity to reality. I take religion to be a system of metaphor-involving, institutionalised practices, aimed at helping individuals and communities to live in greater awareness of this ineffable aspect of reality.
So it’s more than just an emotion, it’s a reality that eludes empirical science. (This connects with Goff’s “panpsychism,” which I mention below.) Well, yes, sometimes even atheists feel part of something bigger than themselves, but what’s bigger is the immensity and awesomeness of the cosmos: stuff that is empirical reality and can be understood by science. Perhaps we’re not yet at the stage where we can understand the physical basis of that awe, but I am not convinced that it’s because we apprehend that there’s Something Out There that is real but “ineffable.”
At the end of his response, Goff does some psychologizing, just as Chris Mooney used to do. He must have hit a nerve if I was so irritated, right?. Here’s what Goff said:
This brings me to the final question I would like here to consider: Why did my article irritate Jerry so much? Why would you want to shut down so hastily the possibility of something that has the potential to bind communities together and direct their energies to a common ethical goal? The only sense I can make of this is that he likes the great Science V Religion war to be black and white and is irked by the introduction of shades of grey. Ideologies, whether communism or scientism or religious fundamentalism, bring a comforting certainty that allows us to avoid the messy complexities of the real world. If only life were so simple.