Pragmatic Religion

Photo by René Molenkamp on Unsplash

[This essay is a response to this blog post: Our 19th century.]

Rorty discusses his claim that “Dewey is the better exponent of a properly pragmatist philosophy of religion”, in more detail in his essay “Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility and Romance”, in the book “Philosophy and Social Hope”:

So far I have been content to accept James’s own description of the religious hypothesis. But it is, I think, an unfortunate one. Just as I think James took the wrong tack, and partially betrayed his own pragmatism, in his reply to Clifford, so I think that he betrayed his own better instincts when he chose this definition of religion.

So Rorty claims that James is letting down Pragmatism both in how he justifies religious beliefs and in his conception of religion. On the issue of justification, Rorty says:

The philosophy of religion I have just sketched out is one which is shadowed forth in much of James’s work, and is the one he should have invoked when replying to Clifford. Unfortunately, in ‘The Will to Believe’, he attempts a different strategy, and gets off on the wrong foot. Rather than fuzzing up the distinction between the cognitive and the noncognitive, as he should have, James here takes it for granted, and thus yields the crucial terrain to his opponent. The italicized thesis of ‘The Will to Believe’ reads: ‘Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds’. Here, as in his highly unpragmatic claim that ‘in our dealings with objective nature we obviously are recorders, not makers of the truth’, James accepts exactly what he should reject: the idea that the mind is divided nearly down the middle into intellect and passion, and the idea that possible topics of discussion are divided nearly into the cognitive and the noncognitive ones.

In brief, the epistemological claims James makes are not very Pragmatic.

As for Rorty’s claim regarding James conception of religion, Rorty says:

I think that he betrayed his own better instincts when he chose this definition of religion [“the best things are the more eternal things” NG]. For that definition associates religion with the conviction that a power that is not ourselves will do unimaginably vast good, rather than with the hope that we ourselves will do such good. Such a definition of religion stays at the second of Dewey’s three stages of the development of the religious consciousness the one Dewey called ‘the point now reached by religious theologians’ by retaining the notion of something nonhuman which is nevertheless on the side of human beings.

The kind of religious faith which seems to me to lie behind the attractions of both utilitarianism and pragmatism is, instead, a faith in the future possibilities of moral humans, a faith which is hard to distinguish from love for, and hope for, the human community. I shall call this fuzzy overlap of faith, hope and love ‘romance’.

I think Rorty’s point is that as pluralistic as James’s view of religion was, it was nonetheless narrow in that it only embraced religions based on some privileging of the eternal.

Rorty goes on to say that James was not alone in fluctuating in his religious moods. Rorty admits that he too fluctuates in his “hankerings”:

All of us, I think, fluctuate between such moods. We fluctuate between God as a perhaps obsolete name for a possible human future, and God as an external guarantor of some such future. Those who, like Dewey, would like to link their days each to each by transmuting their early religious belief into a belief in the human future, come to think of God as Friend rather than as Judge and Saviour. Those who, like me, were raised atheist and now find it merely confusing to talk about God, nevertheless fluctuate between moods in which we are content with utility and moods in which we hanker after validity as well. So we waver between what I have called ‘romance’ and needy, chastened humility. Sometimes it suffices to trust the human community, thought of as part of what Dewey called ‘the community of causes and consequences in which we, together with those not born, are enmeshed . . . the widest and deepest symbol of the mysterious totality of being the imagination calls the universe’. Sometimes it does not.

I find this passage quite moving, as it deeply resonates with my fluctuations.



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