In this book, John Cottingham presents his view of how to understand religious belief in the modern world. While not rejecting analytic philosophy, he proposes an understanding of religious belief that avoids the atomistic and sterile approach of much analytic philosophy of religion. While noting that beneficial results can come from analytic philosophy, what Cottingham proposes is a holistic understanding of religious belief that requires that a person become involved in the praxis of a given religious system in order to come to personal growth and religious belief. He sees this as the very nature of the spiritual dimension of human life: ‘Spirituality has long been understood to be a concept that is concerned in the first instance with activities rather than theories, with ways of living rather than doctrines subscribed to, with praxis rather than belief’ (p. 3). This addresses the problem of religious belief in the modern world by arguing that many criticisms of religious belief during and since the Enlightenment set an unfair standard and fail to understand how persons come to hold a religious belief and the role that religions play in a persons life. The dynamic of the book that gives it value is that it considers challenges to religions belief and faces the need for answers if religious belief is to make sense in the modern world.
The book proceeds first by presenting an argument about the nature and role of religion, and then argues that persons do not come to a given religion through an intellectual exercise but by participating in the worship and praxis of the religion. The implication is that a study of religion that seeks merely to understand isolated beliefs is not adequate and does not address the reality of religion. Cottingham asserts that ‘it is in the very nature of religious understanding that it characteristically stems from practical involvement rather than from intellectual analysis’ (p. 6). He even goes so far as to say that religion involves truths that are beyond human comprehension: ‘It is precisely because the great truths of religion are held to be in part a mystery, beyond the direct comprehension of the human mind, that an attempt to grasp them head on via the tools of logical analysis is, in a certain sense, to evade them. A different strategy, the strategy of involvement, the strategy of praxis, is required by the nature of the material’ (p. 12).
Having delineated this noncognitivist approach to religion, he then looks at some of the major issues facing religion and the philosophy of religion. These problems include science and religion, the problem of evil, religious language, value and the good life, and religious pluralism. As can be expected his view of religion leads to denying that there is any tension with science because they are looking at different dimensions of life (the transcendent and the phenomenal). He believes that giving a solution to the problem of evil is of central importance for the istic belief to be vital in the modern world: ‘What is required if the the istic commitment is not to be rankly irrational, is the production of a narrative which is consistent with that balance of suffering, and which shows, as it were, that an innocent construction can be placed on the relevant divine acts or omissions’ (p. 26). The problem of evil is solved by arguing that there are inherent evils in the created world which God could not have avoided, and that moral evils are a result of God not having control over human choices. ‘On the view advanced here, omnipotence is construed in a way that involves the power to create certain parts of reality that are outside the sphere of direct managerial control: benevolence is construed as implying a kind of letting be. And the resulting world is a world full of fear and pain, as well as power and wonder’ (p. 34). The question about these solutions is: in the end, do they preserve theism? Is a naturalistic account of the phenomenal world consistent with theism? Is this solution to the problem of evil classical theism or more like open theism?
From the beginning, Cottingham recognizes the problem of the ethics of belief. If we must become involved in a religion in order to know the truth, then which religion should be become involved with? Is it acceptable to be involved in just any religion? Cottingham strives to give a negative answer. ‘Any old system of spiritual praxis will not do, only one whose insights are in harmony with our considered moral reflection… and we can use our intuitions to assess the moral credentials of the systems of praxis on offer (and indeed the moral credibility of those who offer them), as well as the moral fruits of those systems)’ (p. 16). He rejects the idea that what should be sought are proofs that lead to certainty. ‘My point, however, is rather different, that such quasi-scientific or knock-down arguments, whether or not they deserve to carry conviction (and my own view is that in general they don’t), are quite untypical of the route whereby people are normally drawn to give their allegiance to a religious worldview’ (p. 22). He neither believes these are successful, nor that this is how most, if any, persons actually come to religious belief. Instead, he proposes a middle way ‘between quasi-scientific inferentialism on the one hand, and irrationalist hyperfideism on the other, is that religious claims, while not purporting to be inferentially justified as the best conclusion to be drawn form pre-existing evidence, at least must have some kind of consistency relation with that evidence’ (p. 24). The problem is how to know which standards of evaluation to hold. Which moral credentials should we use to judge a religious system, and what are the relevant moral fruits? It seems that the worldview one holds will determine how one answers these questions, and therefore the answer cannot be used to determine which worldview to accept. He suggests that ‘the truths are made manifest not via impartial interrogation of the data but through an inner transformation of the subject’ (p. 139), but how can we know if a given transformation is for the better or not? Won’t different religions make contrary and competing claims about what it means to be transformed? This still leaves open the question of what to believe, or which religious praxis to engage.
The final chapter of the book considers religious pluralism and here Cottingham gives an interesting analysis of the major approaches taken to this problem and suggests his own solution. His solution continues to involve an affirmation that the truths of religion are beyond human understanding or literal expression: ‘The world in its goodness and its beauty contains traces of its creator. Since that creator is taken to be a transcendent being, we cannot characterize that goodness and beauty in straightforwardly literal terms’ (p. 123). And yet, throughout the book, he does affirm the existence of a creator who is transcendent and different from the creation. While all religions affirm that there is beauty and goodness in the world, not all of them are theistic. The problem of pluralism is therefore not simply between theism (and its various divisions) and naturalism, but includes many other alternatives. Cottingham gives some standards in this last chapter as to what one should look for in a religion (p. 152), but what must be established is that these standards are objective and are not themselves the product of his religious outlook.
His solution to the plurality of religions is to deny exclusivism. ‘Anyone who subscribes to the authentic moral principles inherent in Christianity can hardly suppose that a surpassingly benevolent and loving creator could attach his favor to adherents purely in virtue of their doctrinal choices’ (p. 166). He also reject certain forms of plural ism which allow contradictory claims about religion to all somehow be ‘true’. This is consistent with his emphasis on praxis and his noncognitive approach to religion, because what is important about religions is not their beliefs or doctrines about the nature of reality but how they transform an individual’s life. ‘But if a religious stance is to preserve its vital moral core, zeal for dogma must always be tempered by openness to the possibility of learning from others, and above all respect and compassions for all humankind’ (p. 167).
This book can be highly recommended as an important contribution to the philosophy of religion from the perspective emphasizing praxis and participation rather than the atomistic analysis of beliefs. Cottingham’s solutions to the various problems he considers may not be new, but what is informative is the manner in which he argues from his view of religion to these solutions. It can be affirmed that Cottingham is correct in wanting to understand religious beliefs as a system rather than isolating and abstracting individual beliefs out of systems, while at the same time questions can and should be raised about whether religion is fundamentally to be understood in terms of praxis. The key to solving this is given by Cottingham himself when he affirms that contradictions within a religion should be viewed as a problem for that religion, and that irrationality is a negative characteristic. If the concern for religion is to ‘construct a narrative’, or give meaning to life, then the emphasis on praxis might need to be shifted to an emphasis on the relationship between beliefs about the world and finding meaning, and how praxis proceeds from this. While it might be true that persons rarely choose a religion by first looking for ‘knock down arguments’, the question is: will a person continue to hold a religion that no longer provides meaning?