Believing by Faith: An Essay in the Epistemology and Ethics of Religious Belief

Believing by Faith: An Essay in the Epistemology and Ethics of Religious Belief

Believing by Faith: An Essay in the Epistemology and Ethics of Religious Belief

Believing by Faith: An Essay in the Epistemology and Ethics of Religious Belief

Synopsis

Can it be justifiable to commit oneself 'by faith' to a religious claim when its truth lacks adequate support from one's total available evidence? In Believing by Faith, John Bishop defends a version of fideism inspired by William James's 1896 lecture 'The Will to Believe'. By critiquing both 'isolationist' (Wittgensteinian) and Reformed epistemologies of religious belief, Bishop argues that anyone who accepts that our publicly available evidence is equally open to theistic and naturalist/atheistic interpretations will need to defend a modest fideist position. This modest fideism understands theistic commitment as involving 'doxastic venture' - practical commitment to propositions held to be true through 'passional' causes (causes other than the recognition of evidence of or for their truth). While Bishop argues that concern about the justifiability of religious doxastic venture is ultimately moral concern, he accepts that faith-ventures can be morally justifiable only if they are in accord with the proper exercise of our rational epistemic capacities. Legitimate faith-ventures may thus never be counter-evidential, and, furthermore, may be made supra-evidentially only when the truth of the faith-proposition concerned necessarily cannot be settled on the basis of evidence. Bishop extends this Jamesian account by requiring that justifiable faith-ventures should also be morally acceptable both in motivation and content. Hard-line evidentialists, however, insist that all religious faith-ventures are morally wrong. Bishop thus conducts an extended debate between fideists and hard-line evidentialists, arguing that neither side can succeed in establishing the irrationality of its opposition. He concludes by suggesting that fideism may nevertheless be morally preferable, as a less dogmatic, more self-accepting, even a more loving, position than its evidentialist rival.

Excerpt

This is not the book I originally intended to write. My initial motive was to write on alternative concepts of God—alternative, that is, to the prevailing classical theistic concept of God as the supernatural, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Creator ex nihilo (whom I have the somewhat irreverent habit of referring to as the 'omniGod'). People have too readily assumed that rejecting belief in omniGod excludes any kind of continuing theistic commitment. Yet believers could reject classical theism as an inadequate theory of the nature of God as revealed in the theistic religious traditions while still maintaining their faith: one should not, after all, confuse God's reality 'in itself with a theory of the nature of God's reality. To continue to believe in God while an 'omniGod atheist' will, however, be an intellectually respectable position only if one has some idea of a viable alternative theory of God's nature. And it was my intention to explore further the possibility of concepts of God that were both clearly distinct from the classical theistic conception and religiously adequate for (at least some form of) theistic religious tradition. I thus set out to write a book inquiring into the question whether it could be justifiable to believe in God according to some alternative concept, expanding on a discussion already published ('Can There Be Alternative Concepts of God?' Nous, 32 (1998): 174–88). I found, however, that I lacked a clear enough understanding of what it would be for any theistic commitment—revisionary or classical—to be 'justifiable'. My attempts to get this question out of the way in a short preliminary chapter increasingly became both long-winded and unsatisfying. The present book is the result of my desire to do the best I can to deal with this dissatisfaction.

Not, of course, that I am now fully satisfied! I have, however, come to a settled view on the following key points.

First, philosophers of religion have not fully appreciated a significant distinction between the belief-state of holding a proposition to be true and the action of taking it to be true in (practical) reasoning. The evaluation of the justifiability of religious beliefs should not therefore be confined to . . .

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