David Cooper’s Review of Rupert Shortt’s book, Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good?

FOR DOSTOYEVSKY’S GRAND INQUISITOR in The Brothers Karamazov, religious truth and the human good are unconnected. Even if Christ’s teachings — on our freedom of will, for example — are true, they are harmful, and the Catholic Church must suppress them for the security and benefit of human society. An opposite conclusion is reached by the author of the well-received, ambitious, and succinctly argued book Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good? For Rupert Shortt, it is the truth of religion that, in the end, serves as a tie-breaker of what, he writes, might otherwise be a draw between the champions and the opponents of religion.

The good and the true are primarily discussed through considering, respectively, some “empirical” and some “theoretical” objections to religion. All of these are familiar from the mouths or pens of “hardline secularists,” but whereas the first concentrate on the harm allegedly done by religion, the second focus on the falsehoods that faith supposedly peddles. Most of this very short book is devoted to the empirical objections, and it is these with which I’ll begin.

Before that, however, it is worth noting the author’s wise, if slightly disarming, concession that the title of his book is something of a misnomer. This is because, to answer the question it poses, we would need to have some idea of how the human condition might have developed in the absence of religion. And this, Shortt rightly remarks, is “a counterfactual speculation too far.” None of us has the slightest idea how things might stand with us today if our distant ancestors had been devoid of a sense of unearthly powers or never engaged in religious rituals. So the question addressed in the book is the more tractable, though still immense one, of “the merits and drawbacks associated with spiritual belief” and practice.

While it may be more tractable, this question urgently invites the further ones of how the author understands good, harm, and, of course, religion itself. Shortt does not define moral goodness, but his conception of it squarely belongs to a contemporary Western liberal consensus on the central ingredients of an enlightened ethics — respect for human dignity, the pursuit of justice and equality, the securing of human rights, and “open-handed” pluralism and tolerance.

Nor does he try to define religion, and here it is less clear what he intends. Sometimes he refers to it as “a human practice,” but that cannot be right given his own emphasis on the radical differences among the practices of different faiths. His more considered characterization is that religion as such is the “apprehension and symbolic representation of sacred or non-ordinary reality” to be found in all the “global faiths.” Shortt would agree, I think, with Friedrich Schleiermacher in finding “the essence of religion,” not in practices, doctrines, or moral systems, but in a “feeling,” or sense, of an “absolute” or “infinite source” on which everything contingent depends. Although he often refers to this source as God, and while he makes no secret of his Christian belief, Shortt regards certain atheistic dispensations, such as Buddhism, as authentically religious: so “God,” in this book, is not to be read as exclusively naming the person-like creator worshipped in the Abrahamic faiths.

In responding to the secularist’s empirical charges against religion, Shortt is at once considering the case against particular religions and challenges to the religious sense that inspires these faiths. When discussing the merits and drawbacks of the great religions, he is ready to concede to their critics that the record is far from clean. From crusaders to suicide bombers, from inquisitors to unscrupulous gurus, the histories of religions are stained with violence, corruption, intolerance, and much else. But Shortt sensibly urges a number of considerations that, without leading to acquittal, serve to moderate the critics’ harsh and one-sided verdict.

To begin with, as a human practice, a religion — like medicine — “can be used for good or ill.” That a doctrine or ritual belonging to a religion can be placed in the service of a perverted cause is no criticism of the religion as such. Second, a great religion will embrace many tendencies, each of which is itself a complex network of beliefs, values, and practices. Distinctions need to be made among these if a balanced judgment is to be reached. Buddhism, for example, is a broad church to which Shortt admits to feeling an attraction: but this does not prevent him criticizing Mahayana teachings on “emptiness” and “no self” that condone both warfare and “social quietism.” Finally, we should not be fooled by the religious rhetoric often used to condone or whip up violence and discrimination into ignoring other factors — social, political, and cultural — that may be at least as operative as theological ones. While rejecting President Obama’s optimistic insistence that Islam is a religion of peace — but without lapsing into the equally optimistic view that “faith can be discounted as a driving force” in Islamist terrorism — Shortt warns against identifying Wahhabist puritanism as the only culprit. More generally, he argues, it would be impossible to separate out the contributions of religious belief and “romantic” (or febrile) nationalism to the wrongs with which religions — including Christianity and Hinduism — have been accused.

While these considerations may temper secularist attacks on particular religions, critics will still insist that religious belief as such — the religious sense or feeling — is harmful in its effects on human society, not least through distracting people from the secular values by which they should live. Shortt’s response is, in part, a blunt rejection of the critic’s empirical claims. It is the atrophy of religious belief in modern times that has made space for “godless modern mores,” moral relativism and consumerism, and thereby contributed to drug abuse, the sexualization of children, and much else. More controversial, perhaps, is Shortt’s argument that the very values the secularist invokes when condemning religious belief owe their existence to religion. It is religion that provided the “foundations” or “underpinnings” for ideals of human rights, justice, liberty, and respect for human dignity. Secularist therefore “borrow from theology without due recognition — and thus reject religious resources at their peril.”

The issue here is large, and Shortt’s contention raises several concerns. The claim that these liberal ideals would never have emerged were it not for religion is surely a “counterfactual too far,” to borrow his own phrase. We just can’t know whether a conception of human dignity, say, could have been formulated or embraced by our ancestors if they had been entirely godless. It is hardly compelling, here, to cite — as Shortt does — one historian’s assertion that “the roots of liberalism” were established in the disputes of late-medieval and Renaissance theologians and canon lawyers. After all, so complete was the hegemony of Christian thought at the time that almost any intellectual development was bound to have been articulated in theological terms. Even Thomas Hobbes, as late as the 17th century, felt compelled to describe the rational “laws of nature” that determine rights and political authority as divinely sanctioned. On the crucial question of whether ideals of dignity and the like invite or require theological underpinnings, Shortt is almost silent. Many people, he writes, are unconvinced by Kantian — or, one might add, Rawlsian or utilitarian — arguments for respecting human dignity: but, then, many are convinced. Nor does he engage with those for whom these ideals are self-evident, so not in need of underpinnings, theological or otherwise.

Looking back on the “empirical” arguments pro and con religious beliefs and practices that he has considered, the author asks, “Score draw?” His reply is “Not quite,” since religious commitment reflects a true understanding of reality, a recognition that it is “not exhausted by mapping the world of nature.” I’ll return to this reply in a moment, but first I want to suggest that, in an important sense, the score so far has not been a draw. The prize has gone to the secularist. This is because none of the arguments advanced by the author, pro or con, have been essentially religious ones — ones, that is, that are drawn from within a body of religious thought or practice. Arguments that many believers purport to find in their sacred texts — on homosexuality, for example, or the prospect of everlasting hell — are not taken seriously. Nor do any of Shortt’s arguments for the merits of religious belief resemble, say, St. Thomas Aquinas’s reason for the importance of the virtues: it is rational to cultivate the virtues but only, in the final analysis, because they are the path to “beatitude” — the joy of being in the presence of God. Shortt’s arguments do not, that is, invoke reasons that can be endorsed only from a religious perspective. Only reasons that are acceptable to the secularist are permitted.

To appreciate the extent of the secularist’s victory, consider how extraordinary it would have been for a 16th-century apologist for Christianity not even to mention that human beings are born in sin and so are in need of redemption through faith in Christ. Or how odd, until very recently at least, for a defender of Buddhism not even to indicate that it is because we seek liberation from a cycle of rebirth and suffering that it is imperative to cultivate the virtues and understanding taught by the Buddha. Shortt’s exclusive reliance on theology-free argumentation is homage to the modern entrenchment of secular thought. In reply, Shortt might repeat his point about the theological underpinnings of seemingly secular values: but this, we’ve seen, is a very fragile strategy. It is only when he turns to the “theoretical” issue of the truth of religion that the secularist case is properly challenged.

Some of the best pages in the book are those in which the author challenges “the models of religion regularly peddled by secularists […] [that] thoughtful believers” don’t even recognize. There are, of course, people who believe that the earth is at the center of the universe, or that it was created a few thousand years ago, or that God is continually intervening in human affairs. But it is remarkable that book after book castigating these beliefs as delusions can still be best sellers. For Shortt is right, of course, that there is no conflict between the religious sense as such and any possible scientific discoveries. That there is a sustaining, transcendent source of the world is nothing that scientific research could either verify or refute. The conflict, rather, is between the religious sense and the “scientistic” conviction that, in W. V. Quine’s words, “whatever can be known can be known by means of science” alone.

Unlike many of today’s philosophers of religion, Shortt expresses confidence in some of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, including the venerable ontological and cosmological ones. But his relegation to endnotes of his sympathy for these arguments suggests that it is not upon them that he wants to rely. Instead, it is a kind of argument from religious experience that Shortt regards as compelling. This is not religious experience in the form of dramatic epiphanies, like those supposedly vouchsafed to St. Teresa or to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita. It is, rather, the quiet but powerful experience with a “numinous character” that men and women “stumble upon” in everyday life, convincing them of a realm or source of reality beyond the natural order of things. It is experience, to repeat Shortt’s words, of what is “not exhausted by mapping the world of nature.”

I referred just now to an argument from experience, but the expression is not, perhaps, a happy one. The religious person does not infer from his or her experience that there exists a numinous reality, in the way I might deduce from a loud noise that there’s someone upstairs. Shortt, in an analogy that deserves to be elaborated, compares our need for a religious sense to one for music. The beauty and depth of much music is immediate, experientially present to us, and not something we have to infer from noises we hear. To be sure, there is tone-deafness, but this is a genuine privation, a barrier to a rich tonal world. Likewise, there are people who have no sense of the numinous, but this again is a privation that occludes access to “non-ordinary reality.” If there is to be a revival of “thoughtful belief,” of the religious sense, it will not be through devising ingenious proofs of this reality, but through removing the many barriers — including the adulation of science and today’s easy-going hedonism — that contribute to this occlusion.

Many readers will share Shortt’s assessment of the significance of religious experience and deplore the habit of hard-line secularists to scoff or dismiss it as delusory. But they may also detect a lacuna in his defense of religion. At the end of the book, he quotes Roger Scruton’s remark that numinous experience seems to be of what is “removed from this world […] [but also] in some way casting judgement on it.” Put differently, people find — or want to find — in what transcends the natural world some measure of their lives, something to which their lives are answerable. Much of their dissatisfaction with naturalism or scientism owes to the perception that the everyday world — including the realm of human conventions and purposes — can yield no such measure. The problem is to see how the religious sense as such can generate commitment to the values — respect for human dignity, equality, tolerance, and the like — that define Shortt’s conception of the good. It seems possible for someone to feel a powerful sense of, as Schleiermacher called it, an “infinite source” of our finite world, but not to give a fig about human rights and justice.

In effect, Shortt’s defense of religion’s truth is disjoined from his account of the contribution of religion to a liberal social ethics. This disjunction shouldn’t, perhaps, come as a surprise, though it is liable to in an age when religious leaders see it as a prime business of religions to promote equality, protect human rights, champion freedom of speech, and so on. It is easy to forget that in earlier times social justice and freedoms were not perceived as a central — or even any — concern of religion. Crudely put, the essential concern was with the good of the soul. What preoccupied the religious mind was the question of how a person lives best in the light of religious truth, in a way consonant with the religious sense, and not questions about social welfare or justice. In the classic Daoist texts, preoccupation with social ethics and principles was even regarded as a sure sign that people had “lost the Way,” that their lives were no longer in harmony with the sustaining source of the world, the dao. One has to scour the New Testament or the Buddha’s suttas to find proclamations translatable into today’s liberal idiom of rights, dignity, and justice, and then to distort the message of these texts, in some cases, in order to guarantee a fit with modern ideals and predilections. The criticisms of wealth, for example, that are found in such texts were not calls for economic equality, but sermons on the corruption or sickness of the soul brought by the pursuit of material wealth.

The religious sense, people feel, provides measure for — or judgment on — their lives. Their hope is that the religious sense is a guide to the virtues. But can something so “abstract” as an “infinite source” that transcends the world of nature provide such guidance? A sense of this source surely entails at least this much: we should cultivate what facilitates this sense and helps to remove the barriers to a recognition of religious truth. A short list of the virtues inspired by the religious sense would include humility, self-honesty, detachment from the intellectual and moral fads and fashions of one’s age, and resistance to the greed and aversions that limit and corrupt our vision of things. Just possibly, it might be argued, the exercise of these virtues requires commitment to the kinds of social virtues — justice, respect for the dignity of others, tolerance — that are central in Shortt’s liberal ethics. This is not something, of course, that he could be expected to show in so short a book. It is something, however, that needs to be shown if his appreciation of religious truth is to join up with his moral defense of religion. Otherwise a gap of the kind that the Grand Inquisitor perceived between religious truth and the good of society remains unfilled.

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Rupert Shortt’s response to David E. Cooper’s review:

I am very grateful to David E. Cooper for his thoughtful and penetrating review of my book. Though we view the landscape differently, the questions he raises are highly constructive.

Two clarifications are in order at the outset. Professor Cooper reports me as saying that “the atrophy of religious belief in modern times” has opened the door to neo-paganism. I certainly believe that a cogent argument can be made to support such a claim. But in the passage quoted I am simply ventriloquizing a series of clashing points of view for and against religious belief. I acknowledge that the field is highly contested and try hard to rehearse the cases for the prosecution and defense with equal vigor. (Common sense requires this. Take Germany during the 1930s. It was a far more religiously observant society than today. Yet Hitler was popular and no worldview has been more nihilistic than Nazism.)

Cooper then accuses me of not taking seriously scriptural arguments against homosexuality and in favor of eternal punishment. On the contrary, I take both these perspectives very seriously — and find both seriously wanting. But this is emphatically not on “liberal” grounds alone (though I will plead guilty to a charge of conservative liberalism on a number of big questions). My suggestion is precisely that the so-called biblical case against same-sex unions isn’t that solid. Scripture certainly condemns promiscuity. But by not distinguishing between practice and identity, the Old and New Testaments do not present a considered stance on stable, monogamous gay partnerships. Furthermore, I believe on biblical grounds that universal salvation is possible. Soft-headed intellectual porridge? No. Romans 5:18–19 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 are most representative of an underlying message in asserting a strict equivalence between what is lost in Adam and what is won in Christ.

My book contains a good deal of sociological analysis supporting one of my central arguments — that there are both deep convergences and major differences between the global faiths. The Muslim and Christian understandings of God overlap in significant ways, for example. But if one were to compare where Christianity and Islam stand on a spectrum of options vis-à-vis worldliness, the answers would be very different in theory, whatever the similarities in practice. Appropriately for a secular thinker, however, Cooper’s criticisms of me lie more in the province of philosophy than of either anthropology or theology. His review is shadowed by Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who assumes that religious truth and the human good are unconnected.

The resources of faith cannot be left out of the equation here: I have no problem in saying that the Inquisitor is on thin ice theologically, as well as being a flawed man. Let us broaden the horizon, as Cooper invites us to do. Kantians believe that God is not knowable through experience and therefore beliefs about God cannot affect the deliberations of the rational will. Theists are not obliged to accept this as axiomatic. In response to the Euthyphro dilemma (Is something good because God declares it to be so, or does God declare it so because it is good?), they may maintain that God the creator is both perfectly good by nature and the source of created goodness. A non-authoritarian Christian ethics aims to discern and co-operate with the divine purposes revealed in human history and experience, rather than to submit uncritically to arbitrary commands. Because this enterprise involves interpretation of God and the world in mutual relation, it positively requires investigation of empirical reality and engagement with other sources of knowledge and wisdom.

Can a secular humanist lead a good life, then? Of course. The traditional — and correct — view in Christianity and several other major traditions is that conscience is the exercise of reasoned judgment. So natural law is just that. It is not the property of those standing in a charmed religious circle. It is less a preexisting body of obligations and rights: more a code human beings must write themselves, using their God-given reason. Confronted with debate on matters such as abortion, cloning, and euthanasia, conservatives have regularly accused politicians of “playing God,” without realizing that playing God rationally is just what the teaching of a figure such as Aquinas demands. Natural law might be reframed as “natural law-making.” St Paul, in Romans 2:14, writes of how gentiles can be a law unto themselves for the reasons spelled out above. Yet none of this stops a Jew or Christian — or members of other faith groups, using their own language — from grounding ethics in the structure of reality. Religious believers can say that they are not just exercising a set of individual choices, but somehow making visible the way the world is — and ultimately the way God is. So yes, while you can lead a good life without having religious convictions, as an atheist you might have to work rather hard to explain why your moral compass isn’t just arbitrary.

Perhaps the secularist might reply that Aristotle’s Golden Rule is available to neutral reason on grounds already hinted at. Human beings are animals, with natural needs and capacities. The fulfilment of these needs and capacities amounts to happiness, which partly involves being honest and decent and, generally, doing as you would be done by. Religious voices across the spectrum might only be half-persuaded by this. A Christian could reply that the “cardinal” virtues of justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude are indeed rational. But it is religion that can offer the solidest grounding for the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa was very much an exercise of the theological virtues. I suspect that Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be among the first to say that while a secular liberal ultimately believes in justice, a Christian, also deeply committed to this virtue, nonetheless prizes forgiveness above all.

I found Cooper’s argument a little hard to follow at one point. He describes me as engaging in “theology-free argumentation,” reflecting homage to the modern entrenchment of secular thought. At other moments, though, he thinks I’m making a land grab by ascribing to Christianity insights and other goods that are available to all. I doggedly persist in holding that a litany of beliefs about human equality and the dignity of the person have roots in Judeo-Christianity. If you doubt me, just look at a society like China today. Or cast your eye back at how pagan beliefs in antiquity were reframed and democratized by the Church. Radical self-giving love for the outcast formed no part of Greek or Roman religion. My reading of intellectual history is rather at variance with Cooper’s in other respects, too. He strikes me as very much a Protestant atheist in his individualist take on salvation.

The review ends with a pertinent question. “The religious sense, people feel, provides measures for — or judgment on — their lives. Their hope is that the religious sense is a guide to the virtues. But can something so ‘abstract’ as an ‘infinite source’ that transcends the world of nature provide such guidance?” Here the leap of faith, or what I’d rather call the leap of the imagination, is indispensable. For the monotheistic traditions the reality of God is not seen primarily as a remote, offstage matter involving ultimate beginnings and ends in the grand narrative of nature, but rather an immediate and intimate presence in our responses to a call to live.

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David E. Cooper’s response to Rupert Shortt’s response:

Rupert Shortt, in his helpful response to my review, may be right to hold that he and I “view the landscape differently.” The difference, however, is perhaps less than he supposes, since he attributes to me some views that I do not hold. If any remarks in my review encouraged this misperception, I welcome the opportunity briefly to clarify my position.

Shortt describes me as a “secular thinker,” and as one who strikes him as a “Protestant atheist.” In keeping with this, he implies that I agree with the Grand Inquisitor that “religious truth and the human good are unconnected,” and that I give a negative or non-committal answer to my own question of whether a religious sense can provide guidance to our lives.

In a number of writings, including a book reviewed in the LARB, Senses of Mystery, I argue for the cultivation of what I am happy to refer to as a “religious sense” — a sense close to what Shortt himself regards as fundamental to all major religions, the “apprehension […] of sacred or non-ordinary reality.” I am, then, no secularist, and while I may be an atheist in the narrow sense of not being a theist, I am not — any more than Buddhists and Daoists are — atheist in the more popular and prevalent sense of being non- or anti-religious. The “secularist victory” I refer to in the review is, for me, one to lament, not applaud.

In these writings, I also argue that various virtues, central to a good life, both serve to cultivate a religious sense and are reinforced by it. These include humility, compassion, and mindfulness. At the same time, I try to show that the religious sense militates against certain contemporary vices, including the related ones of hubristic scientism, “anthropolatry,” and a “bright-siding” refusal to recognize the ubiquity and entrenchment of our failings.

The religious sense, then, can provide some measure of our lives, and I do not, therefore, endorse the Grand Inquisitor’s separation of religious truth and the human good. Not, that is, if the human good is understood in terms of virtues like those mentioned, rather than in terms of the secularist ideals, such as equality and pluralism, that dominate and constrict the modern moral imagination.

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David E. Cooper is professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Durham University.

Rupert Shortt is religion editor of the London-based Times Literary Supplement, and a research associate at the University of Cambridge.