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Jordan's Jamesian Wager (2008)

John Schellenberg


          1. The 'Many Gods' Objection Revived
          2. The 'Many Attitudes' Objection Introduced
          3. Conclusion: More Twists in the Tale

Jeffrey Jordan's pragmatic argument for the rational preferability of theistic belief in circumstances of indecisive evidence is resourceful and interesting, but I shall argue that it fails even if we assume--as I would not, in light of my hiddenness argument--that the evidence relevant to the truth of theism can be all-things-considered indecisive. Evidently the success of his argument depends on the success of his claims about the relative utility of various responses given a naturalistic state of affairs--specifically, that (i) the value of F2 (the box of his matrix representing theistic belief) is greater than the value of F8 (the box representing belief in a nontheistic 'deviant deity') and that (ii) the value of F2 is also greater than the value of F5 (the box representing the option of holding no religious belief of any kind). I shall argue that even if the evidence relevant to theism is indecisive, we have no good reason to suppose (i) true, and we have good reason to suppose (ii) false.

1. The 'Many Gods' Objection Revived

Notice first that Jordan's somewhat disparaging remarks about various nontheistic religious possibilities (which must be taken as collected disjunctively under his notion of a 'deviant deity'--else there would be alternatives not accommodated by his matrix) cannot be upheld.[1] Indeed, even his own studies do not uphold them. Those studies--which represent only the beginning of a discussion that would need to be taken much further to produce definitive results--suggest that any form of religious belief, whether theistic or nontheistic, can be life-enhancing. Take, for example, this passage (how Jordan introduces it is telling, so I have included that):

Two commentators (neither of whom could be called theistic apologists) characterize the relevant social science literature as "a huge, and growing literature that finds religion to be a reliable source of better mental and even physical health regardless of the age, sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, or time period of the population being studied."

The reference here to "religion" and to the irrelevance of "race, ethnicity, nationality, or time period" could hardly be taken as supporting specifically theistic religion! Other citations follow suit--what we find are references apparently to the beneficial effects of any form of religion, which Jordan interprets as applying specifically to theistic religion (the reader is encouraged to look once more at the last few pages of Jordan's essay to confirm this for herself).

Perhaps Jordan will reply that 'religion' is in these American sources being used as synonymous with 'theistic religion'--after all, most of the studies involved Jews or Christians. But take, for example, perhaps the most reputable source Jordan cites, the massive Oxford volume Handbook of Religion and Health. Very broad understandings of 'spiritual belief' are used by it, and both traditional, organized religion and nontraditional and individualized forms of religion are represented. Moreover, while the studies from non-Western religions are few, the results they show are the same as those generated in connection with theistic forms of religiosity.

Though, as I have said, we need more studies (and careful analysis of studies) to reveal the truth about such matters, there is some a priori reason to expect that the nondiscriminating tendency here detected will also be found in them. For all forms of religion can be construed as seeking to put us in touch with a reality that is metaphysically and axiologically ultimate (ultimate in the nature of things and also in value) and as holding out for their practitioners the possibility of an ultimate good, said to be realizable in relation to the ultimate reality. This is true whether (in the words of John Hick) we are talking about "the Jahweh of the Torah, or the Vishnu of the Bhagavad Gita, or the Heavenly Father of the New Testament, or the Brahman of the Upanishads, or the Dharmakaya of Mahayana Buddhism."[2] All forms of religion, therefore, are fundamentally optimistic--and moreover they make available forms of community support and psychological integration grounded in this cosmic optimism. Surely if religion is to be associated with this-worldly benefits of the sort Jordan emphasizes, it may be expected to be on account of features such as these, which unite its various forms, rather than because of anything that can be said specifically on behalf of theistic religiosity.[3] Notice that these days more and more new forms of nontheistic religion, as well as old ones taking root in new ways, can be detected in North America and throughout the world, precisely because of the this-worldly benefits they appear to make available: think here of Buddhist meditation groups or of Wicca or of the various New Age phenomena which, if anything, promise their adherents more in the way of this-worldly peace and mutual support, grounded in a sense of harmony with the Earth and each other, than do theistic forms of religion (e.g., fundamentalist Christian theism), and also seem at least as good at delivering on such promises--as, again, their flourishing itself attests. (Notice that at least some of these forms of religion will represent 'live options' for many Westerners and Easterners alike, and at least some of them will have claims as shrouded by any "fog of religious ambiguity" there may be as theism's--if only because of Westerners' continuing neglect of truly comprehensive religious investigation.) Thus--for all these reasons--what Jordan says about the comparative value of F2 and F8 is completely unconvincing. There is no good reason to believe that the value of F2 (the box of his matrix representing belief of theism in a naturalistic state of affairs) is greater than the value of F8 (the box representing belief, in the same state of affairs, of one or other of the relevant nontheistic religious claims).

2. The 'Many Attitudes' Objection Introduced

But the more serious problem Jordan faces concerns his assessment of F5. Notice first that he isn't always clear in his presentation of this option, sometimes suggesting, correctly, that it is a matter of not believing either that God exists or that any other religious proposition is true, but at other times saying that it is a matter of "belief in naturalism," or "not believing theistically," or theistic "disbelief." The states referred to here are not at all the same as each other, nor is any one of them the same as not believing any religious proposition. The latter state is really a big disjunctive state -- either naturalistic belief or complete doubt about the options or doubt plus hope that theism is true, and so on--involving all the ways (including naturalism) in which one might fail to believe any religious proposition.

Now Jordan may wish to reply that the alternatives to (theistic or nontheistic) religious belief are all practically equivalent to naturalistic belief, and that while his expressions do not always convey this clearly, it therefore is indeed naturalistic belief that F5 ultimately must be taken as representing. But this is false. Perhaps surprisingly, it is even the case that one might be a religious nonbeliever (believing no religious proposition) while adopting a decidedly religious attitude--for example, hoping that a religious proposition is true, or acting as if it is, or having faith (without belief) that it is--and so adopting an attitude quite nonnaturalistic in its practical implications, capable of undergirding a religious way of life and producing whatever benefits may be associated with such a life.

Perhaps Jordan would seek to quash my developing argument here by reference to the stronger or fuller benefits to be associated with belief as opposed to hope or acting-as-if or faith. But now we will see the point of listing all of those alternatives, as I have done, and making clear that they are to be distinguished. The alternatives to belief are no more the same than are theistic disbelief, theistic nonbelief and belief of naturalism, which (as we saw above) Jordan conflates. And in particular, the option of nonbelieving faith is pragmatically superior to both hope and acting-as-if, and capable of being developed in such a way as to also effectively rival and indeed supersede theistic belief in this context.

Let us take a moment to explore the faith option. The nature of propositional faith (faith-that) has been much neglected in the history of philosophy, but it has recently been receiving attention. In my own work I have described faith that p as involving a purely voluntary attitude of assent toward p, undertaken in circumstances where one evaluates the state of affairs to which it refers positively but lacks evidence causally sufficient for belief. In having faith (and notice that religious language strongly suggests that faith is something one can have just by trying to, which clearly distinguishes it from belief) one tenaciously represents the world to oneself as including the truth of the proposition in question--picturing or imagining the world as one in which it is true--and gives one's assent to what is thus held before the mind (mentally stamping it with a kind of cognitive approval, meanwhile pushing alternatives aside and leaving the issue of its accuracy behind).[4] Such an attitude is different from belief, which is more a matter of involuntarily being represented to than of actively representing. (In religious faith we deliberately don a pair of glasses that we realize will color our picture of the world in a religious way; in religious belief we are wearing the glasses without knowing it.) Now the positive evaluation of faith may be instantiated by hope, which entails such an evaluation, but it could also exist without hope (one might make the favorable evaluation but without the desire that is also part of hope). Even where faith involves hope, it is clearly not the same as it: the one who has theistic faith moves past hope and intentionally casts in her lot with the proposition that God exists through the assent referred to above.

Suppose now that someone has such faith as I have described. (Notice that it need not be theistic: it might be some brand of nontheistic faith, or a perfectly generic faith directed toward a proposition I call ultimism, which all more specific religious claims entail--the proposition, mentioned earlier, that there is an ultimate reality in relation to which an ultimate good can be attained.) Why should she not build upon it a religious life? Having not simply the tentativeness of hope but the intellectual commitment that is propositional faith, why should she not also act accordingly, doing what seems appropriate to the truth of the propositions(s) held before her mind? If she does combine her intellectual attitude with such a practical commitment, she will be seen fully and authentically engaging in religious practices and also experiencing their rewards, whatever those may be. In particular, if other, belief-based, forms of religion are conducive to benefits such as happiness and prolonged life because of such things as community support, psychological integration, and an optimistic attitude, then surely a faith-based form of religion, in which the latter elements may also be found, will be conducive thereto as well.

Here we should notice that Jordan and other pragmatists construe 'benefit' very broadly, so as to embrace any psychological, moral, religious or social improvement of life. We have already seen reason to suppose that religiously, psychologically, and socially, propositional faith is on par with propositional religious belief. What I want to argue now is that morally it is quite far ahead. For implementing the option of faith can be to one's moral credit in a way that a selection of the belief option can never be. This is because when exercised by the rational inquirer, it is in an ongoing way something deliberate, done for the sake of the good (notice that the relevant goods may include not just peace or comfort or happiness for oneself, but also such things as 'moral support' for difficult humanitarian projects, which may be easier to sustain with the positive attitude of nonbelieving faith). And surely it is morally beneficial to be able to become worthy of moral credit in this way. The intrinsic value of the virtue one may thus acquire or deepen is surely worth having, and surely it improves one's life to have it. Moreover, seeking to implement the belief option is morally objectionable in a way that faith can never be. Belief too is something one must "take steps" to acquire (Jordan uses that phrase several times, without letting us in on its ominous implications); one must indeed work at having belief if one wants to have it in circumstances where one lacks at least probabilifying evidence. And given the nature of belief, the work one has to do is of a special sort, involving self-deception. Unlike faith, which is voluntary all the way down the line and involves an 'eyes-open' effort to keep a certain picture of the world before one's mind, never completely losing sight of the evidential situation presupposed by such activity (after all, the person of faith has no new evidence and would, if asked, give the same assessment of the old), belief involves involuntarily thinking the world to be as it is believed to be (someone experiencing belief that something is so supposes--unqualifiedly--that that is how the world is). And this state is incompatible with a recognition that the evidence is unsupportive. Given the involuntariness of belief, no one aware of the unsupportive evidence Jordan's pragmatic argument presupposes can have belief without fooling herself about what the evidence shows, without coming to believe the evidence on one side stronger than the evidence on the other side, contrary to what is in fact the case and what, at least initially, she believes to be the case. Such a person, wanting the benefits associated with Jordan's F2, must inculcate in herself a false belief about the evidence, and indeed--given that the evidential support she takes herself to have found will naturally be taken to justify numerous other beliefs indirectly--many false beliefs. Such self-deception involves dishonesty (lying to yourself is still lying, and even if you are upfront with your present self about the fact that you will be lying to your future self!) and a lack of integrity for the individual involved. There is a part of herself that must be kept hidden from what has become very important to her and indeed central; a deep dark secret which cannot be revealed without the central things in her life being undermined, which would show that they are not built on the firm epistemic basis she has led herself to suppose she possesses.

Now Jordan may think he has already met the challenge presented by such facts through his arguments concerning the Alpine hiker and the bargain made with extraterrestrials to save the Earth.[5] But it is important to notice that when considering moral reasons in this connection, he focuses on consequentialist considerations, ignoring the intrinsic badness of self-deception and its tendency to sponsor vice instead of virtue. But, you say, surely sometimes, in some conceivable circumstances, the moral reasons for self-deceptively inducing belief will outweigh whatever moral reasons may be brought against such behavior. Perhaps. But those would have to be circumstances in which faith is not an option, and here (where theistic belief is at issue) it is. Our question is really whether the moral status of theistic belief (F2) can match or exceed that of some form of religious faith (that version of F5), despite the self-deception and prima facie morally objectionable qualities to be associated with the former and the creditworthiness of the latter, when in other respects the two attitudes are pragmatically on par. And one need only phrase the question that way to see that the correct answer is no.

It follows that when F5 is interpreted in terms of beliefless religious faith, F5 comes out ahead of F2--which means that Jordan's claim about the relative values of F2 and F5 is false. Indeed, given our results concerning faith, we can go further and set up our own principle, on the basis of which an argument for the denial of Jordan's pragmatic conclusion can be developed:

(P1) It is all things considered irrational to take steps to self-deceptively induce theistic belief on pragmatic grounds in circumstances of religious ambiguity when benefits at least as great as those one seeks to achieve thereby can be procured without self-deception by fostering a positive religious attitude that does not require belief.

As we have seen, the condition mentioned here is satisfied, and so the truth of the claim that it is all things considered irrational to take steps to self-deceptively induce theistic belief on pragmatic grounds may immediately be inferred.

3. Conclusion: More Twists in the Tale

Perhaps Jordan would now wish to argue that all of this still leaves religion ahead of naturalism, given ambiguity. (Naturalism too involves belief, so--he might say--presumably it too would be problematic in circumstances of ambiguity because of the need for self-deception, and outclassed by some form of religious faith.) I have two sets of points in response, and with these I conclude.

Notice first that no assessment of the pragmatic benefits to be associated with naturalism has been suggested by Jordan. And now--given what we have learned--such an assessment would have to be done with a sensitivity to the possibility of naturalistic faith. (The naturalist is no more required to actively believe in circumstances of indecisive evidence than is the religious person.) It is clear that Jordan owes us such an assessment. To avoid it would be like showing that theism can be used to explain some phenomenon and concluding that it is therefore superior to naturalism without checking to see whether some naturalistic hypothesis might explain it equally well. And though I have no time to go into details, it is not at all obvious that a proper assessment would come out on the side of religion (after all, we have been talking about this-worldly benefits, not the sort that a God might be able to provide in a happy afterlife). Consider, for example, that adopting naturalistic belief or faith might have the effect of taking a huge load off our minds: instead of carting around those very heavy ideas involved in theism or other forms of religious belief, we would be freed to enter more completely into the here and now, and to appreciate exclusively for its own sake the beauty and wonder of our marvelously intricate planet and universe--a natural system to which we would now consider ourselves fully to belong.[6] We might see the natural world more for what it is, instead of thinking of it as a showpiece of divine creativity or the medium of a transcendent spiritual energy or an illusion that we need to see through in order to find a reality yet more ultimate. Viewing the spring green of trees and the undulating hills awash in sunset, feeling the bite of the wind and tasting the salty sweat of hard work, we could say, "Yes, this is it," and truly enter into the experience of being this natural spark of consciousness, however briefly lit, recognizing that every moment counts--for itself. At the same time, appreciating other sentient beings for what they are--alive to their natural beauty, unhindered by the sometimes distorting effects of religious ideology--we might, as naturalists, be able to enter with deeper sympathy and dedication into the task of creating justice in the world. If we really believed that no one and nothing else is responsible, that it is all up to us, might we not be moved actually to do something about suffering where we find it? Freed from metaphysical angst and transcendent aspirations, perhaps we would be more able to open ourselves to fellow travelers and the world during the short time we share the latter with the former, and then simply let it all go as our spark is extinguished, recognizing that we are making room for others to experience the marvel of consciousness--who will appear like a new crop of dandelions or butterflies in the spring, just as beautiful as those, now vanished, that we saw before.

There is an undeniable attractiveness in the naturalist's perspective, charitably and sympathetically construed. Why assume that someone who really gave herself to this perspective should experience less in the way of pragmatic benefits such as peace and happiness than the person of religious faith? Though this might turn out to be the case, it is not at all obvious at the start.

A second point here is this. Even if religious faith of some sort came out ahead of naturalism in the pragmatist's calculation, notice how very far we would have come from what Jordan was supposed to defend--namely belief in the God of theism. Indeed, now we would have something with which even my hiddenness argument is compatible! As I suggested at the very beginning, the hiddenness argument provides a basis for rejecting pragmatic arguments like Jordan's as applicable to our actual intellectual situation. But adopting the generic ultimistic faith I earlier contrasted with theistic faith is quite compatible with accepting the hiddenness argument as sound. For even if we have good reason to think theism false, it is arguable that ultimism is at most doubtful,[7] and so ultimistic faith remains an option.

What follows--and this is the last twist in our tale--is that no one who encounters my hiddenness argument and accepts it as sound should be led to infer that it rules out the possibility of rational religion. What it really may do, in conjunction with all the other points I have emphasized herein, is to show us in which direction we must look if rational religion is to be found.

Continue the Debate

Table of Contents


[1] By collected disjunctively under his notion of a deviant deity, I mean that, where the nontheistic possibilities (the various nontheistic religious existence claims) are listed as >N1,N2, N3...Nn and the existence of a deviant deity is represented by >D, >D must be taken as equivalent to >N1 or N2 or N3...or Nn.

[2] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1989), p. 6. For more on the nature of religion, see Chapter 1 of my Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca: Cornell, 2005).

[3] In his last endnote Jordan has a surprising (and surprisingly brief!) response to an objection much like the one I have pressed here. To the suggestion that "a similar empirical benefit [is] to be had with non-Western religions," he says this: "The problem with this objection is that it ignores that we are discussing a forced issue." This is something less than illuminating. Just how is the issue 'forced'? And how, without pretending that we are completely ignorant of vibrant nontheistic forms of religious belief, can it be thought to be forced in a manner excluding all nontheistic religious options other than some narrowly construed and completely imaginary 'deviant deity'?

[4] See my Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion, chaps. 5 and 6.

[5] The Alpine hiker example may seem, upon reflection, to have some inconvenient features. For does the hiker have one of the belief-producing pills Jordan refers to in another connection, or is there any other way she can quickly produce belief? Clearly not. Self-deception takes time. The most she can do is to have faith that she can make the jump!

[6] And this even if, say, some form of property dualism turned out to be the correct solution to the mind-body problem: even if our existence introduces both physical and nonphysical properties into the world, so long as the latter are generated naturally, we can still 'fully belong' to the natural world.

[7] I provide the argument here alluded to in The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).

Copyright ©2008 John Schellenberg. The electronic version is copyright ©2008 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of John Schellenberg. All rights reserved.