Saturday, July 20, 2013

Book Review: Faith and Reason by Richard Swinburne

Faith and Reason (henceforth FAR) is the final volume in Richard Swinburne’s trilogy on the philosophy of religion.  In The Coherence of Theism Swinburne examined the claims of theism and came to the provisional conclusions that (a) theism was not demonstrably incoherent and (b) a more feasible but indirect way of arguing for the coherence of theism was to provide grounds for thinking theism was true. So in The Existence of God Swinburne examined the arguments for and against the existence of God and concluded that the preponderance of evidence indicated God exists.  In FAR Swinburne is concerned with the relevance of such judgments of probability (i.e., ‘God exists’) to religious faith.

Believing ‘that’ vs. ‘believing in’. Swinburne first considers what it means to believe something. He notes that traditionally a distinction is made between ‘believing that’ and ‘believing in’. The former can be characterized as asserting a proposition, the latter as ‘making the assumption that’ or ‘trusting that’. Swinburne notes that ‘believing that’ does not necessarily require a particularly strong belief ‘that’. For example, if I judged it 55% likely that Candidate A will win the election and 45% likely that Candidate B will win the election, surely I believe that Candidate A will win. Nonetheless, I also acknowledge a significant probability that Candidate A will not win—that Candidate B, rather, will win. The strength of my belief that such-and-such is true can become weaker still if there are more options. For example, say there are Candidates A, B, C, and D vying for some political post. I may believe that Candidate A will win (that is, Candidate A has a better chance than the remaining three) and yet there be a greater than 50% chance that one of Candidates B, C, or D will win. (Say I believe that Candidate A has a 40 percent chance of winning and Candidates B, C, and D each have a 20% chance of winning). Swinburne judges that this has implications for Christian (or any) religious belief: one can believe that Christianity is true (relative to other religious options) but still acknowledge a strong probability that one is wrong in holding that belief. Swinburne’s discussion of ‘believing in’ is even more illuminating. One can ‘believe in’ or ‘trust in’ or ‘make the assumption that’ even if the ‘belief that’ is fairly weak, and be perfectly rational in doing so. Swinburne provides an example involving an Englishman lost in Turkey. The Englishman may stop a passing Turk and ask for directions (in English) of where such-and-such a place is. The Englishman may judge it very unlikely that the passing Turk speaks English, but is willing to ‘make the assumption’ that the Turk speaks English so that he can achieve his goal of getting to such-and-such a place. Once again we see the possibility of ‘making the assumption that’ being rational even if the ‘belief that’ is fairly weak. So-what makes adopting a religious way (e.g., Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam) a rational decision?

Means-end beliefs. When we attempt to achieve some purpose, the most germane beliefs we hold are means-end beliefs. That is, what are my beliefs about which means (methods or procedures) will help me achieve my ends (purposes or goals)? The link with religious belief is relatively straightforward. Various religions propose various ends (goals) and various means (as outlined in creeds) by how those goals can be achieved. To hold a rational religious belief, some person S should first analyze the goals of a given religion. Are they morally desirable and attractive?[1] Second, one should analyze the means (i.e., the creeds) of those religions. Is there a plausible and intuitive connection between the means (the creeds) and the ends (goals) of the religion in question? Put another way, is it plausible to assume that if the religion is true, following the means (the creed) will lead to the ends (goals) of the religion? And finally, there must be some evidence that the religion is true.

The ends of religion. In examining the goals of various religions, Swinburne outlines three goals which he thinks are present in most (if not all) of the major religions of the world. The first goal is to render proper worship to any God or gods which exist.[2] The second purpose is to achieve salvation (however defined) for oneself and the third is to help others achieve this salvation. In addressing the first purpose, Swinburne notes that we owe duties to our earthly benefactors. Such duty would become ever greater as the benefactor became more and more ‘ultimate’. If we are dealing with a benefactor who is the source of our very existence, our obligation to this benefactor would result in an obligation to worship. This obligation, he thinks, becomes even stronger on the Christian view of God (compared to, say, Islam)—that is, if God is thought to be Triune (and hence an exemplification of ultimate Love) and who also undertook a human nature to provide us with an example of a perfect human life, partook of our suffering, and atoned for our sins. And if there is no God in certain belief systems (e.g., Buddhism) then this goal is not even as such ‘available’. Such an attractive God would also have implications for the second purpose of religion: what kind of salvation[3] is being offered to the individual.

“I suggest that only that sort of life would be worth having forever. Only a task which made continued progress for its own sake but which would take infinite time to finish would be worth doing forever; only a situation which was ever more worth having would be worth living forever. The growing friendship of a friendship with a God who, if he is of the sort pictured by Christian theology, has ever new aspects of Himself to reveal…..would provide a life worth living forever…” pp. 181

If this line of thinking is successful, then obviously the third goal of religion follows quite naturally. If the Christian view of God entails obligations to worship, and entails an attractive view of salvation for the individual, then it seems prima facie plausible that one would also have a duty to help others fulfill their obligations of worshipping this benefactor and enjoying this attractive salvation.

The means of religion. Even if the goals of a certain religion are judged morally desirable or otherwise attractive, it does not yet follow that one should adopt a religion on the goals alone. One must also judge that the means of the religion (as outlined in creeds) are, if adopted, likely to achieve the ends or goals or purposes of the religion. If I desire to go to London, I will board a certain train only if I judge that doing so will get me to London.
So Swinburne then argues that there are plausible connections between the means (contents of the Christian Creed) and the ends (purposes or goals) of the Christian religion. [4] Drawing on arguments made at greater length in Responsibility and Atonement, Swinburne argues that central core Christian doctrines gel nicely with our moral intuitions on more mundane matters. For example, he argues that the Christian doctrine of the atonement involves things like repentance, apology, reparation, and repentance. If I steal your watch, for me to atone for that act requires that I genuinely apologize (which means I both apologize and genuinely repent), that I make reparation for the act (I return the watch to you) and perhaps do penance as well (I also give you something more than just the watch to ‘make up’ for my wrongdoing. But the greater the gulf between the offender and the offended, the harder it is for the offender to ‘foot the bill’ himself. If my son breaks a neighbor’s window, my son should genuinely apologize. But making reparations may be beyond my son’s capacity—I might have to pay for the window to be repaired. So too might penance be beyond my son’s capacity—I might have to do that for him as well. On the Christian view, what humans have owed God is a perfect human life, which we quite obviously cannot provide. In addition, how could we provide penance if reparation (which penance is defined as ‘going beyond’) is already beyond us? So plausibly a good God might provide atonement in the fashion outlined in the Christian Creed.

The truth of religion. And, of course, the moral desirability and attractiveness of the ends of a religion, and the coherence between the means and the end of a religion, are not enough. We are rational in following a certain way to achieve a certain end only if we believe that by following that way we will achieve those ends. So we must also consider the arguments from natural theology and the historical arguments for the Resurrection.

Summary. Swinburne has argued that (a) the ends of the Christian religion are morally desirable and attractive (b) that because they are desirable we should be motivated to investigate their truth (c) that it seems plausible that following the Christian way will achieve Christian goals (given the coherent links between the means and ends of the Christian religion) as long as (d) Christianity is judged probably true.

Conclusion. As always with Swinburne, I walk away in less than total agreement with his views—but I also am appreciative that he is so systematic in his treatments. His discussion of ‘weak belief’ in ‘believing that’ was of great comfort to me, as I all too often wonder how hypocritical I am being when I continue to harbor (occasionally strong) doubts but still claim to belief. 

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Latter Day Inkling is a U.S.-based research psychologist for the military. He is especially interested in epistemology and natural theology.

[1] “The more important it is, the morally better it is, that I should attain some goal the more important it is that I should try to acquire a true belief about how to do so.” p. 40
[2] If one is convinced that some form of theism is true—as Swinburne argues in The Existence of God—then one will have already ruled out many forms of Hinduism and Buddhism.
[3] Swinburne notes other ways in which, he judges, Christian salvation is more attractive. For example, the Buddhist doctrine of the ‘no self’ implies that strictly speaking the ‘I’ that now exists is not the same ‘I’ that will be present later on. So strictly speaking ‘I’ do not achieve salvation. Further, some versions of Buddhism (and Hinduism) propose a ‘salvation’ which is said to be so ineffable as to undercut any attempt to argue positively for its attractiveness.
[4] “I am not now attempting to show that the Christian Creed is true; but only that, if it is true, it has the resources to explain why pursuit of the Christian way will lead to the rendering of proper worship and obedience to God or gods, and to the attainment of salvation for the follower herself, and how it will help others to attain their salvation”.-pp. 198-199


  1. J. Steve Miller July 23, 2013

    Good summary! Thanks!

  2. Saints and Sceptics July 23, 2013

    Latter Day Inkling
    As always, an excellent summary!