There is only a tenuous link between answers to the existence question and answers to the authority question. Religious language is very flexible, and the range of answers to the authority question it allows span an enormous range.
When people argue, in religious language, for positions on the authority question that are virtually identical to positions I would want to take using non-theistic language, then I see no reason to oppose them. I am therefore not opposed to the metaphor of God; I am only opposed to people abusing it in certain ways. I am not opposed to religion; I am only opposed to false religions.
Virtually all positions that fallibilism takes have actually been taken at one time or the other, in one tradition or the other, by either theologians or ordinary believers. Fallibilism is therefore not outside the religious space; it is one way of filling that space.
Except for the existence of God, an atheistic and a theistic fallibilism could come to identical conclusions. It is these conclusions that matter. The existence question by itself matters hardly at all. There is not much to choose between two equivalent sets of metaphors.
The enemy is not religion; the enemy are false infallibilist philosophies, independent of whether they come dressed in secular or theistic clothing.
The flipside of declaring one’s own position to be beyond revision is to declare alternatives to be worthless. Not just worth (much) less, but strictly worthless. If you believe alternative positions to be absolutely worthless, you should, logically, be indifferent to their annihilation. You might just as well wish for their annihilation.
There is only a small practical, but a considerable philosophical difference between saying “This belief is absolutely beyond revision” and saying “It would take an awful lot to convince me to drop this belief, and I think it is highly unlikely to happen, but I would find it exciting if it really did come to pass without my standards having slipped.” This difference in attitude is another way of distinguishing fallibilism from infallibilism.
Fallibilism thus creates breathing space. A little room for coexistence, and a basic level of respect.
Dialogue is only dialogue if both participants are willing, ultimately, to risk all of their beliefs in the conversation. For practical purposes dialogue is often limited and confined. But even limited, confined dialogue is enlivened by the latent possibility of expanding into an unlimited dialogue that risks everything.
Marking certain beliefs as beyond discussion – e.g. by declaring them to be “inspired” or “infallible” or “scientifically certain” – is to declare one’s intention to use them as weapons, as clubs to beat others. A move from dialogue to monologue, to the harangue and to propaganda.
Missionaries who do not risk being changed by their mission, being converted by those they seek to convert, are on a false mission.
Fallibilism takes a predictable position on the authority of scripture: Any human capturing of revelation is partial, scripture no different from other texts in staying radically fallible. Fallibilism also leans heavily against magical shortcuts around human fallibility, e.g. claims of dictation or direct authorship by a supernatural being. Any text from any source remains a text, and thus remains subject to complete fallibility.
The existing traditions already allow for critical interpretation of scripture. Take the Catholic insistence on interpretation within a tradition, the Protestant insistence on individual conscience, or the Jewish proclivity for enriching the original text by commentary.
In order to reconcile the treatment of scripture with fallibilism we must go beyond critical interpretation and also allow for innovation and selective rejection.
Although present on the margins – e.g. in avantgarde theology and Mormonism – , ongoing revelation is a concept that mainstream Christianity finds hard to assimilate.
Even so, the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council to undertake revisions in doctrine relies on some measure of inspired presence. By only a slight stretch can we consider ecumenical councils a form of ongoing revelation (unwillingly) recognised by the Catholic Church.
Protestantism has usually framed the Reformation as a project of returning to uncorrupted origins. The rhetorical conventions of infallibilism made it necessary to present any innovations as a return to pre-existing practices of the early Church (even if these practices should never have existed). But it is also possible, and arguably much more plausible, to view the Reformation as an instance of forward-looking innovation, not backward-looking restoration. And if innovation was possible in the time of Luther and Calvin, it should be possible today.
In the Jewish tradition, there is room for commentary to supersede the original text. As commentary becomes creative, it can begin to shift the text. Innovation may thus occur in the guise of commentary.
Is there more revelation to come ? Could future revelation contradict past revelation ? Or are we stuck with the depressing position that all the most important questions about life were answered once and for all two thousand years ago (or some other time in the remote past). The R&D department is closed. No new ideas or prophets need apply.
Fashionable theologian talk of keeping dogma liquid. This almost makes them fallibilist. What they would need to concede in addition is that when the liquefied dogma resettles, it could resettle into a substantively different shape. That the most appropriate incarnation of the Holy Spirit for our time may be secularism. (I am not expecting them to concede that this is likely. They should, however, concede the possibility. For if they do not concede this, all talk of keeping dogma liquid is mere window-dressing. A commitment to immovable dogma hidden behind fancier language.)
Compared against fashionably redressed varieties, I much prefer the honesty of unvarnished dogmatism: Take the Catholic insistence on the (occasional) infallibility of the magisterium, or the Protestant insistence on the inerrancy (of a plain reading) of scripture, and you have examples of bad, infallibilist answers to the authority question.
Infallibilist claims of truth cannot be established by ordinary means – by appeals to evidence, argument, or personal example. No properly critical mode of inquiry can deliver results that are absolutely final and irreversible. There are therefore only two ways of getting away with an infallibilist claim: By bluffing, or forced imposition. Historically, religious authorities tried the latter; today they are largely reduced to the first.
The grandfather of all infallibilist conceptions of truth is Plato’s allegory of the cave. Every time the pied piper of totalitarianism rides into town his many religious admirers swoon.
Although Plato claims that there exists a select priesthood, including him, who can guide us to a true reality beyond all appearances, reality is actually structured like a Russian doll. It only seems that you have left all caves behind during the first flush of discovery. As soon as your eyes have adjusted you will notice that you have another cave wall in front of you, that you have reached a slightly spacier, more pleasant cave, but you are still in a cave. We can play off less solid against more trustworthy appearances; we cannot leave all appearances behind.
Plato’s promise that we can leave all caves and chains behind is effectively blasphemous. Plato claims that we can jump out of all human limitation onto a divine plane, where we are supposed to be able to walk with God in the bright light, converse with God as an equal. Knowledge of the kind Plato promises is reserved to God, and strictly unavailable to humans this side of the Millennium.
But Plato refuses to accept this, and starts talking reality down. He likens life on earth to a cave, when in actual fact it takes place under a wide open sky. He talks down real, hard-earned knowledge by comparison with his bright fantasy of knowledge. He talks down the prospect of making real life somewhat more liveable by comparisons to a perfect standard of life outside of this world.
Claims of an Objectively Existing Platonic Moral Order have always and everywhere been used to legitimise, even sanctify, the status quo. In the
Religions that incorporate Plato’s concept of knowledge are false religions. Christianity was not at birth Platonist, but it did become, and remains today, largely Platonist. Adopting a dogmatic concept of truth was an integral part of the drive to power for the post-Jesus church. A drive that succeeded beyond imagination, turning the Church into an arbiter of power and the largest landholder in Europe.
The degree of objectivity and certainty Platonism promises is simply not humanly attainable. Platonist claims of truth are therefore always and necessarily a fraud.
Getting up on one’s soap box and claiming to own the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth has always been pompous. It is exposed in all its ridiculousness in a pluralist society when twenty others are routinely doing the same. Denied their coercive monopoly, the exponents of exclusive claims are left flailing, incapable of coping with the social reality of pluralism.
I am not the expert on following Jesus, but owning up to the vulnerability of one’s claims also seems a much more Christ-like gesture than the arrogant denial of imperfections issued by the Platonists.
Pro-authority Christians need to construct precedents for Jesus making hard, quasi-Platonist claims. The verse they most like to cite – “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6) – can be read in two ways: Infallibilistically, reducing Truth to a litmus test of specific doctrines. Or fallibilistically, reading the Way as a general attitude, almost Daoist in its connotations. Only on the first interpretation are infallibilist claims endorsed, whereas on the second interpretation the right way of life might just well be defined in opposition to such claims. (The infallibilist claim is strictly exclusive, the fallibilist claim not quite. Since the Way is primarily about the attitude exemplified by a teacher, it allows for a variety of contents. Not arbitrary content, obviously, but still a great variety. The attitude that governs the contents, though, is binding in a pretty much exclusive way.)
In sum: Platonist claims are hugely implausible. They are also fraudulent, blasphemous, and un-Christ-like. They are the mark of an evil cult.
It would not be enough to concede that one’s own position may only be the relatively closest to the truth, rather than the whole truth. To reach fallibilism even more needs to be conceded: That no component of doctrine, even its core, is absolutely beyond error, that every component could potentially deserve to be revised. (Recall that this is not about likelihood, only about conceding the possibility.) To admit radical fallibility is to admit that any part, not knowing which, could in future justly come to be revised. Iconoclasm is a familiar religious impulse, which fallibilism takes to new heights of purity.
Are there elements of doctrine, known today, that are absolutely beyond revision ? If you answer yes, you’re an infallibilist.
There is a harmless form of “Platonism”, but it hardly deserves the name. We can take the One as a purely formal regulative idea, an unattainable and unknowable limit of knowledge. Defining God as reality-in-itself is not false, but unwieldy. The apparatus is unnecessary, when all it effectively means is that we should work to make our claims as good as we can. What the regulative idea intends to say is that any existing claims is subject to be queried by a yet better claim.
There is also a religious tradition of leaving absolute truth to God, and remaining humble about one’s own truth claims. Fallibilism can be seen as an outgrowth of this contrary tradition.
Fallibilism is equivalent to the belief that we can perceive God only through a glass very, very darkly. Claims of clear and transparent instructions directly from God are the mark of a false prophet.
Call it the irony of iconoclasm: Iconoclasts who still feel the need to smash something have not overcome their idolatrous desires, they have merely rechannelled them. Protestantism and Islam smashed images, but redirected their idolatrous worship onto the written word. A truly universal iconoclasm would smash nothing. It leaves everything in place, yet changes our attitude towards everything. It aims for an attitude of proper detachment. Just as any image is inadequate as a representation of God, any text is profoundly inadequate. To treat representations with proper detachment is to treat them as radically fallible, is to treat them as presentations made by people to other people.
A God who could be contained in a denominational creed would be a pathetic creature. A God who could be contained between the covers of a book would not be worth believing in.
Iconoclasm is a familiar religious impulse, which fallibilism takes to new heights of purity.
I may be able to accept, on a generous day, the idea that true freedom requires obedience to God. Obedience to reality, yes, living at its edge – trying to find out just how bad the best possible world would be. Obedience, yes, if defined as maximal suppleness, minimal ego in our responses to reality. What I will never accept is the idea that freedom requires unquestioning obedience to a human institution that claims to speak for God. Fallibilism has no objections in principle to a theologia negativa. It is, however, hard to see how a serious negative theology differs from functional atheism. If God is beyond human formatting, then this also applies to anything expressed by means of human language. If any formatting is inadequate, then the standing of revelation is severely relativised – to the point where the authority of sacred texts does not exceed that of other literary classics. If any formatting is fundamentally inadequate, the teachings of religious authorities can be no more than provisional approximations, more hints and clues than commands.
Some institutions may provide for some people the best framework for individual development and the best shot at a successfully lived life. But even when they do, they are still only the least imperfect on the market. It is blasphemous for an institution to claim that its doctrines are perfect and deserving of total obedience.
It is embarrassing for people to preen themselves on how they have achieved grace. It is disgusting for an institution to claim that it owns grace: Only corrupt institutions would ever claim to be able to dispense grace at will, or claim a monopoly of grace.
Grace is like truth. As soon as you claim to possess either truth or grace they turn sour on you.
There are a few non-perverted ways of talking about grace, but they all involve the seeking of grace.
The most an institution, true to fallibilism, could claim: That it is a relatively better, relatively more reliable facilitator of grace. A relatively less unsuccessful company of seekers for grace.
It may be worth the attempt for a corporate body to project a brand image of infallibilist certainty, built on exaggerated advertising. And then for the corporate officers to represent the corporate line. (It remains to be seen, of course, whether the bluff can still be pulled off once unsupported by coercion.) But even corporate officers have private minds. Even corporate officers retain an (atrophied) conscience.
Fallibilism stresses conscience as the ultimate locus of decision. There is nothing wrong with seeking guidance from institutions. We are in fact nearly unable to live meaningfully without respecting and accepting the accumulated wisdom of past generations. But no one should blindly follow to the extent of suppressing one’s conscience. For fallibilism there is always and inevitably a gap between what the institution says believers should believe and what the believer actually decides to believe. Closing the gap would not lead to perfection, but damnation.
Fallibilism has no objections in principle to a theologia negativa. It is, however, hard to see how a serious negative theology differs from functional atheism. If God is beyond human formatting, then this also applies to anything expressed by means of human language. If any formatting is inadequate, then the standing of revelation is severely relativised – to the point where the authority of sacred texts does not exceed that of other literary classics. If any formatting is fundamentally inadequate, the teachings of religious authorities can be no more than provisional approximations, more hints and clues than commands.
There is nothing wrong with confident, or bold, or strong claims. Something starts being wrong when the word ‘absolutely’ is added in front.
Only a false religion would claim that firmness of purpose requires an irrational degree of certainty in one’s beliefs.
The mark of false religions, both secular and theistic, is the certainty of the fanatic. Contrast this with the sanity of fallibilism: resigned to making do with the least imperfect of all the available alternatives.
Firmness of purpose does not come from irresponsible punting on implausible premises, but from ruthless risk management. Hold firm to a practice for as long it proves best, and transition to a better practice if one arises. Consistently seeking best practice is exactly what the world’s largest corporations attempt to do. One can accuse Microsoft of many things. Softness of purpose is not one them.
There is nothing terribly wrong about becoming sentimentally attached to people and places and rituals. But it is unhealthy to become sentimentally attached to beliefs, including religious ones. We should be as unsentimental about religious beliefs as businesses are about their production processes. A belief that does not perform should be fired.
The paralysis and lack of imagination of Nietzsche’s Last Man is a withdrawal symptom. It describes the shock of the new, the shock of a recent and incomplete awakening from orthodox patterns of thought. Infallibilism is a hard addiction to cure. How romantic to be absolutely right, about some things.
A hand-crafted, experimentally confirmed purpose is still the most solid grounding our lives can have. There are no metaphysically true or false purposes that we could align ourselves with. There are only responsible and irresponsible choices. Reality is a demanding teacher, and running disciplined experiments to discover which purposes work for oneself the opposite of arbitrary. Irresponsible, by contrast, would be this: Staking one’s life on an arbitrary religious doctrine that lacks empirical grounding.
Religiously motivated practices may indeed be incidentally successful and worth maintaining. What interests, however, is their meaningfulness, not their religious character.
There is nothing wrong with actions done for religious reasons if they are also done for other reasons, e.g. compassion, community, caring for oneself. Ideological action – actions that are undertaken solely because of an abstract religious belief – is liable to be regretted as meaningless later on. True nihilism is making one’s purpose ride on assumptions with a high risk of turning out literal nothings. What is wisdom except taking care that one’s life retains its meaning even when one's ideology fails ?
Collective action is not an unalloyed good. Imperial conquests, crusades, pogroms, witch hunts, etc are also examples of collective action. And the action of a suicide bomber is undeniably costly. If less religion really meant less of these, then less religion would be welcome.
The main output of doctrinal theology, apart from second-rate philosophy, are tribal markers. Although funny hats or colourful tattoos would serve just as well, bizarre beliefs have been very successful as markers. Reasons, or sad excuses rather, for people to feel better about themselves, and look down on out-of-tribers.
Why is in-tribe solidarity good when it comes at the expense of out-tribe solidarity ? Why is religion’s artificially dividing humanity into tribes a good thing ?
Religious tribes are like families in both senses of the word. They can, like nations, be crime families, a conspiracy to conquer, plunder, and exploit. Or they can be healthy families, places of mutual support and shared lives, without expansionist intentions towards outsiders.
Setting out to conquer is just what tribes do. There is, on some level, nothing to object to. What does bear objecting: When the conquerors talk about love, peace, and justice. When the conquerors complain about the burden they bear in bringing civilisation and democracy.
Religiously motivated person-on-person violence is rare in western-style democracies. There are, however, still attempts by religious groups to wield political power through the law – which is after all only a cold, bureaucratic application of violence. A religion that gives others reasons to see it as a conspiracy to oppress, harass, and stigmatise is a false religion.
We could choose beliefs for many reasons other than evidence in their favour, e.g. for their comfort value, their energising force, or for facilitating social cohesion.
For as long as reality allows one to get away with it, preferring comfort over evidence is a rational strategy of belief selection. It assumes, however, that reality will stay quiet and stable. It may not.
Cautionary tale after tale teaches us how any supposedly life-enhancing illusion will rot and become toxic over time. Nothing happens more quickly than a noble lie turning ignoble.
To the extent that honesty tends to be the best longterm policy, evidence is probably our best longterm bet. The right path may be called risk-minimal, but it is rarely found without courage.
A true religion would encourage us to build our worldview from the ground up. Questions that arise locally within science should be answered locally by scientific best practice, and their results then integrated into our broader worldview. If, say, locally within biology the theory of evolution imposes itself, then a true religion should urge us to respect this fact on the more global, speculative level.
Fallibilism entails a commitment to being “empirical” in the ordinary way – empirical without succumbing to empiricism: preferring low-lying theories tied to lots of little facts to high-flying abstractions. Preferring messy particulars to all too tidy unification.
We should decide questions on as low and concrete a level as possible, and resort to higher-level abstractions only where necessary. We should focus on evidence, ie return to the small, more easily decidable parts of the questions as often as we can.
A religion worth believing in should encourage its believers to follow the evidence where it leads. Christians who takes this gamble risk discovering that Christianity may not be the Truth, and that the most honest mode of inquiry may not lead to Christ. At the same time, unbelievers risk falling into faith.
Certain enthusiasts are overly sure that their religion represents the Truth, and that it has therefore nothing to fear from free inquiry. I largely agree with religious reactionaries that this view is naïve, that in fact religious organisations have many things to fear from freedom.
As a matter of statistical averages, more often than not, a deepening of the commitment to honest inquiry seems to lead to a lessening of (orthodox) faith. To the extent that the historical record suggests that Christian orthodoxy tends to retreat in the face of honest inquiry, the prognosis for a Christian faith held fully in the spirit of tough and open inquiry must be at least doubtful. If one’s overriding commitment is the maintenance of orthodoxy, one should probably oppose unfettered freedom of both the press and the university.
I tend to agree with religious reactionaries that hoping for a vindication by reason is a bad bet, and more likely than not to lead believers away. Inquiry is far from guaranteed to converge with faith.
In contrast to the reactionaries, I would maintain that honest inquiry is its own reward, and trumps the value any orthodoxy could have. This, however, is ultimately no better than a faith – the faith that honest inquiry is the only creed worth being loyal to.
This faith is based on the belief that placing one’s ultimate trust in a creed, any substantive creed, is a cowardly evasion of life’s reality. A bet bound to turn out bad.
Fallibilism is hence defined by placing the pursuit of honest inquiry above loyalty to any particular beliefs. It respects any religious practice that does the same.
The common ground for all fallibilists, believing and unbelieving, is their loyalty to free and open-ended inquiry. Placing loyalty to a particular set of beliefs, including atheism, above open-ended inquiry is to leave fallibilism, and behave in a way that is, to fallibilist eyes, actively immoral.
Honest inquiry does not lead to single, binding answers. Honest inquirers can reasonably disagree about many issues, big and small. Honest inquiry only restricts the range of legitimate disagreements; as long as religious positions fall within this range (the boundaries of which are themselves contested), there is nothing to object to.
Tying respect for the beliefs of others to truth is an impracticable criterion (unless one collapses ´true belief´ into ´believing the same as I do´). Truth in a large sense is unobservable. All we can observe, at least partially, is the general honesty of the inquirer. And we can then calibrate our respect to be proportional to their honesty, independent of whether they agree with us or not.
When the evidence contradicts religious positions, but the contradictions remain contained within the limits of legitimate disagreement, no neutral ground remains. Just as there is no fully neutral ground to decide between scientific paradigms, can no referee be called to decide between worldviews. Once all disagreements have been aired, and best efforts of resolution been made, only undecidability remains.
Even when the religious position is apparently contradicted by present evidence, one could legitimately maintain that it represents the fuller truth, and will be vindicated by future evidence. The reasonableness of such an expectation is something about which inquirers can honestly disagree.
The final decision, although of course informed by public discourse, is essentially a private one. Evaluating the balance of explicit evidence and implicit intuitions, our own wisdom against tradition’s, making sense of the total picture, is a responsibility that we each have to meet on our own.
Everyone carries unprovable presuppositions, yet the better presuppositions are as light and thin and parsimonious as possible.
The presuppositions of the Christian worldview are big, fat and clunky: The particulars can seem implausible, the grand story of salvation takes a lot of swallowing.
To assert presuppositions without giving (relatively more) neutral reasons amounts to a retreat behind the walls of a sectarian ghetto. Unless the retreat is justified by active persecution, little truth is likely to be found there.
A faith that retreats behind a wall of sectarian presuppositions has given up on itself. Restricting oneself at the outset to a captive audience is to abandon all ambitions of world-class quality. Any intellectual product that does not aim for global domination is aiming too low.
A spirituality that does not put facing reality, facing the facts and the evidence, front and centre, is not deep. It is a recipe for self-indulgence, the self-serving retreat into a bubble. A pain-killing haze is not enlightenment.
Many traditional believers would reject New Age spirituality as shallow. Yet the same accusation of shallowness also applies to certain traditional forms of spirituality.
We cannot live by evidence alone, all of us have to take crazy chances. But we should borrow from trust beyond evidence only as little as possible.
There is nothing profound about evading the facts, or the best known explanations of phenomena.
Nor is there anything profound about accepting miracles, ie accepting bad explanations when better explanations are available.
There are religious ways of criticising belief in miracles. Many religious reformers have done so. Few have entirely succeeded.
A religion that erects a taboo around ways of knowing does not deserve to be trusted. Only people with something to hide would propagate a belief in mechanisms that are in principle beyond human understanding. Only a false religion would put any part of itself beyond ordinary, critical scrutiny.
If something is beyond human understanding the best we can do is to remain silent about it. (So perhaps we should remain silent about God.) If, on the other hand, it is accessible to human understanding we should investigate it just like anything else.
The label natural/supernatural is not relevant. Any good explanation of phenomena is welcome, whether they fall inside or outside of what is today considered normal. The argument is, in fact, about what we should mean by “good” explanation.
There are only very few dissenters today from the idea that scientific questions should be decided by scientific methods. The fact part of the authority question has almost been settled. The relevance of religious authorities for questions of value and behaviour is still disputed.
Should we grant people who speak for religion, any religion, a special authority on issues of morality and ethics, on how we humans live our lives ? Should we disqualify religion on the grounds that it impairs clear thinking ? Or should we say that religion as such makes no difference, that everything depends on the precise contents of the speaker’s position ?
There are religious ways of denying that the officers of a religious institution own special knowledge. The minister is still a sinner. The church still a fallible institution. The bible still a human text.
Do religious leaders enjoy an authority that exceeds secular knowledge, or should we trust them only if their advice also makes sense on non-religious grounds ?
A peaceful tradition that has survived for a long time without unfair state support and seen off many challengers has earned a certain presumption of trustworthiness. Such a presumption, however, only carries so far; it should not be mistaken for a blanket endorsement. There may be parts, even large parts, of the tradition that have reached retirement age.
There is a direct channel from democracy to unbelief: Pluralist democracies virtually require a policy of methodological naturalism in order to function.
When the only legitimate weapon left is speech, the only way of expanding one’s market share is to reach out to others who start from different premises. The need to build political coalitions trains even religious people in arguing as if there were no God, or God were in everything.
Participation in public discourse forces people to argue in ways that try to transcend, however imperfectly, the boundaries of their own tradition. And so it has become routine for religious conservatives to argue their moral positions with reference to social science studies. By allowing the battleground to shift from scriptural interpretation to the quality of social science, they have in effect accepted the policy of public naturalism.
The scientist enters the laboratory, and for the sake of communication with other scientists, writes her papers as if there were no God.
The same policy of methodological naturalism – speaking, for the sake of addressing the widest possible audience, as if religious authority were irrelevant – applies to matters of value.
To claim divine authority for one’s own preferred policy position is to dress up one’s claim in a fat suit. And fat, in this case, is clearly not beautiful.
So instead of waiting for each tribe to enact its own prostrations in front of its own favourite idol, we go ahead to bracket divine authority. All sectarian presuppositions are suspended. We temporarily move questions of ultimate grounds off-limits.
Instead of arguing – unproductively – about metaphysical grounds we argue concretely about the consequences of actions (the utilitarian track of ethics), the risks and uncertainties inherent in action (the rights track of ethics), or their effects on the person (the virtue track of ethics).
If we can best resolve scientific questions by pretending that God is irrelevant, and best approach a moral consensus by pretending that God is irrelevant, then we have proved that large parts of our (public) lives can be lived successfully without paying attention to (particular conceptions of) God. (This is assuming that God is separate from the world, not always already involved in everything. If ‘God’ is only another word for the totality of reality then we might come closer to God by leaving particular representations behind. We may be closest to God when furthest from theology. )
The usefulness of the policy is independent of belief in factual existence. It is in the interest of theists no less than atheists to adopt a policy of naturalism whenever public agreement, rather than personal testimony, is at stake.
Yet the success of pretending the irrelevance of religious authority will over time come close to proving the irrelevance. Uncomfortable as this may be for believers, it’s a price of plural democracy.
Claiming exemption from will-to-power is the lamest trick in the book. In order to believe that claiming exemption grants exemption you have to be either incredibly naïve, or believe that your opposites are incredibly stupid. Taking the line “I’m not subject to will-to-power because I’m a Christian saved by grace, motivated only by love, etc” does not mean that you will be outside the power game, it only means that you declare your intention to play the game in an unprofessional and hypocritical manner.
Will-to-power is really only a more mature version of the concept of original sin. It agrees with original sin in admitting our limitations, our imperfections, our fallibility. It is more mature because it refuses unambiguously what many Christian traditions only refuse either ambiguously or not at all: the false hope of reaching beyond any of these constraints through the saving power of faith. It means finally accepting the radical fallibility of anything human, including all humanly accessible parts of religion. Accepting that not even the tiniest scrap of our religious knowledge is perfect, or pure.
There is also no need any more to beat ourselves up over what is just our nature. Rather than call it ‘sin’ we should think of fallibility as something essentially neutral, or even something we can valorise.
Infallibilists will say that the claims of their own religion, uniquely among all other claims, are not animated by will-to-power. They will say for instance that revelation is “true”, and since “truth” transcends the fray, that their claims are “objective”, not shot through with the pettiness of power. Which is nonsense. Precisely because no claim is beyond suspicion do we have to work so hard at reducing the impact of suspicious behaviours. Objectivity, such as it is, represents a fragile achievement that needs to be worked at continually. From all these efforts infallibilists believe themselves to be excused because, apparently, painting a sanctimonious face on one’s own will-to-power is enough to make it disappear.
Here is a test: When challenged to state whether their own claims are expressions of will-to-power, the infallibilist will deny it, citing some metaphysical notion of truth. The fallibilist will cheerfully admit it, and invite you to inspect all the measures taken to minimise the temptations of wilfulness and power.
Objectivity is not a metaphysical relation of correspondence to facts. Far from being the opposite of subjectivity, objectivity is actually a particular mode of subjectivity: Being objective means having been relatively successful at employing one’s subjectivity. Objectivity is thus a virtue, subjectivity managed in a desirable way. And the objectivity of claims derives from the objectivity of their authors. An objective claim is one that an objective person would make.
Peace is not the polar opposite of war. Peace is the state of having successfully managed our warlike tendencies.
A religion that totally identifies itself with a political party is an unethical creed.
A conservative (in the historical tradition of conservatism in which for instance Burke was a conservative) should be repelled by the double fraud of complete explanation and attainable salvation. True conservatives should reject in Christianity what they rejected, for the same good reasons, in communism: the sweeping unempirical ideology, the simplistic narrative for world history, the smug moral superiority.
The idea of salvation – making whole, safe, and perfect – is the antithesis of conservative thinking. The only Christian traditions that a conservative could be comfortable with are those that cover up the embarrassment of salvation. The favourite theological ploy is to assign its action so exclusively to the next life that it amounts to a total denial of salvation for this, the only relevant life.
The left-of-centre has thoroughly rejected total systems and schemes of salvation with Stalinism. When will the right-of-centre finally reject the promises of salvation and total knowledge made by (some version of) Christianity ?
A God said to entertain a special relationship with any particular nation is a tribal idol. Such a religion may have cultural value, but little ethical value.
A party calling itself the Party of God is certain to be no such thing.
A religion that converts by the sword is a false religion. A true religion triumphs by word and example. Since the state often uses other means, a wise religion keeps its distance from the state. It does not seek to exercise temporal power directly. Roman Catholicism gained when the papacy was reduced, against its will, to ruling no area larger than the
A religion that persecutes apostasy is a weak and pathetic creed. A confident and credible religion would not seek to be shielded from competition or fierce criticism. A confident and strong religion does not seek government protection from blasphemous speech. Nor does it seek establishment – to be favoured by the government or any other agency of power over other belief systems. All it seeks is free exercise – fair, open and non-violent competition with other belief systems. And accepts that it could deserve defeat in such a competition. And accepts that the world would be a better place if it turned out the loser in a fair fight. And trusts that during an open process the truth content of losing positions will be absorbed by competitors, so that nothing much of value is lost when the defeated positions eventually disappear. A true religion, in other words, knows how to die.
Religious people have justly complained about “scientism” – a tendency to claim an unrealistic degree of objectivity for science and rule out beliefs grounded in religious experience as meaningless.
Postmodernism means that religious truth claims are let in the door once more, which is only right and fair. But once through the door, the claims have to perform. While postmodernism is quite accommodating towards highly abstract, generic notions of theology, the performance of the concrete, particular claims of Christianity is even worse under the hypercriticism of postmodernism than the already severe criticism of modernism.
The only way is forward. The first naiveté of unchallenged orthodoxy is irrecoverable. A second naiveté can be reached only by facing down all doubts, exempting nothing from criticism, not science, not religion, not criticism itself. Once our stance has been adjusted to handle universal scepticism, fear vanishes. There is nothing left to fear. We know we stand on the least shaky ground available, and know how to react when even this begins to shake.
Fallibilism is not the enemy of religion. It is the enemy of falsehood in religion. It aims to be the acid bath that burns away everything in current religious practice that is false, but leave the valuable remainder unscathed. How much precious metal and other, lesser resources the acid bath leaves behind varies from religious configuration to configuration. In some cases, admittedly, hardly anything will remain.
We should be honest and admit that the fit between fallibilism and religion is not comfortable. Fallibilism brings along hypercriticism, and maintaining (orthodox) faith under fallibilism is a struggle up a slippery slope. History over the last few centuries strongly suggests that what waits at the bottom of the slope may be atheism, or polytheism, or pantheism, but certainly not any form of orthodox creedal monotheism. History also suggests that positions half-way up the slope are argumentatively unstable. But provided they express themselves fallibilistically, have been cleansed and filtered through fallibilism, they are not illegitimate.
No creedal religion stands a chance of becoming catholic, i.e. a global, universally shared ethos. Any creed automatically generates heresy, exclusion. Only an ethos like fallibilism that eschews substantive creeds has a chance of universal acceptability. (This is not inconsistent with excluding infallibilism, just as it is not inconsistent to exclude moral evil.)
Ecumenical dialogue is almost impossible for religious institutions. The boundaries of creedal religions are defined by doctrine, so by compromising on doctrine they compromise their existence. At the institutional level, the most that can probably be hoped for are ground rules for peaceful coexistence.
But it is possible for individuals, when not speaking as corporate officers bound to represent the interests of an institution, to achieve true ecumenical dialogue.
As part of this quest for a global ethos, fallibilism welcomes any religion that thoroughly grounds itself in fallibilism.