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This essay examines William James' view that pragmatic philosophy allows for theistic belief and compares it to Richard Rorty's argument that theistic belief is fundamentally incompatible with pragmatic philosophy. Theism is permissible for James because it is commensurate with his view of philosophy as inquiry. Theism is impermissible for Rorty because it incommensurate with his view of philosophy as conversation. James' arguments are shown to be too generic in their conception of the God in whom theistic belief may be placed, and Rorty's arguments against the desirability of theistic belief are shown to run afoul of his own philosophical program.

Theologians tend to come to philosophical texts with either eager eyes or deep suspicion. Like many people who stand on the fringe between two rival groups, the philosophical theologian is often viewed with suspicion by both religious folk, who see ‘worldly’ philosophy as tendentiously atheistic, or at least agnostic, and also by philosophers, who resist the smuggling in of theological concepts through the back door of ‘pure’ philosophy. Rival conceptions of the good, the true and the useful arise, and neither side will let the discussion take place on the other side's terms. Such might be the case with the reception of pragmatic philosophy into American theology in recent years. Christian thinkers who have adapted pragmatic sensibilities, like Cornel West or some of the exponents of process theology, have been eyed with suspicion by the establishment. Criticisms like the following are common ‘Oh, he's a pragmatist – he doesn't believe Truth exists,’1 or ‘that's just another wrongheaded basis of theology on the philosophy du jour.’2 Nonetheless, many have found the classic texts in American pragmatism extremely insightful for contemporary theological options. Though the debate about the normative status of the relationship between philosophy and theology is far from over, a consensus is emerging that anything like ‘onto-theology’ is simply no longer a viable option.3 Inasmuch as pragmatic philosophy, too, refuses any foundation on a version of metaphysics or ontology, there appears to be at least a family-resemblance between the futures of pragmatism and theology. This essay explores areas for this possible convergence by outlining the thought of two influential thinkers who self-identify as pragmatists, namely William James and Richard Rorty. I focus this investigation by examining how each philosopher understands the relationship between philosophy and theology, centering especially on the roles inquiry and conversation play in James and Rorty.


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One of the driving questions behind James' interest in religion can be put the following way: Is there an unseen order in the world, a moral order shaped to human interests, and to which humans can shape their lives? Two passages, one from early in his career and the other later, bear citation in introducing this way of posing the problem of religion in the new pragmatic philosophy. In The Principles of Psychology, James writes,

Is the Cosmos an expression of intelligence rational in its inward nature, or a brute external fact pure and simple: If we find ourselves, in contemplating it, unable to banish the impression that it is a realm of final purposes, that it exists for the sake of something, we place intelligence at the heart of it, and have a religion. If, on the contrary, in surveying its irremediable flux, we can think of the present only as so much mere mechanical sprouting from the past, occurring with no reference to the future, we are atheists and materialists.4

In his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience, published a dozen years later, James continues to be interested in just this relationship between philosophical inquiry and religion. He says, ‘Were one to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists in the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting our lives thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude of the soul.’5

It seems as though James is proposing the religious question in quasi-philosophical terminology. Inside each of us is the yearning to find order in the world, and the finding of that order is a matter of great consequence for our ‘soul.’ The kind of order for which we are seeking is not to be confused with the closed off, block-universe order of the materialists. In fact, it is just this sort of order James hopes not to find. Rather, James wants there to be a kind of blend of order and freedom, where novelty is actual but predictions are possible, and where there are final and meaningful causes of things, not just the coldly efficient and material causes apperceived by his fellow turn of the century scientists. Put simply, the answer to the religious question seems to be tied up with the way in which the philosopher can or cannot find a certain order in the world. And this is a question about inquiry.

Peirce is James' antecedent here, and much of what James learned about inquiry he learned from his friend. Peirce had said that philosophers ought to adopt a similar kind of method of investigation that had been so successful in the hard sciences.6 In his essay on the method of inquiry for fixing beliefs, Peirce argues that common means of assessing or coming to a belief, including the regnant methods among his coeval philosophers, were simply faulty. People flatly ignored evidence which seemed to contradict their positions or refused to think hard about them by simply appealing to authority or history for justification. What (good) scientists do, Peirce thought, was not just to ruminate deeply about whether their hypotheses were true, but rather clarify and test their ideas by considering what, if any, practical effects might come from them, and devise and try experiments intended to bear out the ‘truth’ or falsity of those beliefs. Something like this, Peirce held, ought to be the model of philosophical inquiry as well.

I contend that despite the oblique and pervasive references to the British atheists Thomas Huxley and William Clifford in James' essay ‘The Will to Believe,’ the real conversation partner of that piece is Peirce, to whom James' book of the same title, and which included the above essay as its first chapter, is dedicated.7 What James is after in this important essay is a defense of the personal right to hold religious beliefs. Indeed, James seemingly always repented for the unfortunate title of the work, insisting that if he had it to do over again, he would have called it The Right to Believe.8 Here is how James understands the fixation of belief, going from hypothesis to belief. He defines an hypothesis as anything proposed to us that we are able to believe, or at least to consider, like the propositions that it will rain tomorrow, or that soccer is highly overrated. Hypotheses are subdivided into those which are live or dead. A dead hypothesis is one which I am simply not capable of entertaining, one which is preposterous or logically inconceivable, such as that a square circle could exist, or that George W. Bush is the reincarnation of King Solomon. A living option is what James calls a situation wherein two or more live hypotheses exist, and where there is significant dissonance between them. We must further subdivide the concept of living options to include those which are forced or avoidable and those which are further momentous or trivial. Some sentences which sound like commands are actually options, since they are not forced. James' example asks us to consider the sentence ‘Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it.’9 It is avoidable since I may simply choose not to go out. Other live options are avoidable when the choices they offer do not exhaust all the possibilities. ‘Either believe that Eileen is an unrepentant gossip or utterly discrete in all matters’ is avoidable since the truth may well lie somewhere in between. However, some live options are forced, since we simply must choose between the one or the other. ‘Either accept this truth or go without it’10 is James' example here. This is forced, since even if I try to avoid it by not deciding – by withholding judgment until there is greater evidence – I have thereby chosen the latter option. Finally, forced live options may be of two types: momentous or trivial. The decision to marry one of two women could be momentous, since the choice of one over the other (in James' time, far more than in ours, unfortunately) is irreversible and significantly impacts one's life. On the contrary, the very real option of, say, choosing to order a Bass or Anchor Ale is trivial, despite the angst it can produce.

The choice to be a religious person, argues James, is a forced, momentous, live option. Clifford had missed the boat, thought James, when he insisted that ‘It is wrong always, everywhere and for anyone, to believe anything based upon insufficient evidence.’11 Clifford's position, notes James, assumes that we have the luxury of waiting forever and ever for enough evidence to become available before we decide to believe or disbelieve a hypothesis such as, say, that an unseen moral order to the cosmos actually exists. That is to say, neutrality must be a real possibility for Clifford to be internally consistent. This misses the point on the theism/atheism question, since neutrality is not an option. The option is forced. Certainly, James is not trying to shun people away from searching for more evidence of a belief when such may be available and when time allows, nor did he think we could come to believe something purely by willing to believe it. ‘Can we, by any effort of our will, believe ourselves to be well and about when we are roaring with rheumatism in bed, or feel certain that the sum of the two one-dollar bills in our pocket must be a hundred dollars?12 Of course not. But James does mean that the need to reach a conclusion, however tentative, in some important matters is itself a part of the state of affairs about which a conclusion must be reached! Neutrality is not always an option!

The religious question is not the only kind of forced, momentous, live option. As Paul van Buren notes, ‘In such questions as whether life is worth living, whether novelty is possible in this world, whether we have free will, and whether our actions add something to the make-up of the future, or not, we must decide without ‘for sure,’ and the way in which we choose will itself contribute to the making of a world in which our belief works and thus proves itself to be true.’13 I cannot pretend to live my life ‘neutrally’ with respect to the question of whether my life has or could have any meaning for me, since it is precisely the determination of that question, even tentatively and corrigibly, which produces the future states of affairs in which I participate, and which are the proving grounds for whether the belief is ‘true’ or not. If the religious question is posed along these lines, we could ask ‘Is there a God in whom earthly belief will be rewarded with eternal life?’ Bertrand Russell, for example, was once asked what he would do if he actually did post mortem meet the God whose existence he vehemently denied. ‘Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!’ was his reply.14 But if the existence of eternal life is what we are trying to decide upon, and we will not have enough evidence to pronounce definitively until we are dead, then if we suspend belief in the God who putatively bestows such eternal life, we have effectively decided for atheism, and, according to James, for damnation. Neutrality is chimeric in such cases.

The upshot of this whole discussion ends up lying in James' understanding of the role of inquiry in philosophy. He is in favor of following Peirce in saying that we ought to adopt a variant of the method used in science for trying to decide on our beliefs. We try out one belief as true, decide what the ‘cash value’ of that belief could be, and act as if it were true.15 If we are better able to manage our lives, whatever that means, the belief could be said to be true. If not, it is false. Just as scientists found they could make better and more useful predictions for the states of physical objects using Galileo's vocabulary rather than Aristotle's, so too do humans find that their answers to religious questions are either borne out in their actual, lived experience, or they are not. We believe our friends to be trustworthy, or we do not, and experience dictates whether we were right.

In some cases, we are able to decide purely on logical or rational grounds which beliefs to hold, but not in all of them. Whether there is, as James said, an unseen moral order in the cosmos, is not one which can be decided rationally. Wayne Proudfoot summarizes nicely, ‘If neutrality is impossible, and the matter cannot be settled by appeal to evidence or logic, then other interests, or what James calls ‘our passionate nature’ will determine our response.’16 By ‘our passionate nature,’ James means not only ‘such deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from – I mean all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and sect. As a matter of fact, we find ourselves believing, we hardly know how or why.’17

We do expect some practical difference in how we live our lives based on how we answer the question of unseen moral order in the universe. It makes a difference. If it did not, there would be no real, practical difference between theism and atheism, or at least between theism and materialism. ‘Theism and materialism, so similar when taken retrospectively, point, when we take them prospectively, to wholly different practical consequences, to opposite outlooks of experience.’18 Theism affirms the existence of an eternal moral order; materialism abjures it.19 If it does exist, my life ought to conform to it. If it does not, my life need not. Unfortunately, James does not think that the particular attributes of God or the actual content of the moral order matter terribly much to the life of the believer. This shows James' cavalier attitude toward theology in general, and divulges how little theology he actually knew. Still, whether there is a God or not makes a difference, James insists, and since we have to choose something, there is no compelling, knock-down argument why we should not choose to be theists. We may end up being wrong about that, but as James concludes in The Will to Believe, citing Fitzjames Stephen,

If a man chooses to turn his back on God and the future, no one can prevent him. No one can show beyond a reasonable doubt that he is mistaken … We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still, we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road, we shall surely be dashed to pieces. What must we do? Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes; if death ends all, we cannot meet death better.20

Philosophy in the pragmatic tradition defends, says James, theism as a truly viable choice. We are not positively sure we see moral order in the universe, but we want to.21 We are at least marginally justified in that belief.


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Though working in basically the same philosophical tradition as James, and with many of the same seminal texts, the American philosopher Richard Rorty comes to a completely different conclusion regarding the viability of theism as an option for belief. His reasons are not what one might expect, given the way James construed the debate, but Rorty was never one to let others set the questions he then, on their terms, answers. In fact, Daniel Dennett wrote a spoof dictionary of philosophical terms containing the following ‘Rortian’ entry:

a rortiori: incorrigibly true, for even stronger reasons.22

Rorty is such an accomplished and nuanced writer it is nearly impossible to know where to begin a discussion of his views on any topic, let alone religion, a topic on which he writes so elliptically and disparately. I shall have to make a few general remarks about Rorty's place in the constellation of contemporary philosophy and, since his star there is so bright, make every effort to understand him on his own incorrigible terms before offering, in the last section, a critique of his views on pragmatism and theism.

Among other things, Rorty's thought is epistemologically anti-representationalist. He means to give an account of philosophy ‘which does not view knowledge as a matter of getting reality right, but rather as a matter of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality.’23 He thinks the entire problematic of the realism/idealism/anti-realism debate is a massive red herring, and that one day ‘We shall be freed both from the subject-object problematic that has dominated philosophy since Descartes, and from the appearance-reality problematic that has been with us since the Greeks. We shall no longer be tempted to practice either epistemology or ontology.’24 Realism and anti-realism are non-philosophical non-problems.

Closely linked to this is Rorty's antifoundationalism. Most foundationalists claim that in order for a belief to be justified it must be based on an indisputable claim to direct apperception, like observation, rational intuition, or first-person introspection, or else must be inferentially justified by appeal to those properly foundational beliefs. Rorty vehemently denies this. ‘Epistemology is the attempt to see the patterns of justification within normal discourse as more than just such patterns. It is the attempt to see them as hooked on to something which demands moral commitment – Reality, Truth, Objectivity, Reason.’25 Rorty shares his pragmatic forbears' aversion to reifications of those kinds of concepts, preferring instead to inquire after the ways in which those things we think we ‘know’ with certainty reduce to their ability to help us cope with our world. Indeed, if we must have some kind of certainty in such dealings, we are more or less certain not that our beliefs align more or less with the way the world Really is, Deep Down, but rather that ‘our certainty will be a matter of conversation between persons, rather than a matter of interaction with non-human reality.’26

The concept of conversation is critical for Rorty, and is one of the ways he departs from James, for whom inquiry, as I showed above, set the limits for answering the religious question. Since conversation furnishes a similar function in Rorty's philosophy, I shall have to say more about how Rorty understands it. Rorty contrasts two possible ways of understanding the role of the philosopher. One is ‘the informed dilettante, the polypragmatic, Socratic intermediary between various discourses. In his salon, so to speak, hermetic thinkers are charmed out of their self-enclosed practices. Disagreements between disciplines and discourses are compromised or transcended in the course of the conversation.’27 On the other hand, the West has tended to capitulate to a second conception of the philosopher, who is ‘the cultural overseer who knows everyone's common ground – the Platonic philosopher-king who knows what everybody else is really doing whether they know it or not, because he knows about the ultimate context (the Forms, the Mind, Language) within which they are doing it.’28 We have chosen very poorly, Rorty thinks, in discouraging the kind of conversation the first option gives us by fooling ourselves into thinking there was something better or more real to be gained by the second.

For Rorty, Socratic conversations are not rhetorical means to a properly philosophical end, an end something like ‘an accurate conception of reality.’ That would be akin to asking whether Shakespeare or Augustine had ‘gotten it right’ with respect to love, or if Beethoven or Van Gogh had been closer to ‘real inspiration’ in their respective arts.

Pragmatists tell us that … the Socratic virtues – willingness to talk, to listen to other people, to weigh the consequences of our actions upon other people – are simply moral virtues. They cannot be inculcated nor fortified by theoretical research into essence … The conversation which it is our moral duty to continue is our project, the European intellectual's form of life … It has no metaphysical nor epistemological guarantee of success. Further (and this is the crucial point) we do not know what ‘success’ would mean except simply ‘continuance.’ We are not conversing because we have a goal, but because Socratic conversation is an activity which is its own end.29

It is simply not the case that we are trying to come to perfect agreement in our conceptions of the world, with all the t's crossed and i's dotted. Rorty continues, ‘The anti-pragmatist who insists that agreement is its [the conversation's] goal is like the basketball player who thinks that the reason for playing the game is to make baskets. He mistakes an essential moment in the course of an activity for the end of the activity.’ Or even worse, Rorty says, ‘He is like a basketball fan who argues that all men by nature desire to play basketball, or that the nature of things is such that balls can go through hoops.’30

So why is conversation an end in itself? Why does this otherwise shy man have such a fixation on talking? The answer to that question is that Rorty's idea of utopia is a perfectly democratic world wherein courteous discussion decides all matters. Even though the point of a conversation is not to come to some kind of agreement at the end of it, in an ideal world, all would come to agree on what would be best for all. Rorty seems to have his eye on an insight from Peirce that ‘the opinion fated to be ultimately agreed upon by all who investigate is what we mean by the truth.’31 Rorty's term here is that he hopes for ‘intersubjective solidarity’ or ‘intersubjective agreement’ in an ideal community of inquiry. He hopes for a democratic community wherein Socratic conversations proliferate, and while uniform agreement may not necessarily ensue, no differences of opinion so intractable as to bar solidarity with one's fellows could ever arise. This need not have anything to do with religion as such, which is substitutable.

My moral equivalent of religion would be social hope: hope for a global, prosperous, educated tolerant, leisured human community. Yes, this is obviously utopian, but it is no more utopian than, say, the second coming. We do not need a leap of faith to suggest such hope. We just need the kind of hope which is shared by theists and atheists in pretty much equal measure.32

That would be ideal, but for now, in the muddier everyday world, Rorty writes, we ought to ‘pursue simply the desire for as much intersubjective agreement as possible, the desire to extend the reference of ‘us’ as far as we can.’33

Closely tied with the idea of conversations building solidarity is Rorty's idea of the justification of belief, and it is here that we can finally begin to see why Rorty sees pragmatic philosophy as disallowing religious belief.34 Rorty thinks that we all are pretty much entitled to believe whatever we want on our own time – that it is only those beliefs which might possibly run athwart the beliefs of others which need to be justified.35 Religious beliefs are one such case.

A business proposal, for example, needs justification, but a marriage proposal (in our romantic, democratic culture) does not … Our intellectual responsibilities are responsibilities to cooperate with others on common projects designed to promote the general welfare, and not to interfere with their private projects. For the latter – projects such as getting married or getting religion – the question of intellectual responsibility does not arise.36

As long as we keep our beliefs private, we can believe any fool thing about the universe and the God who did, does or does not create and sustain it. Rorty might have some preferences about the kind of theistic options exercised by individuals in their private lives, opting preferentially for beliefs which inculcated habits of action profitable for social democracy, but that is not a major issue.37

The problem is, there are certain conversations which need to happen in the public sphere, and we must justify our beliefs to our fellows based on common ground. Since religion is, for Rorty, utterly divisive, common ground cannot be found. Hence comes Rorty's first and main objection to (at least the public exercise of) theism on pragmatic grounds: it is a Conversation Stopper.38 Whereas all citizens in a democracy ought to be talking to each other to try to find consensus about some issue on their minds, many theists in that group have the bad habit of refusing to consider their revealed beliefs fallible and will only try to dissuade, rather than be persuaded. Rorty writes,

The problems we atheists have with Christians usually only arise when Christians start saying things like, ‘We have religious reasons for opposing abortion, same-sex intercourse, or whatever.’ Problems arise when Christians start taking stands on practical questions without feeling the need to argue for those stands with people who are outside their own religious traditions.39

Theists start to look too much like the self-styled Platonist derided above for trying to place himself over the conversation, knowing what was really at stake in the discussion, and therefore how best to solve it. Rorty must oppose theists for the same reason he supports the polypragmatism of Socrates.

Rorty has other grounds on which to reject theism. Not surprisingly, as a neo-pragmatist, Rorty ought to look at Christian beliefs and ask of them the quintessential pragmatic question: Do they work? What sorts of habits of action do they promote, and what is the moral status of those actions? The answers come in no uncertain terms. He concludes, ‘I do not think that Christian theism is irrational. I entirely agree with James that it is no more irrational that atheism. Irrationality is not the question. The only reason I can think of for objecting to Christian theism is that a lot of Christians have been bigoted fanatics.’40 Though the conclusion is quite glib and evinces no careful research, this claim of Rorty's is worth noting, since he comes back to it time and again in different contexts. There must be something wrong with a set of beliefs, he thinks, if they can produce people so diametrically opposed to his kind of liberalism. Consider another typical passage:

People who quote Leviticus 18:22 [to oppose same-sex intercourse] with approval should be shunned and despised. Our attitude to them should be the same as that toward people who remark that, though of course Hitler was a bad thing, it cannot be denied that the Jews did kill Christ – or, to vary the example, people who urge that, although the lynch mobs went too far, it is truly a terrible thing for a white woman to have sex with a black man.41

In a half-hearted attempt to temper this searing rhetoric, Rorty admits, ‘We grant that ecclesiastical organizations have sometimes been on the right side, but we think that the occasional Gustavo Gutierrez or Martin Luther King does not compensate for the ubiquitous Joseph Ratzingers and Jerry Falwells. History suggests to us that such organizations will always, on balance, do more harm than good.’42

There is yet a third related critique of theism on pragmatic grounds, in addition to the conversation-stopper and bigoted-fanatic objections. Theists, in Rorty's view, are incurably prone to relying on a non-human power to make decisions or to come to conclusions, and this sort of thing is harmful to society. ‘I take it to be necessary for religion to insist on the desirability of attaching oneself to a nonhuman power. My objection to the metaphysical and religious traditions is that it would be more courageous, more self-reliant just to rely on ourselves, on our group efforts.’43 In some moods, Rorty is a utilitarian, and he has sketched a utilitarian ethics of belief which seeks basically to replace responsibility to nonhuman powers to human ones. In a representative passage, Rorty argues,

The view that there is no source of obligation save the claims of individual sentient beings entails that we have no responsibility to anything other than such beings. Most of the relevant sentient individuals are our fellow humans. So talk about our responsibility to Truth, or to Reason, must be replaced by talk about our responsibility to our fellow human beings.44

Not only is appeal to something like ‘God's will’ a conversation stopper, it is a red herring, since it draws our attention away from what we ought to be concerned with, namely the conversations our society is fostering and the solidarity with all people they seek to produce. ‘The persistence of a theist who claims to know that this or that is against God's will becomes a problem. So atheists find themselves wishing that these groups would wither away.45 Note the shift away from James' emphasis on the intellectual nature of this theism vs. atheism debate. Rorty is not concerned at all with the intellectual respectability of either of the positions, but with the ethical consequences of the cash-value of the resultant practices.

The pragmatist objection to religious fundamentalism is not that fundamentalists are intellectually irresponsible in disregarding the results of natural science. Rather it is that they are morally irresponsible in attempting to circumvent the process of achieving democratic consensus about how to maximize happiness.46


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Where are we so far? James has said that theism is permissible, since when there is insufficient cognitive ‘evidence’ to draw on in forming a belief on which we must decide, we come to our decision based on non-cognitive factors. Rorty has said that theism may not be allowed in the public square for all sorts of reasons, none of which has anything to do with anything like ‘the evidence.’ So before concluding with an assessment, it is worth examining briefly what Rorty makes of James' claims counter to his own. On the evidence issue, obviously, Rorty thinks, ‘It is never an objection to religious belief that there is no evidence for it. The only possible objection to it is that it intrudes an individual project into a social and cooperative project, and thereby offends against the teachings of [Mill's] On Liberty.’47 James has erred in setting up the problem in an evidential framework, since, as Rorty has argued, the only time one person's claims come under scrutiny is when they run athwart someone else's. Such confrontations may be about something like a difference of opinion about ‘the evidence,’ but they may not, either. We may not even agree what would count as ‘evidence.’ Even the staunchest, most militant atheist like Clifford could not care less about whether I was a theist with respect to the evidence if I could avoid confronting him about it. If I could find a way to find middle ground between my habits of action and Clifford's, then atheism and theism could be compatible, and the conversation could continue. Rorty suggests,

James should not have made a distinction between issues to be decided by intellect and issues to be decided by emotion. If he had not, he might have wobbled less. What he should have done instead was to distinguish between issues that you must resolve cooperatively with others and issues that you are entitle to resolve on your own. The first set of issues are about conciliating your habits of action with other human beings. The second set are about getting your own habits of action to cohere with each other sufficiently so that you acquire a stable, coherent self-image.48

Rorty's proposed alternative, as the preceding and following quotations will show, is to replace a cognitive/non-cognitive distinction with a public/private one. This gets us off the merry-go-round of quibbling over the evidence and satisfies the needs of both theists and atheists. He argues further,

Pragmatism does allow us to make another distinction, one that takes over some of the work previously done by the old distinction between the cognitive and the non-cognitive. The new distinction is between projects of social cooperation and projects of individual self-development. Intersubjective agreement is required for the former projects, but not for the latter.49

Theists, under Rorty's solution, will be free to argue all they want to over dogmatic matters in their own sphere, but should leave those beliefs (or at least the articulation of those beliefs) behind them. Put simply, we cannot ‘keep a democratic political community going unless religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty.’50 The adequacy of such a proposal, as well as a summation of the status of the issue as a whole, is briefly examined in the last section.


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In the interest of brevity, I will be as blunt as possible in my views on this situation. In my opinion, James' argument for theism in The Will to Believe and The Varieties of Religious Experience defends a position scarcely worth defending, and Rorty's attacks on theism are indefensible on most philosophical grounds, and are inconsistent on his own.

What James essentially thinks he is defending in the essay most under scrutiny here is that a) there is an unseen moral order in the universe, b) that the better things in the world are the more eternal ones, and that c) we are better off here and now if we believe b) to be true.51 Even Rorty, who is generally a staunch advocate of James, writes, ‘Many readers of ‘The Will to Believe’ feel let down when they discover that the only sort of religion James has been discussing is something as wimpy as the belief that ‘perfection is eternal.’ They have a point.’52 On this issue, Rorty is right. When theists like me stand up for our beliefs in the public arena, far more is at stake than a), b) and c). If that is all we are defending, we will have a long way to go in advocating more specifically Christian claims (though James' is one of the most elegantly argued and written examples of such a defense). Further, it is frustrating that James is willing to concede that the theist may hold his beliefs, and the atheist may hold hers, too. That is well and good as long as our two differing positions do not grossly interfere with each other on some grave matter. In my reading of James, however, there seems to be no possible recourse when conflict is real and pressing. How could James resolve the dispute between, say, a Darwinian neo-pragmatist like Rorty, who supports abortion on purely secular grounds, and your average pro-lifer, who opposes it on purely religious grounds? James may have resources in his arsenal to muster against such objections, but I confess that I do not know what they are.

As to Rorty, the issues are far deeper and more complex. He is the leading exponent, perhaps, of the intellectually reputable branch of ‘postmodernism,’ and since the range of topics in that discourse is so broad, I admit that I oppose Rorty on grounds I have not been able to cover in this essay. Still, I will say something about why Rorty is wrong to be so facile in his rejection of robust (by which I mean, at least, Trinitarian, Christocentric, and politically viable) theism.

First of all, is religion really a conversation stopper? As Nicholas Wolterstorff has convincingly shown, there is something deeply arbitrary about saying that theists may not hold a belief for purely religious reasons, since those reasons are not held in common with all people, but a Darwinian neo-Pragmatist may hold a position completely antithetical to a theist's without being accused of thereby ‘stopping’ the conversation in its tracks.53 Why the one and not the other? Further, it is not as though ceasing a conversation is really that hostile to democracy. As long as a conversation about a topic can begin and endure for at least some interaction between interested parties, democracy's interests are served. In fact, one might even say that democracy is fundamentally based on a kind of conversation-stopper: a vote! Rorty may be coming around on this view. In a recent essay he acquiesces:

Instead of saying that religion is a conversation-stopper, I should have simply said that citizens of a democracy should try to put off invoking conversation-stoppers as long as possible. We should do our best to keep the conversation going without first citing unarguable first principles, either philosophical or religious. If we are sometimes driven to such citation, we should see ourselves as having failed, not as having triumphed.54

The meat of Rorty's overall philosophy lies elsewhere, however. He is so committed to his anti-foundationalism and his anti-representationalism that he starts to look incredibly relativistic. Couple those commitments with a radically historicist understanding of truth, and it becomes difficult to see how someone is equipped to choose among any options at all, let alone options as potentially grave as theism and atheism. Let a couple of illustrations, drawn from some of Rorty's early work, make the point. He admits that commitments like the ones named above lead him to the position that ‘there is nothing deep down inside us which we have not put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions.’55 Considered in a kind of worst case scenario, one which has become a kind of ominous denunciation of Rortian thought, this implies that ‘when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form ‘There is something inside of you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society, which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you.’’56 Everything is immanent for Rorty; everything is radically historical, everything is irreducibly context-dependent. He is driven even to cite approvingly Sartre's disgusting remark, ‘Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be much as man has decided they are.’57

All that seems like an awful lot to give up simply to have more productive conversations. It also seems, frankly, unnecessary. The slightest affirmation of any kind of the unseen moral order Rorty ridicules in James would bail him out of many of his problems. He is forever accused of being a relativist, though he insists that ‘No one holds this view [relativism]. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good.’58 Yet there seems to be little in Rorty's own philosophy which buttresses his confidence, especially given how liberally peppered his work is with troubling passages like the ones I cited above. If he really does think that fascism, installed by a few who conquered anyone brave enough to resist it, could really become the ‘truth of man,’ it is hard to see what views he could think were appreciably worse. Though he and I both know it to be a rhetorical question to which the answer is negative, I agree with C.G. Prado in saying to Rorty, ‘We feel that here, at least, Rorty must invoke an ahistorical or transcendent value. Productivity in conversation must surely be for the better, and just as surely ‘being for the better’ must be something external to particular groups and local conditions. Might he not invoke some sort of minimal transcendence?’59 If Rorty could appeal even to something so slightly ahistorical as James' unseen moral order, he could avoid most of his philosophical problems without significantly compromising his other philosophical positions.

It seems, in the end, somehow fitting that Rorty, who has written an entire book about irony,60 would be in much better shape if he would only defend the very thing I have argued James should not have defended: that pragmatic philosophy permits a belief in theism.

  1. 1 Jeffrey Stout is one example here. Cf. his Ethics After Babel (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988) or Flight from Authority (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

  2. 2 Most Barthians worth their salt would likely hold this position.

  3. 3 Of the writing of books on this issue there seems to be no end. One compelling work on the matter is Fordham professor Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001).

  4. 4 William James, The Principles of Psychology (Cambridge:Harvard University Press, 1981-3), 21.

  5. 5 James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 51.

  6. 6 Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘The Fixation of Belief,’ in Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 223-47. I believe the essay in question was authored in 1877.

  7. 7 William James, The Will to Believe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979).

  8. 8 Many commentators claim James apologized often for the title. Though there may well be more, I have been able to find only one place where he does so, in the seventh lecture of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (New York: Meridian Books, 1959), 100.

  9. 9 James, The Will to Believe, 14.

  10. 10 Ibid., 15.

  11. 11 Ibid., 18.

  12. 12 Ibid., 15.

  13. 13 Paul M. van Buren, ‘William James and Metaphysical Risk’ in American Philosophy and the Future: Essays for a New Generation, ed. Michael Novak (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968), 91.

  14. 14 Despite the fact that I am unable to find a reliable print reference attributing this quotation to Russell, I find that I am also quite unable to make myself come to the conclusion that he did not say it. That it is spurious, therefore, is a dead hypothesis!

  15. 15 This notion is pervasive in James' writings, but I take the reference in Pragmatism, the second lecture, to be paradigmatic.

  16. 16 Wayne Proudfoot, ‘Religion and Inquiry in William James,’ in Charley D. Hardwick and Donald A. Crosby, eds., Pragmatism, Neo-Pragmatism and Religion: Conversations with Richard Rorty (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1997), 66.

  17. 17 James, The Will to Believe, 18.

  18. 18 James, Pragmatism, 263.

  19. 19 Ibid., 264.

  20. 20 James, The Will to Believe, 33.

  21. 21 James wanted more desperately than most to see order in the world. Van Buren reports that James once praised a summer rental property, saying, ‘It's the most delightful house you ever saw; it has fourteen doors, all opening outward!’ Van Buren, op. cit., 88.

  22. 22 Quoted in Daniel C. Dennett, The Case for Rorts, in Robert B. Brandom, ed., Rorty and His Critics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 91.

  23. 23 Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Rationality and Truth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 1.

  24. 24 Rorty, ‘A Pragmatist View of Contemporary Analytic Philosophy,’ in The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy, William Eggington and Mike Sandbothe, eds. (New York: SUNY Press, 2003), 122.

  25. 25 Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 385.

  26. 26 Ibid., 157, italics added.

  27. 27 Ibid., 317.

  28. 28 Ibid., 317-8.

  29. 29 Rorty, ‘Pragmatism, Relativism, Irrationalism’ in Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), 172, italics original. I am indebted to a conversation with William Placher for pointing to this passage.

  30. 30 Ibid.

  31. 31 Charles Peirce, The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, ed. Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992-8), 138-9. I believe John Dewey, too, advocated this insight in some form; cf. his Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York: Henry Holt Company, 1938), 345 ff.

  32. 32 Ibid., 182.

  33. 33 Rorty, ‘Solidarity or Objectivity?’ in Cornel West and John Rajchmann, eds., Post-Analytic Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 5.

  34. 34 As will become clear in the rest of the paper, I hope, Rorty is really Dewey's student on this. James seems to have been befuddled as to what to do when one person's habits of action obdurately thwarted another's. Dewey's response to this problematic, in my opinion, was to change the subject from truth to verification. Rorty does, too, though when the issue gets more complicated, Rorty will follow Donald Davidson in decoupling truth from justification by making it a non-epistemic concept. Cf. his ‘Is Truth a Goal of Inquiry?: Davidson vs. Wright,’ in Philosophical Quarterly 45 [1995], 281-300.

  35. 35 Rorty, ‘Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism’ in Morris Dickson, ed., The Revival of Pragmatism: New Essays on Social Thought, Law and Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 121.

  36. 36 Rorty, ‘Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility and Romance’ in Pragmatism, Neo-Pragmatism and Religion, 8.

  37. 37 He thinks, for example, that if he had to choose between the twin evils of Catholicism or Protestantism, he would choose the latter, since its emphasis on the priesthood of all believers ‘encourages the believer to interpret Scripture, theology and devotional literature on his own, rather than simply waiting to be informed by church officials about what is required to be a member of good standing of a given denomination.’‘Religion in the Public Square,’ 147.

  38. 38 The reference is, above all, to Rorty, ‘Religion as a Conversation Stopper,’ in Philosophy and Social Hope (New York: Penguin, 1999), 168-74.

  39. 39 Stephan Louthan, ‘On Religion: A Discussion with Richard Rorty, Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff,’ in Christian Scholar's Review 26 [1996], 179-80.

  40. 40 Ibid., 178. It is obviously not his only objection – that modifier is characteristic Rortian hyperbole.

  41. 41 Ibid., 143.

  42. 42 Rorty, ‘Religion in the Public Square: A Reconsideration,’ in Journal of Religious Ethics 31:1 [2003], 142.

  43. 43 Ibid., 179.

  44. 44 Rorty, ‘Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance,’ 3.

  45. 45 Ibid., 183.

  46. 46 Ibid., 119-20.

  47. 47 Rorty, ‘Pragmatism as Romantic Polytheism,’ 119.

  48. 48 Ibid., 121.

  49. 49 Ibid., 119.

  50. 50 Rorty, ‘Religion as a Conversation Stopper,’ 169.

  51. 51 Though for a strict pragmatist, it would seem, there is virtually no difference between b) and c).

  52. 52 Rorty, ‘Religious Faith, Intellectual Responsibility, and Romance,’ 11.

  53. 53 Wolterstorff, ‘An Engagement with Rorty,’ 135-9.

  54. 54 Ibid., 148-9.

  55. 55 Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, xlii.

  56. 56 Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, xlii.

  57. 57 Ibid. The reference is to Jean-Paul Sartre, L'Existentialisme est un Humanisme (Paris: Nagel, 1946), 53-4.

  58. 58 Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism, 166.

  59. 59 C. G. Prado, ‘Rorty's Pragmatism,’ in Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review 22 [1983], 446.

  60. 60 Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).