Fergus Kerr on rationalist apologetics

The point has been well made by Bernard Williams. Reviewing J. L. Mackie’s demonstration of the incoherence of the arguments for the probability of God’s existence that certain modern philosophers of religion favour, Williams, himself an atheist, notes that Mackie’s refutations leave the real question in tact. The intellectual case for accepting the God hypothesis is so full of holes that no rational person could accept it; but it is a mistake, in demonstrating this, to leave it as if religion must therefore be something alien to humanity and its needs, ‘now simply abandoned by advanced thought.’ What is required from the atheist, is an account of religion that understands it as expressing needs that will have to be expressed in some form when the belief in God has disappeared. As Williams writes elsewhere: ‘Humanism – in the contemporary sense of a secularist and antireligious movement – seems seldom to have faced fully a very immediate consequence of its own views: that this terrible thing, religion, is a human creation.’

Religion, in other words, has to do with something deep and sinister in us. Its power is not ended by refutations of arguments for the existence of the deity. Religions are an expression of human nature long before they give rise to reflections about the divine. Certain modern reflective procedures tempt us to forget that. Objective study of primitive religion gets in the way of our seeing how savage our own religion is. We prefer a certain interpretation of other people’s behavior to understanding what is deep and sinister in ourselves – and thus we do not have much understanding of the savages either. […]

It is because people exult and lament, sing for joy, bewail their sins and so on, that they are able, eventually, to have thoughts about God. Worship is not the result but the precondition of believing in God. Theological concepts, like all concepts, are rooted in certain habitual ways of acting, responding, relating, to our natural-historical setting. The very idea of God depends on such brute facts as that, in certain circumstances, people cannot help shuddering with awe or shame, and so on. It does not follow that the idea of God has a place in the conversation simply because we enjoy singing hymns: but if we cannot imagine what it is to observe rites, enjoy singing hymns and the like, the nature of religion is bound to remain opaque.

Fergus Kerr, Theology After Wittgenstein, 2nd Ed. (SPCK, 1997) 162, 183.

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