Dismissing (religious) belief. On a problematic kind of anachronism

I’m currently teaching an intro course on medieval philosophy. Although I really enjoy teaching medieval philosophy, I am always somewhat shocked at the generally dismissive attitude towards the religious or theological aspects of the material. A widespread assumption is that we can and should bypass such issues. Why bother with God or angels, if we can focus on philosophy of language or ethics? That said, there is no reason to blame students. Looking at various histories of philosophy, it’s clear that the selection of material often follows what is currently deemed most relevant. In fact, bits of my own work might serve as a case in point. However, in what follows I’d like to present three reasons for the claim that, in bypassing such aspects, we miss out on core ideas, not only in history of philosophy.

(1) The illusion of modernity. – If you ask people why they think we can happily ignore theological aspects, a common answer is that they are indeed no longer relevant, because the world is supposedly progressing towards an increasingly enlightened state of a scientific rather than a religious view of the world. This is of course not the last word. Criticisms of progress narratives aside, it is also clear that we live in a world that is currently deeply conflicted between adherents of religion and a scientific worldview. Moreover, this assumption makes us overlook that this conflict is a deeply medieval one, testified already in the writings of Augustine, culminating perhaps in the famous condemnation of 1277, and continuing well into what is known as modern philosophy. Thus, the idea that dissociating reason from faith is a trait of Enlightenment or modernity is a cherished illusion. After deciding to address this issue head-on in my current course, I made the condemnation of 1277 the first focal point. Amongst other things, it clearly shows that the battlefield of faith versus reason, along with the discussion of different kinds of truth, not to speak of alternative facts, has venerable precedents in the 13th century. In other words, the distinction between adherents of faith versus adherents of science is not a diachronic one (between medieval and modern) but a synchronic one.

(2) Theology is philosophy. – But even if you agree that conflicts of faith versus reason might be relevant even today, you might still deny that they are philosophically significant. If you turn to philosophers of the medieval or other periods, you might go straight to the philosophically interesting stuff. The assumption seems to be that certain problems or topics can be stripped of their theological content without much loss. Going from this assumption, material that cannot be stripped from such overtones is “not philosophy.” One problem with this view is that a number of philosophical systems have notions such as “god” at the core. For a number of medieval and early modern philosophers, their metaphysics are unintelligible without reference to a god. Trying to bypass this, means bypassing these metaphysics. The idea of stripping such systems from theological notions strikes me a consequence of the illusion of modernity. But in fact we find a number of 20th-century or present-day philosophers who rely on such notions. And as is well known by now, readers of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the foundational texts of the early analytic tradition, should not ignore his approach to the “mystical” and related ideas. This doesn’t mean that there is no philosophy without theology. But we are prone to serious misunderstanding if we wilfully ignore such foundations.

(3) The significance of belief. – My third and perhaps most important point is that the foundational role of belief is often ignored. Reading, for instance, that Anselm opens his Proslogion with the idea that we have to believe in order to understand, this and other remarks on (religious) belief are often taken as confessions that do not affect the arguments in question. As I see it, such estimations miss a crucial philosophical point: unquestioned belief is foundational for many further (mental or physical) acts. Arguably, there is a long tradition of philosophers (e.g. Augustine, Anselm, Gregory of Rimini, Spinoza, Hume, William James, Davidson) who exposed the foundational role of belief, showing that there are reasons to accept certain assumptions on faith. The need to rely on axioms is not only a trait of special sciences. Indeed, many aspects of our life depend on the fact that we hold certain unquestioned beliefs. Unless we have startling evidence to the contrary, we’re inclined to believe whatever we perceive. We believe that we weren’t lied to when our parents or other people informed us about our date of birth, and we don’t normally question that there is an external world. Challenging certain beliefs would probably deeply unsettle us, and we certainly wouldn’t begin searching, if we didn’t believe we had a chance of finding what we’re looking for. In this sense, certain beliefs are not optional.

The upshot is that the dismissal of (religious) belief is not only problematic in that it distorts some niches of medieval philosophy. Rather, it’s based on a misconception of our very own standards of rationality, which rely much on more on unquestioned beliefs than might meet the eye. So if the dismissal of religious belief is anachronistic, it’s not only distorting our view of the past but distorting the understanding of our current discourses. In this regard, much medieval philosophy should not be seen as strangely invested in religion but rather as strangely familiar, even if unbeknownst to ourselves. As Peter Adamson succinctly put it, for some “a proper use of reason is unattainable without religious commitment.” I agree, and would only add that we might recognise this attitude more readily as our own if we deleted the word “religious”. But that is perhaps more of a purely very verbal matter than we like to believe.

3 thoughts on “Dismissing (religious) belief. On a problematic kind of anachronism

  1. I don’t often get to teach medieval philosophy, but include medieval authors in philosophy of religion courses routinely. My students are more likely to take theological issues seriously, and often not understand the ‘demarcation’ that seems to exist between theology and philosophy (or example, in what we choose to read and discuss of early moderns, including women whose contributions we’re making an effort to recover and include). But one comment about the post. . . .I wouldn’t treat the condemnation of 1277 as a ‘faith vs. reason’ issue. All the participants were part of a ‘community of faith’, however fractured and fractious. Isn’t the issue, for Christians anyway, really what faith requires? And especially, whether it requires a certain kind of magisterial authority to avoid ‘error’. It gives us an interesting opportunity to treat some things in Aquinas as a kind of ‘immanent’ criticism: questioning claims apparently authorized by authority ‘from within’. Otherwise, though, this is a helpful post, even though I teach some of the same texts and issues in a somewhat different sort of course to very different students. Keith Green


    1. Many thanks, Keith, for your intriguing comment! Yes, it would be interesting to see how different audiences respond.

      On your point re 1277. By the faith vs reason issue, I refer to a distinction in the literature that treats Tempier’s move as one of defending Augustinianism against radical Aristotelianism. The point is simply that Aristotelianism would not allow for any supernatural illumination over and above the natural faculties and modes of acquiring evidence. In this light, you differentiation strikes me as a refinement of that point: Does faith require “a certain kind of magisterial authority to avoid ‘error’? For the Augustinians, yes, for the Aristotelians, no. That said, I wonder now whether you see this as a departure from your reading of the document.


  2. Thanks, Martin. This seems both right and important. My experience teaching suggests two other important factors. First, students don’t know very much about religion, including the religions in which they may have been raised. Their religious literacy is very low. One result is that they don’t recognize the religious roots of so many philosophical terms, commitments, and questions. They think it’s easy, say, to decouple ethics or political philosophy from religion. (Not just desirable or possible or necessary, but easy.) A second factor is that philosophy is taught as an academic discipline rather than as a way of life. As a result, philosophy is cut off from tradition, practice, ritual, and the project of self-cultivation. This, too, obscures the connections to religion. These two factors help define religion as something inherently unphilosophical, which encourages the dismissive attitudes.

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