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Religious fictionalism defended: reply to Cordry


In his paper, ‘A critique of religious fictionalism’, Benjamin Cordry raises a series of objections to a fictionalist form of religious non-realism that I proposed in my earlier paper, ‘Can an atheist believe in God?’. They fall into two main categories: those alleging that an atheist would be unjustified in adopting fictionalism, and those alleging that fictionalism could not be successfully implemented, or practised communally. I argue that these objections can be met.

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1. Eshleman AndrewCan an atheist believe in God?’, Religious Studies, 41 (2005), 183199.

2. Cordry BenjaminA critique of religious fictionalism’, Religious Studies, 47 (2010), 7789. All in-text references are to this paper.

3. The relevant moral values may be thought untenable either because they are inconsistent with one's favoured moral view – Cordry cites as a possibility, Rand's egoism (79) – or because the values only make sense in relation to the tradition's realist assumptions (80).

4. Regarding those who are atheists for evidentiary reasons, Cordry offers a different argument for the conclusion that fictionalism is unjustified toward the end of his paper. There he argues that, insofar as one's reasons for being an atheist do not preclude adopting fictionalism, the reasons for adopting fictionalism will, in fact, also likely be reasons for her to adopt theism: ‘Good reasons to pretend to believe are probably good reasons to believe’ (86). Space permits only a few brief comments about this argument. I take it as clear that it can make instrumental sense to pretend to believe in Santa Claus without having any reason to believe in the real existence of Santa Claus. If so, then instrumental reasons will serve as reasons to believe in the real existence of something – if at all – only in special cases. In support of his conclusion, Cordry suggests parallels both with the debate about whether to adopt instrumentalism in philosophy of science with respect to the existence of unobserved but theoretically posited entities and with Pascal's Wager concerning the existence of God. However, there are important dissimilarities between these two cases and the fictionalist case at hand. First, in the former two cases, an appeal is made to instrumental reasons only when the non-instrumentalist reasons are regarded by the relevant party as insufficient to establish the truth about the real existence of something – e.g. sub-atomic particles or God (Pascal claims the latter in Pensees, §233), whereas the fictionalist has concluded that the non-instrumental evidence is sufficient to establish the non-existence of God. Second, we lack an analogue here to what is perhaps the main reason for rejecting instrumentalism in philosophy of science – namely, that in science there is no good alternative to positing the real existence of unobserved entities to explain why it is instrumentally valuable to theoretically posit their existence. Since we can offer reasonable competing explanations for why human flourishing might be encouraged by pursuing the religious ideals embraced by the fictionalist, we need not conclude that God's real existence is the best explanation. Third, at best, Pascal's Wager yields the conclusion that one has reason to act as if God exists. Granted, Pascal thought this might lead one eventually to believe in God's real existence, and perhaps this is what Cordry means to suggest when he argues that the fictionalist will need to incorporate a theodicy as a plot device, one that if plausible as a plot device, should be plausible as a genuine theodicy (87). However, the standards for what counts as a sufficiently plausible plot device in fiction may depart significantly from one's standards for justified belief (note again the example of Santa Claus). So we do not yet have a good reason to think that an atheist's reasons for being so will likely be overridden if she believes there are good instrumental reasons to act as if God exists.

5. Eshleman‘Can an atheist believe in God?’, 192.

6. To guard against a possible misunderstanding – while it is the case on my view that the fictionalist rejects the truth-asserting function of theological utterances, I do not deny that such language may nevertheless presuppose important truths – for example moral truths.

7. It seems to me that the objections are telling against some ‘positivist’ (as I labelled them in my original paper) versions of non-realism that invent new meanings for theological terms.

8. Eshleman ‘Can an atheist believe in God?’, 185.

9. Ibid., 191.

10. For my discussion of this, see ibid., 196–197.

11. As I noted in my earlier paper, ibid., 196.

12. In this way, reflection on fictionalism encourages reflection on assumptions about what counts as genuine religiousness and thereby religious identity. For a helpful treatment of the distinction between the two forms of religious identity contrasted in the text, see Thomas Kasulis's discussion of Shinto spirituality in Shinto: The Way Home (Honolulu HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2004), ch. 1.

13. They will likewise often share criteria about what language and practice is to be included vs excluded from the tradition of which they are a part, another potential discontinuity between realists and the fictionalists cited by Cordry (84). Here, it seems appropriate to invoke a notion akin to (though not identical with) the Rawlsian notion of reflective equilibrium. That is, on the one hand, what is retained or included in a religious tradition by the fictionalist must be scrutinized in light of her strongest secular moral convictions and what she regards as the most plausible moral theories. On the other hand, the sort of fictionalism I am defending takes the lasting influence of a tradition to reflect insight into an ideal that may not be fully captured by the convictions and theories we arrive at via secular routes. Thus, ideally, the fictionalist would work back and forth between these sources of insight in reaching decisions about what to retain versus what to leave behind.

14. For ongoing critical dialogue about my fictonalist view and comments on an earlier draft of this reply, I would like to thank: Chris Campolo, Micah Hester, Steven Jauss, Jan Thomas, and Rico Vitz.

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Religious Studies
  • ISSN: 0034-4125
  • EISSN: 1469-901X
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