Philosophical Arguments: Cottingham


How should we examine religion in philosophy? Many critics of religion use philosophical tools to attack religion. These attacks tend to look at the doctrinal and theoretical propositions within religion and place them under critical examination. But is religion really a set of propositions? Is worship more to do with feeling, a moral commitment, understanding and knowledge altogether, rather than something that can be explained entirely or adequately with rational propositions alone. Prayer is often personal and emotional as much as rational. So the question is, when criticizing religion, is it adequate to focus on truth propositions alone?


Cottingham argues that a lot of academic philosophical argument distorts religion, and the process of this kind of debate is unhelpful. The idea of analytic discourse is that through discussion ideas may be tested, modified or abandoned. However, Cottingham argues that in his experience the arguers rarely ever change their minds when dealing with religion. Advocates and opponents change positions, but are not moved by each others point of view. I remember once hearing an academic giving a talk at a seminar and then, many months later, I heard the same speaker giving the same talk at a different conference. I asked him whether any of the questions he had been asked, or responses he had from the different people who heard him, had led him to change or adjust his argument in any way. He smiled and said no, once he formulated his argument he tended to stick to it closely. It is as though this kind of examination does not do what it is supposed to do when it comes to religion.


It sounds as though Cottingham is opposed to any philosophical analysis of religion, but he suggests that the problem rests in focussing on propositions. It is the idea of religion which is wrong. If religion simply means a set of philosophical propositions, then it can be tested in rather similar ways to most philosophical ideologies. But if we think about the whole spiritual dimension of religion and appreciate that this dimension is a central one to religion, then to reduce religion to propositions is to distort and misunderstand it. I sometimes work with adults who have a new experience of feeling called to become a member of the Catholic Church. In the discussions that take place there are many questions about many aspects of the teaching of the Church. But even when there are difficult sticking points, the people still have a sense of being called. Spirituality invokes a wider range of activities and attitudes than principles alone. Spirituality includes other sorts of wisdom and knowledge, which appeal to emotions, feelings and the imagination. Many mystics wrote in a way that was quite different from the theological explanations often listed in books about religion. They used affective terms sometimes drawing powerfully emotive images. Spirituality seems to reach non-rational parts of human consciousness. This dimension is not a minor element of religion but a central aspect that seems to provide meaning and importance to religious believers. Spiritual living is as much to do with practices of living as statements of belief. What analytic philosophy analyses is a philosophical account of religion not the breadth of religious and spiritual life.


Cottingham uses examples of spiritual masters to show that many placed ‘praxis’ before doctrinal propositions. Praxis means doing or realising the idea, not simply having it. The Ignatian spiritual exercises are a good example of this. They are practical steps that are done as a kind of spiritual training programme. This leads to an internal transformation, in contrast to the intellectual business of evaluating propositions. Cottingham argues that an examination of religion must acknowledge the primacy of praxis in religious life. These exercises provide a guide to what can be called the art of living. To examine this art of living is difficult if one adopts a detached and unemotional exact intellectual scrutiny of one’s condition. Thinking of religious life in terms that are propositional rather than affective, is incomplete. Cottingham is quick to argue that he is not advocating the permanent abandonment of critical rationality but that one needs to operate through an activation and deepening of moral intuitions. Moral discernment is not purely rational but based on deep intuitions.


Cottingham provides a critical observation that we can draw on in our own study of religion. Here are four questions to consider:


– Is the ‘study toolkit’ we are using suitable to enquire into the whole of religious experience?

– Does your study of the philosophy of religion take a detached critical rational approach, that focuses on intellectual propositions, or does it encourage an examination of spiritual praxis?

– How might you acknowledge these dimensions in your studies in other ways than those provided by the philosophers you are studying?


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