Review : Why Believe by John Cottingham

Categories 3 Literature

John Cottingham here presents his advocacy of theism. His main argument is that morality is objective, for which the explanation is God. But neither of these is necessarily true. Much morality is subjective. Judeo-Christian religion is totally ambiguous and contradictory on the moral question of capital punishment. Today’s church is itself riven by opposing moral views of homosexuality. Human morality evolves. Historic judicial burning alive of criminals and heretics would be unthinkable today. People change their minds on moral issues. The balance between justice and mercy is wholly subjective. Contrary to Cottingham’s insistence, virtue can be defined by human determination. His argument fails.

Cottingham further defends theism by the circular argument that, by definition, the existence of a true deity would not be open to challenge – a claim which takes us nowhere. He is then entirely arbitrary in determining which parts of the Bible are to be taken literally, and which as allegory or myth, leaving only a literal resurrection as non-negotiable, but only because this ‘seems to be’ so (p79). He is relaxed about the possibility of the ultimate judgment of hell (p138), and tries unconvincingly to offer some other speculative physical ‘substrate’ to host an eternal human soul (p141). He argues that Biblical miracle claims are OK because there may be functions of nature that remain unknown to us, despite the Bible’s interpretation of its reported miracles being very different to this explanation.

Religion should emphasise ‘praxis’. It’s not really about what you believe, but about how you behave. Cottingham’s link is ‘moral growth and spiritual conversion’ (p112), a human transformation which he does not successfully connect to belief. He doesn’t tackle the core but objectionable Christian claim of atonement, ie that God forgives humans by punishing his son instead. So it’s not clear what he means by ‘believe’.

Finally, Cottingham claims that religion has a monopoly, and atheism no viable access, to the virtues of humility, hope, awe, and thankfulness (chapter 7). Indeed atheism is hostile to spirituality (p164). This is a wholly contingent view. It is not necessarily so. Exploring how the theist and the atheist might embrace a shared spirituality is the pressing contemporary issue. Interpreting religion as meaningful myth, rather than doctrinal creed, is the most promising path to such a synthesis.

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