Dishonest to Whom?

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. TalisseWarnock Dishonest to God

Mary Warnock’s Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion Out of Politics (Continuum, 2010) is an ambitious book. In it, Warnock distinguishes religion from morality, demonstrates the dependence of religious reasoning on moral reasoning, and argues that religious perspectives are nevertheless crucial for social and political life. We have a review of the book forthcoming in The Philosopher’s Magazine. For the most part, we are in agreement with Warnock. But we do have some disagreements, and we want to focus here on one aspect of Warnock’s view that strikes us as especially troublesome, namely, Warnock’s conception of the value of religion in a secular society.

Warnock’s case in favor of religion is broadly consequentialist. She holds that religious institutions and practices should be sustained because, on balance, they are socially beneficial. Warnock contends that – unlike morality and the rule of law – religion is not necessary for civil society; yet she insists that “there is no possible argument for holding religion is outdated, or that it can be wholly replaced in society by science or by any other imaginative exercise” (159). Surely this is overstated. No possible argument for the social dispensability of religion? Really? Actual arguments for this conclusion are easy to find. Consider Hegel’s argument at the end of the Phenomenology that religion must give way to art and philosophy in public life. Or John Dewey’s argument in A Common Faith that the social and experiential benefits of religious life can be detached from religion and subsumed under a more substantive conception of democratic community, leaving religion to wither away.

It is likely that Warnock means to claim that there is no good argument for the dispensability of religion; that is, Warnock means to deny that there could be an argument for the dispensability of religion which gives religion its due.

Warnock affirms that religion can be morally good, and good for us. She holds that the stories of the New Testament “can teach morality as nothing else can, in vivid and memorable form” (159). Additionally, she holds religion is a civilizing force. Emotionally profound episodes in life call for ritual and ceremony; death, birth, thanksgiving, marriage are made public, sharable, and civil given their intersection with religion. Finally, Warnock emphasized the aesthetic dimension of religion; she holds that the breadth and depth of our imagination is increased with religious icons and stories. She claims that “to lose these things, though it would not be the end of society, would be its incomparable spiritual loss” (161). Hence there are moral, social, and aesthetic reasons to reject the view, common in some atheist circles, that sufficiently enlightened individuals see the elimination of religion as a worthy social goal, that in a properly civilized social order, religion would be at best a historical curiosity.

Warnock acknowledges that the question of the social value of religion comes to the balance of goods and evils. Surely Warnock is correct to holds that, from this consequentialist perspective, religion can be a vital social good. However, there are familiar social consequences of religion that are not so salutary: religious bigotry and intolerance, mistreatment of women, opposition to science, general credulity, authoritarianism, and so on. But it is important to emphasize that, regardless of how the cost/benefit calculation runs, Warnock has hung her case for the social value of religion on entirely secular considerations. In proposing that the matter is to be decided on the character of the social consequences of religious belief, Warnock has asserted that the value of religion is wholly detached from the truth or rationality of the central theological claims of the major religions. On Warnock’s view, the content of religious beliefs, arguments, and commitments is irrelevant.

In fact, on Warnock’s view, religion can be highly socially valuable – and therefore worth sustaining – even if all distinctively religious claims are demonstrably false. Her defense of religion, then, has the same form as the defense we adults give of our practice of promoting among our children the belief in Santa Claus: It’s such a useful and comforting fiction that the belief ought to be promoted (or at least not denied), despite the fact that Santa does not exist. This is what Plato famously called a Noble Lie.

Given this, we must ask: Is Warnock’s defense a defense of religion? Or is it merely a defense of the idea that some people need the comforting fictions that religion provides in order to be good, responsible citizens?

Arguably a defense of religion along these latter lines evacuates religion of what does the inspiring and instructing, namely, the distinctively theological commitment to God. Put otherwise, a defense of religion which rests solely upon considerations regarding the social value of religious belief is ultimately no defense at all. If religious belief is to be defended, it must be understood in terms that religious believers can recognize. According to religious believers, their beliefs are not merely useful social instruments or efficient means for instilling good moral habits. They are rather commitments to very particular metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological views. These views provide the basis for the moral and communal practices among religious believers that Warnock finds socially valuable. But the social value of the practices provides no defense for the underlying views, all of which are, we contend, false. No discussion of the merits of religious practices and institutions should be permitted to evade the fundamental question of the truth of distinctively religious claims.

When we first read Warnock’s book, we puzzled over its title. Why would a book that sets out to defend the social value of religious belief be titled Dishonest to God? We wondered: Who is being dishonest? What could dishonesty to God be? In the light of subsequent reflection, though, we think we’ve come to understand the title perfectly.

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