EssaysLiberal Democracy in QuestionPower and CrisisReligionTheory & Practice

The Ethics and Politics of Responsible Belief

On liberalism and faith

Prior to his death in June 2007, Richard Rorty turned his attention to religious belief and its place in the public sphere. Rorty had long been presenting himself as the “village atheist” in the domains both of academic philosophy and public intellectualism: he viewed religious belief as the most pervasive form of false metaphysical comfort, and as a political “conversation stopper” that is ineluctably at odds with the sort of foundationless liberal democracy he championed. But late in his career, perhaps due to the influence and criticisms of fellow philosophers Jeffrey Stout and Gianni Vattimo [1], he began to soften his position. He argued that he was less an atheist than an anticlericalist, and claimed that this position was implied by his pragmatism. His views on religion shifted focus from whether it was bound to “the onto-theological tradition” he opposed on philosophical and moral grounds, to how one could embrace or reject it without falling into the standard Nietzschean traps. He elucidated the intellectual and political consequences a pragmatic, historicist, antiessentialist view of religion might entail.

In his essay “Anti-Clericalism and Atheism” [2], Rorty claimed that the 20th century “was the one in which philosophy professors began to stop asking bad questions” — questions that assumed philosophy’s time honored role as the foundational discipline, whether those foundations are understood to be metaphysical, epistemological, or linguistic in nature. Philosophers as different as Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Dewey, Kuhn, Foucault, and Derrida each persuasively argued against the idea that philosophy supplied an intellectual context for displaying ahistorical universal structures, essences that would globally demarcate appearance from reality, knowledge from opinion, or the necessary from the contingent. Rorty’s entire philosophical career had advanced the cause of the antifoundationalism, antirepresentationalism, and antiessentialism they shared, tracing the ways in which philosophy in the West undermined itself in the very course of trying to secure a general theory of epistemic foundations, of accurate representations, or of intrinsic natures or essences.

Rorty believed that if you took seriously this pragmatic rejection of Western philosophy’s self-image, you would not opt for one side of the stock, traditional philosophical dichotomies over the other (i.e., appearance over reality, opinion over knowledge, or contingency over necessity), make “natures” extrinsic rather than intrinsic, or explicitly deny the existence of essences. The dichotomies themselves would fall away, not as internally incoherent but as useless. If the vocabularies of traditional Western philosophy no longer prove to be useful, then they should be given up, or viewed as interesting but failed prolegomena to the pragmatism Rorty shares with John Dewey and William James.

The trail of James is quite evident in “Anti-clericalism and Atheism”: “One effect of anti-essentialism and historicism is an insouciance about . . . ‘the warfare between science and theology’”:

A growing tendency to accept what Terry Pinkard calls “Hegel’s doctrine of the sociality of reason” and to abandon what Habermas calls “subject centered reason” for what he calls “communicative reason” has weakened the grip of the idea that scientific beliefs are formed rationally whereas religious beliefs are not. The anti-positivist tenor of post-Kuhnian philosophy of science has combined with the work of post-Heideggerian theologians to make intellectuals more sympathetic to William James’s claim that natural science and religion need not compete with one another. [3]

James, of course, argued in “The Will to Believe” that one is within one’s rights to believe — or disbelieve — in God and a sacred realm if these options cannot be settled definitively, if they are live, forced, and momentous, which indeed they are. James, like Rorty, accepts Kant’s argument in The Critique of Pure Reason that theoretical reason cannot demonstrate God’s existence or non-existence. But Rorty (and arguably James as well) rejects the Kantian trichotomy of cognitive/moral/aesthetic as part and parcel of the essentialist project that has proven so pointless. Unlike Kant, neither James nor Rorty believes philosophy is in a position to declare some forms of discourse to be first-rate (natural science), some second-rate (social science), or some third-rate (art and literature). For James they are all aspects of a pluralistic universe. For Rorty, each is fine as a language-game or mode of disclosure as long as they remain understood as effective ways of coping, rather than a “God’s eye view” of things, and do not make imperialistic claims over other strands in the conversation of humankind.

Rorty observes that while some people might have a stake in the religious Lebensform, for others it just might not matter, in much the way that neither Dewey nor Kant showed much of an interest in appreciating music. [4] Some people are “religiously musical,” some are not, and this is simply what it is. We cannot suppose any given “option” to be “live, forced, and momentous” for everyone in all times and places. “Historicism” is not just confined to the Weltgeist, but can be personal as well: one cannot judge whether one should be interested or obsessed in something without acknowledging the individual idiosyncrasies that make a person what and who that person is. Thus Rorty, like James, concludes that neither theists, nor atheists, nor agnostics and quietists, can claim the moral high ground in debates about God and the Sacred, since there is no final, definitive, self-authenticating truth about these matters:

People who find themselves quite unable to take an interest in the question of whether God exists have no right to be contemptuous of people who believe passionately in his existence, or of people who deny it with equal passion. Nor do either of the latter have a right to be contemptuous of those to whom the dispute seems pointless. [5]

For Rorty, the task of “reconciling Science and Religion,” which so agitated both Kant and Hegel, is a non-starter. There is no reason to seek to reconcile them in any higher philosophical synthesis. “All the spheres of culture continually interpenetrate and interact. There is no need for an organizational chart that specifies, once and for all, when they are permitted to do so.” [6] It becomes less urgent, therefore, for “religiously unmusical” people to identify themselves as atheists when their lack of belief is a function of which social practices, given their idiosyncratic personal histories, they engage in. Rorty does, however, believe that anti-clericalism is a position worth defending:

[Anticlericalism] is a political view, not a metaphysical or epistemological one. It is the view that ecclesiastical institutions, despite all the good they do … are dangerous to the health of democratic societies. Whereas the philosophers who claim that atheism, unlike theism, is backed up by evidence would say that religious belief is irrational, contemporary secularists like myself are content to say that it is politically dangerous. On our view, religion is unobjectionable as long as it is privatized … and as long as believers and unbelievers agree to follow a policy of live-and-let-live. [7]

* * *

Rorty’s musings on Religion and its place in political society have the virtue of refocusing the sorts of issues I covered in my last contribution to Public Seminar, shifting them from epistemological and metaphysical arguments to moral and political ones. His view, which draws deeply from the well of Rawls’s Political Liberalism, has much to recommend it, but also much to question and, I think, reject. First, allow me to parse through the positive achievements of Rorty’s late views on religious belief.

In “Religion, Essentialism, and Violence” I argued that if one is an antiessentialist in philosophy, one might as well be an antiessentialist in religion as well. Antiessentialism acknowledges that traditions, whether religious, artistic, or cultural, are, big, messy, vague, and complicated. Thus “cherry picking” strands from a faith-tradition to support one’s view is as inevitable as it is harmless: the real issue concerns the kind of strands one wishes to retain or strengthen, and which one needs to cut loose. Thus the radical Islamist or Westboro Baptist Church member cannot be faulted for cherry picking and thus “betraying the faith,” since they can cite chapter-and-verse as well as anyone can. Their fault is not that their metaphysics or epistemology is bad, especially if, as Rorty argues, it is obtuse to suppose that they have a worked-out epistemology or metaphysics or, if they did, whether it would make much difference. These philosophical subdisciplines do not have much traction after essentialism and representationalism. The problem with ISIS and the WBC (among many others) is a moral and political one: their violent exclusivism is what is at issue here, as well as their unwillingness to think about their positions, or allow them to be subjected to external or immanent critique. It is fruitless to rail against religion per se as the culprit for nightmares like 9/11 or the London subway bombings, first, because there is no such beast as “religion per se,” and second, it is not the religion of such groups that is problematic, but the way it is ruthlessly employed in a politics of violence.

In banishing epistemology and metaphysics from political discourse about religious belief in the public sphere, Rorty undercuts the anti-theistic polemic of “New Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, as well as their many critics. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are not so much anticlerical as they are old-school atheists, whom Rorty describes thus:

[Such atheists] are those who still think that belief in the divine is an empirical hypothesis, and that modern science has given better explanations of the phenomena God was once used to explain. Philosophers of this sort are delighted when an ingenuous natural scientist claims that some new scientific discovery provides evidence for the truth of theism, for they find it easy to debunk this claim. They can do so simply by trotting out the same sorts of arguments about the irrelevance of any particular state of affairs to the existence of an atemporal and non-spatial being as were used by Hume and Kant against the natural theologians of the eighteenth century. [8]

This position, however, is self-undermining. As Rorty immediately goes on to say,

I agree with Hume and Kant that the notion of empirical evidence is irrelevant to talk about God, but this point bears equally against atheism and theism … Once the Kantian trichotomy [of the cognitive, the moral, and the aesthetic] is abandoned, the work of theologians like Bultmann and Tillich no longer looks like a reduction of the “cognitive” claims of religion to “merely” aesthetic claims. [9]

Rorty here reiterates the chief point made by William James in “The Will to Believe.” When, in Kantian terms, you run up against the limits of possible experience as outlined in the Critique of Pure Reason, you realize that the “God question” cannot be definitively settled just by drawing upon the best theories to have emerged thus far. This entitles you to embrace theism — or atheism — if you yourself have good practical reasons for doing so, all other things being equal. (James, in retrospect, worried whether his essay should have been titled “The Right to Believe,” and I think him correct on this score.) Rorty’s tacit appeal to James is appropriate; the arguments of “the New Atheists” largely misfire. They conflate the political failures of theists with moral failures, and then conflate them with epistemological failures. They then proceed to debate the purported epistemologies of theists by comparing them unfavorably with that of empirical scientists. But this is a huge category mistake. The New Atheists’ basic case against religious violence is that it flows from ignorance rather than a blanket refusal of all politics other than that of the sword or the hateful sneer. But the problem with ISIS and the WBC is not so much that they are stupid (though that may be the case, and I think it largely is) but that they espouse an execrable politics at odds with democracy, which is in turn a consequence of their refusal to think reflectively, in a way analogous to that of Adolf Eichmann as portrayed by Hannah Arendt. (Arendt takes pains to depict Eichmann not as ignorant or stupid, but unreflective and unthinking — not the same thing!) Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris et al. unwittingly conflate their indifference to the religious problematic — their being “religiously unmusical” — with their enthusiasm for the scientific problematic, with the result that they think of religious belief as bad science rather than a human practice that answers to entirely different human needs, some admirable, some despicable.

In this respect, Rorty is much closer to most of the critics of The New Atheists, of whom Terry Eagleton is probably the most prominent and persuasive. Eagleton’s case against them is two-pronged. The first prong claims that they misunderstand the nature of religious conviction, thereby accusing believers of a kind of irrationality that they do not exhibit. The second prong is more political: the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic monotheistic traditions contain resources for social and political hope that should not be abandoned, certainly not glossed over by the smug, upper-middle-class liberalism that is all but taken for granted by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and the rest.

Eagleton, in his Terry Lecture Reason, Faith, and Revolution, begins by accusing the New Atheists of missing the point, which might be either the effect or the cause of sloppy scholarship:

[The Christian God] is not some kind of mega-manufacturer or cosmic chief executive officer, as the Richard Dawkins school of nineteenth-century liberal rationalism tends to imagine — what the theologian Herbert McCabe [Eagleton’s teacher] calls “the idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature.” Dawkins falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science … [He] thinks it is a kind of bogus theory or pseudo-explanation of the world. In this sense, he is rather like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology, and who therefore can’t see the point of it at all. [10]

New Atheists (whom Eagleton playfully names “Ditchkins,” a contraction of Dawkins and Hitchens), thus badly misconstrue what religious thinking, or theology, is about:

God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever. Not being any sort of entity himself, however, he is not to be reckoned up alongside these things, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects. God and the universe do not make two. [11]

Following McCabe, Eagleton portrays “Ditchkins” as attacking a straw man: Christian (and by extension Jewish and Islamic) belief is not a competitor to science, any more than art is — it addresses different questions with different methods and practices. “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible,” Einstein once quipped. That is the province of theology rather than science.

Rorty is much closer to Eagleton than he is to the New Atheists on this score, who cling to a kind of crypto-positivism that is just one more failed attempt to attain a perspectiveless perspective, a view from nowhere in particular. But Rorty would, I think, wonder why Eagleton goes through such contortions to make a point that could be made far more simply: whether one embraces theism or atheism is a separate issue from the political relevance of that embrace. Rorty is first and foremost a believer in democracy: if your piety does not overdetermine your words and actions as a democratic citizen, then all is well and good. If it does trump anything political for you, if it forces your hand in the public sphere, it is dangerous and blameworthy, because it borders on an allegiance to theocracy.

Eagleton’s second line of attack — that religion in general and the Jerusalem-based religions in particular provide resources for making the world a more just and humane place, resources hard to find elsewhere — seems to echo Rorty’s frequent claims that, as a “freeloading atheist,” he will gladly borrow from monotheistic religion to bolster his hope that, in St. Paul’s words, love will become the only law. Yet Eagleton insists that the kind of liberalism Rorty shares with the New Atheists is not up to that task, and that his “freeloading” Pauline caritas sits uneasily with his politics. Eagleton draws upon Marx to argue that the social and political achievements of political liberalism are undermined by the very economic liberalism it generated and supported. Enlightenment conceptions of freedom and equality under the law, which are intellectual and moral accomplishments of the highest order, are dialectically undermined by the rapacity and violence that the liberal (or neoliberal, or neoconservative) capitalist economic order unleashes on the world. For Eagleton, liberalism has become a complacently self-satisfied ideology, convinced that it has achieved “the end of history,” after which all change can and will only be variations on a theme. This is cold comfort for those who suffer famine, fear, and exploitation at the hands of this liberal, now global capitalist order. Christianity, like Marxism, is the ground for a more radical social hope, the hope that “it does get better than this,” and a program for carrying it out, whether successful or not.

Putting aside for a moment Rorty’s longtime explicit antipathy to Marx, I think he would likewise be disposed to wonder why Eagleton hangs social hope on any kind of theory (Marxism) or integral system of belief and practice (Christianity). Social hope does not need foundations or external support. The fact that it is groundless does not mean that it is pointless or powerless. For liberals — and one would think people in general — “cruelty is the worst thing that we do.” This swings free from any philosophy or theology. Rorty was decidedly not complacent about actually existing liberal democracy: throughout his life he expressed both sadness and anger at the plight of the poor and oppressed under conservative regimes, at the rampant greed and militarism in the United States, for which his patriotism never dimmed. He often approvingly cited Gramsci’s slogan “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” But he was quite clear that social hope could be a potent force without any kind of grounding or foundation, and, because of this, that liberal democracy is not itself seriously flawed, as Eagleton suggests.

* * *

It is at this precise point that, I think, Rorty’s argument goes off the rails. Rorty has, commendably, reconfigured the conversation about religion to that of the politics, rather than the epistemology, of responsible faith. But I have two worries about Rorty’s political solution to a problem that, I think, is just as much ethical as it is political. That is, there is an ethics of intelligently responsible faith that cannot be detached from Rorty’s insistence that believers “play ball” on the field of liberal democracy, and which Rorty’s own political liberalism cannot make sense of on its own terms.

To repeat, Rorty’s anticlericalism is deeply rooted in Rawls’s Political Liberalism, which draws upon a conception of “public reason” that abstracts from particular convictions about how one ought to live, and limits its scope to achieving consensus on the laws and norms that govern a “social union of social unions,” the liberal democratic polity. Moreover, the conception of justice-as-fairness that runs through the collective norm- and law-formulation that is liberal democratic politics is itself a political conception rather than a metaphysical one. Rorty’s fears of clericalism lie in the unwillingness of at least some and possibly many religious believers to restrict themselves to the exercise of “public reason,” i.e., to keep religious conviction out of democratic discourse and to rely only on the discursive fruits of public reasoning. But this assumes, rather than argues for, the legitimacy of a liberal conception of politics. It is hard to see how members of the Westboro Baptist Church, or Al-Shabaab, would feel themselves rationally compelled to bow to these strictures. To them, “public reason” would be at best a sham and at worst a smokescreen, given that it rests on a conception of politics that they do not share, one that is contradicted by their religious and/or metaphysical beliefs, which Rortyan and Rawlsian liberals take to be sheerly political, understanding “politics” in a way they do not. The project of the later Rawls could be caricatured as saying “Liberalism seems true to liberals,” which is as true as it is uninformative and question-begging. But even if this could be dismissed as a broad caricature, a political conception of justice-as-fairness would have to be indexed to a “we,” in this case “we Western liberal republican democrats,” which narrows the base considerably.

Who is the “we” Rorty constantly appeals to? Rorty unapologetically specifies “we” as a contraction of “we residents of liberal democratic societies.” This begs all the important questions (“who do you mean, ‘WE’?”) unless “we” is made more complex and rich. “We,” in democratic societies, signifies not only “residents” or “members” but citizens who have an active interest in securing the common good by engaging with their fellow citizens. “The Citizen” is something that cannot be adequately understood in purely Rawlsian terms: substantive, competing visions of the common good are up for grabs in real political engagement, not just the thin, quasi-procedural rules of “public reason.” How does this engagement proceed? In key part by a process of immanent critique, where adherents of one vision of the Common Good appeal to premises shared by partisans of rival visions, or by showing that some premises of these rival visions contradict other premises or shared practices — by advancing the cause of one vision of the Common Good by pointing out, through reasoning, persuasion, and debate, that rival visions are inferior on their own terms. Citizens have a stake in politics thus understood: as Arendt put it, by persuading or “wooing” the opposition through speech, debate, and action.

But this places constraints on “we citizens” that go beyond “public reason,” but are far more exacting in that they subject one’s own social hopes and visions of the good life to reflective self-criticism and a willingness to consider the objections of political rivals because they are, in a sense, a species of friend. It means, in effect, one has to be willing to think, to employ all the Socratic virtues – open-mindedness, a willing to listen, a measured fallibilism about one’s convictions without lapsing into skepticism, and so on. But the lack of such virtues is what the likes of ISIS, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, racists and sexists and homophobes of all stripes, abortion clinic bombers, the Westboro Baptist Church, Ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlers supporting the Israeli far-right, and a host of others, all share in common. Questioning stops at the threshold of the faith and the cause.

One need not return to the fold of “the onto-theological tradition” to see that something is deeply wrong with the above parties. Peirce, the father of American Pragmatism and no friend to foundationalism, put it bluntly in the form of a categorical imperative of the intellect: “Do not block the path of inquiry.” But if this is so, Rorty was a bit rash in concluding that the flaws of crypto-theocrats were just political faults. They are moral and intellectual faults as well. When a Christian fundamentalist refuses to acknowledge the challenge that natural selection poses to a scriptural literalism that places the language of faith on the same plane as the language of science, or when a radical Islamist reflexively understands Christians and Jews to be “infidels” even as he or she accepts the canonical status of the Tanakh and the Christian New Testament in Islam, or when a “New Atheist” blasts “moderate believers” as enablers of theocrats without even attempting to understand charitably the theological sources for this moderation in Tillich, or Heschel, or Rahner, they are all joined together in a common malady of thoughtlessness. The special problem faced by the religious is not dogma per se (which merely means “things taught,” shared beliefs and practices). It is the steadfast refusal to think these beliefs and practices through. To embrace such thinking is a tough challenge to religion in the contemporary world, indeed its chief challenge. But it must be met. Whether it can be consistently met by all who believe, remains to be seen.


[1] Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton, 2004); Gianni Vattimo, After Christianity (Columbia U.P., 2002).

[2] In Mark Wrathall, ed., Religion After Metaphysics (Cambridge U.P., 2003).

[3] Ibid., Kindle loc. 558.

[4] Dewey was, in fact, literally “tone deaf,” unable to distinguish differences in pitch and timbre, a condition he probably shared with Kant, Freud, and the James brothers. See Philip M. Zellner, John Dewey’s Aesthetic Philosophy (Gruner, 1975), p.93.

[5] Ibid. Kindle loc. 569.

[6] Ibid., Kindle loc. 583.

[7] Ibid., Kindle loc. 595.

[8] Ibid., Kindle loc. 588.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution (Yale U.P., 2009), Kindle loc. 89.

[11] Ibid., Kindle loc. 90.

Also for you:

Michael Quirk

Previous post

On Wendy Brown

Next post

Slaves: The Capital that Made Capitalism