Discussions of religion are typically about
God. Atheists reject religion because they
don't believe in God; Jews, Christians and
Muslims take belief in God as fundamental to
their religious commitment.
The philosopher John Gray, however, has recently
been arguing that belief in God should have
little or nothing to do with religion. He
points out that in many cases for instance,
"polytheism, Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism
and Shinto, many strands of Judaism and some
Christian and Muslim traditions" belief is
of little or no importance. Rather,
"practice ritual, meditation, a way of life
is what counts." He goes on to say that "it's only
religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists
who think the myths we live by are literal truths"
and that "what we believe doesn't
in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live."
The obvious response to Gray is that it all depends
on what you hope to find in a religion. If your hope
is simply for guidance and assistance in leading a
life here on earth, a "way of living" without firm
beliefs in any supernatural being may well be all you need.
But many religions, including mainline versions of
Christianity and Islam, promise much more. They
promise ultimate salvation. If we are faithful to
their teachings, they say, we will be safe from final
annihilation when we die and will be happy eternally in
our life after death.
If our hope is for salvation in this sense and
for many that is the main point of religionthen
this hope depends on certain religious
beliefs' being true. In particular, for the main
theistic religions, it depends on there being a
God who is good enough to desire our
salvation and powerful enough to achieve it.
But here we come to a point that is generally
overlooked in debates about theism, which center
on whether there is reason to believe in God,
understood as all-good and all-powerful. Suppose
that the existence of such a God could be decisively
established. Suppose, for example, we were to be
entirely convinced that a version of the ontological
argument, which claims to show that the very idea
of an all-perfect being requires that such a being
exist, is sound. We would then be entirely certain
that there is a being of supreme power and goodness.
But what would this imply about our chances for
On reflection, very little. Granted, we would
know that our salvation was possible: an all-powerful
being could bring it about. But would we
have any reason to think that God would in fact do
this? Well, how could an all-good being not desire
our salvation? The problem is that an all-good being
needs to take account of the entire universe, not just us.
Here, discussions of the problem of evil become
crucial. An all-good being, even with maximal
power, may have to allow considerable local
evils for the sake of the overall good of the
universe; some evils may be necessary for the
sake of avoiding even worse evils. We have no way
of knowing whether we humans might be the
victims of this necessity.
Of course, an all-good God would do everything
possible to minimize the evil we suffer, but for
all we know that minimum might have to include
our annihilation or eternal suffering. We might
hope that any evil we endure will at least be
offset by an equal or greater amount of good for
us, but there can be no guarantee. As defenders
of theism often point out, the freedom of moral
agents may be an immense good, worth God's
tolerating horrendous wrongdoing. Perhaps God
in his omniscience knows that the good of allowing
some higher type of beings to destroy our
eternal happiness outweighs the good of that
happiness. Perhaps, for example, their destroying
our happiness is an unavoidable step in the
moral drama leading to their salvation and
My point here reflects the two-edged character
of religious responses to the problem of evil.
The only plausible answer to the question,
"How could an all-good and all-powerful God
allow immense evils?" is that such a God may
well have knowledge beyond our understanding. As
David Hume suggested in his "Dialogues on Natural
Religion," the problem of evil is solved only by
an appeal to our own ignorance. (There
are powerful formulations of this approach by
philosophers called "skeptical theists.")
Such an appeal may save us from the apparent
contradiction of evil in a world created by an a
ll-good God. But it also severely limits our
judgments about what an all-good God would do.
It may seem to us that if we live as we should,
God will ensure our salvation. But it also seems,
from our limited viewpoint, that God would not
permit things like the Holocaust or the death
of innocent children from painful diseases. Once
we appeal to the gap between our limited knowledge
and God's omniscience, we cannot move from what
we think God will do to what he will in fact do.
So the fact that we think an all-good God would ensure
our salvation does not support the conclusion that, all things
considered, he will in fact do so.
It follows, then, that even a decisive proof
that there is an all-good, all-powerful God cannot
assure us that we are ultimately safe. Even if
we insist on a religion that goes beyond John Gray's
beliefless way of living, belief that there is a God
leaves us far short of what we hope
for from religion.
Many believers will agree. Their confidence in
salvation, they say, comes not from philosophical
arguments but from their personal contact
with God, either through individual experience
or a religious tradition. But what can such
contact provide concretely? At best, certainty that
there is a very powerful being who promises to
save us. But there may well be and many religions
insist that there are very powerful
beings (demons or devils) intent on leading us
away from salvation. How could we possibly know
that the power we are in contact with is not
The inevitable response is that an all-good God
would not permit such a thing. But that takes us
back to the previous difficulty: there is no
reason to think that we are good judges of what
God is likely to permit. God may have to allow us
to be deceived to prevent even greater evils.
We can, of course, simply will to believe that
we are not being deceived. But that amounts to
blind faith, not assured hope. If that
doesn't satisfy us, we need to find a better
response to the problem of evil than an appeal
to our ignorance. Failing that, we may need to
reconsider John Gray's idea of religion with little
or no belief.
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University
of NotreDame, and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical
Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, "Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy since 1960," and writes
regularly for The Stone.
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