Is Nothing Sacred?

The Non-Realist Philosophy of Religion: Selected Essays by Don Cupitt. (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy, 28) Fordham University Press, 2002, pp. xxiii+159, hb. £33.50, ISBN 0-8232-2203-9. Reviewed by Andrew Edgar, Lecturer in Philosophy at Cardiff University.

I began reading this collection of essays after reading the apologia that Don Cupitt published in the July and September issues of Sea of Faith. The collection makes an excellent complement to that apologia. It serves admirably as a Don Cupitt primer, giving substance to the outline of his intellectual development. The earliest essay collected here was previously published in 1982, and the latest in 2000. The major themes of his work—the metaphysics and epistemology of non-realism; ethics; spirituality; art; and environmentalism—are all represented in typically lucid and stimulating style.

The core issue that unifies the volume is the implications that a non-realist position has for contemporary religious belief and practice. The first two sections of the book are consequently concerned with Don Cupitt's own movement to non-realism, with its intellectual justification, and its place in the intellectual development of Western culture (not just in theology, but crucially in philosophy). The key claim is that it is now implausible to assume that there is an objective standard by which knowledge claims can be assessed. We cannot know the world directly, for our knowledge is structured by the language we use. Language does not map, innocently, on to a pre-existing world, but rather shapes how we perceive, think about and deal with that world. For Don Cupitt, the world in which we live is therefore fundamentally cultural. The implication for theology is, bluntly, that it simply no longer makes sense to assume that there is a god independent of our conceptions of what god is.

Readers of Sea of Faith hardly need to be reminded of the importance of this thesis to religious thought. Not least, it serves to focus religious and theological debates on important issues. Debates about the existence of god, at least since Kant, already have the air of the proverbial medieval debate about angels on pinheads. Strip away the objective god, and humans must take responsibility for how they practice their religion, and the implications that it has for other humans and the natural environment. We can no longer hide behind lazy appeals to authority or to vacuous empirical claims. Don Cupitt's reinterpretation of traditional religious themes, such as the conception of god, the problem of evil, the afterlife and human liberation (in the essay 'The Radical Christian Worldview') are ready evidence of the intellectual stimulus of non-realism, as is his interpretation of environmental ethics in terms of Christian redemption (rather than Old Testament 'dominion').

But—and after such fulsome praise there usually is a 'but'—I find something unsatisfactory in Don Cupitt's defence of non-realism, and I am not wholly convinced that it does the work he wants of it. Principally, I suspect that non-realism in philosophy, and in particular in epistemology, must be discrepant from theological non-realism. The point is this: the non-realist theologian seems to be arguing that it does not make sense to assume that there is anything outside human culture that corresponds to what we conceptualise as 'god'. Religion is then, simply, a cultural achievement.

In epistemology, the non-realist is not arguing that there is no external world independent of human beings, but rather that an independent world is always interpreted by human beings (and in human language). There is a 'something' out there, even if we can never know it, in Kant's terminology, as it is 'in-itself'. This does entail that we can never claim that we have a definitive interpretation of that something. However, we can get that something wrong. We can misinterpret the world, and as the pragmatist Charles Peirce argued, if we misinterpret the world badly enough, and act upon a mistaken belief, it hurts.

Don Cupitt, I fear, gets carried away by the Kuhnian philosophy of science, and tends to assume that all changes in what is claimed as knowledge are just cultural shifts. Change in science is unquestionably influenced by cultural factors, but there may still be reasons why one scientific theory is preferred over another (and thus has a stronger claim to be true). Science does not just change. On some level it progresses. Don Cupitt has done an excellent job in debunking objectivist metaphysics, that takes truth simply to mean correspondence to an objective reality. What is missing is a rigorous exploration of the alternative definitions of truth that can fill the gap that is inevitably left.

My point is then that religion does not just change either. Changes in religious belief and practice are neither just inflections of broader cultural changes, nor yet shifts in subjective commitments. The cultural relativism that seems to be entailed by Don Cupitt's non-realism does not provide an adequate account of change, not least because it inhibits our critical capacity. Some religious beliefs can be better than others—some interpretations of scripture are better than others. Don Cupitt is well aware of this, but fights shy of saying it explicitly. He indeed uses phrases such as 'true' or 'rational' religion, and he is critical of much that is taught as orthodox Christianity. Most importantly, he claims that orthodox Christianity is a misinterpretation of Christ's teaching and example. Only if our value judgements are made explicit, along with our reasons for making them, can we engage in constructive debate, and for the Christian, the debate over exactly how we should follow Christ. If everything is culturally relative or subjective, then those who disagree with us can just shrug their shoulders, and continue believing what they want to believe. Don Cupitt himself sums up the problem poignantly, when recounting an ordinary church-goer's challenge: ''I go to church, I say my prayers, I keep the rules. Before long I'll die in faith and go to Heaven. It's all perfectly straightforward…. Why do you make all these unnecessary difficulties?' (p. xx).