The Case for Religion

Patti Whaley reviews Keith Ward's 'The Case for Religion'. Oneworld Publications, ISBN 1-85168-337-2, 246 pages, £16.99

In The Case for Religion, Ward states his aim to do four things: to demolish arguments against religion based on science, sociology and psychology; to show why religions differ – because they explore the logically possible set of answers to basic human questions; to provide a rational justification of religious belief; and to show how the established religions must change in order to be forces for good. He succeeds in three of his four purposes.

Ward’s rebuttal of arguments against religion illustrates his command of philosophy and science as well as theology. He addresses the claims that religion is a survival of primitive needs, that it is a social construct that meets the needs of both the oppressor and the oppressed, and that it is merely a projection of individual psychological needs, with the same clarity and expertise that made his earlier God, a Guide for the Perplexed so popular. Attempts to explain away religion as the expression of a psychological need, for example, beg the question by assuming up front that religion is purely functional, a means to an end. Of course religion satisfies psychological needs – wouldn’t it be odd if it didn’t? – but it doesn’t only do that. Similarly, attempts to pin down religious experience by pointing to chemical changes in the brain or other observable phenomena are too reductionist to satisfy us; they may tell us what is happening in the brain when we have a religious experience, but this doesn’t “explain away” religious experience any more than corresponding data would explain away musical experience, or sexual experience, or love. We instinctively know, reading such explanations, that what we have experienced cannot be reduced to random chemical interactions in the brain.

The second large section of the book deals with why religions differ, and why their difference is not a reason for dismissing them: they are, essentially, a set of experiments in exploring interpretations of transcendence. Ward presents a sympathetic overview of the major world religions, as we might expect from someone who is not only a priest and canon in the Church of England, but also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Chair of the Governors of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, and Joint President of the World Congress of Faiths. The different religions can be understood as a way of working through the different possible relationships between matter and spirit – i.e. the dualist (Jains, Theravada Buddhists), the monist (Taoists), the idealist (Advaita Hindus) and the theist (Christians, Jews and Muslims) – and all have useful insights to offer. Unfortunately, Ward mentions, but does not discuss, two other possibilities – reductive materialism (the idea that spirit is simply a by-product of material processes), and emergent materialism (the idea that increase of consciousness and intelligence is the basic goal of the material process). He justifies this by saying that the Axial Age did not develop these options into substantial religions, which is true enough but might well leave a SoFist wondering whether emergent materialism mightn’t be an idea whose time has finally come.

Having established the canonical religions, Ward’s next task is to steer them through the challenges of Enlightenment criticism without running aground. He argues persuasively that religion is eminently reasonable, if we understand reason in its fullest sense, i.e. as an imaginative and insightful process whereby we grasp the inner connections and coherence of seemingly disparate phenomena, a process that is creative rather than simply deductive. What has damaged religion is not reason, but obsession with scientific evidence. Since revelation and religious knowledge are based on personal experience, which refuses to obey the rules of scientific evidence, insistence on standards of scientific evidence will rule religion out of court before the trial even begins. Only when we regain the capacity to take personal experience on its own terms will we be able to give religion a fair hearing.

So far, so good. However, the case for religion isn’t established simply by refuting the case against religion. Ward defines religion as “a set of practices for establishing relationship to a supernatural or transcendent reality, for the sake of obtaining human good or avoiding harm.” In order for religion to be ‘true’, on his terms, that supernatural or transcendent reality must exist. He demonstrates that such a reality is necessary: religion’s task of enabling humans to cope with the breakdown of explanations, the existence of suffering and the lack of justice can only be fulfilled if there is an underlying spiritual reality. And even Kant’s moral law requires an absolute obligation to the realisation of goodness; we need a promise that the moral project will, in the end, win out. But does the existence of a God-shaped need imply the existence of the God to fill that need?

Repeatedly, in explaining why different religions come to different interpretations about spiritual reality, or why revelation is so notoriously unclear and unreliable, Ward refers to the deeply mysterious and ungraspable nature of this underlying spiritual reality. He doesn’t actually address why spiritual reality must be so remote and mysterious and so – well, coy. Like theodicists who explain why God didn’t make a perfect world, but neglect to explain why he didn’t make one that was just a wee bit better, Ward neglects to explain why spiritual reality must be accessible only remotely, by hints and guesses, and with so many mistakes and false starts.

The fourth objective, demonstrating how religions much change in order to be a force for good, puts Ward back on firmer ground. Faith must be critical, and ready to challenge tradition; it must be based on experience rather than on propositions of belief; it must be committed to the increase of human flourishing. Finally, the religions will not, and indeed should not, merge into one agreed model; but we must accept that our own understanding of truth is provisional, and learn to pay respectful attention to other faiths, accepting criticism from them and refining our own understanding of religious truth by learning from other visions and interpretations. Whether or not we accept the necessity for an underlying spiritual reality, those of us who still believe that religion has value in the world would wholeheartedly agree with Ward’s vision of global religious harmony, and of the good that such a force could accomplish in the world.

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