Religion offers us a comforting and inspiring vision of human existence. In the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, a just but loving and merciful God created the universe. He’s in charge. And he’s got a plan -- not just for the universe as a whole, but for each of us. Seems like it would be nice to wake up in the morning as a part of all that.
According to Kierkegaard, rejecting it leads to a pretty dismal existence. He says “if there were no eternal consciousness in man, if at the foundation of all there lay only [nature] a wildly seething power which . . . produces everything that is great and [everything] that is insignificant, what then would life be but despair? How empty then and comfortless life would be!”
The problem for many folks is that Religious belief strikes us as irrational. There is no reason to think the main tenets are true. Neither the traditional cosmological arguments, nor the Design Arguments, and especially not the ontological argument, seem to provide convincing reasons for belief, whereas the Problem of Evil is a compelling bit of negative evidence. Are such non-believers really condemned to a empty and comfortless life? What good is the truth if it leaves you depressed and debilitated?
Many people remain religious, while rejecting as mythical many parts of the teachings of the Bible. You don't have to believe that God literally created the world in 7 days to be a believer. Most people start with whatever religion they grow up in, or find most appealing for some other reason, take out the stuff they find implausible, and leave in the rest. I see no reason such tailor-made religions can't be comforting. But the problem comes when you find that even the most basic tenets strike you as implausible. It's easy in the academy to find the resources to set aside the mythology, bad history, and pseudoscience. Then one can go to one of the up-to-date theodicies available from modern religious analytical philosophers to deal with the problem of Evil
But what you are left with strikes many of us as mainly tortured theology or murky metaphysics or both. Not much comfort in that.
Maybe we need to go back to Kierkegaard, forget our reason, and take the Leap of Faith. Let our wills take us where our reason won’t go. What motivates the Leap is the conviction that one's only hope for eternal bliss lies in being a believer. Even if, rationally speaking, that odds are extremely small, still it is the only hope. So become a believer. Take the Leap. Pascal's strategy is different, but similar. You don't leap, you slide. You pretend until it becomes a habit indistinguishable from belief (or something along those lines). The idea is that if you figure out the odds, taking the slide is rational.
It's not entirely clear that such willed belief is possible for everyone. But there seems to me to be a worse problem. To suppose that, however slim the odds of its truth are, belief in God is the best bet for eternal happiness seems to require that you already know a lot about God, or at least about what God would be like if there were one. But maybe, for all I know, God is, or would be, extremely shy. He may punish believers and reward those who ignore him. Of course that's not what the scriptures and the theologians tell us. But for me it takes a Leap to suppose that what they tell us is correct, and so have any reason to take Kierkegaard's Leap or Pascal's Slide into belief.
But, come to think of it, maybe we should just pretend. Think about numbers. Some philosophers believe that numbers aren’t really real. But that doesn’t stop them from doing math. Why not do the same with religion? Reject the metaphysics, but accept the practice. If you find that being part of a religious community, partaking in worship, prayer, fellowship, and the like makes your life less empty and more meaningful, why not just pretend?
The philosopher we'll talk to, Howard Wettstein, adopts an approach that is sort of like that, but importantly different. The pretence strategy accepts that belief is the basic attitude needed to be religious, and pretence may be the closest to it we can get. Wettstein, arguing on historical, philosophical, aesthetic and psychological grounds, thinks that religion is basically rooted in awe, not in belief. You don't need to pretend. You need to practice. His attitude towards the scriptures and talk of God is that it is a way of interpreting, sharing and chanelling awe. This is compatible with a sort of non-literal belief, and available to those with a completely naturalistic metaphysic. Wettstein is Jewish, but he draws on the thinking of the (sort of) Catholic philosopher Santayanna, as well as centuries of Talmudic thinking and poetry from many sources. We'll talk to him about his views, as developed in his recent book, THE SIGNIFICANCE OF RELIGIOUS BELIEF.