Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A World Full of Gods: Chapter Two

In Chapter One, Greer set the stage for the book, but in order to address the subjects he wishes to discuss, he has to overcome a hurdle at the very beginning, namely, certain basic issues of religious epistemology. Greer identifies three basic positions:

(1) We can know about gods on the basis of religious authority (e.g., a sacred text or prophet or some such).

(2) We cannot know anything whatsoever about gods, either because statements about them do nothing but express attitudes and emotions (and therefore are not the sort of thing knowledge deals with) or because statements about them have no meaning except for those who believe them.

(3) We can know about gods on the basis of reasoned inference from experienced evidence (and this may, of course, take either an atheistic form, in which what we can know about gods is that they don't exist, or a theistic form, in which we can know that they do).

Greer suggests that the typical Pagan view strongly upholds the third option: Paganism, in both its ancient forms and its modern revivals, usually places a strong emphasis on religious experience, which then forms the basis of conclusions that are refined through processes that have been developed by the community. This is the foundation for the fact that Pagan religious life can be very baroque, with a bewildering variety of approaches: it is very common for Pagan communities to try things out, and if it works in such a way as to meet the approval of the community, it is kept and over time integrated into the whole fabric. This is why Paganism has traditionally handled religious diversity so easily: people with diverse religions come into contact with each other, shared experiences are integrated with each other, and disagreements are at least to some extent tested against those shared experiences. This emphasis on religious experience will be found throughout the book, and forms its core. It also provides most of the more interesting arguments of the work.

In response to (1), Greer recognizes that testimony does play a major role in our understanding of the world. Not all testimony is equal, of course, but some of it could be good. If one takes the view of a religion with a sacred text inspired by God, the basic idea would be that one can trust the testimony given here completely. This is, says Greer, "sound in the abstract; if one did have access to an omniscient witness, and reason to trust his honesty, it would be entirely reasonable to accept his statements at face value" (p. 23). The problem, he suggests, arises from religious diversity: were there only one candidate being put forward this might be a strong position, but things get complex very quickly when one considers all the different texts put forward in this way -- the Bible, the Quran, the many Ofudesaki of recent Japanese religions, and so forth. This provides a challenge that has to be met. Greer actually provides no arguments that it can't be met. He also doesn't consider at all the important complications arising from what might be called fallibilistic interpretations of sacred texts, in which the testimony ultimately derives from an omniscient and trustworthy witness but filtered through fallible human beings; one variety of this opinion, which one at least occasionally does find in the wild, is that all the major sacred scriptures are of this sort, and such a position will handle religious testimony in pretty much exactly the way Greer says Pagans handle religious experience. But it is worthwhile to keep in mind Greer's goal in the book, which is not to provide definitive answers but to make the case that polytheists have something interesting and philosophically significant to say to the questions.

Greer also discusses, with regard to (1), fideistic and Reformed epistemology variations on it; these are very quickly discussed, and this quick discussion (along with the discussion of Schleiermacher in the next section) is, I think, far and away the weakest part of this chapter: it really needed more discussion than Greer decided to give it, even given the goal of the book.

With regard to expressivist forms of (2), Greer notes Wayne Proudfoot's claim that it is a defensive tactic devoted nothing other than to stopping inquiry outright, and says that it is harsh but not inaccurate. Greer notes that a purely expressivist approach is very difficult to square with actual religious claims, experiences, and practices. He then considers Wittgensteinian "form of life" accounts of (2), arguing (it is an interesting discussion, but I won't go into it here) that it is crucially and fatally vague.

With regard to atheistic forms of (3), Greer quite rightly notes that the sheer diversity of religions makes the position necessarily very complex: merely from the fact that some religious claims are rejected one cannot conclude that all are, so the claims that are proven wrong would have to be very broad and very widespread; this then, is the challenge that would have to be faced by the atheistic defender of (3).

Given the shortness of the chapter, it's best to see it as simply identifying the major challenges for the major competitors to the Pagan epistemological view that Greer will develop in Chapters Five through Seven. He does not at any point give a sufficient argument for anyone to conclude that the challenges are unanswerable, but given, again, that the point of the book is simply to make a case of the philosophical interest and significance of Pagan thought, he doesn't really need to do so. As noted above, I do think that he fails to make a very plausible case for a major challenge to fideism, to Reformed epistemology, and to Schleiermacher-style expressivism; the questions he raises are more of the "well, why not?" type than anything that speaks to the heart of the projects being addressed.

But in a sense we are all still dealing with preamble, and the weakness here isn't very problematic for the argument as a whole. Some of these positions will also be re-addressed at least somewhat along the way, so it's important not to jump the gun. But as Greer goes forward with a theistic version of (3), he has more obstacles to get out of the way: there are very definitely monotheistic versions of (3) with some very recognizable arguments that, if they get off the ground, could very well make the development of a polytheistic version of (3) moot. This will be the subject of what Greer calls a "detour" through Chapters Three and Four; Three will try to make a limited case that at least some of these arguments need not be seen as inconsistent with polytheism, and Four, far and away the weakest chapter in the book, will try to make another limited case that at least some typical atheistic challenges need not be seen as inconsistent with polytheism, either. I think this "detour" should have been better integrated into the overall argument, and think that even the limited case Greer is trying to build is very weakly supported by his actual argumentative approach; but I'll discuss them in more detail in a later post.

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