Can A Philosophical Pragmatist Be Religious?

No, not bullshit religious.  I mean God-fearing born-again Christian.  Orthodox Jew.  Pray-five-times-a-day Muslim.

Seems like a contradiction.  After all, religious people believe in Truth.  God “actually” exists.  The Bible “really is” the Word of God.  Pragmatists think that Truth is a useless concept, because we wouldn’t know it if we saw it.  All human knowledge is relative to an audience and a range of truth-candidates.  Descriptions aren’t true or false, but more or less useful for certain purposes.

But wait.  Just as “that car is approaching you and it’s not slowing down” is a useful statement to believe to avoid getting killed in a car crash, so “Jesus Christ died to save us” might be a useful statement to believe to avoid going to Hell.  Neither description requires you to believe something about Reality.  Maybe you’re in the Matrix, so that car isn’t “really” there.  It’s still useful to avoid that car:

Neo: I thought it wasn’t real.
Morpheus: Your mind makes it real.
Neo: If you’re killed in the Matrix, you die here?
Morpheus: The body cannot live without the mind.

Analogously, maybe “God” is the Master Control Program.  Or an alien from another dimension.  Or the little brother of the “real” God, and our universe is the little God’s model train set.  Or maybe God really is GOD, but Hell just lasts a million years instead of all eternity.  The point is we don’t have to make a claim about Reality to be religious, we just have to have a reason to believe that religious descriptions of the universe are more useful than naturalistic descriptions.

This is where things get interesting.  What counts as a reason?  Scientists would say that empirical evidence from controlled experiments is what counts (plus evidence from astronomy, the fossil record, and mathematical models).  These things count as “real” reasons, and other forms of evidence and reasoning that contradict scientific claims, or can’t be verified or falsified using scientific methods, are “irrational”.

To the pragmatists, this is just chest-thumping.  The language games of Western science and rationality are really useful for building bridges and treating illnesses, but don’t have some privileged access to Reality.

Back to religion.  Religion has its own kind of evidence: revelation.  Many religions claim that God makes himself evident to us through revelation — either through really intense, bad-ass revelations, like sending the angel Gabriel down to reveal the Qur’an to Mohammed or appearing to Moses as a burning bush, or more subtle, ordinary ways, like giving a person a sense that they are being cared for and watched over by a higher power.  Many people say they’ve had these sorts of experiences, where they feel like they are communing with God.

Many atheists tend to mock these sorts of claims and experiences.  But I don’t see how a pragmatist can without adopting a non-pragmatist epistemology.  The atheistic pragmatist just acknowledges that the religious person has different assumptions.

The one argument I can think of against the possibility of a religious pragmatist is that pragmatism is what you get once you give up on the idea of a God’s-eye point of view.  Because there is no God, there is no God’s-eye point of view, so instead of trying to set up theoretical physics as a replacement divinity we should just acknowledge the fallibility and limitedness of any human perspective.  But if you believe in a God, then you believe in a God’s-eye view, and it is possible for God to bestow this view upon us and free us from time and chance.  I’ll leave the rebuttal to Jean Paul Sartre:

“If a voice speaks to me, it is still I myself who must decide whether the voice is or is not that of an angel…No signs are vouchsafed in this world. The Catholics will reply, “Oh, but they are!” Very well; still, it is I myself, in every case, who have to interpret the signs.”

Apparently not even the existence of God can help us achieve Cartesian certainty.

So can a pragmatist be legitimately religious? I say yes.  Such a person would believe in an afterlife, and miracles, and a sacred text, in the same way that I believe in life on Earth, the laws of physics, and the University of Chicago, but without the certainty and dogmatism that a non-pragmatist theist would embrace.

3 Responses to Can A Philosophical Pragmatist Be Religious?

  1. Andrew C says:


    I like your post a lot, but I think there’s a lot of question begging here. A pragmatist may look at a religion and ask “is it useful to believe this specific religion”? To me, this seems like it is ultimately a question about whether the specific consequences for “irreligious” or “immoral” action that goes against the teachings of the religion will be enforced and whether proper behavior will be rewarded. I’m not sure how a pragmatist can evaluate these questions absent, as you say, some sort of revelation. I know plenty of religious people who have never had a revelatory moment. Granted these people are not pragmatists, but still. Basically, you have to make a consequentialist calculation without information about consequences.

    I’m sure you will set me right though 🙂

  2. mcdonaldb says:


    You point out a perfectly good reason why the thought process that leads people to religious belief is problematic. But I don’t think that problem violates any important tenet of pragmatism. I don’t think that a pragmatist is committed, for example, to an expected-utility model of decision-making. I’ll have to think about this some more, though.

  3. Ross says:

    I thought about this for a while and I think I partially disagree.

    To me, pragmatism – and postmodernism more generally – is based upon two assumptions which contradict orthodox religion. First, that there is no higher power who can tell us what is true or false; and second, that it is useful to view propositions as socially and historical contingent.

    Orthodox religion as it is commonly practiced is not consistent with these assumptions. Fundamentalists do not generally say “God has given use these propositions which are sometimes true and sometimes not.” Fundamentalists generally say that God’s word is Eternal Truth and that no violations of this truth are permissible.

    Non-orthodox religion, however, is entirely compatible with pragmatism; and in fact I think it’s one of the best examples of how pragmatism can be useful. Reform, conservative, and even orthodox Jewish theologians will go to incredible lengths to twist the words of the Bible to fit modern-day sensibilities. They justify this on the grounds that the Bible must be continually reinterpreted to apply to the way people live in the modern world. Theologians also tend to make exceptions to biblical rules when it’s practical (e.g. you can eat during Yom Kippur if you’re old or sick). Moderate religion essentially says that the word of God is NOT Truth (because it can be modified for pragmatic reasons) and that it is historically contingent (because it’s continually reinterpreted over time).

    Obviously this argument is based on a linguistic distinction between orthodox and non-orthodox religion, which is why I say I only partially disagree.

    On a separate but related issue, I don’t think the question of when it would be useful to believe in religion is quite as troubling as it first appears. First, I think it’s pretty essentialist to say that pragmatists are people who always act pragmatically (i.e. always act according to a rational calculation of costs and benefits). I would label myself a pragmatist, but there are certainly times where I act in ways that I wouldn’t consider “useful” upon reflection. I have residual beliefs about all sorts of things that I haven’t justified to myself on pragmatic grounds. It’s therefore possible that we could call a person a pragmatist even if they couldn’t justify their beliefs pragmatically upon X amount of reflection.

    Second, pragmatism is more a question of how we approach particular problems than what we believe are the solutions to those problems. A person who thinks that schizophrenia is caused by excess human growth hormone doesn’t necessarily differ philosophically from a person who thinks that schizophrenia is caused by excess dopamine. Both may be convinced that this model is the most useful way to approach the problem in question. Of course, the HGH dude is fucking stupid because there’s no reason to think HGH causes schizophrenia, but that misses the point. The HGH dude can be wrong, he can be an idiot, but as long as he makes the claim “it is useful to attribute schizophrenia to HGH” rather than “schizophrenia is REALLY caused by HGH” he’s still a pragmatist in the traditional sense.

    So what would a religious person mean when they say “it is useful to say God exists and to follow the words of the Bible?” They’d probably mean that God explains a lot about the world (which is certainly a notion that appeals to a lot of people) and/or that believing in Him makes them feel good. Following the commandments in the Bible could be useful for obvious reasons. Personally I don’t think God is a particularly useful explanation for anything, believing in Him doesn’t make me feel good, and I don’t think the Bible is useful enough to elevate it over other moral texts. But that disagreement doesn’t mean theists aren’t pragmatists any more than it means HGH dude isn’t a pragmatist because he’s stupid.

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