Why Believe?

Why Believe?

John Cottingham, Continuum

John Cottingham’s brief defence of religious faith (especially Christian faith) is honest, clear, and occasionally compelling. It is not an account of the traditional arguments for and against the existence of God but rather an attempt to show what religious devotion is by pointing from a philosophical standpoint to the features of our experience which awaken devotion.

Cottingham says, “We are dependant and vulnerable creatures who need, for our fulfilment, to orient ourselves towards certain enduring values.” These values of love, compassion, mercy, truth, justice, courage, endurance and fidelity “all belong to a core of key virtues that all the world’s great religions recognise, and which command our allegiance whether we like it or not”. In later pages these values are subsumed into the familiar triad of truth, beauty and goodness.

Cottingham does of course acknowledge that it is possible to offer some sort of naturalistic explanation for our valuing such absolutes and that it is also possible to describe much of the world in scientific terms without referring to them. But, he says, our initial experience is that “reality presents itself to us … as a series of demands”. For Cottingham, truth, beauty and goodness are both objective and normative, no matter how strange that sounds to those who would insist that reality is only what can be recognised by anyone, whatever their character or private feelings.

Many moral philosophers have returned to the old theory that such values are indeed objective, as much a matter of fact as a mathematical truth. But what is their ontological status? Cottingham says that traditional theism solved the problem by identifying God as the source, and consummation, of all such values. And although there are some problems with some versions of that notion, Cottingham suggests that it is still the best option for those who take moral and mathematical truth seriously as something more than the contingent habits and impulses and predilections of a particular biological and social organism.

Peter Harvey


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