Roger Trigg, The Privatisation of Religion – Is Philosophy of Religion to Blame?

13 05 2013

[On 8th May, the Philosophy and Religious Practices network kicked off with a workshop at the University of Liverpool. A report of the day is available here. Over the next couple of weeks, we will be continuing the conversation with a series of blog posts reflecting on the workshop. To begin, Prof. Roger Trigg (Academic Director, Centre for Religion in Public Life) summarises the main points of his keynote talk from the workshop. A list of Prof. Trigg’s many books is available here.]


1)      Does philosophy of religion matter? It is criticised for being too abstract, too focussed on ‘propositional belief’, too removed from ‘real’ religious life. Is it too concerned with ‘the transcendent’? It seem as if philosophy and practice are divorced from each other.

2)      It is curious that these criticisms to some extent reflect the view of religion of the later Wittgenstein and his followers. It is itself a philosophical position. Wittgenstein stressed practices , the fact that a language-game is played, the existence of ‘forms of life’. He opposed metaphysics or any idea of the rational justification of practices.

3)      His views were seized on in reaction to logical positivism and verificationism (e.g. A.J. Ayer), ruling out religious claims as intrinsically meaningless, and the mere expression of emotional attitudes . Reason had to be science based. ‘Evidence’ was scientific evidence. What could not be experienced (perhaps ‘in principle) could be ignored. There were no ‘insoluble questions.

4)      Both philosophical positions challenge believers’ understandings of their own belief.. Positivism fenced the idea of truth off from religion. Wittgenstein made religious ‘truth’ a matter internal to religion. Neither could allow the rational justification of religion, or any ‘realist’ understanding. Religion was not ‘about’ anything true for everyone.

5)      Both views live on today, one in making science the arbiter, the other in making practice or tradition the context. Religion is thus forced into subjectivism, or relativism (cf. post-modernism). It can no longer be seen as claiming truth – or even being the kind of belief that could be mistaken. Faith is prised apart from reason so that the stress is no on whether a claim is true – even about the transcendent. It is all about the person holding the belief (a slide from the belief in something real to ‘really believing’). Sincerity not truth is the only issue.

6)      Religion then has  nothing to contribute to public debate. It cannot make claims about the public good. It is either an expression of subjective opinion (or emotion), or the view of a practice embedded in particular community. Perhaps different communities and individuals should be ‘respected’, but religion becomes like taste – not something of any possible relevance to others. It has no place in democratic debate or public life.

7)      Recently in the Court of Appeal in a dictum already cited by other judges, Lord Justice Laws said: ‘In the eye of everyone save the religious believer, religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence.’ He further claimed: ‘To protect a position held on religious grounds is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective’. The influence of logical positivism is pronounced, keeping proof, evidence and reason within the bounds of science. Science deals with the objective. All else is subjective.

8)      L.J. Laws admits this is not the view of the believer, who sees belief as a belief that something is true. The later Wittgenstein was undermining the understanding of participants in religious practices even while describing them. Propositional belief – the connection of religion with claims to truth, even of a metaphysical kind- is what could justify religion. It gives point o its contribution to public debate. That does not mean that religion is only such belief (cf. Locke, who stressed private belief too much). The manifestation of belief in life, in practices, is also important, and is why the protection of private belief is not sufficient (cf. the dangerous distinction between belief and manifestation in human rights documents, which tend to concentrate on the rights of individuals and not of institutions.. Belief and practice cannot be separated. Practice without belief is pointless. Belief without practice is sterile. Contemporary philosophy has too often made religious belief a private and subjective affair. That removes the point of any religion.          (See my Equality, Freedom and Religion)


St Cross College, Oxford              



One response

4 06 2013
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You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I to find this matter
to be actually something which I feel I might never understand.

It sort of feels too complex and extremely wide for me.
I am looking ahead for your subsequent post, I’ll attempt to get the cling of it!

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