Show Summary Details
Page of

Theistic Pragmatics and Personal Well-Being 

Theistic Pragmatics and Personal Well-Being
Theistic Pragmatics and Personal Well-Being

George Graham

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD MEDICINE ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Medicine Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 15 November 2019

5.1. One Pilgrim’s Progress

The poet W. H. Auden (1907–1973) wrote of a night in the 1930s, when he was sitting with three acquaintances, three colleagues, “talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened” (Auden 1973 [1943], p. 69). “I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.”

“I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.”

The content of this experience, Auden said, “lasted in its full intensity for about two hours [and] did not vanish completely for two days or so.” Auden confessed that because of the experience he could no longer deceive himself about his capacity for the mistreatment of other people. (Auden 1973 [1943], pp. 69–70.) Indeed, the experience was so personally significant, he wrote, that it helped to bring him back to church-going, a practice with which, at the time, he had thought he was finished with for good.

Auden is not alone, of course, in responding to experiences felt to be religious and felt also to need a nourishing context for their effect on behavior—a “church” in some manner or form. Millions of people possess spiritual sensibilities or sensitivities that they regard as especially significant, and which, in their own minds, need a place or setting and a conceptual framework in which to be enacted upon and reinforced. A commitment to theism provides the general conceptual framework for many people. Institutions like churches, mosques and synagogues offer a place or setting.

5.1.1 A Religious Question

I am turning in this chapter to the topic of religious pragmatics. I plan to begin by making vivid a religious question that is, I believe, faced by many people, many ordinary folks. Not seekers of gold plates, but individuals who may be unsure or doubtful of whether or how to honor or exercise their theistic inclinations.

To assist in addressing the question, I will write as if I myself must find an answer. In this role call me John Doe, Religious Pilgrim.

My pilgrimage will take me into the world of something I call, in particular, theistic pragmatics—a species of religious pragmatics. The evidence for empirical truth claims about the existence of God will be discussed, but the point of reference to that particular and epistemic form of warrant is not to settle the issue of evidence for God (this is not a book for that). It is to highlight the alternative to epistemics represented by pragmatics and the role, I believe, that pragmatics can and in certain cases should play in the psychiatric assessment of religious attitudes and therein in offering some security against being deluded religiously.

Suppose I, Doe, am inclined, other things being equal, to believe in God. Suppose I don’t count myself currently as a God-believer. Just why am I/Doe inclined? HADD and my surrounding culture may have something to do with it. Or there may be other explanations. But the question I ask myself is: Should I trust this inclination? Should I yield to it and embrace its purport? Should I become a theist?

Suppose I wish to be exceedingly careful if I am to believe in God. I want a sound and coherent supernatural agent or divinity to believe in, not a fanciful one. Without being careful I fear that I may believe in an imaginary god or perhaps become religiously deluded and require psychiatric evaluation. I am worried to that extent.

Suppose I embark on an intellectual quest or pilgrimage. To begin with, suppose I consider two theistic hypotheses. Two contrasting sets of core propositions about God, together with their attendant concepts. Each set is not equally emotionally appealing, or socially popular, to be sure, but each represents a conception of supernatural super-agency or divinity. They are:

  1. H1. There is one and only one god and this god is infinitely supreme or superlative along several positive or good dimensions. With respect to knowledge, for example, God is all-knowing or omniscient; with respect to power, God is omnipotent; with respect to love and compassion, God is omnibenevolent.

  2. H2. There is one and only one god and this god is supreme in power and knowledge, but is omni-malevolent. He is mean-spirited. He relishes human and animal suffering. He has designed the world so that sentient creatures suffer for no end or purpose other than satisfaction that He Himself derives from suffering’s presence in the world.

Call the first Good God Theism. Call the second Bad God Theism. Which, if either, is supported by empirical evidence—by observation of elements or activities in the world?

Consider Good God Theism. To some Good God theists the presence of a good supernatural super-agent seems palpable. It seems to them as if they feel Good God’s presence and somehow experience His care and concern for them, feel or perceive it almost sensuously. But I (Doe) assume that in asking whether worldly evidence supports the truth of Good God theism, I am not asking whether Good God appears sensuously or somehow is directly perceived or experienced by me, even if such a god seems to appear to other people. “He hasn’t appeared to me yet,” I think. No, at this point, I am asking whether Good God possesses an existence or presence that may somehow be reasonably inferred from one or more observable features of the world—such as, for examples, the mountains, the beauty of a flower, the majesty of the night sky, the love of one’s spouse or children, or the sheer existence of the intelligible universe and the laws that govern it. Whatever the data for inference, an inference to Good God from worldly data or evidence is, as I (Doe) conceive of warranted or reasonable belief, essential or necessary if I am to honor my religious impulses but also avoid falling into fantasy. Suppose I am, in short, for the time being, a fan of theistic epistemics. (Not pragmatics. Epistemics.) It is empirical evidence for Good God that I seek.

Well, let’s look, albeit all too briefly, at the world. The observable natural world in which we live.

We live in a world that has a lot of terrible things or “evils” in it, as truly horrible, horrendously bad and undeserving forms of suffering sometimes are called. It possesses a superabundance of brutal and senseless pain and suffering. Suffering is randomly distributed among human beings. It is also an inescapable part of the lives of non-human animals. All too often, pain and suffering is unbearably intense, viciously persistent and life destroying. Of course, our world also has a lot of good and wonderful things in it. By this I mean things like awe-inspiring beauties (mountains, night sky, etc.), moral courage and personal love, and human personal sacrifice and generosity.

The world’s terrors pose a famous problem for trying to make an evidential or empirical case for Good God Theism. This is the Problem of (Good) God and Evil. I am/Doe is familiar with the problem and stymied by it. The evils of this world appear to me to be evidentially (even if not logically) incompatible with the existence of Good God. It seems (to Doe) that the existence of an infinitely powerful, knowing and loving god is highly improbable given the facts or face of evil. Of course, Bad God Theism is confronted with a strikingly analogous problem, given the existence of good and wonderful things in the world (Law 2009). This is the Problem of (Bad) God and Good. The problem is not nearly as famous as the Problem of God and Evil, to be sure, but this is because Bad God Theism itself is not popular. Still, the fact is that the goods of this world appear to be evidentially incompatible with the existence of Bad God. No truly malevolent deity, it seems, would permit such truly good things to happen or occur.

The two problems constitute epistemic or evidential-type warrant challenges to their respective forms of theism. Not only does the evidence cited in discussions of these problems not decisively favor one god over another, but suppose, it seems to me, to Doe, it may even favor the existence no such god (neither good nor bad) at all.

Note that the descriptions of Good God as well as of Bad God use special theological or metaphysical concepts to describe this god or divine agent. If I am a Good God theist, for example, I am supposed to intelligibly apply concepts like omnibenevolence, omnipotence and others like them, to the object of my worship, faith, prayer and devotion—to God. But suppose, for me, speaking as John Doe, the notions of omnibenevolence, omnipotence and so on, do not readily satisfy this demand for intelligible application. The meaning or content of these descriptive categories appears not just misty and vague but open to endless and conflicting interpretations. Or worse: In religious contexts, these “omni” notions seem to me like made-up ideas, products of human imagination. Freudian wish-fulfillments perhaps? Or so I worry to myself.

Knowing that we are forever vulnerable to disease, aging and annihilation, there is a tremendous temptation, as Freud noted, and as I (Doe) remind myself, to take solace in the idea of Good God, a providential father-like deity who watches over us and will not allow us to become ultimate victims of impersonal forces. Kant and not just Hume (as discussed in 4.2) anticipated some Freud-like thoughts about God and wish-fulfillment. Kant wrote of the human proclivity to venerate “mighty invisible beings” which veneration has been “extorted from helpless man through natural fear rooted in the sense of his impotence” [Kant 1960, pp. 163–164].) Doe wants none of that. He wants evidence, not wishes.

In any case, assume that I, Doe, believe that neither of the two theisms or religious hypotheses, whether of Good or Bad God, does a better job than the other of dissolving its contrarian evidential challenges. Each does a rather poor job. Suppose, also, that to Doe there is just as much, or just as little, to be said in favor of either form of theism on evidential or empirical grounds period—including grounds independent of questions of good and evil. Suppose: Good and Bad God theisms are in a dead epistemic heat. Each is equally weak, as far as I/Doe can discern.

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), a French mathematician and philosopher, when he wrote about evidential or empirical truth-centered grounds for believing (as opposed to disbelieving) in God, argued that in order to get in a good epistemic position to judge evidence for or against God, or Good God, in particular, we need to deploy the right practical strategies or postures for evidence gathering and assessment. Not enough evidence is available to know or prove that Good God exists, Pascal said, but amble evidence is available to possess a reasonable faith that Good God exists, if we look at the right sort of evidence (Morris 1992). As Doe reads Pascal, the mathematician’s admonition amounts to the following: Think not of, say, the horrors of The Holocaust. Think of your infant daughter’s first smile or the majesty of a mountain range. Find therein evidence for (Good) God. Not proof, to be sure, but evidence.

Pascal’s general line of thought about evidential positioning is not without commonsense analogies that have nothing to do with theism. The assumption of a practically positive and Pascalian-like orientation to evidence gathering, for example, is at the foundation of close, personal, intimate relationships. If a friend deeply hurts your feelings, you are not motivated to eavesdrop on their phone calls, secretively read their email, or install a hidden camera in their living-room in order to learn if they truly do care for you. Not collecting and collating evidence of the friendship is part of being a friend—a trusting friend.

“I trust them.”

“Their hurtful behavior toward me was just a reaction on their part to stress.”

“I should not take it seriously.”

Suppose a religious acquaintance says the following to me/Doe: “If you are forced to choose which sort of evidence is superior, then pick empirical evidence for Good God. Focus on evidence for Good God and turn a half-blind eye on evidence for Bad God or for no god at all, once you’ve decided to foster belief in Good God. Steerage to Good God does not mean that you are totally blind to negative evidence. Just don’t harp on it. Try to keep your fear or worry that God is Bad or non-existent from undermining your desire or tendency to be a theist.”

Under this Attend to Positive Evidence Account of the enterprise of evidence for God (by “God” I mean Good God), evidential “bias” or positive evidence gathering preferences may emerge as a proposed solution to the problem of wanting to believe in God and doing so on evidential grounds.

But suppose I (Doe) disagree with my friend. Suppose I don’t want to direct my attention away from evidence for Bad God (or for no god at all). I don’t want to deceive or mislead myself. I think: Whatever facts or data I should attend to in the world should not be a simple function of which god hypothesis I prefer. Whichever god or none at all a person should believe in should be a function, if evidence is part the warrant, of evidence to which a person impartially attends. Granted impartiality is no easy matter to describe or achieve. Still, it is a requisite epistemic goal. Or so I/Doe think.

But, again, suppose I don’t find observable features of the world that firmly reinforce my theistic tendency.

This is, I think, a not uncommon situation for thoughtful, reflective people. Namely: Having a tendency to be a theist but finding insufficient evidential this-worldly observational warrant for the commitment. So, the more fully described or updated puzzle for our imagined John Doe now goes something like this: Doe is inclined to be a theist, but does not wish to indulge in fantasy. He wishes empirically orientated, truth-centered evidence for theistic belief, viz. belief in Good God, but doubts whether the world delivers it.

How to complete the pilgrimage? God or no God?

One possibility is to look for warrant of a kind or type other than in observation or inference based on observation of empirical facts. Now suppose I (Doe again) remember (from a college philosophy course) that warrant or good reason for being a theist is not necessarily exhausted by evidence or epistemology. So perhaps, then, I, Doe, have thus far been looking for warrant in an ineffective manner or mode. Perhaps I will be better served in deciding whether or how properly to believe in Good God, if I picture warrant in pragmatic or practical terms. Not epistemic ones. Perhaps I should more or less bracket out evidential considerations. So: Let me try a pragmatic approach to theism and see whether or how it works.

5.2. Theistic Pragmatics in Practice

Good consequences of the act or activity of theistically or religiously believing may come in different forms. Having this or that religious belief or set of beliefs may increase the likelihood of any number of valued goods or goals being attained.

The diversity of theoretically possible positive consequences may tempt a person into being exuberantly pluralistic, to use an expression of Stephen Stich, in pragmatism about belief (Stich 1990, pp. 132–133). (Stich’s expression is intended to apply to believing in general, not to religious beliefs.) Let a thousand different goals warrant believing in this or that proposition, if a thousand different goals are sought by a person in a thousand different circumstances.

Warrant is warrant. So I, Doe, should perhaps take warrant or reasonableness where I can get it. But should I embrace an exuberant pluralism about the goals, in particular, of theistically believing. A disturbing feature of exuberant pluralism, especially with respect to theism, is that, if embraced, it would dramatically complicate the calculation or estimation of the real consequences of believing in, say, Good God. For each and every goal among possible numerous goals behind this or that act of believing or religious attitude, a person like me/Doe would have to estimate or surmise the varying likelihoods of its being achieved via this or that belief. The more plentiful are the goals, the more will be the required estimations and the experiments with each case of believing.

It would be simpler and therein superior or more manageable practically speaking to identify, if possible, a Special Set of Purposes that bundles together various sagacious goals or values and to consider a religious belief warranted, pragmatically, if it contributes or is likely to contribute to the bundled set. Contributes, that is, when the likelihood of the set being achieved by, say, being a Good God theist is greater than that of being a non-theist or of being a Bad God theist. The bundle also needs to be multi-contextual and deployed consistently across time, otherwise the belief in the god that the bundle grounds or warrants would resemble mere circumstantial and transient acceptance of a proposition rather than a full-bodied belief. To be a belief, a real belief, and not just a transient act of acceptance, a commitment to theism has to span contexts and temporal circumstances. It must be deployed in all sorts of conscious deliberations and decision making. (Recall the description of belief in 2.3.)

Is there any such plausible bundled set?

5.2.1 When Life Goes Well

It would be naïve to claim that there is an easy way in which to identify a relevantly bundled set of human goals and purposes that can warrant Good God theism. But perhaps we may come close to identifying it, viz. such a set of goals, if we take into account what makes a person’s life go well or count as good for them. Not just part of a life, but one’s life as a narrative-like, story-like whole. Life with a beginning, middle and end.

What makes life go well for a person?

Perhaps one way in which to respond to this question is to say that the answer depends upon whether a person’s values and preferences are satisfied or succeed in being realized over the course of a life. Not trivial or peripheral values, like a preference for one brand of toothpaste over another, but central or core values or preferences, like preferring to have a family and being a good wife or husband, an accomplished pianist or philosopher, and so on.

That particular answer, which may be called a Personal Satisfaction Model of a Well-Lived Life, can be detailed and made nuanced in various ways. It can be modified to accommodate diverse cultural and historical circumstances. It can also be constructed to consider various accounts of just what makes a value or preference central or core-like to a person.

But the Personal Satisfaction Model, as stated, faces a serious problem. It harbors no obvious room for values or preferences that a person does not have and may never possess but should. Consider the case of Linda Bishop. Suppose Linda goes into the apple orchard to pick an apple off of a tree and to eat it. She is hungry. In the circumstances in which she finds herself, eating apples reflects a core or central value. The activity keeps her alive. But presumably it would have been much better for her, much closer to Linda’s best interests and to living well, if she had desired to return to the hospital from which she was discharged in order to explore whether some form of therapy may help her. Reliance on apples indirectly costs the life that is hers and hers alone.

A person’s preferences and values are not necessarily good ones for a person (no matter how good they may seem to the person). Just because something appears good to you does not mean it is good for you. If you are a cheat, an adulterer, or a thief, to speak crudely, you may “end up alone, poor or in a federal penitentiary” (Bering 2011, p. 185). Bad behavior patterns for you.

Is another model of a well-lived life available and superior?

Prudential and moral norms imply that some values or preferences are more worthy of a person and of the dignity associated with being a person than others. Some preferences are absolutely unworthy of a person. Qualifying as a well-lived life requires a fit between a life as lived and prudential and moral principles or norms. A well-lived life and the norms that govern it should channel behavior away from self-destructive and morally unacceptable behavior patterns.

Viktor Frankl (1905–1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. He spent months living in concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Kaufering, a Nazi death camp affiliated with Dachau. His wife, Tilly, was separated from him and died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. His best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1959 and under a different title, describes the life-lessons that he learned in the death camps. “People,” he wrote, even when they have the means to live well physically, often have “nothing to live for” (Frankl 2006, p. 140). They live in an existential vacuum, with “a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness” (141). Well-being or living well, he exclaimed, requires living with a sense of purpose and direction—living in a manner that is meaningful and fulfilling. Not living in blind pursuit of personal pleasure, material goods or egotistical satisfactions, but living with one’s own best interests and the best interests of other people in mind. Not interests (values or preferences) that merely seem best, but interests that are best (worthy, proper, good) for a person.

Here is one way in which to think of Frankl’s hypothesis or conception of a well-lived life. If my car wouldn’t start, I will seek an auto mechanic and want someone who is skillful at repairs. If I wish to learn a foreign language, I will seek a speaker of the language, who is knowledgeable, patient with older students, and articulate in offering instructions.

But suppose what I want for me, for myself, (now again as) for Doe, is not a functioning car or mastery of a second language, but a life that is well lived because it is genuinely worth living. One I can endorse and be motivated or aim to pursue virtually no matter my personal circumstances. By this I mean a form of life mandated not by this or that social convention or circumstance (this car, that language), but by general features of the human condition. What life should I want? Frankl’s answer, in effect, is a life with at least some of the following elements (among others): experiences of mutual love and friendship, justifiably proud accomplishments, experiences of awe and beauty, living harmoniously, compassionately and respectfully with other people. Each element or feature of that sort of life is something worth living for.

My point in mentioning Frankl is not to offer a theory of a well-lived live. I have none.1 The point is to propose a desirable bundle of goals or purposes to which reference may be made in employing the norm of a well-lived life as a standard in terms of which to judge whether this or that belief or attitude (theistic belief in particular) may be warranted pragmatically. If Good God Theism is positively conducive to a well-lived life, if it contributes to one’s capacities for love, for beauty, and so on, then in general in being a good god theist I (Doe) would be following what may be dubbed the Pragmatic Principle of a Well-lived Life. The principle (in its theistic application) says: If I am to believe in a god, I should believe in that particular god in which the act or activity of believing enables me, as a person, to live life well. As a theist, I should come out closer to my proper goods or best interests than as a non-believer. I should be more purposively engaged and fulfilled.

If I adopt the well-lived life principle, then, of course, I should certainly endorse (as between the two theisms) Good God over Bad God Theism. I should do this even though I harbor doubt about whether Good God Theism dissolves the Problem of God and Evil or has much empirical evidence in its favor. Worshiping a malevolent deity whose ill will sweeps across the cosmos is not going to produce the best consequences for me. Endorsing Good God Theism should help me to turn a life well-lived key. Or so I may hope.

OK, so suppose I/Doe find myself drawn, then, consequentially, to Good God Theism.

Consider, though, what may be dubbed the Problem of Solitary Religious Confinement. Partly because I/Doe remain skeptical of evidence for the truth of Good God Theism, I wonder if I can endorse this brand of theism without considerable help from other and like-minded theists. I am dubious about whether I can sustain (Good God) theism and its consequences on my own—as a solitary believer. I need a niche, a support system. I notice, too, that when not only religious but other ideological beliefs (political, moral and so on) are shared with other people, the convictions of surrounding people often powerfully reinforce an individual’s own and potentially more fragile or wobbly commitments. I appreciate that although the scientific literature on the personal consequences of Good God Theism is more sparse than I would like, what is known about consequences reveals that whether a person remains a Good God theist and how they behave as a Good God theist typically is, at least in part, the product of a network or system of cultural reinforcement and group affiliation patterns. Theistic commitment typically requires the reinforcing activities and practices of a village or community—other people, kindred spirits. So, what all this means to me is that I should join a group of other Good God theists if I wish Good God theism to contribute to my well-lived life. I may need to join a church or to actively maintain allegiance to a specific community of believers if I am to secure the proposed good consequences of believing.

As to which church or community, the following additional pragmatic admonition may give me guidance. Call it the Principle of Proximate Believers. I live in a culture in which most religious believers (plentiful where I, Doe, live) believe in Good God. Follow the local or proximate religious majority, so says the principle. Believe more or less as local Good God theists do. So, if I am to believe in Good God or endorse Good God theism, I then will have plenty of immediately supportive neighbors, rituals, on-hand religious texts, local cultural practices and institutions (churches, etc.) daily reinforcing my choice and making it, I assume, easier or more likely for me to live well, than if I, say, believe in a good god on my own. No person lives on Life Well-Lived Island. The domain of surrounding believers in Good God is large and relatively stable. All to my benefit in helping me to be the Doe, the person, I hope to be.

Or so I think.

But note another complication to my quest. This is that proximate or local good god-beliefs are neither univocal nor easy to choose from on strictly pragmatic grounds. Some theistic neighbors think of Good God as composed of three persons, while others deny this. Some assert that Good God rewards morally good persons and punishes morally bad persons with post-mortem lives of everlasting reward or punishment, respectively. Other Good God theists deny this. Permanent punishment, some say, is incompatible with being Good God. In fact, disagreement over the precise character of Good God abounds among local theists. Disputes over what Good God (hereafter I shall speak simply of “God”) is like assume, on occasion, excessively esoteric forms. Did God create mathematical truths? Some believers say yes; others no. Did God create the world from nothing? Again a “yes” is said in some nearby seminaries, while a “no” is uttered in others. Did God incarnate himself? Yes? No? There are so many conceptualizations of a good god from which to pick. I am stymied and not just puzzled.

Suppose: I do not pretend to decipher which of these conflicting alternatives is true or even coherent or intelligible. I am skeptical of persons who say that they know answers to vexing metaphysical and theological questions. Some theistic alternatives logically befuddle me (like that of a three person Godhead). Others (such as whether God, say, created mathematics) fly over my intellectual head. What am I to do?

Should I look at one or another religious text? An immensely popular religious text in Doe’s/my locality and certainly elsewhere, is the Bible. This book (in its Old Testament) says that God commands us to put adulterers to death (Lev. 20:10), cast people into exile who have skin diseases (Lev. 13:46), beat disobedient children with rods (Prov. 13:24), and (in its New Testament) to abandon wives and children so as to follow an incarnated divinity (Matt. 19: 29, Mark 10:29–30, Luke 18:29–30). These and numerous other injunctions like them appear in the Bible, although they hardly seem to be prods to a life well lived.2 Perhaps, though, the injunctions are not expressions of God Himself. Perhaps such injunctions merely reflect their human authors’ idiosyncratic and culture-centric fears, aversions and forms of aspiration.

Perhaps I should add and apply still another pragmatic reasoning principle, not just to help me to pick the right church or village, but to identify just what I should believe or not believe about Good God. Dub it the Principle of Spiritually Pragmatically Irrelevant Differences. It says: The enterprise of figuring out which Good God beliefs are warranted pragmatically is decidable when and only when a proposition about Good God, when endorsed by a religious believer, makes the individual a better person, in a well-lived life manner, than alternative propositions. It adds: So a theist may be agnostic about certain particular claims about God, if no special additional betterment is achieved by their endorsement. If my believing that Good God is constituted by three persons somehow heightens my decency, then embrace it. If believing that God created the world from nothing better enables me to empathize with my neighbor, then I should endorse that proposition as well. But if neither of these propositions makes any appreciable positive difference whatsoever in my behavior, then there is no need for me to take a conscious or deliberate stand on them. I should suspend judgment. I/Doe should be a Good God theist with an allowable and albeit perhaps amorphous zone of agnosticism.3

So, where am I now on my pilgrimage? It appears that I need at least one additional principle of pragmatic reasoning, if I am to be comfortable grounding theistic proclivities in pragmatic rather than epistemic terms. Suppose I adopt what may be called the Principle of Pilgrim’s Progress Through Prayer. This principle says: Act as if you can communicate with your god. Pray to it; speak to it; ask for help in understanding it. Use a presumed communicative relationship with a divinity, whatever God truly is like, to learn more about God, if possible. God’s help in understanding may arrive in the Fullness of Prayerful Time.

Suppose that I (Doe) recite prayers and meditate daily, often attending church services or rituals to reinforce my feelings of prayerful communion with God and fellowship with other Good God theists.

One day I am in church by myself, having recently been taken seriously ill on a trip to Rome. No mass or service is ongoing. I am alone. I kneel in a pew and pray. I ask for God’s help with my recovery. Suppose that this is the day (mentioned earlier in the book) on which God seems to talk to me. To Doe. I seem to hear his voice. The voice comforts me. It helps to reassure me. It may not be as powerful or strong as the religious experience that Auden had, or as imperative as the injunction heard by Abraham, but my seeming to be addressed by God leads me to believe that I may have some special evidential, observational or epistemic warrant, not earlier possessed, for my theistic disposition. Perhaps I have heard from God Himself. Perhaps this is one of those telling religious experiences with which some individuals are blessed.

Earnest and elaborate efforts on my/Doe’s part to think through the Problem of God and Evil or to comprehend this or that theological doctrine have come to naught. A shift to pragmatic warrant as the basis for theistic belief combined now with a modest element of empirical or evidential confirmation calms and helps to diminish my fears or doubts as to whether I am on the right track religiously, although I don’t wish to dwell with epistemic pride on seeming to hear God. I don’t want to exalt my feeble epistemic powers.

The Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne notes that if a person is to be a theist, he or she must at the very least believe that “there is some finite probability that there is a God” (Swinburne 1989: 219). Suppose I, Doe, like that expression “finite probability.” Warranted theism must include something other than mere pragmatics. I must think of God as at least sufficiently possible, on evidential grounds, if I am to believe the truth about Him. I cannot think of Him as utterly precluded by empirical evidence. But suppose I seem to myself to have some positive evidence now. In a church. In the pew.

Does religious delusion secretly wait, as it were, in the sacristy? Am I flirting with mental disorder in assenting to theism?

I/Doe remember the fate of Joseph Smith. In the early 1840s Joseph Smith’s Mormons established what, at the time, was the biggest city in Illinois. It was called Nauvoo and had fifteen thousand inhabitants. But when Smith claimed that God condoned polygamy and when he married thirty-three women (the youngest of which was fourteen), and when a group of his followers denounced him in a local newspaper, he was arrested and taken to a jail in nearby Carthage. A few days later a mob of two hundred murdered Smith and his brother.

The then Smith-less Mormons had to leave Illinois, which they did, led by Brigham Young (1801–77). Young led them to an area around the Great Salt Lake. It was an isolated oasis. This was an apt location for a distinctive brand of theism. A religious oasis.

The universality, diversity and power of theistic religious beliefs for billions of people all over the world are sociological wonders to behold. The challenge to Doe and to people who face Doe’s question is what to think of all this: whether to feel and yield to the power. Whether to believe in a god, and in particular, whether to believe in this or that god and on what grounds? This is no simple question to answer. It is (as I hope to have shown) compound and complex. For it is one thing to reject what Smith claimed was Maroni, an angel, but another to accept or reject what millions claim is God.

In any case: Doe’s personal pilgrimage is over. He still worries as to whether as good as he may feel or believe himself to be as a Good God theist, he is not indulging in a fantasy in embracing theism. But given the types of warrant that he has for that embrace, and other features of his personality, including his humility, his theism has no obvious element of a delusion in it. Doe is self-reflective and self-critical. He is non-grandiose and humble about his religious faith. He does not euphorically assume that God has spoken to him. His theistic belief does not overwhelm other elements in his psyche. He is not overly defensive about it. It is central to who he is insofar as he has made it central to who he is. It persists only because he allows it on reflection to persist. In these and other ways he is most unlike Abraham, Linda, Carl and Koresh.

To Doe there now is a theistically transcendental character to the elements or concerns of his life. A felt and believed in worshipful and salutary union with a presence in the universe which is higher than his own (Flanagan 2007, pp. 207–208). How long it can last can only be literally imagined.

5.3. Summary and Substance

Over the course of the past five chapters, we have learned several important lessons not just about delusion and religious or spiritual delusion in particular—but about spirituality itself. These lessons need to be incorporated into a theory of religious or spiritual delusion.

I shall spare a reader a detailed reprise of each and every discussion that has taken place so far in this book. Instead, let me try to describe our gradually emerging but still incomplete picture of the situation with respect to religious or spiritual delusion.

Any one person inevitably carries within themselves an enormous quantity of beliefs about themselves and the world in which they live. Some beliefs they may have no occasion to examine or even to state or make explicit.

A person may have beliefs that are religious or spiritual. A theist, for example, may believe that everything that is worthwhile in life is made so by God. The capacity to recognize God in things may be for them the most important feature of the human condition.

Spiritual and religious beliefs and attitudes sometimes qualify as delusional. Questions like the following are important. Is the delusory attitude false? Is it unwarranted? Does it count as a mistaken moral judgment? What sorts of negative effects does the attitude have on the believer and their relationships with other people? Does the delusory belief stem from a religious experience? Why is a deluded person not receptive to reason-responsive abandonment of the attitude?

A delusion or spiritual delusion, in particular, is not a static state but a dynamic condition. It can involve beliefs, judgments, existential feelings, perceptions, imaginings and perhaps much else besides, all surrounding, influencing and being influenced over time by the thematic core of a delusion as well as by a person’s interpretation and assessment of the condition. So, a key dimension in the assessment of a delusion consists of describing and evaluating the manner in which a delusory attitude or belief is managed, self-interpreted, and evaluated by the deluded person and embedded in other things that the person thinks, feels and believes. Does the person over-identify with the attitude? Does he or she exhibit concurrent disturbances of personality—grandiosity, hostility, secretiveness and so on? What are the consequences for the person of their self-assessment? These are self-management questions—questions about how a total delusory condition is received, interpreted and assessed by the subject of the condition.

In the picture thus far constructed the following lessons have appeared about religious or spiritual delusion:

  1. (i) Delusions, whether spiritual/religious or otherwise, are not necessarily or invariably empirically false. An empirical belief or attitude may even be true empirically, although delusional.

  2. (ii) Spiritual delusions may stem or arise, in part, from interpretations of religious or spiritual (perceptual) experiences.

  3. (iii) Both religious or spiritual experiences and religious attitudes or beliefs need to be broadly or “ecumenically” understood and not restricted to conventional religions or doctrines. A religious delusion’s most distinctive prototypical feature is a felt or believed union with something transcendent or markedly greater than the person themselves. Such a union may be interpreted by both delusory and non-delusory subjects as infusing meaning and purpose into their life.

  4. (iv) Warrant or reasonableness for beliefs or attitudes, religious or otherwise, comes in two forms. One is warrant for believing that something is true (as opposed to false). The other is warrant for believing (as opposed to disbelieving or suspending judgment) that something is true. In the first form of warrant, evidence or argument for the truth of a belief or attitude is the basis for warranted belief. In the second, good consequences produced or made likely by the activity of believing are the basis for warrant.

  5. (v) Individual attitudes or beliefs, strictly speaking, are not delusory taken in complete and utter isolation from other aspects of a person and their psychology and situation. Linda believes that God watches over her. Claire believes that God watches over her. Both Linda and Claire share the same sort of belief, but presumably only Linda is delusory. An attitude is delusional depending upon how it is embedded in other elements of the mind and mentality of a person and in the consequences of the attitude for a person.

  6. (vi) Spirituality/religiosity readily and spontaneously engages people and often in theistic forms. Religious engagement may help certain individuals to lead well-lived lives. A theory of spiritual or religious delusion must respect the positive pragmatic (prudential and moral) roles that spirituality can play in a life. But, of course, a theory must also recognize the negative pragmatic roles that spirituality plays in delusory conditions. To cast one’s lot with a delusion is to cast one’s lot with consequences that are negative overall.

  7. (vii) Cases of religious or spiritual delusion are heterogeneous in many respects. They are also lived in social and interpersonal space and therein are often subject to moral norms. Religious or spiritual delusions often are moral failings. They constitute failures to treat other people in a morally acceptable manner. Effective treatment of a religiously deluded individual must address relevant faulty moral judgments and behavior of the deluded individual.


1 The philosophical literature is filled with candidate theories of the elements of a well-lived life. See, for examples, Griffin 1986 and Kraut 2007.

2 Anderson (2007) argues that if one relies solely on scriptural evidence, it would be virtually impossible not to declare that God is monstrously bad. See also Lewis 2007 and Parenti 2010, pp. 19–39.

3 One of the central claims of William James’s famous essay “The Will to Believe” is that a religious belief can make a positive difference in the life of a person only if it is a “living” option for a person (James 1896). This means it must be existentially or emotionally behaviorally relevant to the person who is deciding whether to believe. Whether God is three persons in one Supreme Being or created the world from nothing are not living options for someone like Doe. But if a belief promises psycho-spiritual health to a person or an end to self-division or spiritual melancholy, James would think the belief normally is a living option. See also James 2002.