5 Nov 20143:00pm - 5:00pmCLAS Meeting Room, Second Floor, ARB


A Mellon Teaching Seminar

Arif Ahmed, Faculty of Philosophy
Daniel Weiss, Faculty of Divinity

Michaelmas 2014: Wednesdays 3-5PM, CRASSH

The readings for all seminars can be found here.

The seminar takes an interdisciplinary approach to two questions that lie at the intersection of epistemology and the study of religion. (1) Is religious belief subject to epistemological standards continuous with those that we apply to everyday or scientific questions? (2) In light of (1), is there a genuine conflict between religious and more scientifically oriented ways of understanding reality? In addition to exploring these questions from philosophical and theological perspectives, the seminar will add historical and anthropological dimensions in order to assess whether many contemporary disputes over ‘religious belief’ may result in part from a peculiarly modern conception of what it means to ‘believe’ something in the first place.

Pursuing these matters meets a local need and a wider need. The local need arises from there being little formal teaching on this deep and important subject in either of the Cambridge faculties where this would be most natural: that is, in Philosophy and Divinity. In addition to forming a bridge between these two Faculties, our interdisciplinary approach will be of interest to those pursuing questions of religion and belief in Cambridge Faculties and Departments such as History, English, Psychology, and Anthropology. The wider need arises from the fact that the public debate on religion, nowadays probably as ill-tempered as at any time since the Inquisition, is generally conducted in terms that simply take for granted that the answer to (1) is ‘yes’. The result is that much contemporary discourse often ends up treating ‘religious belief’ as formal intellectual assent to a list of metaphysical articles, thereby creating a polarized atmosphere of dispute. By seeking a richer examination of what ‘belief’ might mean philosophically, or has meant historically, the seminar will contribute to more fruitful engagement with the relation between scientific and religious questions, both on the academic as well as the public level.

In particular, we intend the seminar to be of use to anyone whose work involves an attempt to understand ‘the beliefs of others’ in a broad sense, whether in terms of interpretation of past literary or historical texts, or in terms of the sociological or anthropological understanding of other cultures, or in terms of psychological examinations of action and motivation. Frequently, implicit or unconscious assumptions about what belief means, shaped by our own present-day cultural context, can hinder our scholarly ability properly to interpret the actions or writings of those outside of that context. By bringing these assumptions to the fore and engaging them critically, students will be able to develop tools for more productive engagement with the various roles of ‘belief’ in their respective disciplines.

Our seminar starts with W.K. Clifford’s famous 1877 essay ‘The Ethics of Belief,’ which most clearly set the stage for the modern approach to the debate by declaring that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’ But William James challenged this in his 1896 ‘The Will to Believe,’ which put forth a conception of ‘belief’ as much more closely bound up with affective and volitional factors. We will look at historical philosophical precursors to this late 19th century epistemological debate, such as Hume, while also examining its 20th and 21st century aftermath in thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Plantinga, and Alston. Many of the sessions will seek to bring the ‘classic’ modern philosophers in dialogue with more contemporary interventions into scholarly debates concerning religious belief. In addition to this modern Western focus, we will also extend the question in (historical) time and (anthropological) space by considering W.C. Smith’s ‘The English Word “Believe”’ (which traces significant changes in the use of the term, examining English literature from the pre-modern to the modern period) and R. Needham’s Belief, Language, and Experience (which looks at ethnographic evidence to consider the role of ‘belief’ in cultures outside of the modern West).

Course Outline

Course structure

We propose to run eight two-hour seminars covering classic modern texts and more contemporary scholarly pieces. In each seminar except the last, we will ask one of the regular attendees briefly to introduce the material as the starting-point for critical discussion. The first meeting is on Wednesday 15 October 2014 from 3.00-5.00pm in the CRASSH meeting room.

Course content

The recent history of the philosophy of religious belief has been the history of responses to evidentialism: the doctrine, most closely associated with the Enlightenment, that belief in all matters should be proportioned to the available evidence. W. K. Clifford’s famous essay ‘The Ethics of Belief’ is in our view the clearest and also the most extreme statement of evidentialism. So we plan in Seminar 1 to make a careful study of this seminal paper.

The evidentialist challenge to religious belief takes the form of a very simple argument. (i) Religious belief is rational only if the evidence supports it. (ii) The evidence does not support it. (iii) Therefore, religious belief is irrational. This form of argumentation sets the dominant framework for many twentieth and twenty-first century debates over religious belief, and Seminars 4-7 will examine a variety of ways in which thinkers have attempted to resist or challenge one or another components of this approach.

But before examining these responses, we will focus in seminars 2 and 3 on more radical questions of what it means to ‘believe’ something in the first place. These alternative approaches will be particularly useful in enabling consideration of what the modern debates may be implicitly taking for granted or ignoring, thus providing the students with additional tools for critiquing the very assumptions under which those debates often operate.

Thus, Seminar 2 will examine William James’s piece ‘The Will to Believe’, which challenges the notion that impartial intellectual assessment of evidence is the proper framework for conceptualizing human belief. Rather, he argues that, beyond the intellectual sphere, will and passion also represent crucial categories for the legitimate shaping of belief. By assessing these two competing models of belief as exemplified in James and Clifford, we will encourage students to draw upon their own disciplinary expertise in order to assess whether either one of these models appears most useful for illuminating the subject matter in their own discipline.

Seminar 3 will further expand the scope of what ‘religious belief’ might mean by looking at historian Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s “The English Word ‘Believe’”, as well as anthropologist Rodney Needham’s Belief, Language, and Experience. Smith examines the way that the term ‘belief’ functioned in medieval and early modern English literature, arguing that it previously had a meaning akin to ‘love’ or ‘cherishing’, and only took on the meaning of ‘intellectual assent’ in recent centuries. Contemporary scholars of the past may thus inadvertently be projecting a fundamentally different meaning of the term onto earlier texts, thus preventing proper understanding of what those earlier texts were seeking to convey. This argument is complemented by that of Needham, who uses ethnographic data to show that many societies outside of the modern Western cultural sphere appear not to place emphasis on ‘belief’ in the modern sense of the term, thus calling into question its ‘naturalness’ as a locus of cultural concern.

Having broadened our sense of ‘belief’ through examinations of these alternative frameworks, we then return to the dominant evidentialist approach in order to examine more recent responses that directly engage its specific premises. One response to the evidentialist argument would be to reject premise (i). The most important school of thought in this connection is the reformed epistemology of Plantinga and Wolterstorff, according to which some beliefs, including possibly religious ones, might form a ‘properly basic’ starting point for further enquiry. Seminar 4 will look at some key texts for and against this idea, which continues to be influential in both theology and philosophy.

Amongst the challenges to premise (ii) we focus on two that have seen the most exciting recent work. Seminar 5 looks at a modern response to Hume’s argument that testimony can never constitute a good reason to believe in a miracle: here we see how the application of modern methods of epistemology can yield new insights into classic discussions.  In addition, we will juxtapose Hume's critique of miracles with an assessment of the meaning of belief/faith in the biblical context, in order to consider whether 'belief in miracles' in Hume's specific sense was part of biblical conceptuality in the first place.

Some scholars have taken religious experience to be a basic sort of evidence for religious belief. This raises psychological and philosophical questions concerning the nature, content and causes of such experiences, as well as interpretative questions concerning just how much of religious belief such experiences could possibly be said to ground. Seminar 6 juxtaposes classic and modern works on religious experience in an attempt to set out the scope and limitations of this approach.

One response to the argument (i)-(iii) has been to accept its conclusion, that religious belief is non-rational, but to argue that it is none the worse for that: it forms part of an autonomous ‘form of life’ that lies beyond the proper reach of ordinary canons of justification. The best-known writers in this tradition have been Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, and Seminar 7 considers a major work by the two most important writers in the Wittgensteinian tradition.

Seminar 8 reviews the term’s work. It attempts (a) to sum up the group’s consensus (if there is one) or its basic fault lines (if there isn’t) on evidentialism and its impact on religious belief; (b) to draw whatever conclusions might be appropriate regarding questions (1) and (2).

Course Reading

The readings for all seminars can be found here.


Chandler, J. and V. Harrison. 2012. Introduction. In their Probability in the Philosophy of Religion. Oxford: OUP. [Overview of modern formal methods and their relevance to religious belief.]

Plantinga, A. 1998. Religion and epistemology. In E. Craig (ed.), Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. [Summary of the important positions.]

Wolterstorff, N. 1999. Epistemology of religion. In J. Greco and E. Sosa (eds), Blackwell Guide to Epistemology. Oxford: Blackwell. [Overview by one of the founders of Reformed Epistemology.]

Seminar 1

Clifford, W. K. 1999 [1877]. The ethics of belief. In T. Madigan (ed.), The Ethics of Belief and other Essays. Amherst, MA: Prometheus.

Seminar 2

James, W. 1956 [1896]. The will to believe. In The will to believe: and other essays in popular philosophy; and, Human immortality. New York: Dover.

Van Inwagen, P. 1994. Quam Dilecta. In T. V. Morris (ed.), God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason. Oxford: OUP.

Seminar 3

Smith, W.C. 1979. Faith and Belief [chapter on ‘The English Word “Believe”’]. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Needham, R. 1972. Belief, Language and Experience [excerpts]. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Seminar 4

Plantinga, A. 1983. Reason and belief in God. In A. Plantinga and N. Wolterstorff (eds), Faith and Rationality. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Wolterstorff, N. 1976. Reason within the Bounds of Religion [excerpts]. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Seminar 5

Earman, J. 1999. Hume’s Abject Failure [excerpts]. Oxford: OUP.

Hume, D. 1975 [1748]. Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding [s. X on miracles]. 3d ed. Ed. P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: OUP.

Jacobs, L. 1968. Ch. 1 of Faith (‘The nature of faith’). London: Valentine, Mitchell: 3-18.

Seminar 6

Alston, W. 1991. Perceiving God [excerpts]. Ithaca: Cornell UP.

James, W. 1902. The Varieties of Religious Experience [excerpts]. London: Longmans.

Seminar 7

Wittgenstein, L. 1967. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief [excerpts]. Ed. C. Barrett. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Nielsen, K. and D. Z. Philips. 2005. Wittgensteinian Fideism? [excerpts]. London: SCM Press.

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