Saturday 14 November 2009

Proposing and performing

There’s a fascinating debate about the nature of belief going on between Norm and Peter, prompted by something Richard wrote, and with a useful contribution from Chris. In brief, it all hinges on whether religious belief is best described as performative or propositional in nature, and the original spark seems to have been Karen Armstrong’s latest book.

Regular readers will know that this is a subject of continuing interest to this blog (see here, for example). I’m planning to make a proper contribution to the discussion at some point, but in the meantime here’s something I came across recently that might be of relevance:

The guest a couple of weeks ago on Radio 4’s The Choice (a programme that is occasionally worth tuning into, despite Michael Buerk’s irritatingly doomladen tones) was Paul Moore, the man who blew the whistle on HBOS. I was intrigued to hear that Moore’s actions were inspired, in part, by his newly-revived Catholic faith. Looking him up on the internet, I came across an article in the Catholic Herald which included this snippet:

Paul Moore's upbringing was deeply Catholic. He was a boarder from the age of eight at Ampleforth in Yorkshire. But when he left he lost his faith. He pursued a career in the City of London, where, he said, he led a life dominated by a futile quest for money and material pleasures. 

"I was very miserable and I was working very hard but I couldn't find any peace or any joy and so I was looking for a way to feel happier and more peaceful." He began to rediscover his faith and in 2002 he moved to the Yorkshire village of Wass to take a job with HBOS at the bank's office in Leeds.

Wass is just down the road from Ampleforth. "When we moved back up to my alma mater I said to myself: 'I'm going to try to have faith, to pretend that I've got faith.' And as I pretended to have faith, I got faith."

Now, some secularist commentators might be tempted to scoff at this apparent confirmation that religious faith is little more than wishful thinking. But not me. Instead, Moore’s words struck me as an accurate description of how faith tends to work. Personally, I wouldn’t have used the word ‘pretend’, but I find the idea of belief deepening through external practice – working, as it were ‘from the outside in’ – true to my own experience, and to a socially-situated / embodied / materialist view of the world (the ideas of Wittgenstein, Bakhtin and even Cardinal Newman come to mind – but they’ll have to wait for another time).

I haven’t read Armstrong’s book and I have to confess to an inbuilt resistance to anything she writes. (Her book on the Buddha made me realise why I wasn’t, after all, a Buddhist, and the only other volume of hers that I’ve read, her History of God, seemed shot through with a gnostic elitism which found ‘true’ faith in the ideas of a knowing minority and was dismissive of the beliefs of the humble masses. What’s more, Armstrong’s interventions in recent debates about faith have revealed her to be unwilling to apply to Islam the same critical perspective she casts on Christianity, and to be an apologist for fundamentalism and an enemy of freedom of expression.) However, I suspect that the problem with her defence of religion - as being more about ‘doing’ than ‘believing’ - is that it confuses description with justification. Yes, of course, as a description of most people’s religious faith an emphasis on everyday practice is probably more important than an analysis of their propositional beliefs. But as a justification for the validity of religious belief – and particularly of one set of beliefs over another – it’s a non-starter.

But more on all of this another time.


Martin Meenagh said...

Pascal had a lovely riff on that, Martin. He said that mimicking those with faith eventually led to it, and compared it to copying singers or following Aristotle's pedagogic technique for the moral instruction of children. I'll find the quote for you and link to it, because it's beautifully done.
I think habituation as a means of progress toward faith would also suggest two other things; that psychological complicance and identification really do lead to internalisation, and that Kantian ideas about internally working out morality through reason are only a small part of faith and not all of it. So it would fit with a catholic or orthodox view; I wonder how Protestants would feel about it.

I agree with you it's not a justification for reasoned belief, but if you believed in natural law and a progress towards faith it would be. If I were a rationalist, though, all I would do is say 'that's just a post hoc justiication--a nonsense. All you are saying is pretending you have faith leads you to a view that you have faith that suggests that you were being led to faith that is validated by itself'.

And that's why Virgil couldn't accompany Dante out of purgatory. I'm off for another pill. Great post.

Martin Meenagh said...

Martin--I hope that you don't mind me commenting so much, but I do like your blog. Anyway, I've just seen a christmas treat for myself--Jay Corrin's 'Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy'--and it struck me as exactly up your street! It's a transnational study of catholic social action and the interaction of progressives and people who were on the right side of populism (just) in the last century. Thought I'd mention it to you.

Hope all is well,


Martin said...

Hi Martin

No of course I don't mind frequent commenting - at least it feels like someone's reading the stuff!

Thanks for the book recommendation - I'll look it up. I see he's written about Chesterton et al as well - which reminds me, I keep meaning to ask you if you'd post something more about distributism and why you think it still has relevance....along the lines of my recent challenge to my anarchist co-bloggers to explain their political credo.

All the best

Eve Garrard said...

Martin, (and Martin, for that matter), do you think that something similar can happen with respect to loss of belief - that *unbelief* can deepen through external practice, working from the outside in?

Thanks for the very interesting post, especially the necessary distinction between description and justification.

Martin said...

Hello Eve -

Thanks for the comment. You raise an interesting question. I suppose if you hold that mental states are shaped by external actions (forgive inaccurate terminology - I'm aware that I'm in dialogue with a professional philosopher, and to my regret it's a subject I've never formally studied) - then what's true of faith must be true of unbelief also.

However, it's difficult to see what the 'practice' of unbelief might entail - it's certainly not the same kind of thing as the formal practices of belief (prayer, ritual, etc) - more 'getting used to it' or 'living with it'...?

Anyway, I'm beginning to think that the distinction in this ongoing debate between internal belief and external performance is a false one. According to Wittgenstein, belief is ITSELF a 'performance' - a willed action - and the internal/external distinction is misleading.

As the other Martin says, maybe our insistence on the primacy of an internal state of 'belief' is a legacy of protestantism - and perhaps the philosophical dualism that went along with it?

Eve Garrard said...

That's a very nice point about unbelief not having a practice, Martin. I suppose I was thinking of something like C.S.Lewis's remarks (I can't recall where) about how hard it is to maintain belief in a milieu where it's not shared, and how explicit an effort has to be made to do so. There must be a myriad of tiny events and performances in a broadly irreligious context which undermine belief every single day, mustn't there?

I'm not so certain about the collapse of the external/internal distinction, though I'm sure you're right that plenty of philosophers do endorse this. But how then do we make sense of quite ordinary locutions such as 'living a lie', or 'going through the motions', both of which can be undergone by those who lose either their belief or their unbelief? And surely persistent hypocrisy depends on the distinction between the external and the internal - and who's going to deny the existence of persistent hypocrisy?

peter said...

Hypocrisy and pretence are essential to the well functioning of society. I was once on an interview panel, interviewing 6 candidates for a position. The second person we interviewed was head and shoulders above the first, and then above each of the others following him. We knew within a few minutes of talking to candidates #3, 4, 5 and 6 that they were no match for candidate #2. What should we have done? An honest (and efficient) practice would have been to call off these later interviews, knowing that #2 was going to be our first choice. Instead, we went through the motions, asking all the candidates all the same questions we had asked #2, pretending to be sincere in listening to their replies, but not really. To have done otherwise would have been unfair to these later candidates.