Conversatio Divina

Are Religious and Philosophical Attitudes Compatible?

Dallas Willard

This piece is supposedly Dallas’s notes for a talk held at USC. But as one will see when reading it, Dallas wrote a mini essay on the topic. That is good news for us because we don’t have audio for this talk.

Some wonder how Dallas Willard saw the relationship between philosophy and Christian religion. Though this essay attempts to speak for religion in general (not an easy thing to do), one can nevertheless see elements of how Dallas would deal with Christian religion. And if Dallas is right that rationality is crucial to human life, we may wonder why certain forms of Christian spirituality have very little interest in being rational.

[Editor’s Note: Should anyone out there have an audio recording from this event we would be very glad to learn of it.]

The answer that seems to me correct is: “No.” It is possible for the same person to be strongly committed to philosophy and to religion, and without any clear indication, readable by themselves or by others, of which is to have the last word. But human personality proves capable of sustaining outlooks that are not compatible, either logically or practically. Thus it has long been quite common for individuals to manifest a religious attitude in some situations and a philosophical attitude in others, without it being possible to do both at the same time. This is not at all uncommon among university and professional people at present or in the past. But let’s try to sharpen up the issues a bit and see where it all leads us.

The contrast between religious and philosophical attitudes will have something to do with rationality. So we begin from the idea of holding a belief (with associated practices) RATIONALLY. This it turns out, is not a general requirement of religion, whereas it is at least an ideal of philosophy.

A belief or a proposition is not in itself rational or irrational. One of the curious phenomena around universities is the number of people who believe they are rational because they hold beliefs that are (reported to be) rational. How do they know those beliefs are rational? Well, they have been told they are, or they know of someone who is rational and believes them, etc. etc. But of course a generally rational person can hold some of their beliefs irrationally. And even if they indeed do hold a certain belief rationally, that does not mean that if I adopt that belief I will be rational in doing so. Being rational in one’s beliefs and practices is not something one can take over from another. We cannot, in general, settle on which are the rational beliefs and then become rational by believing those beliefs. We might be right in that way. All of our beliefs might then turn out to be true. But you can be right and irrational and rational and wrong.

Let us say that a belief is rationally held by an individual if it is consciously adopted by that individual on the basis of the kind of evidence generally regarded by informed and thoughtful people to be most likely to lead to true beliefs and, thereby, to [be] successful dealing with reality.

Now of course there are a lot of troubling terms in this statement, but on the other hand it seems to me an accurate representation of how we judge people to be responsible or not, and of what we hold them to as a basis of responsible action. That is, if in the context of ordinary life or professional life they do not base their actions on the kind of evidence indicated, we regard them as irresponsible. If, for example, a professor had in his office a scale, and graded papers in terms of how much they weighed, he would not be thought responsible. That would probably be enough to get a tenured professor fired. And if he actually believed that the quality of the student’s mind and work could be assessed in this way, then we would think that he does not hold that belief rationally, because he certainly does not hold it on the kind of evidence . . . . . etc. etc.

Now the kind of evidence that we might regard as “top of the line” would be a sound argument for the belief in question, that is, formally valid plus true premisses. The top of the top of the line would be the case where the premisses were not only true, but necessarily true and open to the individual’s insight. I suppose that the great rationalist philosophers, as they are known, thought that this was possible, though others have regarded them as a reductio ad absurdum of that idea. Empiricists have thought that the premisses must ultimately derive from something called “experience,” which is not at all easy to characterize—and a few have even suggested that the principles of inference themselves should be similarly derived.

Of course good evidence (and the rational holding of belief) is not restricted to arguments where the premisses logically entail the conclusion. And while one may not be able to give a perfectly general account of what a good argument is beyond the limits of formal validity, we still have a pretty good idea of when, in that area, people have reasons for what they believe and do and when they do not. Analogy obviously plays a very large role in argument, evidence and rationally, but in the end seems to form something more like a living edge of thought and creativity which cannot be standardized in its applications, though it certainly can be criticized after the fact.


Before answering this question, let us say that philosophical and religious attitudes are natural expressions of human life. They are not things some clever individuals thought up to fill time, which later became matters for academic consumption. They are postures which humans have as the living beings they are.

Human beings have to act, and to act they have to have opinions about what is best to do. What is best to do is a function of what is the case, and what is the case is a matter of what, in general, there is. Philosophy tries to arrive at a view of reality as a whole on the basis of evidence. It is an attempt to determine the necessary structures of reality, including those of human life and consciousness. It works by means of thought or rational reflection, and the very thought by which it operates is a large part of its own subject matter. The essential human interest that drives philosophy is the interest in having a mind and a life which is a whole, where all the parts connect up in some intelligible fashion. Having such a view is of intrinsic interest to human beings, as well as being a necessary basis for a coherent life plan.

Now the philosophical attitude as historically manifested is, then, one which holds that one’s beliefs about what is the case should be rationally held, in the sense briefly explained above. This of course does not rule out the possibility that no beliefs about reality as a whole can be rationally held.

Religion, by contrast, is never just a matter of having views, rational or irrational. If all of the beliefs involved in a religion were outright proven, in whatever strict sense you may wish to specify, what religion is concerned with would not yet necessarily be achieved. The aim of religion is something much more like a harmony of wills. The problem for religion is out-of-placeness, lostness, alienation. It involves the ideas of there being “another condition” and of ways to be found and used to arrive at or return to that condition. The religious attitude involves a belief in ‘another’ realm than the ‘natural’ world available to everyone through normal sense perception, and the idea that that ‘realm’ has a claim on us and that we can interact with and make claims on it by means of appropriate behaviors—rituals, such as offerings and prayers. As the individual in philosophizing aims to comprehend things as a whole, so in religion the aim is to put the whole back of, on the side of, the individual.

But most importantly, for the characterization of the religious over against the philosophical attitude, within the religious posture it is not thought a requirement that beliefs and practices be rationally held. Rather, they are to be held on the basis of testimony and authority of others that come to us through tradition, and which we may or may not more or less confirm by our own experience. And if there is a conflict between what can be rationally held or verified and what the tradition authoritatively says, then [what can be] rationally [held] must give way to tradition.

This is nicely illustrated by a quotation from Ignatius [of] Loyola. In his work, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, he is discussing how one should approach the teachings of the institutional church: “If we wish to be sure that we are right in all things,” he says, “we should always be ready to accept this principle: I will believe that the white that I see is black, if the hierarchical Church so defines it. For I believe that between the Bridegroom, Christ our Lord, and the Bride, His Church, there is but one spirit, which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls; for the Spirit and Lord, who gave us the Ten Commandments, guides and governs our Holy Mother Church.” (p.140-141, Doubleday, 1989 edition) Now this is an extreme example, no doubt, but it usefully illustrates what I take to be the main point, that tradition and authority are the ultimate points of reference in religion. Another well known statement is by the Latin Church Father, Tertullian: “It is absurd, therefore I believe it.” I take these quotations from Christian teachers, but I believe it is quite generally true that religions, in one way or another, place authority over individual or collective reason in achieving the recovery from displacement or alienation that is the aim of religion as a human practice. Some, of course, regard reason as the absolute enemy of “enlightenment” or “reconciliation.”

Because religion involves authority and testimony, it is essentially traditional and hence institutional. That is also why it involves ‘official’ persons and special events, places and artifacts. Without these in some form, of course, the authority of the tradition could not be transmitted. That is, it wouldn’t exist at all. Thus “the ancestors” are fundamental to any religion, and one way a form of religion dies—i.e. no longer has practitioners—is by losing its effective ties with its “ancestors.” This can be seen in process in the so-called “mainline” Protestant denominations in the United States today. Of course a form of religion also dies when it ceases to speak to the present, for then the authoritative practice equally ceases to be transmitted. This too is an observable phenomenon today.

What about exceptions: Spinoza, Epicureanism, Stoicism, “Religion Within The Limits of Pure Reason,” A. Comte’s ‘Positive’ religion (now the Ethical Societies), Secular Humanism? Are these not religion? There have been periods, as I understand it, where Epicureanism and Stoicism pretty clearly qualify as religion in the sense I have explained it. They had authoritative teachings, rituals and traditions, and were not, in their general practice, based on the rational insights of individuals but upon communal solidarity and faithfulness to the tradition “once for all delivered.” Spinoza, I think, clearly rules out by his teachings about reason and emotion what we have here described as the basic religious posture, though he surely thought that something like “reconciliation” or “enlightenment” would be the effect of working one’s way down the path of necessary connections he presents. It is, I suspect, a mark of his own utter alienation from what life is to ordinary human beings to think that rational insight could remove the distress of “life’s fitful fever.” As for the religions of Kant, Fichte, Comte, and Secular Humanism, they simply are in no sense religion, but efforts to have some benefits of religion by those who have discarded it—at least intellectually.

There is a general pattern of ‘negotiation’ that shows up repeatedly during the last 3 centuries in thinkers who wish to be relieved of something (religion) but want some of its benefits (say moral purpose and force). You then try to give a new identity to religion (or whatever) to get rid of its objectionable aspects (authority, history, tradition) and keep its desirable ones (moral content and power). Try this with mind/brain ‘identity’ etc. The many aspects of reductionism, on one hand, and ‘emergence’, on the other, come into play.

Well, there are a lot of interesting discussions to be had here, and I don’t think we need to insist that religion is a rigorous concept. There are no doubt plenty of unclear cases.

But we might also look briefly at the other side. Is it really true that the philosophical attitude is one that does not work from authority? Here the picture is clouded by the practice of philosophy within an academic and professional context. Within that context, I’m afraid, authority largely rules. I am inclined to think that many of us at work in the field could not produce significant arguments for the philosophical positions we hold. Authority is a much greater force among those socially identified as philosophers than any of us would like to admit. Many ‘philosophical’ beliefs are not held rationally, but upon the basis of authority: some outstanding person we regard as rational believes such and such, and so we do to. It really is a very difficult thing to work through the arguments for philosophical positions and come to conclusions based upon genuine evidence.

And then, of course, you have various attacks on the ultimacy of reason itself. William James’ idea of the sentiment of rationality and the recent presentation of ‘reason’ as just a power game are parts of this kind of attack. It is hard to defend reason or to attack it without using it, and few people seem to be able to find a way around this problem. (I think it is possible to make some headway with it.)

But whatever one may say in the end about all such issues, it remains, I think, that the philosophical attitude has as its ideal the holding of beliefs rationally. Any way of approaching belief other than this is clearly not in the same natural grouping with, say, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, etc. though there are numerous significant variations to be plotted in each of them.

So, if I am right, religion and philosophy are different types of human enterprises, with different aims and rather different attitudes toward the rationality of the beliefs we hold. Now for a few closing observations:

1. Reason may still have a highly significant role to play in religion. In some cases it might even be regarded as a necessary but not sufficient factor in religious belief and practice. E.g. belief in the existence of God. Or the use of contradiction to shock the mind into rejection of the sense perceptible world.

2. It is generally supposed among university type people today that religious beliefs and practices cannot be rational in the sense explained. It is widely through that religion has sociological and psychological explanations but no rational justification. The result is often a blanket dogmatism that does not even allow people to think about religious beliefs in a serious way. It is as if thinking seriously about them would show that you were ignorant. Thus skepticism about the standard items of religious belief no longer has to be justified. Doubt and disbelief are automatically accepted as justifiable as rational, when in fact it normally is just a form of blind dogmatism—usually covered with something like: “Well, Hume and Kant, you know showed all that to be wrong.” And then Marx and Nietzsche and Freud are cited—without giving any arguments. This of course is the crudest form of intellectual irresponsibility cloaked in academic respectability. It is also a use of authority that is exactly the same as one finds in religion and often in religion at its worse.

3. For my part, not just as a philosopher, but as a human being, I have to say that I will gladly surrender any religious belief or practice I have that can be shown false or mistaken on clearly rational grounds. This is not the same as surrendering any religious belief or practice that cannot be proven true.

4. And further, no authority in religion should be accepted as such if it is not capable of withstanding all rational (not prejudiced) criticism of its status as a source of true belief. This is not the same as having to prove that it is authoritative, though that would be welcome.