Instrumentalist theology

So yesterday I asked, with reference to Theo Hobson’s argument, ‘how do you go about seeing god as the source of all goodness, all life if you don’t believe god exists? How can god’s existence be a non-question if you’re going to have gratitude to that god for being the source of all goodness, all life?’ and Jerry S answered ‘A lot of people in the non-realist tradition think something like this. I think Robin LaPoidevin makes this kind of argument, for example (check out my interview with him in New British Philosophy)’ – so I did. He asked an interesting question in that interview.

Robin Le Poidevin had said this about instrumentalist theology as opposed to the realist variety:

Presumably an atheist could see theological discourse as being fictional, but it would be a fiction that we can do without. Theological instrumentalists, on the other hand, would say that the fiction has a crucial point…[T]heological discourse and practices enable us to lead better lives, even though they are fictional.

JS asks if there isn’t a danger for non-realist theism that despite the claims of its advocates that it’s a fictional discourse, it is in fact almost invariably taken as comprising truth-claims? (Just what I’m always saying.) Then he adds that ‘this is worrying both if you have a commitment to the value of truth* and also because a lot of awful things are done in the name of religious belief.’ Le Poidevin answers the awful things part rather than the first part, then there’s the interesting question.

But if you’re an instrumentalist, you’re doing more than simply articulating a philosophical position. You have the thought that the rituals that go along with religious practice are desirable, and so on. However, there’s a lot of research that suggests that people get seduced by ritual, so whatever might be claimed about the status of religious language, people won’t be able to avoid believing and acting as if the fictions they espouse are actually statements about matters of fact. And religious discourses are frequently predicated on exclusionary relations – they often divide up the world into the righteous and the unrighteous. Surely, whatever the status ascribed to religious language by non-realist theorists, this is a worry?

Le Poidevin says that’s a very interesting argument, but gives what I think is a rather unconvincing answer: he agrees that people get caught up in and even lost in fictions, but then concludes with:

But it would be surprising if someone, without actually losing contact with the thought that this is just a fiction, became intolerant of people who didn’t want to join in.

Well, I don’t think it would be at all surprising. We hear the instrumentalist case all the time. We don’t usually hear it from people who say at the outset that ‘this is just a fiction,’ but we do hear the instrumentalist argument all on its own, with the question of the truth of the central proposition left entirely unaddressed, as if it were either irrelevant or somehow settled precisely by the instrumentalist case – you know: belief in god makes you good therefore god exists. So I don’t think it would be surprising.

JS tactfully changed the subject at that point.

*Little did he imagine when he asked that question that in a few short years he would be writing a book on that very commitment to that very value in collaboration with some Yank woman he’d never so much as heard of at the time, any more than she’d ever heard of him at the time. Little did she imagine either, but then she wasn’t the one asking Robin Le Poidevin a lot of questions, was she. Well exactly.

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