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Believe it or not

01 April 2016

John Inge commends a mature reflection on religious belief

How to Believe
John Cottingham
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30


THIS mature reflection on the nature of religious belief by a distinguished philosopher is to be highly commended. It contains much food for thought for believers interested in apologetics, and, being very accessible, would also serve well as a helpful gift to intelligent sceptics and enquirers. In his foreword, the author wonders whether “those who might like to believe but cannot see their way to doing so may perhaps be looking in the wrong place,” and his aim is “to indicate some alternate directions in which to look.” This he does skilfully, his strategy being to “interleave formal argumentation at many points with discussion of literary and artistic and scriptural sources” to show how religious belief may be embraced as “reasonable, coherent and properly grounded in how we experience the world”.

In bemoaning the disenchantment of the world that has taken place in western culture, particularly in the last generation, the author rightly insists that science — as opposed to reductionist scientism — leaves room for “a genuine transcendent reality”. He appeals to the fact that “most of us can point to moments when we felt ourselves approaching the threshold of the sacred”, arguing, correctly in my view, that a sense of awe is a good “way in” to faith. This being the case, the structures of tradition in religion “reinforce this sense of the sacred . . . by providing a structure of routine observance that prevents it from fading entirely into the background.” Praxis, habits that embrace the entirety of our humanity, are a crucial part of a religious approach to life, since belief is about much more than intellectual assent. Believing is a “much more complicated phenomenon than is often assumed by philosophers who are preoccupied with the epistemic status of our religious beliefs.”

I found myself wanting to cheer as I read this book — except at one point. I imagine, from the way in which he writes, that the author is Roman Catholic. That’s good, but I winced when I read that “the typical Anglican clergyman or woman in Great Britain” is “perfectly calm and comfortable about, for example, rejecting miracles like walking on the water, or the feeding of the five thousand, at least on anything like a literal interpretation”, and also at a subsequent assertion that the decline in faith in Britain is partly a result of this. I’m not sure on what evidence he makes these bold claims but, in the absence of any, I found them unworthy in an otherwise excellent book.


Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.

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