Donovan paragraphs 25-29

So up to now Donovan has been discussing whether the ‘intuitive’ feeling of certainty can be equated with being right. For example in the past men were ‘certain’ that women were inferior, Tony Blair we assume was certain there were WMD in Iraq or even earlier it was commonly believed that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. He concludes that these feelings are in fact a matter of our ‘beliefs’ and ‘states of mind’ [cross over with Ayer here!] unfortunately he goes on that just because we may on occasion also happen to have been right does not make the feeling reliable.

[25+26] The problem he addresses in this paragraph is what happens if ‘intuitive feelings’ are all one has to go on. You may have been right in the past and you’ve got that same feeling again but you’ve only got an ‘intuitive’ memory to check the intuitive feeling! This as he points out is circular and shows that our ‘sense of intuition’… ‘is not an independent guide to genuine knowledge.’ Here reliability is the key and sticking point!

[27] He goes on to quote Russell who famously gave the example of people who think they are in love but that ‘deception in such cases is constantly practiced with success.’ Donovan agrees with Russell at least in this that ‘the intellect’ is more reliable in the long run.

[28] He now brings the argument into the debate about religious experience. While the experient may be convinced of the religious experience they then go on to assume the reality of the object of that religious experience. However that cannot be assumed says Donovan.

[29] Here he takes issue with Owen’s suggestion that we should accept this kind ‘intuitive, non-inferential knowledge’ on the basis that we accept it in ordinary aspects of our lives. Especially the kind of sense perception which allows us to know that other people exist and what they are like because we have a body just like them, Donovan argues that this is true only because we can also support our belief in the existence of other people by analogy from our knowledge of ourselves as ‘conscious beings.’ Thus what he appears to be saying here is that although we can know other people exist because of our own experience of consciousness to make the jump to the existence of a supreme being outside of ordinary ‘sense experience’ is as Hume would have said a ‘leap too far!’ Maybe as Ayer said it merely says something about the ‘condition of the mind’ of the experient.

Concepts to discuss

  • Do we ever know other people? What they are capable of?
  • Examples of persons who have been convinced they were ‘right’ historical and modern.
  • What happens when our intuition lets us down? We tend to ignore it and only count it when we are right!
  • Describe and discuss some of the examples of religious experiences and what the experients learned and / or believed.
  • Religious experiences only tell us of the state of someone’s mind – this can then bring in all the other alternative explanations for religious experiences e.g. hallucination; drug induced; starvation, meditation, neurological reaction to stimulus, wishful thinking etc

Specimen answer to Anthology question on Westphal paragraph 28

a) Clarify the argument or interpretation in the passage. [30]

This paragraph comes into Westphal’s section on Hume and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion and follows on from Hume’s suggestion that religion is primarily grounded in “self-deception and self-interest” which to him means flattering the gods for simple personal benefit and at cost to others; as a result, he argues, religion is purely selfish.

According to Westphal, who is giving an overview of the history and developments of the ideas in the philosophy of religion, Marx and Nietzsche are concerned with just that “self-interest and self-deception” What is meant by these terms is their belief that at the heart of religion lies selfishness. That everything which ‘religious’ people believe and practice is founded on the false premise that religion or God can help make this life better or if not in this one at least in the next.

Marx’s overriding concern is to explain that in his opinion religion is ‘manufactured’ i.e. made up by people in power as justification for their power and to keep their power.

His opinion is that nothing does the job of keeping the masses under control, so effectively, as religion and with the tacit consent of the priests the oppressed are encouraged to suffer their oppression in the (false) hope of better things to come. Thus, to Marx and Nietzsche, the place that religion occupies in society is much more important than the psychological effects or reasons given for religious faith.

Their position arose out of a history of religious ideas which beginning with the enlightenment and Hume and Kant’s demolition of the traditional ‘proofs’ for the existence of God – the Cosmological, Teleological and Ontological arguments – had led more and more to a secularised form of religion; one where there was a deliberate intention to cause no offense, to prevent any more historical atrocities like the Inquisition or the Crusades; to find the common ground in all religions and promote those rather than differences. Both Marx and Nietzsche felt that all investigation into religion took as its starting point the ‘truth’ of religion but to them religion had no history separate from the economic and political history of the society in which it was found. Religion is not the disease but the symptom of a diseased society.

By Marx’s time he felt that religion had had its day: whether intellectual, rational or relying on the more supernatural elements like religious experience or miracles and with Nietzsche reached its nadir when he proclaimed ‘God is dead.’

Marx’s belief was that ‘Religion was the opium of the people’ used by oppressors to make people feel better about the distress they experience due to being poor and exploited. His view was that leaders in society got together and decided to call ‘god’ the highest authority and the church (in the form of priests or religion) his or its agent on earth. The monarchy and nobles were then divinely ordained by ‘god’ who had placed them in earthly power. Anyone who objects therefore had to take the matter up with god! ‘We’re only doing our job’ they would reply to any criticism and who could argue with that? Couple it with threats to your soul and your place in heaven and it would take a particularly brave person to object. (Silly idea here: mums who threaten ‘wait till your father gets home!’)

Pelagius by contrast, in the 5th century AD, believed that we did not need the conduit of priests to approach God and who tried to hold humanity up to a greater responsibility for individual actions but he failed to convince the church of his day of his beliefs and for his pains was excommunicated by the church.

Indeed in just the history of Christianity there are many instances where teachings from the holy book have been used to subjugate, enslave or just deny the rights to different groups of people. For example in St Paul’s first letter to Timothy chapter 2 he specifically demands that women not teach, to be subject to men, to be silent and godly and gives as his reason the fact that man was created first, not woman, and above all it was a woman who committed the first transgression (sin!) This Genesis text in chapter 2(rather than the other Genesis creation story in chapter 1 in which God creates male and female equally and at the same time) has been used for centuries by the Church to deny women equal rights with men not just in the church but in the world and society at large. Indeed it continues to prevent women being priests in the Roman Catholic Church though the Protestant movement has by and large adopted women priests as a policy.

His major criticism is that ‘God’ is being used as the final and highest authority to support instances of oppression, enslavement and denial of basic human rights. Marx regards ‘every society as involving political and economic exploitation.’ To claim ‘it says so in the Bible’ or ‘God told me’ like George W Bush did of his war on Iraq in 2003 is not sufficient and leads to gross injustice.

Interestingly, historically speaking, no totalitarian regime has ever approached anything like religion for its absolute and unquestioning hold on the masses and religions power to endure is second to none.

In the end it comes down to his fervent belief that religion is just the enforcement arm of society and used for the purposes of maintaining the status quo or the existing power structures (this is the self-interest) and giving society’s hierarchical structures the ‘weight of law.’ Religion is therefore deluding its adherents into acceptance and making them complicit in society’s ideological imperatives (i.e. they go along with the majority attitudes, for to object is made too difficult and can result in rejection by society.) This is the self-deception of religious people.

[Supplementary suggestions: look at how the bible has been used to condone slavery; condemn homosexuality; promote war; to enable the church to get rich by charging for all sorts of things including special dispensations to get into heaven!! Creationists and objections to the teaching of evolution in schools (thanks to some of you for most of these ideas) And what about the way insurance companies have used the phrase ‘Acts of God’ to wriggle out of paying out on claims!!!]

Look up these websites – all of you!!!

Religion as Opium of the People

The Church

Christianity and slavery

What the Bible Says – And Doesn’t Say – About Homosexuality
this website is a mine of information about how the bible has been misused to promote all sort of atrocities and prejudices.

b) Do you agree with the ideas expressed? Justify your point of view and discuss its implications for understanding religion and human experience. [20]

DO YOU AGREE? (With Marx and Nietzsche? If so why? What is wrong with the influence of religion? Can it ever be a good influence? What would life be like without it? What would society be like? What events might never have occurred? Have we like Nietzsche said outgrown our need for God / gods? Does this mean religious experiences are never valid? What implications does that have? Are people deluded? Mad? Special? Ill? Just plain misguided? How do we explain the ‘inner conviction’ that these experiences are genuine?????)


Specific examples of art, music, literature etc inspired by religion


Not Westphal’s ideas he is merely citing others’.

Hume’s view was self-deception i.e. one deceives oneself; Marx and Nietzsche argued the deception was imposed by a stronger group on a weaker one for the purposes of retaining or gaining power (think about the missionaries preaching Christianity to the natives in Africa etc so the British could exploit their natural resources without opposition!!) (Or Apartheid – White power in South Africa)

M and N don’t believe in God and are fierce opponents to religion because they both felt it hindered humanity’s development and ability to take responsibility for its own actions – religion allows people to absolve themselves of responsibility and defer it to a higher power!!

Whereas Hegel and Kant have been concerned with husks and kernels to get at the central truths of religion (scepticism) – Hume through his rational interpretation of the context of the texts (suspicion) is concerned to show that religion is based on deception – for him deception of ourselves, for Marx it is deception of the masses by the privileged. Marx predicted the masses would revolt when they finally realised they were being duped; they did in 1917 in Russia, in 1789 in France where they had an absolute monarchy.

So M took Hume a stage further and regarded religion as a tool of those whose self-interest lay in the maintaining of the status quo and their positions of power and authority or privilege. These people aided by the priests, then perpetrated the crime of foisting on to the masses religious ideas that God wants people to behave and accept their lot in life and failure to comply would mean punishment in the next life if not in this one! Hence religion became the tool by which the masses were controlled but also the tool which the oppressors used to keep their positions.

Self-interest – I want to believe x loves me therefore I deceive myself into believing x does; OR: I want to believer there is a reason for the suffering in this life therefore I believe that there is a God who has a grand scheme for all of this. Because that is reassuring or consolation!

The religion holds all the cards i.e. access to the afterlife / forgiveness / hope…

Slavery was justified by the church on the grounds that… it was not condemned in the Bible just regulated; those enslaved were not fully human, little more than animals!

For Hume religion was a prop to the ego whereas to Durkheim religion was the binding force of society.

Instrumental religion – means ceremonies and practices like baptism, confirmation, prayer, marriage, funeral services – fetish faith – where ritual becomes more important (almost worshipped in its own right) than the kernel or core beliefs. EG going to church on Sunday more imp than true Christian behaviour. As a result religion has an iron grip on the life of individuals through the marking of the important stages with its rituals (think about tribal cultures where a boy has to undergo a rite of passage from boyhood to adulthood and if he fails he is outcast!)

Nietzsche’s’ slave revolt was the fact that when people are enslaved they abdicate all responsibility for their actions and transfer responsibility to their masters; however slaves want revenge and since they are not usually in a position to gain this they enlist the aid of the ‘priests’ to promise punishment of their oppressors in the next life if not in this one.

Other questions to consider – where does morality come from? God? Can we not be good without God? Is there no morality without God?

And to finish with:

Voltaire: ‘if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.’