The Wisdom to Doubt

The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 344
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Wisdom to Doubt
    Book Description:

    The Wisdom to Doubt is a major contribution to the contemporary literature on the epistemology of religious belief. Continuing the inquiry begun in his previous book, Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion, J. L. Schellenberg here argues that given our limitations and especially our immaturity as a species, there is no reasonable choice but to withhold judgment about the existence of an ultimate salvific reality. Schellenberg defends this conclusion against arguments from religious experience and naturalistic arguments that might seem to make either religious belief or religious disbelief preferable to his skeptical stance. In so doing, he canvasses virtually all of the important recent work on the epistemology of religion. Of particular interest is his call for at least skepticism about theism, the most common religious claim among philosophers.

    The Wisdom to Doubt expands the author's well-known hiddenness argument against theism and situates it within a larger atheistic argument, itself made to serve the purposes of his broader skeptical case. That case need not, on Schellenberg's view, lead to a dead end but rather functions as a gateway to important new insights about intellectual tasks and religious possibilities.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6239-9
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface: An Uncertain Heritage
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    J. L. S.
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Reason requires us to be religious skeptics. This, as suggested in the Preface, is because of all that the past has prevented us from seeing and all we must suppose the future may hold in store, in light of what we know about common human intellectual failings and the special ambitions and failings bound up with religious and irreligious belief. The skeptical potential of such considerations has not heretofore been exploited. Much more will be said about them in Part 1, where they will be fashioned into distinct modes of reasoning to religious skepticism.¹

    In Part 2 of the book,...


    • [PART I. Introduction]
      (pp. 11-14)

      The human tendency to form beliefs, it may be, is best understood in evolutionary terms, as bound up with the conditions of our survival in earlier times, and as unavoidable even today in many of the particular contexts of our lives. Whatever the case, for big-brained humans this believing tendency is all too easily, and often illicitly, transferred to what we may broadly term the theoretical or intellectual domain, where ratiocination that we hope will take us to knowledge of matters transcending the particulars of our lives is exercised. Now such knowledge, were it achieved, would by its very nature...

    • CHAPTER 1 The Subject Mode
      (pp. 15-49)

      To say that human attempts to gain reliable information about the world are challenged by our finitude is not to court controversy. This is undoubtedly one of the most obvious facts about us. One would hardly know it, though, given the regularity with which it is overlooked or neglected by intellectually greedy humans in the various areas of human inquiry. My work here on the many sources of human error is designed to make such an error harder to achieve, and to show how the corresponding awareness undergirds categorical religious skepticism.

      I begin by introducing and clarifying some central concepts...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Object Mode
      (pp. 50-68)

      The categorical skepticism I am defending, as the name suggests, is a doubt that embraces any and all religious claims. It is natural, therefore, to suspect that its doubting arises because of something shared by members of that set of claims. This suspicion is borne out by my arguments in this book, and nowhere more so than in this chapter. Here I focus on how skepticism may be supported by reflection on what we may loosely call the object shared by religious claims. All religious claims are, by definition, in some way directed toward there being an ultimate and salvific...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Retrospective Mode
      (pp. 69-90)

      It is obvious that in cultures where science is undeveloped we do not expect anyone to be discerning truths in electrodynamics or particle physics. But then perhaps something similar applies where truths about ultimate things are concerned. Perhaps many rich layers of development and maturation, of very demanding sorts, requiring much time, need to be laid down before any human being can hope to be able to access such truths. Do we have any reason to think that such growth has already occurred? It certainly seems not: there is plenty of reason to be in doubt about whether the world...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Prospective Mode
      (pp. 91-107)

      The fourth distinctive mode of reasoning on behalf of a generalized religious skepticism I shall develop looks into the future instead of the past; it considers what may lie ahead rather than what lies behind us. It is the Prospective Mode. We human beings pay considerable attention to the past (though not—as the last chapter suggests—always the right sort of attention), some attention to the present, and much attention to the immediate future. But the more distant future receives very little consideration: it is a gray haze. And yet it is certain that there will be some sort...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Modes Combined: Limitation, Immaturity, Presumption
      (pp. 108-117)

      The four modes of religious skepticism developed in previous chapters—Subject, Object, Retrospective, and Prospective—can be represented schematically (Figure 3).

      Each of these modes of reasoning, I have argued, is quite capable of justifying categorical religious skepticism on its own. But having seen this, we may now rather swiftly come to see something else as well: these modes (more exactly, certain prominent elements therefrom) may be combined to create additional modes, each distinct from the others and even more powerful than the others. There are various ways of doing this. Here we will start by thinking about combining 1...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Bearing of Pragmatic Considerations
      (pp. 118-130)

      To the conclusion of the previous chapter, a proviso must now be added: provided that there are no non-truth-oriented, pragmatic considerations with sufficient countervailing force. Everything we have said so far in the book has been said on the assumption that only truth-oriented or epistemic considerations are relevant to the justification of believing, disbelieving, and skeptical responses to ultimism. This is in line with the procedure for evaluating such responses outlined at the end of my Prolegomena (p. 217). After having identified various problems facing a non-truth-oriented or pragmatic or justificationally pluralist approach, I stated there that philosophers should begin...


    • [PART II. Introduction]
      (pp. 131-132)

      The collection of arguments developed in Part 1 itself illustrates the human limitations and immaturity of which some members of the collection spoke, since fairly obvious and elementary and commonsensical in many of its contentions, and yet revealing much that has not been adequately considered to date. In the next part of this book I draw on what we have learned from those arguments to address what must be among the central sources of this oversight or neglect: the psychological and social force of religious experience, and the psychological, social, and intellectual force of philosophical naturalism.

      Religious experience of one...

    • CHAPTER 7 An Answer to Naturalism
      (pp. 133-159)

      What is naturalism? Earlier in the book I referred to it as the thesis that there is nothing beyond the world of nature. This interpretation has many adherents in the literature. According to Sterling P. Lamprecht, for example, naturalism “regards everything that exists or occurs to be conditioned in its existence or occurrence by causal factors within one all-encompassing system of nature.”¹ And as John Herman Randall, Jr., nicely puts it: “[Naturalism] can be defined negatively as the refusal to take ‘nature’ or ‘the natural’ as a term of distinction.”²

      But this is rather vague. Spinoza would have accepted the...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Questionableness of Religious Experience
      (pp. 160-190)

      From time immemorial, human beings have had experiences that produced or sustained religious beliefs. Any such experience—even the experience of intellectually sensing that a religious conclusion follows from a set of apparently true premises—qualifies as a religious experience in the broadest sense and might be linked to justificatory concerns. But in the literature, a certain distinctive sort of experience has time and again been viewed as representing a distinctive justifier of religious belief. This is the sort of religious experience on which I will be focusing. The unifying thread that runs through experiences of this type is just...


    • [PART III. Introduction]
      (pp. 191-194)

      Let us take stock of where we are. I have been urging us to be skeptics about ultimism. Various modes of reasoning in support of such skepticism were developed in Part 1. In Part 2, the most general and widely influential sources of nonskeptical complacency were identified, examined, and shown to be lacking in force. Thus we already have before us a complete justification of religious skepticism.

      But the present climate in philosophy of religion is one in which such skeptical voices may still be hard to hear. I refer to the very powerful influence of traditional theism—the claim...

    • CHAPTER 9 Hiddenness Arguments I
      (pp. 195-226)

      My central purpose in this chapter is to develop the first, more general sort of hiddenness argument. But in order to establish a context from which the central hiddenness claim can naturally and persuasively be extracted, let me start by exposing some central parameters—a modest framework of concept and precept—for responsible thought and talk about God.

      The idea of God we will be working with is that of a personal and perfect creator of any universe there may be: omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good and loving. That we are speaking of something thought of as “perfect” in some...

    • CHAPTER 10 Hiddenness Arguments II
      (pp. 227-242)

      It is a familiar observation in philosophy of religion that someone wishing to develop an argument from evil can argue not only from evil in general but more narrowly from this or that type of evil. The most commonly mentioned types are natural and moral evil, and recently there has also been discussion of horrific or horrendous evil (I will have much more to say about this last category in the next chapter). Similarly—and here we are venturing into unexplored territory—what I am calling hiddenness falls into several interesting types.

      Now it is important to realize that I...

    • CHAPTER 11 The Argument from Horrors
      (pp. 243-269)

      In this chapter I turn from the much-neglected and little-explored territory I have labeled the problem of Divine hiddenness to the much-traveled (one might say trampled) neighboring territory of the problem of evil. Superhighways crisscross this philosophical province. Sophisticated infrastructure supports the many cosmopolitan centers that dot its terrain. But though the problem of evil is well known and much discussed, it is a larger and more complex problem, more multifaceted, than is commonly recognized: there remain sizable tracts of this territory that are underinvestigated and pathways of discussion that no one has developed. I want us to work on...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Free-Will Offense
      (pp. 270-290)

      In the last two sections of the previous chapter I (at most points) went along with the common assumption that for finite personal creatures to achieve their deepest good in relation to God, they must be given incompatibilist free will. Here I challenge that assumption. Indeed, I argue that, correctly construed, free will is a problem for theism—the basis, if it exists and is distributed and exercised in the ways it appears to be, for a distinctive argument (or set of arguments) against the existence of God. And thus we are taken from the free-will defense to the free-will...

    • CHAPTER 13 Consolidating Forces: The Arguments Combined
      (pp. 291-296)

      The four ways of arguing for atheism represented by the last four chapters—including the two kinds of hiddenness argumentation, the argument from horrors, and the free-will offense—can be represented schematically (Figure 5).

      Each of these patterns of reasoning embodies powerful support for atheism on its own. But having seen this, we may now see as well that these arguments (more exactly, certain elements therefrom) may be combined to create additional forms of argument, each distinct from the others and even more powerful than the others. There are various ways of doing this. Here we will start by thinking...

    • CHAPTER 14 Closing the Case: Seven Proofs and a Skeptical Conclusion
      (pp. 297-309)

      In the previous five chapters I developed seven new arguments (or forms of argument) for atheism. My main aim in this final chapter of Part 3 is to show the role that can be played by my seven arguments in justifying at least skepticism about theism given various assumptions theists might make—and thus in justifying, for all theists, a position on this most popular form of religious belief that is in accord with my earlier findings concerning ultimism. But let us begin by seeing whether more than this might credibly be claimed for them, and, if so, how much...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 310-312)

    It seems abundantly clear that the truth about religion is unclear. Responses to religion involving belief—whether that be religious (perhaps theistic) or irreligious belief—are too neat and tidy, too smooth and definite for our world. The religious landscape is in many ways rough and snarled and forbidding. And the rough places have not yet been made plain. No highway has been made straight in the wilderness of our ignorance, and the glory of the Lord has not been revealed.

    Such is the conclusion to which we have been led in this book. My proposal, the central outcome of...

  9. APPENDIX A. Definitions
    (pp. 313-316)
  10. APPENDIX B. Principles
    (pp. 317-320)
  11. Index
    (pp. 321-326)