The first book by the English philosopher John Cottingham that I encountered was On the Meaning of Life (2003). There was, it struck me then, a much bigger book hidden, crouching, and ready to spring from its mere hundred-some pages. Since then, Cottingham has published no fewer than five books elaborating many of the same themes and arguments. The most recent of these, In Search of the Soul, provides a good occasion to reflect, with a man who is both a distinguished philosopher and a gentle guide, on the state of religious belief and disbelief in our present age.
“Increasingly, and for a variety of reasons,” Cottingham remarked in a 2011 interview, “religion, theism, Christianity, Catholicism—in that order—have assumed a place that is central for my self-understanding and my understanding of what I am doing in my career as well as in the rest of my life.” In fact, critics of Cottingham’s work have suggested that what he is doing is not so much philosophy of religion as it is a sectarian Catholic philosophy of religion—all too specific to that one tradition among many. That criticism seems to me correct, but also misleading. Cottingham’s Catholic philosophy of religion is his way of getting deeper into the springs of what he calls “religious understanding.”
After undergraduate and graduate studies at Oxford, Cottingham began his career as a scholar of the great seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes, whose “‘synoptic’ conception of philosophy”—metaphysics together with epistemology together with ethics—appealed to Cottingham. He has also acknowledged that specialization is what philosophy professors typically need to do in order to earn a living in academia; for him, that took the form of writing on, editing, and translating Descartes. It was only toward the end of his teaching career, mostly at the University of Reading, that he felt he had the “luxury,” as he puts it, of “opening the doors a bit wider” and developing what he has come to define as a more humane philosophy—a way of practicing it that is not only logically rigorous, but also takes into account our emotional and imaginative modes of awareness. On the Meaning of Life was an early exercise in this kind of philosophy. Why Believe? (2009), How to Believe (2015), and In Search of the Soul (2020) are noteworthy successors. Quotations from and discussions of poetry, musical compositions, novels, and Scripture share the page with arguments and concepts from, among others, Aristotle, Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and a few contemporary figures.
Importantly, the poetry here isn’t supposed to be mere illustration. Cottingham makes much of Blaise Pascal’s celebrated claim that “the heart has reasons that reason does not know.” He develops this claim in Why Believe? by contrasting two kinds of truth. In Cottingham’s account, the empirical sciences are concerned with so-called “bald truth”: truth that “presents itself to the subject, given that he or she is properly equipped with the right theories and methods and instruments, entirely without reference...to [the subject’s] level of self-understanding, their moral development, or the stage they have reached in their individual spiritual journey through life.” Thus, someone might reject truths about climate change, or vaccination, or astrology, but these truths are available to anyone with working intellectual and sensory capacities, irrespective of whether the person is deeply humane or morally obtuse. Moral truths, the truths about the human condition available in novels, poetry, and other forms of art, and arguably religious truths as well—for example, the truth that the heavens proclaim the glory of God—appear to be of a different nature. The truths in these domains are not available in the same way to anyone with working intellectual and sensory capacities, without regard to his or her moral development and experience, depth of self-understanding, and spiritual maturity. Instead, these truths appear to depend on “requirements as to the attitude of the subject”—or what Cottingham calls “accessibility conditions.” He explains what he means through a close reading of Luke’s subtle story of the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. It is the state of the disciples’ hearts—the disposition of their spirits and emotions—that at first blinds them, then slowly opens their eyes, until they finally recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread. Along the way, Christ opened the meaning of the scriptures to his disciples. In a similar way (though Cottingham might be too modest to accept the analogy), the discussions of poetry that abound in his work help draw the reader “from an epistemology of detachment to an epistemology of receptivity and involvement,” as he formulates the contrast in How to Believe.
In Search of the Soul presupposes less sympathy for religion on the part of its readers than Why Believe? and How to Believe do. Nonetheless, at just about the middle of the text, Cottingham proposes that “something like a traditional theistic worldview offer[s] a more hospitable framework” for the problems under consideration than does the “materialist consensus” among many philosophers and growing numbers of “nones.” Cottingham’s work consistently exhibits great respect for the findings of the sciences. As he bluntly writes in How to Believe, “there is no future for a religious or any other outlook that tries to contradict or set aside the findings of science.” “We must start from the nature of the universe as we find it,” he states in Why Believe?—and part of what we have found from the “spectacular success” of modern science is that there is “no possibility of a return to an animistic or mythological framework for understanding the world.” There are, however, limits to scientific explanation: most fundamentally, science cannot explain why the laws of nature are what they are. In David Hume’s words, modern science does not inquire into nature’s “ultimate springs and principles.” In Search of the Soul focuses on two problems that resist scientific explanation. First, the fact that “the conscious lifeworld of the individual subject,” though realized in and through the material properties of the human body, isn’t captured by an account of those properties (the “problem of consciousness”). And second, “the fact that moral values and obligations exert an authoritative demand on us, whether we like it or not” (what philosophers call the problem of “strong normativity”). For Cottingham, theism is an interpretive framework—a favorite phrase of his—that can accommodate those problems.
He never argues that theism is the only rational position. His more humane philosophy eschews what he calls “coercive argument,” or argument that tries to eliminate all alternatives. For him, philosophy “has more to do with trying to show how certain frameworks of interpretation are hospitable to coming to terms with existential and moral challenges inherent in our human predicament.” What recommends theism with respect to the problems of consciousness and strong normativity, Cottingham thinks, is that, within its framework, these problems “cease to be cosmic anomalies, and start to fit into a wider picture.” For theism “posits a source or ground of all being that is somehow mind-like: consciousness is taken to be at the heart of reality.” Further, God is understood as the source of “authoritative value,” and creation is taken to reflect God’s goodness, especially in the creatures whom the Abrahamic traditions present as made in God’s likeness. Note that Cottingham’s approach does not explain away the problems of consciousness and strong normativity. Instead, it makes sense of them by making them part of how the cosmos is. Otherwise put, they are no longer problematic, as Cottingham thinks they must remain in a strictly secular, materialist framework. Readers might compare Thomas Nagel’s controversial Mind and Cosmos (2012), which created a ruckus in the Anglophone academy with its skeptical scrutiny of materialist naturalism.
Disbelief in God remains, for all that, a live option, and Cottingham’s work is not going to persuade someone who, for whatever reasons, does not want there to be a God—as Nagel notoriously said of himself in his book The Last Word (1997). As Cottingham is well aware, the association of religion with reactionary politics appears to have been a significant factor in the growth of religious disaffiliation in recent decades. People—especially the young—who were weakly attached to religion have increasingly become self-consciously unreligious as prominent religious leaders have condemned and sought to thwart movements of personal liberation. Surely the Roman Catholic Church’s recurring sexual-abuse scandal hasn’t helped either.
What Cottingham seeks to do is to make religious belief a live option for thoughtful, intellectually responsible people who want to remain believers themselves, or who want to transmit their belief to the next generation, or who find religious belief attractive but also difficult. His ideal readers are like the imagined interlocutor to whom Pascal addresses his famous wager in the Pensées: someone who would like to be cured of unbelief. What motivates Cottingham is his conviction that, as he writes in How to Believe, “there is much in the great religions that is immeasurably enriching to humankind, and that the kind of enrichment offered cannot easily be achieved in any other way.”
By way of example, Why Believe? closes by examining “a heterogeneous range of reactive responses,” including humility, hope, awe, and thankfulness, without which human life would be poorer. Cottingham argues that a “religious framework of interpretation provides a secure home for these attitudes,” which otherwise could prove more difficult to sustain. Take thankfulness. Two years ago, my family and I went on a ski vacation with a wonderful person whose life experiences seem to have made religious belief in God untenable for her. Her mother asked her to say the grace before the evening meal. As a grateful and loving daughter, she gamely complied, but her prayer was incoherent. Thankfulness to an impersonal universe for our beautiful setting and day just didn’t come off. It lacked a framework in which it could make sense.
One other category is worth considering, particularly in the age of Trump: the sacred—by which Cottingham means that which “calls us to suspend the instrumental attitude that treats everything as a commodity to be used.” As he explains in How to Believe, for nothing to be sacred means that there is nothing that “calls us to refrain from grabbing and grasping,” or nothing “which is not simply there for us to control and commodify.” I know of no better explanation for the sense many of us have that President Trump seems utterly godless. The sacred is surely a basic religious concept, and human life would surely be poorer without it.
For Cottingham, a religious understanding of life is, in the end, one that makes provision for our experiences of, and yearning for, meaning and value. His critics’ observations that religion for him is nearly always theistic, very often Christian, and even specifically Catholic (with its emphasis on sacramentality) is on the mark. But Cottingham acknowledges that religious understanding may take different forms, and that these may give rise to different attitudes and practices. He also does not deny that non-religious outlooks may permit distinctive goods. His focus, though, is much more on what goods religious belief has to offer—and on what goods might be lost with its demise. Perhaps he might write a different kind of book that enters yet more sympathetically into a strictly secular worldview, so as to compare what is gained by the absence of religious belief to what is lost.
Another criticism of Cottingham’s work is that, while it is deeply Christian, it is also in a strange way “post-Christian,” or at least suggestive of a decidedly “liberal” form of Christianity. In Search of the Soul is a case in point. Throughout the book, Cottingham is “less interested in metaphysics than in the moral and spiritual dimensions of soul.” He declines to engage in “metaphysical speculations” and expresses aversion to “metaphysical perplexities of a Platonic-style account, where the soul becomes a kind of ethereal other-worldly part of us that does not obviously connect with our biological nature.” An Aristotelian understanding of “soul and body as different aspects of one and the same living human organism” is more to his taste, but not Aquinas’s “somewhat uneasy compromise between a broadly Aristotelian account of the faculties of the soul as ‘principles involving matter,’ and a more ‘separatist’ or Platonic conception.” How, then, should we regard traditional belief in an afterlife? Other than observing that the doctrine of the soul’s immortality is bound up with concerns about meaning and accountability, Cottingham just doesn’t give us much to work with, which is remarkable for a book about the soul. It is also remarkable that, toward the end of the book, he uses the term “soul” in scare quotes, thus suggesting that the term may be more a symbol of our longing for meaning than a word for that part or aspect of ourselves that perdures through time and even beyond death. That sounds a little post-Christian to me, and it certainly isn’t what teachers are supposed to say to children in religious ed.
Institutions generally go missing in Cottingham’s philosophy of religion, and creeds are less important than quests. That isn’t necessarily a criticism. Traditional religious education isn’t working for the Catholic Church. As a 2017 editorial in America reported, “More than half of Catholic millennials report going to Mass a few times a year or less, and, according to a 2014 poll, 68 percent of Catholic parents decide not to enroll their child in any formal Catholic religious education.” Unless Catholicism is going to become the faith of a dwindling remnant, it seems that both traditional doctrines, and traditional means of instruction and formation, need to be rethought and reinvigorated. Cottingham casts religion in an attractive light. The institutional Church probably would do well to learn from him.