Religion Within Reason

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Steven M. Cahn
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , March
     120 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A few decades ago, there was a heated debate among Anglo-Saxon philosophers of religion and philosophical theologians over the question whether, simply put, religion is supposed to represent an “independent transcendent reality” in one way or another—a position commonly referred to as “religious realism”—or whether it is merely a lifestyle centered around some high values or ideals without any commitment to representing or claiming the existence of such a reality —a position commonly referred to as “religious anti-realism”. While this question is less commonly discussed today, the debate is far from being settled. Steven M. Cahn does not use this terminology in Religion Within Reason, but he offers a short, accessible, jargon-free, and theologically interesting account of this debate. He also makes what I think is a philosophically unconvincing case for religious anti-realism, or as he puts it, for “the possibility of religion within a naturalistic framework” (ix).

In the first chapter, Cahn criticizes three classical theistic arguments (cosmological, ontological, and teleological) without taking into account this possibility that despite all the alleged weaknesses of these arguments, a cumulative case argument might be raised in favor of theism.

In the second chapter, Cahn argues that philosophical proofs of God’s existence, whether successful or otherwise, have little to do with religious life, since “religious experience trumps philosophical proof” (10). In chapters 3 to 6, Cahn tackles the problem of evil. He concludes that although the problem of evil does not disprove theism, just as the problem of goodness does not disprove demonism, the existence of good and evil makes both theism and demonism “highly improbable” (18), such that believing in either of them is consequently not reasonable. But given the centrality Cahn rightly gives to religious experience, unless one argues that religious experience bears no epistemic value, one might argue that the religious experience of people in different cultures is far more inclined towards an omnibenevolent God rather than an omnimalevolent God, thus making theism more probable than demonism.

In chapter 7, Cahn takes issue with religious faith. For him, religious faith revolves around certitude and it turns out to be foolish and even dangerous when it goes against overwhelming evidence presented against it. Cahn does not discuss or allude to non-certitude models of characterizing faith such as Kierkegaard’s or Pascal’s model.

Drawing on the book of Job, in chapters 8 and 9 Cahn calls faith in God further into question by arguing that knowing God through faith might reveal how unjustified God’s action is. His rather idiosyncratic reading of the book of Job is that the unbearable sufferings inflicted upon Job are not because of his sins, but only because God made a wager with Satan about the strength of Job’s faith, a wager Cahn seems to view as cruel. This, Cahn argues, has a devastating consequence for any theodicy. A successful theodicy would justify God’s actions but at the high cost of leaving “believers without any reason to expect support from God” (39), since God has reasons for inflicting pains and sufferings that are beyond our grasp.

But if God’s ways are unknown to us and even our words fall short of describing God as God is, then God becomes unknown. To make sense of God is therefore problematic, or so argues Cahn in chapter 10. What if God reveals himself miraculously to human beings? Chapter 11 is devoted to the critique of miracle. Cahn’s main critique is Humean. Miracle means the suspension of the law of nature, and since the evidence for the suspension of such laws is not forthcoming, the occurrence of miracle is highly unlikely.

Extending his critique of miracle to divine revelation in chapter 12, Cahn argues that any claim to miraculous contact with God in the form of divine revelation is foolish since revelation as an instance of miracle is highly unlikely and God’s will (if God exists) is unknown. In chapter 13 he challenges the pragmatic argument for believing in God famously raised by Pascal. Since we know nothing of God, we don’t know what kind of God we are supposed to wager on: a God who wants us to be dependent on him, praise and worship him, or a God who wants us to be independent and dare to know for ourselves rather than relying on faith.

In chapter 14, Cahn comes up with an argument that God’s perfection entails God’s abstaining from asking human beings to worship him (by worshiping God, Cahn means total surrender to God’s will). Although praising God might be reasonable, says Cahn, worshiping God is not, since worshipping God would make God a despot and turn us into slaves. Cahn’s theologically intriguing interpretation of the biblical story of Abraham’s bargaining with God with regard to God’s plan to destroy Sodom leads him to conclude that Abraham’s independent approach towards God is inconsistent with a divine command theory of ethics.

After critiquing the realist theory of religion, in the last five chapters of Religion Within Reason, Cahn develops his own anti-realistic theory of religion. Religions are cultural phenomena that cannot be assessed in terms of truth or falsity; rather they should be assessed in terms of their richness and moral integrity.

In this book as well as in his other works, Cahn makes a sharp contrast between a scientific viewpoint and a theistic viewpoint. While the former can in principle be empirically refuted, the latter is irrefutable, or so argues Cahn. I am very much in doubt. It is commonly believed that scientific theories are in principle empirically refutable. Whatever our judgment about the refutability or otherwise of scientific theories, naturalism as a metaphysical framework, in virtue of which scientists usually but not always make sense of their social and institutional enterprises, just like theism, is not empirically refutable, although both naturalism and theism could be rationally criticizable.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yaser Mirdamadi is a doctoral candidate in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Edinburgh.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven M. Cahn is professor of philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author or editor of more than fifty books, including Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflection on Living Well (2015); Polishing Your Prose: How to Turn First Drafts Into Finished Work (2013); and From Student to Scholar: A Candid Guide to Becoming a Professor (2008), all published by Columbia University Press.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.