The Fate of Theism

Alasdair MacIntyre crossed my radar when I was reading Francis Wheen’s Idiot Proof this winter. Wheen, writing as a defender of Enlightenment rationalism, trashed MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue as a thin polemic in favour of enforcing conservative social values under the guise of promoting “virtue”.
MacIntyre is a difficult academic writer. His ideas run in odd directions, and off at tangents. (I found a summary of After Virtue, dense work in itself). He can fairly be called a social and political conservative in his writing after 1968, and his writing underlies much of the writing by modern conservatives about the virtues. He is admired by the conservative Catholic intellectuals at First Things magazine. For instance in 1996 Edward Oakes wrote a favourable evaluation of his work. Conservative Catholics like the fact that he converted from Marxism to Catholicism and has been trying to revive the moral philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, and perhaps some of the medieval Scholastics.
In 1966 while he was still a Marxist, and still teaching sociology in England, he lectured at Columbia with the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. The lectures were published in a short book called The Religious Significance of Atheism. The first of MacIntyre’s lectures was called The Fate of Theism. His perspective was neither Marxist nor Thomistic at that stage. His approach was more that of the philosopher, social critic and intellectual historian than the professional sociologist.

His opening play was to examine the dissolution of theism – particularly the established Christian tradition – during the Enlightenment and the Victorian era. At the start of that era, the teachings of Christianity were framed as the revealed irrefutably true explanation of the actions of God. Before the Enlightenment, there was a well-accepted cultural and intellectual framework for the interplay of faith and reason. The ordinary educated intellectual could move through life confident that scientific and philosophical enquiry would explain and confirm God’s work in the world.
Through that era, the intellectual and cultural foundations of Theism shifted. People began to compare the Bible to other ancient writings and to examine its claims empirically and rationally. Many of the factual claims of the Biblical story were convincingly refuted. As the scientific method, with its emphasis on evidence and refutation, became part of intellectual culture, the conflicts between faith in revealed religion and faith in rationally proved scientific facts became the source of intense conflicts. The conflicts expressed themselves as emotional and psychological conflicts for theists forced to choose between their learned and experienced faith, and their rational beliefs, and in intellectual and political conflicts between theists and atheists.
His assessment is that the rational and scientific view of the world has prevailed and that religion has changed. Atheism, initially controversial, has become common, and religious discourse has been forced to talk around irrefutable scientific facts. He identifies three main intellectual strategies of Theists adapting to the demands of the modern era. He seems to focus on intellectual styles rather than cultural and social adaptations, although the lines are blurred.
One is secularization, which involves watering down the irrational and the superstitious belief-content of religion and results in intellectual options like Deism and liberal or existential Christian theology. He cites Wilhelm Kamlah’s commentary on theologians like Tillich and Bultmann, who manage to present existential philosophy as the authentic and original Christian teaching. In his other essay published in the same book, MacIntyre describes the project as employing a religious vocabulary that has been emptied of its belief-content.
The second is to treat religion as special enclave for the expression of belief reinforced by social practice. He doesn’t spend much time on this idea. He talks about the emphasis on the idea of the uniqueness of religious belief, and interreligious dialogue. He seems to be looking at the concerns of professional clergy who are prepared to engage in dialogues with other religions from the perspective that all religion is special – and liberalism, secularism, modernism etc are untrue. He would also seem to be referring to cults, sects and overtly anachronistic or countercultural movements.
The third strategy is a renewed orthodoxy which tries to maintain the integrity of its belief while remaining connected to secular society. MacIntyre observes that orthodoxy generally relates by “renouncing and denouncing contemporary secular culture as a false culture” (a comment which predicted his own later intellectual career) which accurately assesses the intellectual stance of Protestant fundamentalists, Pentecostals, Evangelicals and the Catholic Church. I am not sure that his second and third strategies are different except in degree.
He spends a little time looking at America, in which religious observance is prevalent and culturally accepted. He recognizes that the common thread in the diverse fabric of American religion is the belief that belief itself is good. He would identify secularization in the Churches that follow a liberal theology. More orthodox Theists tend to identify their versions of Christianity as distinctive movements, opposed to secular culture. He doesn’t come to terms with the dissonance inhererent in orthodox religion practiced with the framework of American culture – big churches run as businesses using modern advertising and other tools of commucation and social persuasion, preaching a message of personal success and wealth as if the Kingdom of God was co-extensive with the interests of the American Nation.
He did not address post-modernism and process theology as a separate strategy although he did address the ideas of some of the leaders of those movements. He points out that the central idea of existential theology – that we can chose to believe – involves a distortion of language. We can’t choose. We either “get it” or we don’t. He suggests that the idea that we should believe because it is useful or therapeutic is similarly flawed. We can’t believe something because it is useful. You can’t find real belief by wanting to believe in something that will make you feel better.
His comments are logical, but if he meant to predict that these ideas would lose their cultural traction, he was wrong. Such a prediction would have underestimated the ability of people to make statements to justify their religious or spiritual feelings and the way they express those feelings. Religious discourse is social discourse. We know empirically that people adopt the myths and stories of the group, not only by enculturation and indoctrination as children but upon being recruited and adopted by a group as part of a conversion experience. We know that people become caught by the ideas or personality of a single influential therapist, priest, leader teacher or writer with suitably packaged teachings. They suspend disbelief, they start to talk and act as if they believe, they believe, they feel better by doing it, and they believe that they have a right to their process and their story.
One of his initial plays was to suggest that the conflict between faith and reason has diminished. His suggestion may have been premature. Religion continues to formulate claims for the preemptive truth-value of its teachings. Christians insist on teaching Creation science and Intelligent Design in public education and in public discourse outside the privacy of their Churches. Feminists insist on restoring the worship of the Goddess. Druids and Satanists want their place in the light. The New Age proclaims that everyone is entitled to worship him/herself. More seriously, religion continues to formulate political and moral claims over power and resources that generate intense and violent conflicts.
At that stage in his writing, just prior to launching his career as an apologist for the return of triumphalist scholasticism, he made a formidable attack on the claims of modern theism to have preserved the truth value of their beliefs in the face of rational and empirical scrutiny.