Philosophy and Ethics

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Thursday, 5 September 2019

Political chaos!

Despairing of politics in the UK?  Leave? Remain? Deal? No-deal? Crash out? Orderly exit? Parliament and the executive? Role of the Speaker? Political parties tearing themselves apart?
To turn on the news these days is to become re-immersed in what increasingly resembles a rather loosely-plotted soap opera, with constant flash-backs to previous episodes... Hasn't this all been argued to death months ago? ... and no satisfactory ending in sight.

The danger is that complex issues are presented as though they may be resolved by a straightforward binary choice. To resolve a problem like Brexit (if it can ever be properly resolved) we need absolute clarity of thinking, but also the ability to listen to opposing views (rather than shout them down, caricature them, or simply ignore them) and to handle the issue with the sensitivity it deserves. Sometimes, in the midst of the fray, we simply need to stand back, take a deep breath, and think.  Hopefully, the storm will pass and we can get back to taking a more measured view of how we want to live and the role of our country in the wider world.

Perhaps one way of getting that space might be to pick up an introduction to Political Philosophy and reflect on the principles that should underpin our democracy. Political ideas are potent and immediate, but they have a long history, an appreciation of which might help to get present problems into perspective. Here's an extract from my book introducing the basics of Political Philosophy...

Some see philosophy’s main task as clarifying concepts. That would imply that the task of philosophy is to look at the key ideas in political debate – freedom, rights, justice, democracy, and so on – and to examine what people really mean by them, and how they are related to one another. That is the sort of philosophy that clears the mind but does not necessarily change the world.
But there is another tradition of political philosophy. Marx famously declared that he wanted to change the world, rather than just interpret it, and many other political thinkers have impacted on the course of history. Rousseau’s writings were to influence the French Revolution and Locke’s the American Declaration of Independence. Nietzsche’s work was read by Mussolini and Hitler (and sadly misused by them), and socialist ideas lay behind the setting up of the welfare state and health service in Britain. Today, neo-conservative views in the United States have influenced, among other things, American foreign policy with respect to the Middle East and the Iraq War. Discussions about terrorism and how to resist it are not just about words, but are desperately important in terms of security and human rights. So political concepts are not just there to be clarified, they need to be examined.
Political ideas are potent; but are they valid?  The only way to establish that is by taking a two-stage look at them. First of all they need to be clarified: What exactly do we mean by fairness, or equality, or democracy? But secondly, they need to be justified: On what basis can you argue for the fairness of this or that political system? On what basis can you justify taking military action? 
Like ethics, political philosophy is therefore concerned with the practical. It addresses issues of immediate concern to everyone, and examines ideas that have – for good or evil – shaped the lives of whole generations.  When some crucial event takes place – a war, an economic crisis, a global threat, a spate of terrorist attacks – people will naturally ask fundamental questions about how we should deal with such things. Politicians are required to find answers and implement them, but they need to be guided by principles about how we should live and how society should be governed. So circumstances are always throwing up new issues for political philosophy.

There are plenty of books around on Political Philosophy, but if you would like to take a look at what mine covers, along with some other older comments - go to... Philosophy.htm

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Colours of Yellowstone!

We've just returned from a visit to the USA. The National Parks are always spectacular, even with the crows of visitors in August, and most stunning of all, for me, was the range of colour in the geothermal areas of Yellowstone.  Everyone photographs the dramatic Grand Prismatic Spring on Midway Geyser Basin, but turn away from it westwards, and you face this modest gem - Emerald Lake.  I'll be posting more photographs of the trip on my website in the near future. Plenty more travel and landscape photography on my website at 

Monday, 26 August 2019

Starting A Level Philosophy and Ethics?

I hope you enjoy your course.

Free notes on a number of topics in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics are available at, and my basic introductory textbook, previously published by Hodder Education and used successfully by thousands of students, is now available from only £1.99 in the e-book version. See details of what it has to offer at .

And good luck!

Mel Thompson

Friday, 10 May 2013

God as projection - a look at Feuerbach

Thoughts on re-reading Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841)

Along with Marx and Freud, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) is generally held to be a detractor of religion, seeing it as a dangerous illusion and merely a projection of aspects of humankind, reducing it to the human and thereby depriving it of its power, mystery and supernatural beliefs. For Feuerbach, God is no more than a projection of the highest aspirations of Man.

But re-reading his The Essence of Christianity (in the translation made by George Eliot in 1853, from which all the quotes here are taken), I have been struck by just how positive and useful his analysis is, and how he can be something of a bridge between the older tradition of natural religion (deism) – which has its focus primarily on concepts to be believed – and what actually happens in the practice of religion.

First of all, as the basis of all that he has to say, is the conviction that religion is distinctive and positive human quality. His opening sentence:
‘Religion has its basis in the essential difference between man and the brutes – the brutes have no religion.’
And that difference is consciousness, the ‘feeling of self as an individual’ so that ‘man has both an inner and outer life.’ He therefore sees ‘feeling’ as the key to religion. ‘Whatever is God to a man, that is his heart and soul’ so that ‘Consciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge.’

The problem is that we generally see the self as something separate from the world and separate from the ‘feelings’ that it experiences (blame Descartes for that). Once feeling is separated from self, Feuerbach suggests that, in bondage to what he calls ‘vulgar empiricism’ and incapable of appreciating the grandeur of feeling, we slip back and ask if God exists or not. [And, I would suggest, we equally start to ask whether we exist or not, with vulgar empiricism leading to the nonsense of identifying the self with the physical brain.] I sense that Feuerbach’s religious feeling is to be captured in the present moment – rather like the Buddhist exercise of mindfulness – and is lost when subjected to subsequent analysis.

Feuerbach is wonderful at one-liners; born a century later, he would have been a natural for the advertising industry!  On p40 he says:
‘Existence out of self is the world; existence in self is God. To think is to be God.’
But in case you assume that this suggests a universal, non-anthropomorphic concept of deity, he adds that such a God can have no more significance for religion than a fundamental general principle has for special sciences. It is ‘merely the ultimate point of support.’ What he is after is much more immediate and religiously significant.

He suggests that religion is essentially a matter cultivating a sense of self within the world in a way that is distinctively human; that finding peace with God is a matter of becoming at one with one’s true nature.

I was surprised at just how much of the book Feuerbach devotes to specific Christian beliefs and teachings, and of the human and felt dimension of the sacraments. But towards the end, he delivers what really is a crushing argument against those who attempt to prove the existence of God:
‘The contradiction to the religious spirit in the proof of the existence of God lies only in this, that the existence is thought of separately, and thence arises the appearance that God is a mere conception, a being existing in idea only…
but he wants to emphasise that, for religion, God cannot just be a concept, a thought…
‘for to religion God is not a matter of abstract thought, - he is a present truth and reality.’

In other words, he is affirming God as a living experience – but doing so NOT in the sense that there is an ‘external’ God of whose existence one is convinced, but that God is essentially a feature of one’s own feeling life. So he is able to say:
‘The proofs of the existence of God have for their aim to make the internal external, to separate it from man.’
 ‘God is not seen, not heard, not perceived by the senses. He does not exist for me, if I do not exist for him; if I do not believe in a God, there is no God for me.’

He recognises that a consequence of there being no ‘sensational existence’ for God is atheism. Everything else that exists does so because we can sense it (or – I would add – consider it something capable of being sensed), and the ‘vulgar empiricism’ that dominates our lives takes this as the only genuine meaning of existence. So Feuerbach is able to say that, if I do not raise myself above the life of the senses, God has no place in my consciousness. He exists only in so far as he is felt, thought and believed in – shades of a 19th century version of Don Cupitt here, I sense!.  At one and the same time, God therefore exists and does not exist. He is real, but not empirical.

The problem is that, once religious people try to articulate God, they start to project him as having a separate existence.
‘But when this projected image of human nature is made an object of reflection, of theology, it becomes an inexhaustible mire of falsehoods, illusions, contradictions and sophisms.’ (p123)

You can’t get much more critical than that, but in the end Feuerbach wants to reclaim something of value from all the sophistry. He sees the essence of religion as the identity of the human and the divine, but the forms that religion takes have exactly the opposite effect, namely to separate man and God.  Rather, he wants to point (in a most conventional religious way) to the role of love: ‘Love identifies man with God…’ (p247) and then contrasts love with faith:
‘Love has God in itself: faith has God out of itself; it estranges God from man, it makes him an external object.’
And another of those wonderful one-liners:
‘The secret of theology is anthropology.’

It seems to me that the implication of all this – which is surely good theology – is that God is encountered in and through loving relationships, not because he endorses them, but because he is them.

Far from offering a negative critique of religion, Feuerbach makes a positive contribution to ‘natural religion’ here, and one that makes explicit what is implicit in much religious language, namely that the term ‘God’ should be used for an experienced reality, not for a possible external entity.  The very idea of asking whether God exists implies a failure to understand what ‘God’ means.

A deist might say that belief in God is a matter of seeing structure, meaning and purpose in the universe. But surely that does not add anything to the statement that there appears to be structure, meaning and purpose in the universe – there is no added extra corresponding to God.  What a glib atheist assumption misses, however, is the further point that reality is essentially something in which we live and with which we engage, not just something about which we speculate.

Clearly, if all Feuerbach meant was that theology could be replaced by anthropology – an attempt to speak of an objectively existing God replaced by objective statements about humankind, then his analysis does not do justice to what religion seeks to achieve – namely a deeper engagement with life, rather than an additional layer of speculation about life.

Marx and Freud both saw religious belief as a matter of projection, whether it is of a future compensation for present troubles, or a replacement for a lost father figure. Superficially, Feuerbach offers – and indeed lies behind – the same line of thinking, with God as a projection of the highest human ideals.  But that would be to miss some of the key ideas in The Essence of Christianity, which is – as the title implies – an attempt to get to what religion is fundamentally about.

The key problem is that he sees religion as subverting moral sentiments. In other words, ascribing to God what should be ascribed to man.  So, for example, a person who is helped to recover from an illness may ascribe that recovery to God rather than to the medical team who helped to bring it about. In other words, it has an essentially alienating effect of human awareness. This, of course, is why Feuerbach is seen as an important influence on Marx.

The other danger, which he outlines on p270, is that, if morality is made to depend upon divine authority, then ‘infamous things can be justified and established’. The problem is that human nature mixes the best with that which is sometimes the very worst, and both can be projected onto God, once that supposed object of projection is established and believed in.

Of course, like many of the most severe critics of religion, Feuerbach started off not as a philosopher but as a theologian. He experienced the discussion of religion from the inside, and was therefore able to get a broader perspective on his work, seeing his idea of God as existing only as a object of faith as something implicit in Protestantism.

So where do we place Feuerbach in the development of religious ideas? His rejection of both transcendence and immortality established him as a critic as well as an interpreter of Hegel, to whom he had turned after his study of Theology, and as a key ‘left’ or ‘young’ Hegelian. For him, Hegel is too abstract; too concerned with pure thought rather than reality itself. He wants to root both religion and philosophy in human life and experience. And this, of course, is why he can be seen as a stepping stone between Hegel and Marx. Reality is human reality, and any projection, whether into religion or philosophical speculation, is a wilful avoidance of the concrete reality with which we have to deal.

Feuerbach sees religion as essentially unhealthy as it deflects human interest away from the reality of life and to an abstract and ‘objective’ concept of God or immortality, and this, of course, is part of his legacy via Marx. Historically, religion may have had an important role in pointing to those qualities that are fundamental to human wellbeing, but it now impedes human progress, by continually projecting those qualities outwards on to the deity, rather than working with them in the human sphere. Rather than expecting supernatural forces to sort out our problems, we need to engage directly to the issues of human life and welfare.

As I read Feuerbach, I get continual hints at strands of philosophy and theology that he anticipated.  Death of God theology is in there, as is politically engaged religious thinking; I get hints of Bonheoffer, Van Buren and Tillich, but also Heidegger and the existentialist movement.

Yes, religion can be unhealthy and projection can be an avoidance mechanism, but Feuerbach also pointed out that the religious impulse works at a level deeper than the subject-object split, an engaged level of reality which is killed off by subsequent rational analysis. Yes we do project – but we do it all the time; you don’t have to be in analysis to recognise just how often we project aspects of ourselves onto the external environment, or onto other people, or how often we use abstract concepts – like fairness or democracy - to avoid focusing on our inner uncertainties.

My personal view is that Feuerbach’s work has a great deal to contribute to the humanist and atheist appreciation of religion. It is suitably critical to appeal to those who are inherently suspicious of all religious ideas, but it also unpacks the mechanism by which religious awareness has resulted in the unfortunate projection of reality into a supernatural realm that it does not need, and which now impedes its intellectual acceptance.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Practical atheists or hypocrites?

Here’s a dilemma for religious atheism. If you are an atheist (or even an agnostic – if that is taken in the sense of being open to the possibility of God but not convinced) but hanker after a bit of religion, ritual or the support of a religious community, do you lose your integrity if you take part in religious worship?
Let’s start unpacking this by looking at it from the other side. It is clear that there are a good number of people within the Christian religion who – without necessarily proclaiming themselves to be atheist or agnostic – take the whole thing with a pinch of intellectual salt. They massage the factual claims of religion to accommodate commonsense and thereby remain within the religious fold and enjoy its aesthetic, moral and social benefits. Many will argue, convincingly in my opinion, that the heart of religion remains a mystery and that creedal definitions – the cause of so many divisions and conflicts – are no more than a sad necessity in a world where people like to be defined and certain about their tribal loyalties. In practical terms, for example when it comes to understanding the causes of illness, their views will not differ from their atheist or agnostic neighbours. They accept the findings of science, believe in evolution and regard mental disturbance as a natural phenomenon needing therapy rather than signs of demonic possession. So far, so secular. But to their understanding of all this, they add the narratives about life and its meaning that religion provides, and use them as a tool for exploring meaning and value in their own lives. In other words, they use the framework of religion to give depth to their engagement in the secular world.
But is that hypocrisy? If you stand up and recite a creed, do you lose your integrity if you do not believe the words in their way they were originally intended, namely to provide a literal test for true belief?
For years I recited the creeds with fingers metaphorically crossed. Then I found that I could no longer continue to do so, fearing a total loss of integrity.  But my regret now, looking back from a distance of three decades of secular-Buddhist-flavoured-atheism, is that I did not affirm the integrity of my position. After all, if you believe that the attempt to express the heart of life through literal statements is a dangerous and divisive impossibility, your refusal to be intimidated by them is a sign of strength.
But assuming that you play intellectually safe and avoid formal religion in order to retain your integrity, where do you go to find secular forms of those things that religion offers?  The library? The museum? The gym? The community centre? The political party?  There’s plenty of secular therapy around, or meditation classes. Philosophy groups might support the intellectual quest and community action the sense of committed engagement.  But does it all hang together?
Another possibility (already suggested to me) is joining the Universal Unitarian Church, which accepts atheists; but Unitarian communities are few and far between. Buddhist groups equally offer the possibility of spirituality without belief in God, but however valid spiritually and intellectually, it is not easy for everyone to go through the shift in culture required – and even Buddhist groups are not free from the tendency to define and categorise people in terms of belief, practice and ethics. If I align myself to any religious tradition, it is to Buddhism, but – unless you live in a traditionally Buddhist country – that does not necessarily answer the longing for a sense of local community that a religion with centres in every locality can offer.
I am convinced that there are aspects of religion, the loss of which greatly impoverish society. But is the apparent loss of intellectual integrity a price worth paying? How do you deal with that one? 

Please feel free to respond; I’d genuinely like to know what you think.

[PS. As I was typing out this blog entry, my wife handed me an envelope saying ‘I really can’t believe I’m married to ‘The Reverend’. It was a letter from the Church of England Pensions Board, from whom I receive a modest pension from my seven years as a clergyman back in the 1970s. Am I a hypocrite taking my pension? Am I the only atheist in receipt of money from the C of E? I doubt it. When I originally received notification that I was due a pension (and – in case you think this is at a former-banker level – my wife’s comment was that the annual figure might take us on a holiday) I asked a friend, who was a senior churchman, whether I was right to accept it. His reply was succinct and suitably secular ‘Don’t be so bloody stupid; you earned it!’ We live in a strange world.]

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Secular religion through 'thick' and 'thin'.

An interesting recent article on the Secular Buddhism website introduces two contrasting policies by means of which secular Buddhism might present itself.
The first option takes a 'thin' approach, offering meditation and Buddhist practice as something that can benefit anyone, whatever their existing religious beliefs or affiliations. It does not seek to impose particular Buddhist teachings, but simply offers secular Buddhist practice to as many people as possible, excluding none by avoiding doctrinal confrontation.
The 'thick' approach seeks to explore secular Buddhism in a way that is most compatible with science and with an exploration of the basic Buddhist teachings, even if that then conflicts with the beliefs of other people who might have benefitted from Buddhist practice.
There's far more to both approaches that I have sketched here, and both have their advantages and difficulties. For anyone interested in Buddhism, it's worth reading and pondering on the issues raised in that article.
But there seems to be a parallel here with any attempt to explore natural or secular religion against a background of Western religions and particularly Christianity.   This would not be a matter of doctrine or philosophy, but more of practice and strategy.  A 'thin' approach might suggest that one could continue to attend Christian (or other) forms of worship, taking a demythologised and secularised interpretation of the beliefs that are proclaimed. In this way, one might be able to get some benefit from the social, aesthetic and moral aspects of religion, while sitting lightly on its metaphysical teachings.  That's all well and good, and many of the most articulate of religious people are good at presenting the secular implications of faith - having just put down the Guardian, Giles Fraser springs to mind; his comments are always relevant in a secular context, even if linked to a fundamental theological point. And, of course, it is possible to argue that a fully 'incarnational' theology requires just such a teasing out of the values that apply in a secular context.
But I've tried being 'thin' and I find that it's difficult not to bend over backwards to accommodate the most crazy of supernatural beliefs only to feel that your own integrity is threatened - and once that happens, what's the point?
The other option is to take a 'thick' approach, argue with all who hold supernatural beliefs, and end up in a kind of limbo where one's integrity remains intact, but one becomes isolated.  To take any 'thick' approach to religion is likely to provoke those of different views and a secular approach to religion is always going to offend those for whom traditional doctrines are personally important.
I sense that the atheist and humanist community face a similar 'thick' and 'thin' dilemma.  There are plenty of people who attend religion, or at least give a nod in its direction, and yet acknowledge a 'thin' veneer of atheism - if only through the agnostic approach of acknowledging the limitations of human knowledge and therefore of the impossibility of affirming doctrines literally.  A 'thin' form of secular religion pervades many a funeral service that appears to be Christian, easing off on the teachings about death and resurrection and emphasising the celebration of a life.  By own experience of being within the Church suggests to me that a substantial number of 'believer' are functionally atheist, but emotionally and socially attracted to religion, as a means of exploring profound aspects of life.
The 'thick' approach is typified by the new atheist thinkers. They will not - in contrast to the 'thins' -engage seriously in debate about religion and metaphysics, nor are they likely to be found engaging in a little bit of soft religious practice, but prefer to stake out their position by way of rejecting a caricature of religious beliefs.
Sometimes, of course, you have the worst of all possible worlds - a 'thick' position attempting to look a bit 'thin' by offering a secular alternative to a cherished religious icon, as we have seen in the publication by Anthony Grayling of his 'good book', a sad imitation of the style of the King James Bible that mashes together some wonderful secular writing from the past couple of millennia, while denying (through lack of references) the possibility of following up on any of the very sound advice it includes.
To return to Buddhism... 'Skilful means' is the Buddhist policy by which teachings are always to be adapted to the needs of their hearers, seeing the task of helping people to overcome suffering as taking precedence over any form of doctrinal purity, or clinging to fixed doctrinal formulae.  Perhaps we need a similar approach in looking at the possibility of secular forms of religion. The crucial thing is not to find some philosophical formula that we can impose on others, or to which all would willingly subscribe (a formula that would certainly be 'thin' in the extreme), but to start from the other end and ask what it is that people actually seek from religion. Whether we respond in a 'thick' or 'thin' way is then a matter of pragmatic judgement.

To see the article on the Secular Buddhism website, click here.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

What do people need?

'What does religion provide?' is the title of a recent article by Greta Christina.  She suggests that religion provides many things that attract people to it - social support, opportunities to celebrate, a sense of community, charitable work and so on - but that the only distinctive thing offered by religion is supernatural belief.
For now, let's set aside the issue of whether religious belief need be supernatural - those of you who've been reading my blog will know well enough where I stand on that one - and look at what she suggests for the atheist community.  Rather than asking what religion provides and then trying to produce an alternative, secular version of it, she switches the question and asks 'What do people need?'  That provides her with an opportunity to explore what is needed for a particular community, with very positive results.
And I think her switch of question is of the utmost importance.
Some secular attempts to offer alternatives to religion tend themselves to be religious in format - meetings, with speakers, readings and so on, even hymns of a secular sort. My guess is that most people will never to attracted to that format, if they are not already attracted to its religious version.
The question 'What do people need?' - and particularly 'What do people here, in this place at this time need?' - is wholly positive. I invites a serious examination of life, its values and its goals, and then asks how we can band together to assist one another to take a positive and creative look at how we can overcome suffering and frustration and achieve our human potential.
But that is exactly the question that religions should also be asking.  Not 'What have I got to hand out to people here?' but 'What do they need?' - that question is, I believe, at the very heart of what is best in religion, as well as secular society.  Within Buddhism it is expressed through the teaching of 'skilful means' - namely that religious teachings should be used and adapted to meet the needs of people and not the other way round.
It is also good 'incarnational' theology.  The sort that - to use traditional language - does not ask 'How do we bring God here?' (which is, after all, a bit of a nonsense for those who believe in a God who is present everywhere - but it's a nonsense that distorts much religious thinking), but 'What is God doing here? How may I get alongside him?'
I think the atheist critique of religion is extremely healthy - particularly because, in my view it challenges the religious to focus on what is real for them in their experience of religion. My own experience - from many years ago when I was working as an ordained clergyman - is that the reality of 'God' (or Being Itself, or whatever else you want to call the heart of things) is found exactly in the social activities, the helping, the support, the charity work etc etc.  The supernatural beliefs, which Greta Christina thinks are the distinctive thing about religion, are actually a less-than-helpful (for me at least) re-symbolisation of the reality of life which is explored within one's community.  Getting real is all about asking 'What do people need?'; I hope that plenty of religious people will examine the function of their spiritual communities by asking exactly that question.

So do take a look at what she has to say - whether you approach things from a secular or a religious point of view.  Click here to link to her article.