Why Believe?

Cottingham, John
The Tower Building (2009)
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John Cottingham, widely published on enlightenment philosophers such as Descartes, Pascal and Hume, makes an heroic effort to come to grips with the 'enlightenment tide' that inundated Christendom from the middle of the 17th Century. I suppose the use of the term ‘heroic’ is something of a give-away but Cottingham concedes himself that ultimately our relationship with God is ultimately based on faith and so no amount of intellectual argument is going to hold decisive sway.

Nonetheless, Cottingham puts forward a convincing case for examining the benefits of a belief in God, shows that this belief accords with human nature and ruthlessly exposes the narrowness of the perception of reality from Hume to Dawkins. Because of his particular expertise, the treatment meted out to David Hume is devastating and funny, his understanding of Descartes goes well beyond the accusation of crude dualism and his treatment of Pascal is sensitive to his conflicting concerns. Naturally, the more crude the proposition, the more lethal the response, so Dawkins and his ilk come out badly: Cottingham rightly understands truth of any kind to be more than what can be established in a laboratory or, more problematically, in a court of law. He deals unsentimentally with the need to worship, our sense of awe and our need to become involved with things beyond the mundane.

There are, however, two problems with the book. The first, and minor, is similar to that of many similar works: who is it for? It will hardly engage the specialist and although it is written with the intention of being of use to the generalist, its brevity has to assume considerable background knowledge on behalf of the reader. As a specialist I found plenty to enjoy but little to enlighten.

But the second, and more fundamental problem is the methodology. Cottingham shuttles, so to speak, between philosophy and theology doing his level best to remain honest; but to introduce the incarnation as a resolution of the impasse between a transcendent God and God as a subject of worship is neat philosophically it just won't do but as a piece of theology it is coherent and so, we return to the initial tension between knowledge and faith.

Since Dawkins began his shallow fulminations there has been more than an adequate amount of ink employed to refute what he has to say, to which I think there are two legitimate points to be made in connection with Cottingham: first, this isn't the best book written against Dawkins; and, secondly, one wonders what all these books are for as they are unlikely to change an atheist's mind. On the other hand, Cottingham has a point in discussing the cultivation of an orientation to God, not dissimilar from Aristotle's exhortation on the pursuit of virtue. If there are open-minded people wavering between Dawkins and the incarnation, Cottingham might just be right for them.