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Can Religion Without Belief “Make Perfect Sense”?

Philosopher Philip Goff, a prominent voice in panpsychism, also defends the idea of finding meaning in a religion we don’t really believe

Durham University philosopher Philip Goff, co-editor of Is Consciousness Everywhere? Essays on Panpsychism (November 1, 2022), has an interesting take on religion. While it’s common to assume that religious people are “believers,” he thinks that people can meaningfully be part of a religion without actually believing in it:

But there is more to a religion than a cold set of doctrines. Religions involve spiritual practices, traditions that bind a community together across space and time, and rituals that mark the seasons and the big moments of life: birth, coming of age, marriage, death. This is not to deny that there are specific metaphysical views associated with each religion, nor that there is a place for assessing how plausible those views are. But it is myopic to obsess about the ‘belief-y’ aspects of religion at the expense of all the other aspects of the lived religious life.

Philip Goff , “Why religion without belief can still make perfect sense” at Psyche (August 1, 2022)

He offers sketches of two individuals, Faiza and Peter. Faiza, raised a Muslim, “would say there’s a 50/50 chance of Islam being true”:

Through the regular and structured practice of her faith, Faiza can deepen her spiritual life over time. Through engagement with community and tradition, she can cultivate virtue and good community. Even if it turns out there is no God, Faiza has lost nothing and gained much.

Philip Goff , “Why religion without belief can still make perfect sense” at Psyche (August 1, 2022)

Peter, raised Christian, discovered “a reality greater than what we can perceive with our senses” via psychedelics in his early twenties. But he is “a resolute atheist, at least about the ‘Omni-God’ of traditional Western religion: all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good.”

Goff argues that it might make sense for Peter to continue to be a Christian, citing the “apophatic” tradition that God is beyond anything we can conceive. Or as a profound fiction: “In other words, the Christian story is understood not as literal fact but as profound fiction, one that, as part of the Christian spiritual practice, facilitates a deeper connection with ultimate reality.”

Goff admits that he finds it hard to see the point of Faiza or Pete’s approach. But, he says, many people do see the point:

… even in the highly secular United Kingdom, belief in a transcendent reality is not a fringe position. In a recent survey, 46 per cent of UK adults agreed that ‘all religions have some element of truth in them’, and 49 per cent that ‘humans are at heart spiritual beings’. Some of these, of course, will be traditional religious believers. Other will identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’. The purpose of this article is simply to point out that there is a third option that many are not aware of, and that some may find attractive: religion without belief.

Philip Goff , “Why religion without belief can still make perfect sense” at Psyche (August 1, 2022)

Goff has played a significant role in getting panpsychism — the view that all life forms participate in consciousness and/or that consciousness is fundamental to the nature of the universe — taken seriously in mainstream science venues. So his approach to these questions of worthy of careful reflection.

But several difficulties arise:

Goff assumes that a religious community can provide meaning in a person’s life even when its core beliefs are doubted or dismissed. That might work well enough in times of peace and plenty. But will it work in times of danger and hardship? Or persecution?

Would Faiza risk persecution for a 50–50 likelihood that her religion’s beliefs are true? If Peter believes that God is beyond all reckoning or a profound fiction, why should he not, under pressure, join the persecutors of those who believe that God has literally revealed himself in Jesus? Peter is sure to find fault with many of the things they have done over the years…

Without inner assurance of the truth of our beliefs, our communities would likely break up, as each goes looking for a separate truth, shaped for his own needs.

Panpsychism, as set out by Goff, may prove less vulnerable in this way because, for most panpsychists, it is probably an intellectual belief. It surely did not start out as a claim of divine revelation. For that very reason, however, it may be less likely to bind communities together. As it grows in the science community, we will get a chance to see.

You may also wish to read: Analysis: Can “communitarian atheism” really work? Ex-Muslim journalist Zeeshan Aleem, fearing that we are caught between theocracy and social breakdown, sees it as a possible answer. It’s worth asking whether — given atheism’s precepts and recent history in North America — a “kinder, gentler” atheism could hold itself together.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Can Religion Without Belief “Make Perfect Sense”?