Does Belief in the Self Require Belief in God? And Can Western Morality Exist Without Either?

March 3, 2020 | John Gray
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John Cottingham’s recent book making the case for theism, In Search of the Soul, did not make a believer of the philosopher John Gray, but it did convince him that its arguments are worth taking seriously. Gray writes in his review:

[Cottingham’s] approach is to argue that theism is suggested by the fact that we experience ourselves as unified, conscious beings—in other words, as having a soul. Not necessarily an immaterial entity, the soul is the part of us that strives to realize what is best in our nature. We do not come to know the soul through any special revelation. We know it by considering the kind of creature we find ourselves to be—a thinking being inhabiting a lifeworld that seems to reflect a mind greater than our own. Once we realize we have a soul, theism becomes a credible way of thinking.

Modestly described as an essay, Cottingham’s short study explores fundamental questions more fully than many much longer volumes, [and] it is forceful and compelling in arguing that the idea of selfhood taken for granted in secular societies makes sense only in the context of a theistic worldview.

Where Cottingham’s arguments have greatest resonance, argues Gray, is in questions of morality:

Our revulsion at the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome does not come from any inbuilt repugnance at the spectacle of human suffering and violent death. There is no sign that those who watched the games felt any such revulsion. Nor is there much evidence from that era that slavery was felt to be inherently wrong. The repugnance we feel for these practices is an inheritance from Jewish and Christian ideas of human dignity and equality.

In this and other cases, what liberal humanists believe to be universal values are relics of particular religious traditions. . . . Without theism, or some Platonic spiritual realm, these supposed objective values are left hanging in the void.

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