A Review of J.L. Schellenberg’s The Wisdom to Doubt: A Justification of Religious Skepticism

This book is a very important work by a top-notch philosopher who argues for “complete religious skepticism,” known to most of us agnosticism. He argues against any belief in “ultimism,” which based upon religious claims that entail “there is an ultimate and salvic reality.” (p.3). In his words, “the categorical skepticism I am defending, as the name suggests, is doubt that embraces any and all religious claims,” whether it’s “religious belief” or religious disbelief.” (p. 50)

This book contains three parts and is not as technical as one would think. You won’t find any symbolic logic to worry about deciphering. The arguments are understandable to the college student. You might first have to wade through the “Introduction” where he defines various terms he uses, although, if you’ve read his previous book, Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca: Cornell, 2005), you would already be familiar with them.

In Part One he argues for religious skepticism based on four distinct categories of thought called “modes,” which he later combines into one. In the “Subject Mode” the author argues that human beings are limited in understanding. There is available evidence that is neglected and/or inaccessible to us. There is unrecognized evidence that is undiscovered and undiscoverable by all of us. In the “Object Mode” the author argues that it’s probably beyond finite humans beings to understand Ultimate reality, since it must be “something infinitely profound.” (p. 51) As such, we may have inadequate and incoherent conceptions of it.

In the “Retrospective Mode” the author considers the human past with regard to religious claims. The human past is too brief, (“only a few thousand years old”) and we have been occupied by other things for us to conclude we have arrived at a final understanding. There have been moral, psychological and social factors which were actively against religious improvements to our understanding. There has been hubris (or self-importance) and greed, jealously and envy, which taken together led to dogmatism, hostility and rivalry among people of different understandings. “Because religious belief is wrapped up with this ultimate concern, it has tended to go hand in hand with a rather fierce loyalty. Nothing less than complete devotion is appropriate where such a reality is involved.” ‘How, for example, can one remain loyal to God if one allows oneself to be seduced by objections to the belief that there is a God?...she is likely rather to become stubborn and intransigent, because of a well-intentional but misplaced loyalty.” “When they notice that others disagree, they tend not to think of this as an opportunity for dialogue and growth toward deeper understanding, but rather feel impelled to insist on fundamental error in the opposing views.” (p. 76-78). Furthermore, “the more attached one becomes to one’s beliefs, the more difficult it is to remain open to their falsity and to engage in investigations that might show them to be false” (p. 84), which in turn has been “inimical to creative and critical thinking” about the Ultimate.

In the “Prospective Mode” the author “considers what may lie ahead rather than what lies behind us.” (p. 91). If we survive on this planet we have 1 billion years to come up with better solutions to understanding the Ultimate, especially since we’ve just entered an era of unprecedented access to digital information that may all be categorized and placed into a hand held iPod someday. Science will progress into the future as well. People will increasingly be forced to get to know others who have a different religious perspective with a global economy and travel, and we will learn from each other and become more tolerant and assimilating of these views with a healthy exchange of information.

The author finally combines these four into one called “The Presumption Mode,” which builds on everything he said before. He argues that “human beings are both profoundly limited and profoundly immature.” (p. 117). Lacking any pragmatic reasons to counter his truth-oriented arguments, he concludes that “religious skepticism is positively justified.” (p. 129).

In a short Part Two, Schellenberg applies these modes to the argument for naturalism and the argument from religious experience. He argues that “both sides are mistaken”: “These sources of religious and irreligious belief do not have it in them to justify such belief.” (p. 132).

In Part Three of his book Schellenberg focuses his arguments against “traditional theism—the claim that there is a personal God,” since this view of Ultimism “looms large in all contemporary discussion.” (p. 191). Here is where he argues from divine hiddenness and the problem of evil that we should be skeptical of traditional theism. He also combines them to add even more force to his arguments.

I think he makes his case, except that even though we should be skeptical of all religious claims, there is nothing wrong with arguing from what we know today that there are no believable gods, like I do, as an agnostic atheist. (Although he deals with this objection, unsuccessfully in my opinion, on pages 105-107, and 124-128).

Scholars must come to grips with what he says, and so must everyone who is interested in such issues or who has a stake in their outcome.