Monday, 30 January 2012

Philosopher Swimmers

I suppose if we are going to look at the progress from Atheism to Theism it will make more sense to look at its usual form of Christian Theism as Deists are thin on the ground at the moment. The group that is most likely to have been swayed by intellectual or rational arguments are philosophers. I use the appelation philosopher in a broad sense to cover anyone who has reflected deeply on things. There are a few philosophers that have made the transition from atheism to christian theism among them being Alisdair MacIntyre, A.N. Flew, Mortimer Adler, Ed Feser, Peter van Inwagen, C.S.Lewis, Victor Reppert, Edith Stein, Michael Dummett, Peter Geach and Elizabeth Anscombe. The first 4 seem to have been influenced by rational, apodeictic if you will, considerations; the others passed to belief from a variety of causes as far as I can judge. The reading of St.Teresa of Avila was a factor in the conversion of Stein, mystical experience in the case of Reppert and Lewis. Anscombe claims her reading from the age of 10 to 15 was a factor which could mean lives of the saints or the Summa. I can discover nothing about Geach’s pilgrim’s progress. There does not seem to have been any intellectual argument at play in the case of Dummett only the gradual acceptance of the truth of the Catholic religion. Peter van Inwagen may have become an Episcopalian by osmosis.

By the way I am absolutely open to correction on any of this somewhat broad brush review. On the basis of this minute sample of philosopher swimmers of the Tiber or the Thames it seems that conversion induced by argument comes quite late in life, the vanity of other systems by then apparent.

Dr. Michael Sudduth is disporting himself amongst the billows of the Yamuna led by ananda itself, isn’t it. The path to Eastern religion is overwhelmingly experiential but this is another topic for another day.

Addendum 1/2/12
How could I have forgotten the names of Jacques and Raissa Maritain who were saved from the fulfilment of their suicide pact by the teaching of Henri Bergson their professor at the Sorbonne. He brought them to a sense of the absolute and some time after that great devotee of the absolute and profound anti-rationalist Leon Bloy brought them into the Catholic Church. Bloy himself through a dramatic conversion had left his own anti-Catholic past behind. Jacques Maritain is of course famous for his Thomistic writing but his thought in my view has elements of the intuitionist approach.

Addendum 2/6/12
Add Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths to the list of those who converted to Christianity as a result of mystical experience. Both later became monks, Trappist and Benedictine respectively.

Addendum 14/8/13
Nicholas Rescher adopted the Pascalian 'fake it to make it'.

Addendum 26/8/13: From Collected Philosophical Papers of G.E.M. Anscombe:

As a result of my teen-age conversion to the Catholic Church -itself the fruit of reading done from twelve to fifteen - I read a work called Natural Theology by a nineteenth century Jesuit. I read it with great appetite and found it all convincing except for two things. One was the doctrine of scientia media, according to which God knew what anybody would have done if, e.g., he hadn't died when he did.


elisa freschi said...

Interesting point, Michael. I do not know well any of the authors you mention apart from E. Stein and M. Dummett. The first case is overtly exceptional. The second seems to confirm your point: Dummett was born a catholic and never refused it, but he got closer to Catholicism while discovering that philosophical systems were not more rational than it.

ombhurbhuva said...

I only know of Edith Stein through some short accounts of her life. The Communion of Saints doctrine allows the intercession of the saints so a reading of St.Teresa could be efficacious. Is there more to her conversion that that?

About Dummett. Perhaps you are misled by the practice of Anglicans who sometimes refer to themselves as Anglo-Catholics.
"Although Dummett was brought up an Anglican, by the age of 13 he regarded himself as an atheist. In 1944 (at 19), however, he converted to Roman Catholicism. "
(extract from obituary)

I do think this idea of being swayed by argument for the existence of God is a point that marks a difference between East and West. My man Shankara says that only the Vedas and Puranas are authoritative about the existence of God and that essentially we ought to leave to reason the things that can be reasoned about.

elisa freschi said...

Thank you, Michael.
As for Dummett, I am sorry for the mistake. I would not overestimate his having been an atheist (seriously: who was not an atheist at 13?). What I remembered was a senior work of him were he described himself as having been brought up in a religious environment (sorry again for having thought it meant a Catholic family) and having become closer and closer to Catholicism through time.
I completely agree with your point. Western philosophers debating about religion seem to spend too much time about the problem of the existence of God as if it were an ontological problem (and not an existential one).
As for Edith Stein, her case is so extraordinary… she was a Jew by birth and died in a Lager although converted. Her writings about God's need for us during Nazism (a God who is no longer omnipotent, but rather relies on us) seem to me to go in the opposite direction: an existential understanding of God (instead of the ontological postulation of his existence).

skholiast said...

Thank you for the link pointing me here. The only name I can think of to add is Simone Weil, who went from noncommittal agnostic to unbaptized believer-at-the-gate largely due to mystical encounter, it would seem.

ombhurbhuva said...

Thanks for Simone Weil. I found out a little bit more about that brilliant Weil family at

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