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I am most grateful to Mikael Stenmark for his detailed critical analysis(1) of my views on rational theology, and for the opportunity to reply which the editor has so kindly granted me. This enables me to clear up a number of serious misunderstandings about my position and to discuss further some of the interesting issues raised by Stenmark. To keep my response within reasonable limits, I will concentrate on two points in Stenmark's paper: his distinction between descriptive and normative rational theology and his distinction between the epistemic and practical goals of religion. Let me start with the latter.
TRUTH AND PRACTICE IN RELIGION
In the fifth section of his paper Stenmark distinguishes the epistemic or 'truth-promoting' function of religion from its practical function in helping believers to 'find a way of getting through the barriers of suffering and death, guilt and meaninglessness. It makes sense of these experiences, diagnoses them, and helps the believers find a way through these existential constraints' (278). The debate between theists and atheists should deal with the adequacy or inadequacy of religious belief with regard to both these functions, since 'what is at stake in religious matters is not only whether some beliefs are true ... but how we actually should live our lives. It ... is also a matter of choosing or denying a way of living' (278). In other words, religious belief does not merely involve epistemic truth claims. It also involves practical claims about, on the one hand, the adequacy of the way in which believers understand or make sense of their lives and experience of the world and, on the other hand, the way of life in accordance with this understanding. Both these claims about religious belief need to be evaluated.
Much contemporary rational theology is inadequate, according to Stenmark, since it concentrates one-sidedly on evaluating the epistemic claims of religion while ignoring its practical claims. 'The relevant aim of religious belief is then taken to be merely epistemic, [and] the "theist" whose beliefs are examined, in fact turns out to be a purely epistemic being (a being whose sole concern is believing as many truths and as few falsehoods as possible)' (278). This, Stenmark admits, is hardly adequate as an account of the nature of religious belief. In the first two sections of his paper, Stenmark accuses me of falling into the opposite one-sidedness. According to him I reject 'the truth-question as such in the theism-atheism debate' (263) and think 'that we should no longer be concerned with the question of the truth of the belief that God exists and instead focus entirely on the coherence and adequacy of the religious form of life' (267). He suggests that I do not share the claim of philosophers of religion like Plantinga and Alston 'that it is rational to believe that it is true that God exists and also appropriate to ask whether it is in fact true' (263), nor the claim of someone like John Hick that 'truth very much matters' in religion (267). I must confess that I am rather surprised at this interpretation of my views. In fact, in the two papers of mine referred to by Stenmark,(2) I go to some lengths to argue for a critical realist interpretation of religious belief in which religious truth claims are not only important but also essential for the intelligibility of religious belief.(3)
My difficulty with Stenmark's distinction between the epistemic and the practical functions of religious belief is not that I reject the epistemic function as unimportant or irrelevant, but that I question the way in which he understands the relation between these two functions. He seems to interpret them as two quite distinct functions which could be evaluated separately from each other. According to him, the debate about the rationality of religious belief should not only deal with the …