The Perils of Pragmatism

By James Rochford.

While many people carelessly toss around relativist slogans and mantras, beneath the surface, they are not really relativists. In fact, 99% of “relativists” will drop their relativism, when pressed. But, beneath the thin skin of relativism, another well-developed worldview usually rises to the surface. We see this in the writing of pluralist John Hick.[1] He writes,

One does not regard all forms of religion, including for example Satanism or the Jonestown and Waco movements, as authentic responses to the Real [that is, God]. I think it’s clear that this implicit criterion focuses on ‘fruits’ in human life.[2]

Did you catch that? Hick (a pluralist) openly disregards some religions as false, and later in his book, he claims that we can do this based on the “observable moral and spiritual ‘fruits’ in human life.”[3] In other words, not all religions are equally valid –only those that produce good works in the believer’s life.

This perspective is a very pragmatic view of spirituality.

Pragmatism Defined and Defended

Religious pragmatism offers a solution for the relativist, who is unable to claim that some horrifying beliefs are false. The pragmatist does not say that all beliefs are equally true or valid. In fact, the pragmatist doesn’t engage with the subject of truth at all. The pragmatist evaluates beliefs based on what works. If your religion makes you a morally generous and kind person, then the pragmatist considers this a good belief. But, if your religion makes you a morally outrageous person, then pragmatism states that this is a bad belief. The pragmatist looks to the results rather than the reality of a belief.

Placebos and Pragmatism

Doctors often give sugar pills (or placebos) to patients, telling them that it is medicine. Even though the sugar pill isn’t actually medicinal, it can produce an effect in the life of the patient. When the patient believes they are taking medicine, they often start feeling better. In the same way, it doesn’t matter if religion is true or false, according to the pragmatist, as long as it produces a powerful effect in the lives of those who sincerely believe. The modern day medical Sherlock Holmes explains, “Religion is not the opiate of the masses. Religion is the placebo of the masses.”[4] Like a child who thinks that Santa Claus “sees him while he’s sleeping,” modern people think that God is governing over them, and this produces a positive effect in their lives.

The singer of Modest Mouse states, “I’m 100 percent on the whole Christianity thing being a crock of sh––, pretty much, but I don’t give a fu–– if other people are religious. Believe what you want. Whatever makes the day easier for you.”[5] In other words, it doesn’t matter if Christianity is true; it only matters if it works for you and makes you feel better. Under the pragmatic view, it doesn’t matter if Christianity is true; it just matters if it works.

Now that we have defined pragmatism, let’s dissect it. Here are three reasons why thinking people should not adopt a pragmatic view of spirituality.

1. Pragmatism is Illogical

The first problem with pragmatism is a logical problem. Consider the definition of pragmatism:

Spiritual Pragmatism: It doesn’t matter if a belief is true; it just matters if it works for me or others.

This statement has two major logical problems:

First, we cannot have beliefs without truth. In order to believe something, you need to believe that it is true before you can believe it. Consider saying, “I believe in something that I do not affirm to be true.” That’s impossible! Or, imagine if someone said, “I believe in something that I know to be false.” That’s equally impossible! Truth precedes belief.

Second, we cannot have beliefs that work without truth. Consider, for example, the placebo effect. Doctors have noticed that patients get better, when they are given a placebo. However, once they realize that the “medicine” is a sugar pill, the effect ceases to work. For instance, imagine if a doctor told her patient that she was swallowing sugar pills for “treatment.” Do you think that the placebo effect would still work? Of course not. The more we realize that we’re taking a placebo, the less it’s able to work for us. In the same way, the more that we deny the truth of our beliefs, the less they are able to “work” for us. Truth needs to come before “what works” in order for it to work.

We cannot avoid the necessity of truth. Without truth, we cannot have beliefs. And, without truth, we certainly cannot have beliefs that “work.” This is the great and terrible irony of spiritual pragmatism. The pragmatist tries to base their beliefs on what works, but because they deny truth, their belief system cannot work. We need truth to come first; otherwise, our beliefs cannot come second, or even at all.

2. Pragmatism excludes Personal Relationships

Pragmatism eliminates the possibility for having a personal relationship with God. A spiritual pragmatist will end up having a god that looks exactly like them, rather than a personal Being that loves and leads them in a relational way.

For instance, consider going to a buffet. Whenever you go to a buffet, you pick out the food that you personally like. In fact, you can learn a lot about a person by taking them to a buffet. A health nut will fill their plate with vegetables and small portions; a glutton will have fatty foods; a sweet tooth will save room for dessert. In the end, the plate will reflect their tastes and desires. In the same way, a pragmatist approaches God with a similar attitude. Timothy Keller writes,

Remember the movie “The Stepford Wives”? The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands. A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would describe such a marriage as intimate and personal. Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won’t! You’ll have a Stepford God! …So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God. It is the precondition for it.[6]

The pragmatist will pick beliefs that please them and reject beliefs that are distasteful to them. Just like a buffet, they walk away from the selection with choices that reflect their own personal tastes and opinions. When applied to God, they find a deity that ends up looking more like them, than one that looks like him. Without a concept for truth, we will always find a God that is made in our image (Rom. 1:23; 25), rather than finding the One who made us in His (Gen. 1:27).

Imagine if a marriage commitment was based on pragmatic values. A groom looks deeply into his bride’s eyes and says, “My darling, I will stand by your side, until death do we part…” but then he mumbles under his breath, “Unless, of course, something in this relationship doesn’t work for me…” Inevitably, in every personal relationship, we’re going to have to do things that don’t work for us.

Often, modern people find parts of Christian teaching troublesome or difficult. Christian doctrine often grinds against our values or ways of looking at the world. Based on this, the pragmatist concludes that Christianity must not be true. And yet, the opposite conclusion could be reached! If you find parts of Christian teaching difficult to swallow, maybe you’ve actually found a personal God pushing back against your desires and attitudes. If your “god” never challenges your desires and attitudes, you should be worried, because he’s probably just a projection of your imagination.

By definition, personal relationships include difficulty, doubt, and determination. They require doing things that challenge us. If we only agreed to relationships that “work” for us, then we would be lonely for the rest of our lives. Therefore, if we adopt spiritual pragmatism, then we need to be content in being spiritually lonely all our life, because we are precluding many aspects which are essential to personal relationships.

3. Pragmatism Denies Truth

Truth matters more than what works. To illustrate this, consider a fictional story about a woman named Carol. Carol is a 29 year old marriage counselor, and she lives with her handsome and successful husband named Dan, who is a well-known family doctor.[7] Dan and Carol live in a big, beautiful house in the suburbs. They are surrounded by comfort and security, as well as a large, white picket fence and a beautiful well-manicured lawn. Dan and Carol live the American dream. They take two vacations a year; they own two efficient German cars; they have 2.4 kids.

Dan and Carol have it made.

Carol runs the neighborhood block watch; she organizes annual block parties; she invites all of the men and women in the neighborhood into her home on the holidays and throughout the year for dinner parties. Carol provides marriage counseling to a dozen couples in the neighborhood, and they pay her sixty dollars an hour for her time and counsel. To give back to the community, Carol teaches a class called How to Have a Successful Marriage that many of the young people enjoy, as it deals with the subjects of trust, love languages, finances, and sexuality.

Carol is a well-paid professional, a devoted wife, and a loving mother. She is well-known in her community, and she enjoys the privilege of being close to her friends, family, and neighbors. Every night when Carol rests her head down on the pillow and every morning when she wakes up, she is fulfilled, content, and happy…

There is just one problem with Carol’s life, of which she is blatantly unaware.

Dan is cheating on Carol.

Every week, once or twice a week, Dan leaves the doctor’s office where he practices family medicine, and he hops from house to house, sleeping with all the women in the neighborhood (he is a handsome and successful doctor after all). Dan has made his way into almost every house in the neighborhood. Most of the women have slept with Dan (or they are eventually going to sleep with him), and everybody in the neighborhood knows about it.

Except Carol.

Carol continues to run the neighborhood block watch; Carol continues to throw block parties every year; Carol continues to open up her home to all of the men and women in her neighborhood –being completely oblivious to Dan’s actions.

The young people in the neighborhood continue to take Carol’s class at the local school on How to have a Successful Marriage, but they don’t take it to learn about sustaining a healthy marriage. Instead, they consider it a free hour of entertainment. They sit in the classroom for an hour every Wednesday night, and sometimes, they even take notes. And yet, the moment Carol is out of earshot, they mock and ridicule her behind her back for being such a complete joke. Carol is the laughing stock of the neighborhood.

Couples in the neighborhood continue to pay $60 an hour to have marital counseling with Carol. They don’t do this for the comedic value, however ($60 an hour is too much to expect, even for good comedy). Instead, they pay the money, because it makes them feel better about their marriage –especially when they compare their marriage with hers. All of them say that it was just what they needed to put their marital problems into perspective. It’s the best money that they ever spent on their marriage.

The people in the neighborhood are split into two different groups: fifty-fifty. Half of the people in the neighborhood pity Carol for being so pathetic; the other half rips her to shreds for being such a joke. Half the people in the neighborhood feel bad for Carol, and they can’t bring themselves to tell her the bad news about Dan. The other half don’t tell her the news, because they find it so funny that they don’t want to end the joke. It is for these two competing reasons that Carol will never find out the truth about Dan. She will be in the dark about his infidelity until the day she dies.

But, don’t forget. If you’re a pragmatist, you have no right to feel bad for Carol. You see, every night when Carol rests her head down on the pillow and every morning when she wakes up, she is fulfilled, content, and happy. Carol thinks that her life really matters. Carol thinks that she influences others, and it’s valuable. Carol thinks that she’s found a purpose for life in her career. Carol thinks that she has good relationships and a healthy family and a faithful husband. Carol believes a lot of things. There’s really just one problem with Carol’s beliefs.

They’re false.

You know that truth matters –deep down in your heart. For instance, ask yourself: Would you want to be Carol? Or, would you want Carol’s life for your sister or mother or friend? If you’re a parent, would you want Carol’s life for your little girl? If you’re being honest, I think the answer is obvious: Of course not. But, if you wouldn’t want this life, then you are admitting that there is something more important than having a belief system that works.

That is, having a belief system that’s true.

Is it possible that you are Carol? Before you answer that question, ask yourself how you would know. You can’t know primarily based on how you feel (Carol felt great) or how life is going (Carol’s life was wonderful). The only way to know would be to pursue spiritual truth –regardless of the consequences. Before you get too far in your spiritual journey, you should ask yourself: If God is really out there, do I really want to know him?

While Carol probably wouldn’t want to know the truth about her life with Dan, we are in a different situation, concerning God. The Bible does not call the message of the Bible “bad news.” Instead, it calls it “good news.” Many people fear that God exists only to strike them dead or to judge them. However, the Bible teaches that God will freely give forgiveness to those who ask for it (Rom. 10:9; Jn. 1:12).

[1] Hick does not define himself as a pragmatist, but this criteria is a pragmatic test for spiritual truth.

[2] Hick, John. A Christian Theology of Religions: the Rainbow of Faiths. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995. 79.

[3] Hick, John. A Christian Theology of Religions: the Rainbow of Faiths. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995. 111.

[4] Dr. Gregory House House: Season Five. Episode 15. “Unfaithful.”

[5] Interview with Isaac Brock –lead singer of Modest Mouse. April 7, 2004. AV Club.

[6] Keller, Timothy J. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008. 113-114.

[7] This illustration is an adaptation of J.P. Moreland’s “Won-Mug” analogy.