Religion and its Place in Pragmatic Thinking

Views on religious pragmatism started with William James’ book The Will to Believe and moved progressively from there (Davis, 2008, p. 77).  Now different views on religious pragmatism are fought out in books and articles by pragmatists.  This paper will examine the primary views of William James and Richard Rorty, with regards to other pragmatists such as Cornell West, John Dewey and Charles Pierce to compare and contrast views on religion in pragmatism.  It will be argued that the primary views of religion stemming from William James, which allows for religion in pragmatism, is a better and stronger point of view than the primary views of Richard Rorty, which do not allow for religion in pragmatism.  First, this essay will offer a brief overview of pragmatism and what it means to be pragmatic. Second a brief section discussion on religion and pragmatism will be provided. Third, an overview on the two opposite opinions of William James and Richard Rorty regarding allowance for religion in pragmatism will be discussed. Fourth, a section that argues religion belongs in pragmatism will be provided. Fifth, there will be a section that argues the reasoning for not allowing religion in pragmatism is wrong.  Sixth and last, a section that provides further comparison and discussion between the different religious pragmatism views will be discussed.


Pragmatism is the American philosophy movement that started in the 1870’s with the Metaphysical club at Harvard University (Shook, 1998). The philosophical “tradition of American pragmatism [is] characterized by the rejection of absolute foundations of norms or facts” (Minow, 2007, p. 1178).  Contingency plays an important role in all claims that are made in pragmatism. It is not a form of idealism, but rather a radical empiricism and it works to give “meaning to action”  (Durkheim, 1914, para. 3). Most pragmatists believe that people should do and believe in whatever is best for them.


One of the first pragmatists, Charles Peirce, created the idea of contingency.  Contingency is defined as “the quality or state of being contingent” (Merriam Webster, 2009).  Contingency has two primary aspects in pragmatism.  First contingency says “every perspective is made contingent and limited by the fact that it belongs to one person” (Evans, 2008, p. 195). Second, “contingency is created by the fact that every perspective is located in time, and can never transcend that location to a [future] position” (Evans, 2008, p. 195).  Contingency is an important feature for pragmatists to hold in their lives. Peirce believes in the contingency of everything from language to religion. Contingency is important in pragmatism because it allows for change when change is needed. William James’ ideas coincide with this philosophy on contingency, while Richard Rorty’s ideas go against this philosophy.

Religion and Pragmatism

Religious pragmatism is defined as believing in God “for reasons that stem not from evidence, but from beneficial consequences of holding a particular belief” (Jordan, 2006, p. 1).  This is a worldly view because it only focuses on the personal benefits of theistic belief (Jordan, 2006). Some pragmatists still believe in the idea of being a theist or atheist.  Conflicts occur among pragmatists about religion because not all pragmatists believe in this theory.  Richard Rorty’s ideas tend to coincide with the idea that beliefs should be held for their beneficial consequences. William James shows through his ideas that he believes in the theism vs. atheism question.

Typically a religious and political figure is someone who makes “strong claims about their core beliefs and proclaim their refusal to compromise on them” (Ganiel & Dixon, 2008, p. 424).  Pragmatic religious figures are different because “they can and do compromise” (Ganiel & Dixon, 2008, p. 424).  Pragmatic religious figures often are not committed to the “fundamentalist religious ideals” that a typical religious figure holds (Ganiel & Dixon, 2008, 425).  Contingency is not a common concept in religions such as Christianity. Yet, in pragmatic religion contingency is one of the driving factors.  Pragmatic figures like Cornel West describe themselves as Christian, but say they are willing to drop their believes if something better comes along, which shows their contingent nature (West, 1994).  Religious pragmatism allows for the “existence of chance” by avoiding “universal and necessary laws and by asserting ‘the ubiquity of cause of cause and effect’” (Semetsky, 2008, p. 84).

Surprisingly, research has found that 68% “of Americans with religious affiliation believe that there is more than one true way to interpret the teaching of their own faith” (Coday, 2008, p.8). This affirms that although the majority of people do not follow pragmatic religious beliefs, they still have pragmatic qualities. The willingness to interpret the teachings of their church shows religious contingency. Religious contingency is important in pragmatism because it opens people up for to a variety of ideas, which increases their education.

The Two Sides of Religion in Pragmatism

Arguments over religion in pragmatism have been fought out for years by pragmatists. Some believe that religion has a place in pragmatism, while others believe religion goes against pragmatic thinking. Primary views that says religion has a place in pragmatism stem from William James’ philosophies. The primary views of Richard Rorty claim that there is no room in pragmatic thinking for religion. Although both philosophers make good points, James’ argument is stronger and more commonly followed by fellow pragmatists. Rorty simply provides reasons why religion in pragmatism hinders an individual’s life, but he does give solutions for the gaps that James suggests religion fills in these people’s lives. Below an overview of James’ and Rorty’s ideas on religion in pragmatism are presented.

William James

William James’ philosophies are primarily responsible fore the claims that religion has a place in pragmatism. James describes pragmatism as a “way of accounting for realist intuitions about the nature of reality, knowledge and the objects of religious belief and experiences in a concrete and experientially grounded way” (Slater, 2008, p. 673). James is primarily responsible for the philosophy on pragmatism that allows for both the tough minded and tender minded to come to common understandings about reality (Slater, 2008).  Generally, the tough minded do not believe in religion and the tender minded are religious. Therefore the two different thinking structures do not view religion in the same way. One side feels that religion is necessary for life, while the other believes religion does not coincide with pragmatic thinking.  

James first begins his pragmatic career struggling between “monism and pluralism, [and] religious conviction and moralistic struggle” (Croce, 2007, p. 498).  His father’s views on religion confused him, because his father excludes science in his religious thinking. Eventually, James ends up parting ways from his father’s thinking to focus on combining science and religion in his own pragmatic thinking (Croce, 2007). This works well for James because it allows him to support the ideals of religion from a more pragmatic standpoint. Since James endorses scientific truths as well as religion, he cannot “believe in a transcendent God”, for this would be a God that ignores science (Croce, 2007, p. 501).

Similar thinking to James includes Peirce’s belief that Christianity “has to be squared with the properly understood findings of science, rather than particularistically partitioned from them” (Lamberth, 2008, p. 465).  Therefore, like James, Peirce believes that religion and science fit together, but Peirce adds each person needs to find that fit on their own. The views James presents in his work on religion allow for people with both scientific and religious thinking to reach understandings on their thinking about reality through his question of inquiry (Slater, 2008). James looks at religion pragmatically because he sees “the world as having both a natural and a supernatural constitution” (Slater, 2008, p. 672). This philosophy allows for religion in pragmatism primarily because of the focus on inquiry (Nelson, 2009).  The use of inquiry in religious pragmatism presents itself to be one of the most useful ways of thinking and believing in God and religion from a pragmatic viewpoint.

James sees life as “the notion of causation is our inner personal experience and only there can causes in the old-fashion sense be directly observed and described” (Ford, 1981, p. 162).  So, people can say they have had religious experiences and they do not need to be visible to other people. A religious experience can happen internally. James also believes that “to be is to be self-experiencing” (Ford, 1981, p. 163).  Life does not exist if people are not self-experiencing. So, therefore religious experiences can be counted as self-experiences.

While he believes a scientific view of the world is important, he also believes religion can help maintain the “moral, aesthetic and religious values” in an individual’s life (Slater, 2008, p. 673). James’ writings on religion all seem to carry the common message that “good” can be gained by “supplementing our worldview with metaphysical and religious beliefs” (Slater, 2008, p. 671). Also, every person has a right to have religious beliefs under certain conditions (Slater, 2008). This corresponds directly with the pragmatic ideal of contingency. James also believed that different religious ideas and beliefs should be shared because they hold a vital social good (Slater, 2008).

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty’s philosophies are primarily responsible for the ideas that claim religion holds no place in pragmatism. Rorty disallows theism in his pragmatic philosophy  (Nelson, 2009).  Rorty believes that pragmatism suggests, “we cannot be rationally bound by anything beyond the space of concepts, and thus sets of practices that we adopt are chosen or driven by their internal features, such as goals, interests and existing practices” (Wolf, 2008, p. 366).  This suggests that religion is not pragmatic because God is a concept that is beyond a person’s internal features.

Rorty’s primary concern with intellectual respectability does not involve the theism vs. atheism debate. He simply wants to get to the “cash-value” of the practices (Nelson, 2009). This means that Rorty thinks there should be rewards that come from believing or not believing in religion. It does not matter whether or not a person is religious, but it does matter how it affects their lives. When Rorty does speak of how religion functions in pragmatism he says it functions in experience, like James suggests (Slater, 2008).              

Rorty believes that religion does not have a place in pragmatism because of his “view of philosophy as conversation” (Nelson, 2009, p. 495).  He believes that words describe experiences and no words can be used to correctly describe the experience of religion. Therefore, Rorty claims that religion does not hold a place in our conversation, or in pragmatism.  Language is a primary focus of Rorty’s studies, so when religion does not fit within his believes on language, he concludes religion does not have a place in pragmatism.  Rorty finds religion to be a conversation stopper, and an excuse for people’s actions or lack of actions. 

The Need for Religion in Pragmatism

Generally, there is a need for religion in a person’s life.  Religion is so important in a person’s life because “metaphysical and theological beliefs” fill the gaps where naturalistic and social accounts of morality fail to meet moral needs (Slater, 2008, p. 670).  These metaphysical and theological beliefs help people arrive at figuring out an order in their lives. James supports these claims because he says that gaps exist in a person’s life and religion is one of the only ways to fill these gaps (Slater, 2008). James shows through his work he believes there is a “close connection between religion and ethics” (Slater, 2008, p. 668).  God gives people a way to arrive at their moral order, which will allow them to make sense of their lives.

James suggests in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experiences, that there is order to the world that is found in each person’s soul (as cited in Nelson, 2009).  The order James is referring to was the kind that blends order and freedom, “where novelty is actual but predications are possible, and where there are final and meaningful causes of things” (Nelson, 2009, p. 496). This is not to say that people should stop searching for evidence once they find their order. Instead, people should work to find their order because they are forced to do so, and then work from there to find evidence that supports or denies their order. To find this religious order, a person must ask if they consider themselves to be religious. 

James shows through his writing that there is not a need for the “existence of God or an ideal moral order” for morality (Slater, 2008, p. 669).  Instead, James claims that there is a need for “the existence of empathic beings that have interests and make claims on one another” (Slater, 2008, p. 669).  When people come together with “both cognitive and affective capacities [they] begin the intersubjective and social practice of making claims on one another” (Slater, 2008, p. 669). To James, this is the most important aspect of morality instead of God.  This philosophy allows for people to question their beliefs and eventually arrive at the order that explains their life.

Morality should be paired with a “practical form on religious faith” (Slater, 2008, p. 670).  This is due to the fact that a naturalistic view on morality may fail to satisfy a person’s moral needs (Slater, 2008).  There is then a need for theological beliefs when these moral needs are not met (Slater, 2008). This is where a belief in God benefits a person’s life because it allows for the moral gaps to be filled. The belief in God allows a person to have “’morally strenuous’ lives and to offer an account of moral objectivity” (Slater, 2008, p.670).  James supports these claims, but still he says is not a requirement for God to be present in a person’s life, but the belief in a God opens infinite perspectives and new objectivity and significance (Slater, 2008). This can also open people to new “goods” that would otherwise be unreachable under the terms of a strictly naturalistic moral theory” (Slater, 2008, p. 671). The question of whether or not to believe in religion and God becomes important when people are trying to find the order in their lives.


 Individuals must consider the idea of inquiry for religion to play a part in their pragmatic thinking. Inquiry, with regards to religion, is described as the way a philosopher “can or cannot find a certain order in the world” (Nelson, 2009, p. 496). People need to work to find both final and meaningful reasons for the ways things happen to find order in their lives. Religion is often tied to the question of inquiry because people will often find order in their world by using God as an explanation for things they cannot understand. James supports this theory because he believes religion can be used to reach order in individuals’ lives (Nelson, 2009).  Sometimes certain things cannot be explained, so there is a need for an outside explanation, which is God, to address the unanswered question in an individual’s life. God assists people in reaching their final explanations, which eventually allows them to reach order in their life. Pierce also supports this theory on inquiry; in fact most of the original ideas about inquiry came from Pierce (Nelson, 2009).

Inquiry starts by creating a hypothesis, which a person believes to be true. Then the person must test this hypothesis with high regard to its practical benefits over just the validity of the hypothesis. Pierce supports this theory because he argues that people should follow the methods of good scientists, and always look for the practical benefits of a hypothesis in addition to the validity (Nelson, 2009). The practical benefits associated with believing in religion is key in pragmatism because all pragmatists would say that if there is not a practical benefit from believing in something, a person should not belief in that something.  Religion belongs an individual’s pragmatic thinking as long as there is a practical benefit that the person gets from believing in religion. This gets at the idea of an individual’s personal rights.

The Right to Believe

All people are entitled to believe in religion if they choose to do so. Individuals must take the steps of moving from a hypothesis to a belief in order to accomplish their religious beliefs.  There is a clear link between a hypothesis a person makes and a belief that a person chooses to believe. James supports this idea entirely in his book The Will to Believe (as cited in Nelson, 2009).  James claims that an individual must deal with the question of whether or not to be a religious person in their life.

People must decide whether or not to be a religious person because, as James explains, this is a “forced, momentous, live option” question (Nelson, 2009, p. 497).  It is forced because if a person chooses to avoid the question then they are actually choosing to not become a religious person (Nelson, 2009). There is no such thing as neutrality in the question of religion.  A person chooses to be non-religious if they ignore the question. The question is momentous because the decision has the opportunity to significantly impact a person’s life (Nelson, 2009).  Believing in religion could potentially enrich or hinder a person’s quality of life. The opposite of a momentous question would be a trivial question, which would consist of something like choosing between two different meals to eat for dinner. That decision would not have significant impacts on a person’s life.  Finally, it is a live option because two hypotheses exist (Nelson, 2009). The first hypothesis is God exists, and the second is there is not a God. So, a person must decide between believing in God or not because it has significant impacts on their life and neutrality is not option.  An answer to the question about God and religion helps people find their order in the world.

The method that a person should use for answering this question stem from James’ and Pierce’s ideas.  People should “try out one belief as true” and “act as if it were true”, then if a person is “better able to manage [their] lives” they can conclude that belief to be true (Nelson, 2009, p. 498).  The belief should be concluded to be false if the opposite is true (Nelson, 2009).  Both Pierce and James believe these statements to be true. These statements address the initial discussion on inquiry from a philosophical standpoint.  People must use a scientific method when deciding on their beliefs to figure out the most practical benefits of the belief.

Experience Triggers Belief

Experience is a primary factor that is involved when people are trying to determine what they believe. James is a religion realist because he believes in “the reality of an unseen religious order” (Slater, 2008, p. 667).  That is, he believes there is a higher form of experience that humans are incapable of externally experiencing.   There is a “’more’ of consciousness or ‘wider self’ with which our minds are in contact in cases of genuine religious experiences” (Slater, 2008, p. 667). Therefore, just because someone cannot externally experience religion, they are can internally experience it with their minds.

Our morals and values are rooted in “higher, extra-human forms of consciousness” (Slater, 2008, p. 668).  So, religion can be experienced, which validates a person’s belief in that religion.

James believes that when people are asked to characterize the life of religion they must say, “it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusts ourselves thereto” (as cited in Stephens, 2009, p. 61).  This allows for the understanding that religion comes from the “practice of being human” or in other words, from people living their life’s (Stephens, 2009, p. 61).  Religious experiences come from the world people live in through their life experiences.  A pragmatist with similar thinking would be Dewey, for he believes that religion “functions in experience” (Slater, 2008, p. 672). The experiences people take part in are natural and are believed to happen by determinism in pragmatism (Stephens, 2009).  James claims that determinism exists in the world, so “any action that takes place was predestined to take place” and they could not have happened any other way (Stephens, 2009, p. 63). Therefore there is a predetermined destiny that people must unravel and experience to find order in their lives.

Cornell West shows his belief in religion as a concrete experience with cash values of experience when he gave an interview about how he wanted to be remembered.  West says he wants to be remembered as Jesus is remembered for his “legacy of love and service to concrete, breathing human beings” (Boynton, 2007, para. 9).  He says that his religion is “ a rich footnote to prophetic Judaism in terms of steadfast love” because he believes in Jesus for his concrete service (Boynton, 2007, para. 9). These statements add to the reasoning that the practical value of our experiences determines our beliefs. People should believe in things that give them practical benefits. West thinks he should be remembered for the practical benefits he offered people.

Religious Pluralism

Pluralism in religion can benefit individuals because it allows for them to have a broader knowledge base. James is a religious pluralist because he believes in emphasizing the “many” over the “one” (Warnick, 2004, p. 351).  This means he believes in a pluralistic universe were God works in a universe of independent powers (Warnick, 2004).  He emphasizes “faith as precursive trust among agents in a pluralistic universe” (Warnick, 2004, p. 361). James claims “things have an independent power and existence apart from God’s creative activity” and God has limitations in power and knowledge (Warnick, 2004, p. 352). He suggests that a belief in more than one God may be useful to overcome these limitations.  James claims humans can lead “morally strenuous and flourishing lives” when they believe in “plurality of religious faiths” (Slater, 2008, p. 671). This allows people to be diversified in religions instead of stuck on one religion. Contingency is amplified when people believe in numerous faiths because they show their ability to change beliefs when and where it is necessary. 

Prophetic Christians

A prophetic Christian is defined as a person that “articulates a philosophy of existence that is grounded in human natures and that is both anaphoric and forward looking” (Johnson, 2001, p. 549).  Prophetic Christians also believe in looking at individuals as a part of a community and democracy meaning that each person has the right to his or her self realization (Johnson, 2001, p. 549). Cornell West is another pragmatists that sees room for religion in pragmatism, and he claims that he is this type of Christian (Morrison, 2004). West says he is unlike the people who believe in God, or that Jesus is the son of God, or the ones that believe in angels, or the ones who believe that book of revelation is verifiable (Morrison, 2004).  West refers to himself as a “prophetic Christian” and says most people are “Constantinian Christians” which are his opposite (Morrison, 2004, p. 26). 

One of the most important aspects prophetic Christianity is of the individual as a part of the community. This aspect  “emphasizes individual agency” (Johnson, 2001, p. 549).  Democracy is so important because it emphasizes accountability, which is the key to “individual existential freedom” (Johnson, 2001, p. 550). Cornel West is a prophetic Christian because of his passion for black social justice. Prophetic Christianity is a useful belief in black social justice because it emphasizes “the notion of struggle, both personal and collective, and accents hope”  (Johnson, 2001, p. 550).  This allows for resistance of oppression because of the “political value of religious belief and culture as instruments of resistance” to it (Johnson, 2001, p. 553).  Prophetic Christianity partners with pragmatism well because they both work to transform existing realities (Johnson, 2001, p. 550). 

A Need for Religious Exclusion in Pragmatism

The belief that religion should not be a part of pragmatism stems from three primary reasons from Rorty’s philosophies on religion. First, there is the belief that religion is a conversation stopper. Second, religion can lead to bigoted-fanatic objections.  Third, people’s trust in a non-human to make decisions can be harmful to society. All these philosophies reside in conversation. Rorty does not think that religion has a place in pragmatism because it does not have a place in conversation.

 Conversation Stopper

Rorty believes everyone is entitled to believe what they want, but beliefs “which might possib[ly] run athwart the beliefs of others” need to be justified (Nelson, 2009, p. 501).  Anyone can belief anything if his or her beliefs are kept quiet. Problems occur when public conversations arrive. During public conversations there is always a need to “justify our beliefs to our fellows based on common ground” (Nelson, 2009, p. 501).  A common ground cannot be found in religious conversations because religion is too diverse (Nelson, 2009). Thus, religion becomes a “conversation stopper”, as Rorty called it (Nelson, 2009, p. 501).  He believed that the “free exchange of religious ideas and reasons” should be kept to a minimum (Slater, 2008, p. 672). This is because there is no common ground with different religious beliefs and the arguments will go nowhere.

Rorty believes that conversation in social gatherings is important because people learn from others’ thoughts. When the idea of religion comes into a conversation, the conversation is literally dead of information. This is because in religious conversation a person is usually not trying to “consider their revealed beliefs fallible and will only try to dissuade” (Nelson, 2009, p. 501).  Rorty claims that people will not listen to what the other person is telling them, only believing their thoughts to be true.  This defeats the entire purpose of conversation, which is to learn from each other. Therefore, Rorty believes religion should be left out of conversation.

Another pragmatists that supports Rorty’s claims on conversation to some extend is Dewey. Dewey thinks that religious belief and practice are both “incredible [and] inherently incompatible with a democratic culture” (Slater, 2008, p. 672).  Therefore, he believes that religion and politics should be separate. This claim only supports that religion becomes a conversation stopper when the topic of politics arrives.  Dewey does not support the claim that religion is always a conversation stopper, as Rorty states. James, however, claims that given the right circumstance politics and religion can be discussed together.  Therefore, maybe the claim that religion is conversation stopper may hold more validity if it is contingent of the context of the conversation.

The problem with Rorty’s argument is that it assumes that people will never listen to other’s opinions regarding religion. Clearly, this is not always the case. In educational settings, students and teachers often engage in religious conversations without problems arising. A religious conversation can take place if both parties are willing to respect and listen to the other. It may be true that in certain cases the parties will not consider each other’s opinions, but if they can respect each other while they are talking then the topic is not a conversation stopper. The ideas that Rorty claims are so valuable to obtain from conversation can still be obtained when dealing with the topic of religion. The people involved in the conversations are the individuals that are responsible for making the topic of religion a conversation stopper, not the actual topic of religion.

Another possible way religion can be spoken of in conversations may have to do with the context it is being spoken.  The topic of religion spoken of in a church is probably going to be considered an appropriate topic.  The topic of religion spoken of in a presidential debate may or may not be an appropriate topic. Depending on where and when the topic is spoken about can determine its ability to be a conversation stopper.

Bigoted Objections

Rorty’s next point against religion resides in bigoted objections. Theists will often answer questions in a way, which they “place [themselves] over the conversation, knowing what was really at stake in the discussion” to better solve the problem (Nelson, 2009, p. 501).  For example, people will give their opinions on touchy subjects such as abortion or same-sex marriage and start with saying their religious beliefs allow for their opposition on the topic (Nelson, 2009). This does not allow for relevant explanations and instead gives people excuses for their opinions. Rorty would accept someone saying that they do not believe in abortion because they do not believe in killing the unborn child.  That is a much better reason rather than just saying they do not believe in it because of their religion.

The problem with this argument is that Rorty discredits religion for having any type of validity in this claim.  Rorty is so negative towards religion that he completely writes off religion’s value, saying that religion is an excuse rather than a reason. Just because Rorty feels that religion has no value does not mean that all people believe the same.  Clearly, Rorty does not have many followers in his thinking on religion, which shows that he probably thinks differently about religion’s value than his fellow pragmatists. Rorty demonstrates that he is very closed minded when it comes to religion because he disregards its value entirely.

In conversation, people may not be explicitly saying the religious reasoning behind their beliefs, but they are explaining more than Rorty gives credit. People may ultimately not believe in abortion because their religion believes that it is wrong to kill the unborn fetus because it is a person. The explanation behind giving religion as a reason to belief or not belief in something is still present in a conversation without the person having to explicitly tell it. Problems can only arise when the listening party does not have any background on the person’s religion. In this case, the listening party can still ask why the other’s religion allows or disallows them to believe in specific things.

Non-human Power and Its Problems

Rorty says that people’s beliefs in a “non-human power [that will] make decisions or come to conclusions” are harmful to society (Nelson, 2009, p. 502). He believes that society is more effective when they rely on their selves and each other (Nelson, 2009). Rorty says that everyone should “replace responsibility [from] nonhuman powers to human ones (Nelson, 2009, p. 502).  This is because when people force their problems to a “non-human power” they are giving up their self-responsibility. Rorty finds it frustrating when people give up on their responsibilities and use religion as their excuse for doing so. 

The problem with this argument is that Rorty assumes that people are strong enough to handle all their problems on their own, they always have someone who they can talk to about their problems and that people put no effort into their problems.  Most people turn to God in times of need, when they do not know what to do in certain situations. They will turn to God when they feel they have no one else to tell their problems. People also turn to God when they feel they have done all they can to help a stressful situation, and they need some help to finish the problem.  They feel that God will help them get through times of need when they have no one else to turn to.  People will use God as their last string of hope, when they have absolutely nothing else.  In this case, God works to help a person stay sane when they feel like giving up. Religion helps people keep their mental health stable.

 Rorty assumes that people take no self-responsibility when it comes to religion, but clearly this is not typically the case. Rarely will a person do nothing and ask God to solve the problem for them. A person will normally do they best they can to fix their stressful situation, and when they feel there is nothing else they can do to help, they turn to God for help and guidance. God gives people hope when they feel there is nothing else they can do to help a situation and it is still not going the correct way they wanted. God works as a comfort blanket more than anything else when it comes to solving problems. Rorty completely disregards the reasons people believe in religion, and just assume once again that they use it as an excuse, and in this case an excuse to give up their responsibilities.

Discussion and Comparison

The previous analysis indicates that the reasons for a need of religion in pragmatism are more convincing than the reasons to exclude religion. Williams James’ argument is overall stronger and more widely supported by fellow pragmatists because he includes both sides of thinking, the religious and the non-religious, in his philosophies about religion.  Richard Rorty, however makes good claims but he only looks at the negatives religion has to offer, without addressing how the gaps that religion usually fill in a person’s life may be filled when religion is absent. Because of his thinking, Rorty is not widely supported in his views on religion by fellow pragmatists.  Some similarities and differences between the two pragmatists that are worth pointing out include the topics of human experiences, theism vs. anti-theism, religion and politics, religion in conversation, and contingency.

Human Experiences

Pragmatists believe it is necessary to experience to be able to explain the reasons for beliefs. Both James and Rorty have the common belief that religion functions in experience because they share pragmatic thinking. However, James backs up his claims sufficiently with examples and reasons, and Rorty just skims the surface on this topic.  James says that people are able to experience religion internally and therefore are able to explain their reasons for their beliefs in religion. Rory does not believe in an experience that is internal. He only believes in the external experience, and since religion cannot be experienced externally, he does not believe there is room for religion in pragmatism.  Overall, the popular vote on beliefs sides with James. This is because James reaches conclusions that explain how religion can function in pragmatism, and Rorty simply says religion cannot with giving negatives of religion without critiquing the positives.

Theism vs. Atheism

While James emphasizes the theism vs. atheism debate, Rorty is not concerned with either and is primarily concerned with the cash value of these practices (Nelson, 2009). James primarily focuses on the issue of believing in God or not because he believes it is a forced, momentous, live option question that must be answered.  If a person chooses to ignore the question, they are still answering it by choosing to not believe in God.  Rorty on the other hand sticks to the belief that people can or cannot believe in things based on the value that it holds for them. So people can choose not to deal with the question of religion and only concern themselves with the values the practices of religion hold for them.

Religion in Conversation

Each philosopher has his own take on the place of religion in conversation. Rorty strongly believes that conversation should be free of religious topics. Rorty believes this because he thinks all religious differences should be silenced, because religion is a conversation stopper (Slater, 2008).  The closest support of this claim comes from Dewey who strongly believes that religion and politics in conversation should be separate (Slater, 2008). However, James believes just the opposite of Dewey suggesting that religion and politics can coincide given the right circumstances (Slater, 2008).  Overall James saw there were social benefits to sharing these differences about religion (Slater, 2008).


All pragmatists believe that beliefs should have contingency. Contingency offers people the opportunity to have an open mind and consider all sides to arguments when determining their truths. William James’ arguments on religion exemplify contingency. Richard Rorty’s arguments completely disregard contingency when speaking about religion. Rorty says he believes religion doe not belong in pragmatism because of the assumptions he makes about people. He claims that people are not willing to listen to each others’ differences of opinions.  He says that people like to use excuses when explaining their reasoning. And finally he says that people like to give up their self-responsibility.  Rorty makes these assumptions with no room for contingency.  He does not believe that people can be any different than the assumptions he makes.  This argument loses its validity because it goes against the very core of pragmatism, which is to always consider contingency.


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