by Richard Rorty, in Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007
When the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty died a month or so ago, I decided to add some of his writing to my summer reading list. The fourth volume of his selected essays, Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4, contains the essay “Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God,” and this essay seemed like a good place for a minister like to me start reading.
If you’re hoping for a definitive answer to the question, “Does God exist?” Rorty will not only disappoint you, he will also tell you (fairly gently) that it’s a bad question. There are better questions to ask, and these better questions have to do with what Rorty calls “cultural politics.”
So what is “cultural politics”? Citing philosopher Robert Brandom, Rorty says that the social world is prior to anything else. There isn’t some larger authority out to which we can appeal to set norms for society. This in turn means that societies, and the people who live in societies, cannot make appeals to God, or Truth, or Reality that trump all other appeals or claims. Your God, or Truth, or Reality can’t be considered an ultimate norm, any more than my God or Truth or Reality. Cultural politics, says Rorty, “is the least norm-governed human activity. It is the site of generational revolt, and thus the growing point of culture.” If you want a good example of how things grow in cultural politics, think about the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of Plessy vs. Ferguson on the one hand, and Brown vs. Board of Education on the other hand. Forget appeals to some transcendent Justice — we’re stuck with “the ontological priority of the social” (really a misnomer, since there is no ontology) — i.e., society, the social world, comes before anything else.
This being the case, rather than ask, “Does God exist?”, it would be better to ask, as Rorty phrases the question, “Do we want to weave one or more of the various religious traditions (with their accompanying pantheons) together with our deliberation over moral dilemmas, our deepest hopes, and our need to be rescued from despair?” Another way to make the same point is to say that, instead of having some kind of public religion ( “All U.S. citizens shall believe in the God of the Christian scriptures, as interpreted by the Southern Baptist Conference”), it would be better to have only private religion that stays out of the public sphere.
To me, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, all this makes good sense. I usually do not choose to play the language game that asks whether God exists or not. Continue reading