The Analogy of Religion

by PDS

Last time I introduced Butler’s method of analogical reasoning which, to briefly summarise, involves reflecting on known events or statements and then making judgements about similar events or statements which are unknown and disputed. Butler’s famous example is determining that the tide will probably come in based on past observation of similar ‘tide-coming-in’ events.

Butler begins his application of this type of reason by quoting Origen, an Early Christian Theologian:

he who believes the Scripture to have proceeded from him who is the Author of Nature, may well expect to find the same sort of difficulties in it, as are found in the constitution of Nature.” And Butler goes on to give a reflection of this statement: “he who denies the Scripture to have been from God upon account of these difficulties, may, for the very same reason deny the world to have been formed by him.”

Butler see two methods of knowing what he calls “the system of things and dispensation of Providence“:

1. Revelation ie the Christian Scriptures

2. Experience together with Reason.

If, as Butler argues, there is an analogy or likeness between what we can know from both sources, then this removes the presumption against believing that God is the Author of the Christian Scriptures – if we already believe that God is the Author of Nature, that is.

Butler, unlike Descartes and in a similar fashion to Aristotle, seems to deny that the starting principles of knowledge require rational demonstration (see previous posts for more information in this). These principles must be assumed. Furthermore, Butler also seems to deny that we can form our knowledge on certain principles, because in that case we would gain no knowledge from the data of sense experience.

Instead, we should “join abstract reasonings with the observation of facts, and argue from such facts as are known, to others that are like them“. Butler argues then that we should take the fact that we CAN apply reason to our observations as a given. Then we should then progress by applying analogical reasoning from what is known about nature to what is like what is unknown and disputed. As noted previously, Butler argues that this manner of reasoning is conclusive in practical matters – to various degrees – and there is no presumption against using this type of reasoning with regard to religion.

It should be pointed out that Butler is not attempting to demonstrate the existence of God in this work (I will qualify this in the next post), though he was clearly familiar with arguments of this sort presented by his peers. Instead, Butler takes as successfully argued the existence of a divine creator and builds a case for the divine nature of the Christian Scriptures from this starting point.[1]

Butler writes: “my design is to apply it [analogous reasoning] to that subject [religion] in general, both natural and revealed: taking for proved, that there is an intelligent Author of Nature, and natural Governor of the world. For as there is no presumption against this prior to the proof of it: so it has been often proved with accumulated evidence; from this argument of analogy and final causes; from abstract reasonings; from the most ancient tradition and testimony; and from the general consent of mankind. Nor does it appear, so far as I can find, to be denied by the generality of those who profess themselves dissatisfied with the evidence of religion.”

We shall continue into Butler’s introduction next time.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Butler’s approach?

[1] “Butler never assumes the existence of God; rather, at least after his exchange with Clarke, he takes it as granted that God’s existence can be and has been proved to the satisfaction of those who were party to the discussion in his time.” http://www.iep.utm.edu/butler/ (See the whole article for an excellent introduction to Butler’s thought)

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