Course notes on postmodern interpretations of religion for students of the Edexcel syllabus

From the syllabus for the Philosophy of Religion (Paper 1):

5.1 Context to critiques of religious belief and points for discussion   a) Respective strengths and weaknesses of religious beliefs.

b) Alternative explanations, issues of probability and postmodern interpretations of religion.

c) Key terms, types of atheism and agnosticism.

With reference to the ideas of R Dawkins and M Westphal.



‘Postmodernity’ is a term that is meant to describe the times we are living in.

Prior to the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, an era that has since come to be known as ‘The Enlightenment’, the most dominant ‘narrative’ (the belief shared by most people in Western societies) up until then was that God exists, is the source of morality and the explanation for everything. The term ‘premodern’ is used for this period in history.

But from the late 17th Century onwards, a range of leading European thinkers, some of whom (though not all) were atheists, started to question this narrative. They came to the conclusion that better societies could be engineered if we allowed ourselves to be guided by reason.  It could be used as the basis for scientific method, efficient government, and morality (to give just three examples). Onwards and upwards, everything evolving and getting better was the general aim. This Enlightenment project is represented by the second diagram and terms like ‘modern’ and ‘modernity’ are also used to describe it.

However, this confidence in reason eventually collapsed. For example, the two World Wars of the previous century and the terrible carnage unleashed by the weaponry deployed caused a crisis of faith in science, technology and progress. Among philosophers and intellectuals, this led to a collapse of confidence in the explanatory power of what are called ‘grand narratives’, elaborate theories about life and the world and how we should live it. Both fascism and communism can be regarded as examples of failed utopian grand narratives in this regard. The previous use of reason to defend policies like colonialism and ideas like Social Darwinism, which took the neutral concept of adaptation and combined it with notions of success, power (only the strongest survive), and human perfectibility, was also called into question.

Slowly but surely, rationality gradually turned on itself, and this is because sceptically inclined thinkers began to use it corrosively, to chip away at previous certainties. Here are some examples:

The nature of reality

If you think about it, everything you experience only ever comes to you second hand, having first been processed by your brain. And as it is not possible for any of us to get outside of our brains to check that what we perceive is actually genuine, none of us can therefore ever know whether the universe really is doing what anyone else tells us it is doing. So reality as it is in itself is unknowable. This was a point made by Kant, though he believed that rationality gave us access to what he called the noumenal world (things as they are in themselves).

Cause and effect 

‘Cause and effect’ is another basic notion that we take for granted, one that sustains our sense of our own personal history and that of the wider world. Scientific method is also founded on it.

But there is no reason to accept this idea because we never actually see it happen. All we ever perceive is one thing taking place after another. We never witness the first event making or forcing the occurrence of the second event. Causes and effects are therefore inferred from events not observed.

By extension, we assume that what has happened repeatedly will continue to happen, that the future will be like the past. But there is no basis for this assumption. Think of a turkey in a farmyard. Every morning throughout the year, the farmer feeds the turkey at sunrise. After a while, the turkey comes to associate the appearance of the farmer at sunrise with being fed. Until the morning of December 25th

NOTE: David Hume is the philosopher who took this view of cause and effect, while Bertrand Russell came up with the turkey example.

The nature of the self

Just as we cannot know the true nature of the outside world, the same goes for our inner one because we never directly encounter ourselves. Evidence gathered through looking within shows only a flux of unstable thoughts, sensations, emotions, reactions, and awareness. And just because you have a lot of thoughts about yourself doesn’t mean that there is an actual thinker having them, as Descartes believed.

Again, David Hume is responsible for this view (though Buddhists would agree with him). It also represents a challenge to Descartes’ substance dualism.


Various post-Enlightenment attempts to ground morality in something other than God e.g. on pure rationality (Kantian ethics), feelings of pleasure (classical utilitarianism) or character development (the revival of Virtue Ethics) have arguably all been unsuccessful because they are all vulnerable to the substantial criticisms described in textbooks on Ethics.

One conclusion that can be drawn from much of this is that we do not know as much as we think we know. Objective truth may be more elusive to arrive at than we think. Instead, there is a randomness, a lack of meaning and uncertainty to existence that is hard for many of us to even acknowledge, let alone come to terms with.

David Lynch’s 1986 movie Blue Velvet might be seen as deconstructing the modernist grand narrative of the ‘American Dream’ by drawing attention to the dark, criminal underbelly that lurks just beneath the surface of American life, and the dysfunctionality of family life as represented by the characters Frank Booth and Dorothy Vallens, who serve as surrogate parents to an Oedipal main character.


  • In its present, postmodern setting, religion is part of a landscape that has become more globalised and pluralised, as well as one in which capitalism arguably predominates. For this reason, people are much more aware of other world faiths in a manner which they have not been previously. Due to immigration, many societies are also more ethnically diverse and therefore more pluralistic in terms of the faiths represented among their citizenry. Additionally, information about different faiths is now much more easily accessed. And with the declining influence of the Church in Western Europe and other parts of the world due to secularization, religion can now be regarded as a private, individual choice for many. This has been referred to as entailing a form of ‘spiritual shopping’ or ‘spiritual materialism’ : we sample what is on offer in the marketplace and then make a purchase, or go for a ‘mix and match’ combining, say, faith in Gaia (see the course notes on Environmental Ethics) with Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation and how we are all interconnected, whilst attending regular weekly yoga or Tai Chi classes. We may also move on if we lose interest. However, this might be said to reflect a commodification of religion, where it just becomes another expression of capitalism. Another possible problem with this approach is that the engagement at this level is superficial and shallow, so someone never becomes truly committed to a tradition. Nevertheless, people’s continuing need to undertake some kind of spiritual quest in their lives is perhaps also indicative of the persistence of a desire for ego-transcendence and an embrace of spirituality that flies in the face of perceived secularization.
  • Alternatively, someone might reject less rational aspects of a faith but embrace those that are more in accord with science. For example, many people these days describe themselves as ‘secular Buddhists’; that is, they reject the things that are harder to believe in, like reincarnation and karma, but are impressed with the features of Buddhism that dovetail with aspects of postmodernity and for which there is an evidential basis. In particular, a form of Buddhist meditation called Mindfulness has been proven to help with issues like depression and to strengthen the immune system, while the Buddhist teaching of anatta (no self) has been more or less confirmed by neuroscientific research, which in turn validates Hume’s suspicions about the self that were mentioned above. In other words, as the evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright put it in his recent book Why Buddhism is True, ‘Your CEO is MIA.’ i.e. your Chief Executive Officer (usually the person appointed to oversee the day to day running of a large company but in this case Wright means ‘the Self’ or Descartes’ famous ‘I’ or ‘Cogito’ is ‘Missing in Action’). However, Buddhists claim that Mindfulness makes it possible for us to ‘see things as they really are’ (a statement that can be frequently found in Buddhist literature). In other words, an understanding of objective truth is possible. This contrasts with the postmodern claim that it is not possible for us to apprehend objective reality.
  • Another option is to embrace atheism, agnosticism, or count ourselves as one of the ‘nones’, individuals who select the option ‘No religion’ in response to census or survey questions about their religious faith. Note that this category may include a diverse range of respondents e.g. those who do believe in God or a higher power but who do not self-identify as being a member of a specific faith, as well as those who simply do not think about religion all that much, if at all.

Gene Simmons, the bassist and co-lead singer of the legendary American rock band Kiss might be categorized as a ‘None’. In his autobiography he states, ‘Let other people go into trances and think about spirituality. I’d rather concentrate on having something to eat. The here and now.’

  • Arguably, what is described in the first two bullet points above only becomes possible when – from a postmodern perspective – the ontological and ethical truth claims made by religions are perceived to be relative and perhaps even in competition with each other.
  • From the same perspective, tolerance and respect for diversity might still be encouraged.
  • On the other hand, there has also been an undoubted increase in anti-Muslim bigotry (arguably fanned by the flames of provocative New Atheist authors like Richard Dawkins, who has described Islam being ‘analogous to a carnivorous gene complex’), and an accompanying appeal on the part of some European right-wing populist parties (e.g. the Austrian Freedom Party and Swiss People’s Party) not so much to the Christian faith as to a Christian identity as part of a wider-ranging attack on Muslims, multiculturalism, social liberalism, so-called ‘liberal elites’, migrants, and asylum seekers.


The main effect of a postmodern critique of knowledge and truth is arguably a loss of meaning and authority. Religions may no longer provide the security and certainty of an absolute, divinely ordained truth accompanied by a secure morality, and the authority of religious institutions and their representatives can be said to have weakened in some respects:

  • Religions can be seen as cultural constructs. All religious meta-narratives (another phrase for grand narratives) are to be regarded simply as different ways of looking at the world that have arisen from the beliefs and attitudes of different cultures at different times and places. Jacques Derrida argued that these meta-narratives need to be deconstructed, a process which entails exposing them to be the relative accounts that they really are.
  • There are therefore no objectively right or wrong religions: Jean Francis Lyotard argued that since all religious beliefs were the product of different cultures, none of them can be seen as right or wrong in terms of the truth-claims they make. NOTE: when it comes to the ethical behaviour of organisations like ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Army of God, a criticism of Lyotard is that it might then become impossible to condemn them on moral grounds if their terrorist actions cannot be proved to be immoral.
  • Derrida goes on to emphasise that deconstruction nevertheless leads to an attitude of being more open to different views and ideas, which suggests a sense of tolerance and equality. It may be worth noting that many postmodernists, including Derrida himself, are genuinely agnostic about the existence of God.


The following is from Ziauddin Sardar’s Islam Beyond the Violent Jihadis and describes his encounter with some Sixth Form Religious Studies students at a girl’s school in Bradford in 2015:

‘I arrived early on Friday morning expecting a relatively comfortable question-and-answer session. After a casual walk through the long school corridors, I was ushered into a classroom. Over two dozen excited girls, some wearing hijabs, stood up to greet me. The teacher, Aqeela Jahan, a gracious, sublime English woman who had converted to Islam, asked them to sit down. Today’s topic, she said, was ‘everything you wanted to ask about Islam but never dared.’ Several hands shot up before she finished her sentence. I pointed towards a girl in hijab. ‘How do you determine the will of God?’ she asked in a matter-of-fact way. The question knocked me out of my comfort zone.  

…When I had recovered my composure, I said: ‘That is a difficult question. Perhaps we can start with a simple question.’ Several girls raised their hands immediately, and I randomly pointed towards a pupil who oozed confidence. ‘Would you say that Islam is incompatible with postmodernism?’ she asked. There was no way I could duck the second question. ‘Yes, it is,’ I replied. ‘Postmodernism suggests that almost everything that provides meaning and a sense of direction in our lives is meaningless – such as religion, history, tradition, reason and science. It also argues that all truth is relative. As a faith, Islam seeks to provide meaning and direction in the lives of believers. It places strong emphasis on tradition, history, reason and science. And it sees only some truths as relative. Ironically, postmodernism itself functions as a religion for some people.’ A lively discussion followed, with some girls expressing slight disagreement with my explanation. ‘It wasn’t nuanced enough’, said one. 

As Sardar correctly states, many members of religious faiths consider their core beliefs to be the absolute truth and therefore as incompatible with a postmodern climate in which truth is itself regarded as being impossible to attain, or at least elusive. They may also have profound concerns about an ‘anything goes’ approach to religion and the moral relativism that is implied by postmodern deconstructions of faith.

Other responses are possible, however.

For example, a different way of seeing religion as an individual spiritual quest was advanced by the anti-realist Don Cupitt. Cupitt rejected the idea of an objectively existing God, arguing instead that God serves as a symbol of human spiritual yearning. This non-realist/anti-realist approach that he favours entails a rejection of all the supernatural content of faith, including concepts such as miracles, the afterlife, and the agency of spirits. The Sea of Faith movement is an organisation that Cupitt helped to inspire. Members of the Sea of Faith regard religion as a human creation but try to live up to the moral standards demanded by faith. NOTE: there seems to be an implicit acceptance of Feuerbach’s atheistic view that God is an idealized projection of the best of humanity here.

For Pentecostal/Evangelical/Charismatic Christians, ongoing encounters with the transformative power of the Holy Spirit perhaps also serve as a direct confirmation that truth – albeit in an experiential rather than rational form – is attainable. This in turn provides an ongoing sense that life has a genuine meaning and purpose. Such encounters may therefore additionally demonstrate the falsity of postmodern assertions about the human condition for this type of believer.