Iris Murdoch on Religion

For this essay I will take a close look to the book “Above the Gods: A dialogue about Religion” of Iris Murdoch and I will follow with some comments from other authors on her ideas of religion and moral philosophy.

I will start with a brief analysis on Murdoch’s book; then I will summarise opinions on Murdoch’s ideas form other authors like Fergus Kerr, Franklin I Gamwell and Stanley Hauerwas; and finally I will argue her views on how morality distinguish itself from religion, that the replacement of Goodness as a from of God as a way forward doesn’t bind together as stand alone idea and it is just a reshuffle of religious sensitivities for non believers.“A dialogue about religion”

In this book Iris Murdoch briefly recreates in Plato’s symposium style a conversation between two groups of people which we can divide in two categories; the traditional, past and well known, Socrates, Plato and Alcibiades and the contemporaneous, present and well unknown, Antagoras, Timonax and Acastos.

Meanwhile ‘the unknown’ are those of what Murdoch’s think they are the most representative of today’s ideas about religion, ‘the known’ are the keepers of the style and thought of the glorious Greek era; this book is an attempt to show what is still valid from the Greek philosophy, Platonism and the search for the Good; is also an argument to reinstate this points from a today’s perspective which according to Iris Murdoch can answer better than traditional religion, the problems on morality and values.

It is interesting to see Murdoch’s perspective of what it is today’s problems about religion. The first argument on the book is held by Antagoras a hefty atheist who belief that religion is a ‘fable suitable for childish primitives’ (pp498), ‘essentially magic’ something for the uncultured, it is a social phenomenon with stabilizing political powers in a society which is changing and accepting that science and facts are above this magic. ‘Man the measure of all things, we invented the gods… Once we understand this we can’t believe in gods. We can’t go back once we’ve become rational and free, it’s an irreversible move.’ (Pp 499)

The second argument held by Timonax adds the perspective of the socially conscious, accepting that religion is based in old stories and lies and he argues the immorality of such idea because ‘stops people from thinking about how to change society’, ‘it makes people lazy and stupid, it consoles them for their rotten lives, they can think about heaven and not care about changing the world.’, For Timonax consensus is the most important, he argues that man should be god on the basis that ‘everybody capable of thinking and distinguishing true and false.’

Third is Acastos a fair, moderate and honest curious person. With his speech Murdoch opens the door to a moderate solution, a shifting between what it is considered religion to a new word game. Acastos belief that the problem of religion today is that it can’t accept its own death “ Religion is having an intense attitude and no time off. I mean, it’s more like life, like real life. Life is awful, terrible, like war, and we’re always at war, and then death come to us all and – religion is about those awful deep things.” 507 and I have to say that to me here is the key point in the whole argument.

If we are to consider that it is time to religion to accept its dead, at least in the shape we know it; with it will die all sense of morality we have as e know it, at least the morality that comes from that religion. Personally I can’t see any problem with this, it is in many ways, extreme freedom, a fantastic set up for self-knowledge and self-understanding of our religious, intellectual and factual needs.

What it seems very curious to me in Murdoch’s argument it is once she reach this point, some sense of prude need of morality – ‘I don’t think freedom is very important’ (pp 515) -, draw her back to the Greeks, a civilization which is not precisely alive in its pure form. Most of her sensitivities about religion comes from the merge between Jewish Christian tradition and Greek philosophy and what it is so intertwined that it is difficult to assess correctly.

But the complexity of Murdoch ideas lies at first on the split, from an atheist point of view, of morals from religion to describe what religion do and do not cover (the individual, the political and the language used by it) to later propose reunite them in a Platonist metaphysical new order.

The solution for Murdoch is on Plato and Socrates voices. For Plato religion ‘is what can really change us. Morality is ‘derivative’ it is absolute. The Good is absolute, and truth shows the way. Good becomes God and through this process she proposes a religious role for metaphysics.


Plato explain us what religion should be,

  • Truth isn’t facts, its a mode of being. It’s finding out what’s real and responding to it.
  • If we even try to love what’s good our desires can improve, they can change direction, that’s what I call freedom. That’s becoming morally better, and it’s possible and that’s why it’s possible. Real freedom is not to be a slave of selfish desires. It’s when you have you know a feeling of reality. (pp 515)
  • [beauty] It is religion and is happening all the time. If it’s not everywhere, in the air we breathe, it isn’t what I mean. If it’s something whose non-existence is possible it isn’t what I mean! It’s to do with life being a whole and not a lot of random choices. Religion must be proved by the whole life, it isn’t a sort of oddity or side issue or one choice among others, it isn’t weird like magic. If it’s anything it must be everything, it must be proved by loving people and learning things and looking at things. It’s not abstract, it’s all here. It’s not retiring from the world, it’s knowing the world, the real world, this world as it really is, in all its – details – 516
  • Ideas work in life, they can become incarnate in how we live, that’s how they become real!
  • Metaphors aren’t just ornaments, they’re fundamental modes of knowledge – it’s like what’s at higher more difficult level appears to us first as a shadow, or an image – then we break through the image and move on and –
  • “Religion is the love and worship of the good, and that’s the real basis of morality. Duty, that’s what we feel when we want the good but love other things more.” 519
  • Socrates: Religion is our love of virtue lightening the present moment. It is respect for what we know and reverence for what we don’t know…
  • Religion and virtue are not always allies; religion is many things and must be subject to justice and truth.
  • Goodness is simple; it’s just very difficult.


After splitting up religion from morals, replacing Good for God Murdoch reunite them in a new order where religiosity is in a higher form than we know it; metaphysics. It is clear that she can’t or don’t want to talk about morals, wherever the angle, without a religious sense. Here is the key problem in the argument, the replacement don’t solve the problem it just changes the wording and it comes more difficult to apply it when the source of the solution, the reason and logic of the Greek tradition, is the set of ideas which actually lead us to this point.

Franklin I. Gamwell, in “On the Loss of Theism” in Iris Murdoch and the search for Human Goodness; (The University of Chicago Press, 1996) Points out that Murdoch’s metaphysics seeks to “promote understanding of very general features of our lives” and also “Offers huge general pictures of what must be the case for human being to be as it is this arguments are “successful appeals to experience.” It also “‘Leaves everything as it is – except ignorance of self and self-deception” (pp172) to finish later that “With Plato, she holds that ‘goodness is connected with reality’”.

But what for Gamwell seems to be the problem is that the account of Theism of Murdoch is taking theism mostly based on the Anselm’s Ontological Argument and from there she moves to the need of “demythologisation” as something necessary. “But the Good is not God. Murdoch’s metaphysics moves “from ‘God’ to ‘Good’ taking religion along too”. The problem with the word God is the ontological commitment it comes with it. Theology has to continue without God mostly because the concept of a Theistic God is very problematic metaphysically “”But a supreme being, if it is not totalizing in a sense that implicitly denies all differences, “becomes one more contingent thing among others, even if the grandest one” and, therefore, cannot be the unconditional element in the structure of reason and reality.

Stanley Hauerwas in “Murdochian Muddles: Can We Get Through Them If God Does Not Exist?” (Iris Murdoch and the search for Human Goodness; The University of Chicago Press, 1996) He clearly states the problem from the Christian tradition to accept Murdoch proposal is the perception that Christian have about sin, “Christians believe that our lives are at once more captured by sin and yet sustained by a hope that cannot help but appear false given Murdoch’s account of the world. A Christian understanding of sin and hope is, moreover, correlative to an account of creation that sustains a theological account of the world and our place in it” (pp 194).

Sin is something that directly accounts to the question about evil and its effects we can see that from Murdoch is trying to keep a Greek naive view about evil as the greater sin would be ignorance. In this sense the atheism suggested by Murdoch is an attempt to close the cycle witnessing how science, moral realism, becomes the new governing force a new religion.

“What is worrisome about Murdoch is not that she is an atheist, but that she is too religious.”

Fergus Kerr; in “Back To Plato With Iris Murdoch” (Immortal Longings, Versions of Transcending Humanity; SCPK, 1997) Describe that the main fear on Iris Murdoch is “with the loss of faith in traditional religion, people have no way of seeing that certain actions are transparently wrong or absolutely right – whatever the consequences and however one may feel.”

It is a fear of losing herself in the fact/value dichotomy, of getting the facts right as objectively and impartial as is humanly attainable. Murdoch fear, according to Kerr is “When it turns out that the God’s eye viewpoint is unattainable, there is no call to rush to the other extreme, into the belief that objectivity and impartiality are never available for human beings” (pp73)

For Murdoch Plato is a religious thinker. “A thinker is religious, in Murdoch’s sense, when he finds there is no gap, ultimately, between the facts and our values.” Pp 86 “It is precisely because we constantly recognize our imperfections, our failures that we have access to knowledge of reality and knowledge of ourselves. That is Murdoch’s version of aspiring to transcend ourselves.”

Murdoch’s Idea is going back to go forward, but the fact/value dichotomy it is always changing. Every Easter, Hanukkah, and every time a law changes or a scientific paradigm changes. Absolutes and relative values always existed, may be we have to “align them horizontally” Simone Weil.


Western culture is a culture that can’t accept its own death. In the cycle of life people born and die and we can also say that cycle can be apply to civilizations; the Greeks; Persians; Romans; Aztecs; Incas; Mayas etc. born rule and died and yet they still with us in many forms of wisdom and bad habits which the predominant culture of the day accepted as heritage of civilization.

Iris Murdoch sees in the purity of Plato’s ideas something is still overlooked, she adheres to that purity in such a pure manner that she advocates to go back in time and start all over again from that very same point and may be, having in mind all what happen in the last two and a half millenniums since then, find that piece of the puzzle missing which let us speaks of the world and to the world with irrefutable Truth.

I think that Murdoch clearly pinpoints the problem on today’s religion and morals but going backwards in time today will not solve the problem. I do agree that Plato was misunderstood, for her he is a religious thinker, for the majority a philosopher, for me the greatest artist of all, a Poet.

But nothing will get us back the consequences of that mistake. Religion, morals and the mess we live in today speaks of a divorce between the two. And it is in this divorce where both will find new freedom. Morals in all its uncertainties will be a problem for the rulers of the world, the dirty job of balancing human freedom and what it is consider order, good, ethical. Religion on the other side will be free to see the world as it is, to love and to share the burden between men, to believe and prey, to accept its God’s freedom, Ours and the whole creation.

Thinking morals as the combination of each person ethics in a society, morals should be a very long catalogue of all persons ethics and their amendments, and should change every time a baby born; like an open source – operative system in a computer. I know this sounds as a kind of utopia, and very unpractical; but I guess this is as unpractical as the outcome of moral philosophy can reach from the perspective proposed by Murdoch would be accurate.



Murdoch, Iris; “Above the Gods: A dialogue about Religion” in Existentialists and Mystics (Allen Lane: the Penguin Press, 1988)

Kerr, Fergus; “Back To Plato With Iris Murdoch” in Immortal Longings, Versions of Transcending Humanity; (SCPK, 1997)

Hauerwas, Stanley; “Murdochian Muddles: Can We Get Through Them If God Does Not Exist?” in Iris Murdoch and the search for Human Goodness (The University of Chicago Press, 1996)

Gamwell, Franklin I.; “On the Loss of Theism” in Iris Murdoch and the search for Human Goodness; (The University of Chicago Press, 1996)

Mariano Gutiérrez Alarcón

This is Mariano's Blog, here is a compilation of all my interests, as eclectic as they are, my main intention here is articulate them all in one place, and a better platform to show my work and my thoughts freely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.