How Believers Try to Defend Their Faith by ‘Going Wittgensteinian’

April 14, 2016

Wittgenstein's views on religious belief are cryptic. We have comparatively few of his comments on religion, and most of what we do have were neither recorded by Wittgenstein himself nor intended by him for publication. Here I aim to assess some of the arguments that have been attributed to Wittgenstein in support of a view about religious belief that I call No Contradiction:

No Contradiction. When atheists deny the beliefs they take to be expressed by such sentences as

(a) 'God exists'

(b) 'God created the world'

(c) 'Jesus rose from the dead'

(d) 'We will face a Judgement Day'

they fail to contradict the religious beliefs such sentences are used to express.

Often associated with No Contradiction is a further related thesis that I call Immunity:

Immunity. Even if an atheist were successfully to refute the belief they took such a sentence to express (by providing empirical evidence to the contrary, say), they would fail thereby to refute the religious belief expressed.

There are passages in which Wittgenstein does appear to commit himself to something like No Contradiction. Consider:

If you ask me whether or not I believe in a Judgement Day, in the sense in which religious people have belief in it, I wouldn't say: 'No. I don't believe there will be such a thing.' It would seem to me utterly crazy to say this. And then I give the explanation: 'I don't believe in ...', but then the religious person never believes what I describe. I can't say. I can't contradict that person.(Lectures and Conversations p55)

Philosopher Simon Glendinning interprets this and the surrounding text as articulating a criticism of what Glendinning calls the 'modern atheist'. According to Glendinning's Wittgenstein,

the crucial feature of the one who takes an atheist position, the one, for example, who feels obliged on occasion to insist that there will be no Judgement Day, is that he or she does so because (by his or her lights) another person believes the opposite, believes, in this case, that there will be a Judgement Day. (2013, 42)

Glendinning is 'honestly disgusted' with such modern atheist position-taking (2013, 42). While neither he nor Wittgenstein are religious believers, says Glendinning, neither are they atheists of the modern variety to which he supposes Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett belong. Glendinning and Wittgenstein simply fail to believe, rather than confusedly try to adopt the modern atheist position of 'believing the contrary'. Glendinning explains as follows:

The religious believer’s beliefs are of a very distinctive sort, quite different to typical scientific beliefs, but the modern atheist’s assertion of double belief—that 'there won’t be a Judgment Day, but another person says there will'—supposes that there are two beliefs in view here that can be traded in the marketplace of reason; just as if one were to assert that 'there won’t be an eclipse tomorrow, but another person says there will.' In the latter case the two market sellers may well contradict each other, 'they mean the same.' (2013, 50)

But why don't the religious believer and the atheist 'mean the same' by 'There will be a Judgement Day'? Why is the atheist who says 'There won't be a Judgement day, but another person says there will' mistaken in supposing they contradict what the religious person believes? I examine Glendinning's explanation at the end of this paper. In the meantime, let's establish an overview of some of the explanations on offer.

While commentators disagree about precisely what Wittgenstein's views on religious belief are, there is a broad consensus on at least this much: that Wittgenstein's aim is to clarify the nature of religious belief by clarifying the way in which expressions of such belief are used and the role they play in the lives of the faithful. What Wittgenstein supposes such an investigation reveals, it is generally agreed, is that the way in which the religious use such sentences as (a), (b), (c), and (d) is very different to the way in which we typically use the superficially similar sentences 'Electrons exist', 'Bevin created the National Health Service', 'John rose from his bed', and 'We will come before a judge and jury'. It is this difference in use that some then suppose delivers No Contradiction. When an atheist - certainly one of Glendinning's 'modern' variety - targets the religious beliefs expressed by such sentences as (a) to (d), they betray a misunderstanding. They suppose these sentences are indeed used by the religious to make claims akin to those made using 'Electrons exist', 'Bevin created the NHS', etc. But the religious person uses sentences (a) to (d) very differently, and so with a quite different meaning. So when the atheist says e.g. 'God does not exist', 'It's false that God created the world', 'Jesus did not rise from the dead', and 'There won't be a Judgement Day', they fail to contradict the beliefs expressed by the religious using (a) to (d). Moreover, some would add that what such atheists attempt to refute when they target the religious belief expressed by (a) to (d) is not what the religious actually believe.What is controversial among those Wittgensteinians who sign up to No Contradiction is precisely how such religious sentences are used, and precisely why this difference in use should have No Contradiction, and perhaps also Immunity, as a consequence. Let's look at the three main views on offer: non-cognitivist, 'juicer', and atheist-minus (as I shall call them)... (link)

If you want to find out more, and in particular understand why I consider Simon Glendinning's 'disgusted' reaction to the modern atheist entirely unjustifed, you can read my forthcoming paper here. It will appear in The European Journal of Philosophy.


#1 melvin on Sunday April 17, 2016 at 1:34pm

I defer to your superior knowledge in linguistics in general and semantics in particular.  The late pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty weighed in helpfully in my view towards unpacking the linguistic tangle of the dilemma. Language is used to bring objects and events under a description or narrative from a particular point of view. Any belief is “true” when the person holding the belief has found that the practice(s)that serve pertinent interests, needs and purposes justify the belief. Example: A medieval Catholic father prays daily in the cathedral to God to cure his child racked with fever. If she recovers, his belief in the efficacy of prayer is reinforced.  He believes that the practice of prayer can cure [an infectious disease] and finds inter-subjective agreement with the townspeople. His belief is “true” but since 90% of children similarly afflicted die, people are motivated to look for “other practices” that can augment prayer in bringing about the cure. A modern Catholic father takes his sick child to a doctor who administers penicillin and she recovers in 24 hours.  He still prays for her recovery but his belief in prayer as an effective practice is reduced to near zero.  He relies on the overwhelming evidence that penicillin administered by practitioners of modern medical science will do the job.  He nonetheless backs up his 99% confidence in the anti-biotic with 1% “insurance” by way of praying to a supernatural supreme being to step in and rectify any very remote but possible complications if something goes wrong.

Herein lies the point.  We cannot extirpate belief by “proving” that “God does not exist” to a pious person who holds the belief that God exists. In a linguistic sense, all beliefs are justified and therefore “true” based on empirical evidence, and experience put under various descriptions and narratives from a situated personal and inter-subjective point of view.  What weakens religious belief, and over time works the linguistic descriptions of the belief out of the consensus language, are empirical-scientific practices that virtually eliminate any supernatural explanation of how our human interests, needs and purposes are served.

The end-point of the process is problematic to predict if it turns out that the human brain is wired to to find some modicum of comfort, reassurance, and safety in a supernatural force that plays a favorable role in our welfare and rescues us from the finality of death.

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