I really enjoyed philosopher Stephen Law’s 2011 book Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole where he takes apart many common beliefs, including religious ones, and provides tips about how to deal with the slipperiness of the many arguments put forward by believers. (I wrote three blog posts about it that you can read here.) I can highly recommend the book to those who find themselves constantly drawn into interminable discussions of religion with friends and family.
In a new essay he critiques those sophisticated religious apologists who claim that the criticism made by atheists of religion are aimed at naïve beliefs and that sophisticated views are immune from those critiques. In particular he looks at their invocation of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
What follows is a brief guide to the leading ‘Wittgensteinian’ defences of religious belief, rooted in Wittgenstein’s later work. Note that it’s contentious what Wittgenstein’s later views about religious belief are. The views I discuss are not necessarily Wittgenstein’s own, but attributed to him. Examine these different positions more closely, and we find little to reassure most religious believers that their beliefs are ‘off limits’ so far as atheist criticism is concerned. This is not to say that contemporary atheist criticisms of faith are good – they might not be. It’s just that going Wittgensteinian provides little immunity to such attacks.
Indeed, Wittgenstein is widely interpreted as supposing that, not only can non-believers not contradict what the religious believe, they can’t refute those beliefs either. But why not?
He discusses various types of sophisticated beliefs such as non-cognitive use of religious language in which religious claims are purely expressive and that denies that statements such as “God exists” are factual claims, and thus atheists asking for evidence that they are true is meaningless. But most people do not think like that and that “if there are religious folk who use religious language in a wholly non-cognitivist way, they form a tiny minority.”
He then looks at another claim, that atheists ignore the context of beliefs and that “that there are rich layers of meaning and significance involved in the religious use of God exists etc that are often lost on atheists.” He gives some nice examples of this kind of metaphorical use and what it means to contradict them that are worth reading. Again, he points out that most people do not use religious language in such ways.
He then looks at a third kind of religious defense that he calls ‘atheism minus’:
Theologians often stress that God is not a ‘thing’: God is not some sort of extra item in addition to the Universe and its contents.
Given that atheists understand God to be a ‘thing’ that exists in addition to all other existent things, then however else they might characterise God, in denying that ‘God’ exists, atheists will indeed fail to contradict what theological sophisticates such as Turner believe.
None of the above Wittgensteinian accounts of how religious language is used offers mainstream religious people much in the way of a response to atheist critics. Either the account fails to provide the kind of immunity for which many self-styled Wittgensteinians had hoped, or else the account is implausible as an account of how most religious people – including most self-styled Wittgensteinians – use religious language. As the philosopher John Searle once said: ‘You have to be a very recherché sort of religious intellectual to keep praying if you don’t think there is any real God outside the language who is listening to your prayers.’
My brief summary does not do justice to the essay but is meant to encourage you to read it in full.