Wittgenstein’s ‘defense’ of religion

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.

He concludes:

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.


  1. efogoto says

    “atheists understand God to be a ‘thing’ that exists in addition to all other existent things” I understood that to be true when I was a Christian, too. There wasn’t anything in my religious upbringing that taught God was not some such entity. Weird that I never got castigated for such a misunderstanding.

  2. Mark Dowd says

    Not through the whole article yet, but there’s terms being thrown around that seem a bit weird. “Non-cognitivist” being the main one.

    From what I’m understanding in the first several paragraphs, “non-cognitivism” appears to be asserting that when people utter certain phrases they do not mean it literally. So far so good. An example that comes to my mind is the phrase “God damn it”. People who say that are not literally commanding god to damn something, it is just a generic expression of frustration. Is that a fair example of “non-cognitivism”?

    Because if it is, the assertion that all religious language is non-cognitivist is just fucking loony. Why does it need multiple paragraphs to rebut when it is so mind-bogglingly stupid?

  3. Mano Singham says


    I think most religious people are not taught any such thing. I know that I was never taught that in church or Sunday school and the idea only came up in rarefied theological discussions among intellectual where god was referred to as the ‘ground of being’ or something like that because it was only in those venues that the existence of gods came under serious scrutiny.

  4. file thirteen says


    I think non-cognitivism is just another word for faith, ie. something you emotionally feel really strongly about, regardless of whether it makes any logical sense..

  5. efogoto says

    Mano, I agree. It just jars on me to hear the phrasing that “atheists understand God to be …” because so many atheists got their understanding of what gods are from inside religion, when they were being raised in it, rather than arriving at that understanding as outside observers that don’t comprehend what the religious truly believe. Sneering at atheists for having that understanding is equally sneering at a large percentage of the religious population.

  6. John Morales says


    It just jars on me to hear the phrasing that “atheists understand God to be …”

    Nah, thats an ancillary problem.

    Main problem is that it should be “atheists understand God not to be …”

    For example: “Given that atheists understand God to not 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.”

    (Obviously, even adequate thinkers understand that some things that exist are abstractions, the which need not have veridical existence)

  7. says

    There was another part of the article that I found interesting that you didn’t quote from, where it discusses what it calls the “juicer” view--the idea that religious beliefs contain both factual and non-factual dimensions. The author argues that even if atheists are ignorant of the non-factual dimensions, they may still contradict the factual components.

    This view is interesting, because it suggests a reason for why persuading believers is so difficult. For example, suppose that when a believer says “God exists”, they are not just making a factual claim about God, but also expressing their love for doing what is right. And then an atheist critic comes along and argues that God doesn’t exist, and the believer gets defensive because it feels like an attack on morality itself. The misunderstanding goes both ways, with the atheist critic missing the non-factual dimensions of belief, and the believer misunderstanding the target of the atheist’s criticism.

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