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Notes for Holy Cross School on Religious Language from ppt

Notes for Holy Cross School on Religious Language from ppt

       Wittgenstein on religious language
       Stephen Law
       Threats to religious belief

       Religions appear to many to make claims, claims that have in many cases been refuted, or that are at least dubious, e.g.
       The universe was created as described in Genesis (6k yrs old)
       The Earth is fixed and immovable (Psalms 104.5&  96.10)
       There exists an omnipotent and supremely benevolent creator God.
       A misunderstanding
       In response, some insist that religion has been misunderstood – it does not make claims at all. Thus it does not make claims that might be considered dubious, or turn out to be false.
       “God exists”, “Electrons exist”
       “God created the World”, “Bevin created the NHS”
       Wittgenstein’s later philosophy
       Superficial similarities mask deep differences in use.
       “God exists” is not used to make a claim, but in some other way.
       Wittgenstein is often appealed to to justify this view.
       Wittgenstein’s later philosophy: philosophical puzzles are generated by not paying sufficient attention to how language is used.
       “Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe, through thick and thin, which you can only do as the result of life. Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it.”
       “It would make no difference if there had never been a historical person as Jesus is portrayed in the gospels.”
       “God exists”, “Electrons exist”.
       Use is what gives words their meaning, and the uses that give these forms of words meaning are quite different.
       But how exactly is religious language - e.g. “God exists” - used if not to make a claim that might turn out to be false?
       Some think Wittgenstein endorses an expressivist view, similar to e.g. A.J. Ayer’s  emotivism in ethics.
       Ayer’s expressivist account of ethical talk
       Ayer: “Killing is wrong” is not used to make a claim, but to express an attitude, like “Boo to killing”.
       Compare: “Hoorah for Liverpool!”
       Neither true nor false.
       Emotivism solves puzzle of search for “fugitive fact” that makes it true (Simon Blackburn).
       So perhaps, similarly, “God exists” is used, not to make a claim (like “Electrons exist”) but to express an attitude.
       E.g. of awe and wonder towards the universe. Like going “Oh Wow!”
       Is this Wittgenstein’s view?
       “Frazer’s account of the magical and religious notions of men is unsatisfactory: it makes these notions appear as mistakes.
       Was Augustine mistaken, then, when he called on God on every page of the Confessions?
       Well -  one might say – if he was not mistaken, then the Buddhist holy-man, or some other, whose religion expresses quite different notions, surely was. But none of them was making a mistake except where he was putting forward a theory.” (Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough 1)
       “Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of a loved one. This is obviously not based on a belief that it will have a definite effect on the object which the picture represents. It aims at some satisfaction and it achieves it. Or rather, it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied.” (RFGB 4)
       Religious beliefs are not in competition with science and cannot be falsified by science.
       Religious beliefs are not theories, and so cannot come into conflict with or be contradicted by scientific theories.
       Nor is atheism a contradiction of religious belief. The atheist is not someone who holds a rival theory to the theist.
       Rather, the atheist just does not have the kinds of feelings and attitudes that the religious person has. They have different ways of life, feel differently about things.
       Criticism of Wittgenstein’s view
       Many religious believers do seem to be making claims/raising scientifically testable hypotheses. For example, many Evangelicals seem to believe that supernatural occurrences (such as miracle cures, fillings turning to gold, etc.) really happen.
       These religious claims are potentially open to scientific falsification.
       Another example: Creationists think the Bible offers a rival scientific theory to Darwin’s.
       In fact, if one really accepted Wittgenstein’s characterization of religious belief, it seems one would be unlikely to continue with it.
       As John Searle says: You have to be a very recherche 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.”
       Bottom line – Wittgenstein urges us to pay attention to how language is actually used.
       It appears religious language is not actually used in the way Wittgenstein suggests (at best it is so used only by a tiny minority).
       130 million US citizens believe the entire universe is 6k years old.
       How many Christians accept “It would make no difference if there had never been a historical person as Jesus is portrayed in the gospels”?
       Wittgenstein-style moves
       Nicholas Lash, “The Impossibility of Atheism” in Theology for Pilgrims.
       Making a promise
       Sometimes language is used, not to make a claim about the world, but to perform an action. Such “performatives” include, for example,
       I name this ship “Titanic”
       I promise to clean the car
       I bet you ten pounds
       I apologize
Now suppose we ask a theist:
Do you believe in God?
They reply,
I do.
This might look, superficially, much this exchange:
Do you believe in electrons?
I do.    
But what if “I do” in the former case is understood, not as expressing agreement with a certain claim (as in the electrons example) but rather as making a promise. Compare:
       Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?
       I do.
Here, “I do” is used to make a not claim, but a promise. But if that’s also how “I do” is meant in response to “Do you believe in God?”, then, similarly, no claim is made.
       Theologian Nicholas Lash says there are two kinds of theists. Those whom, in response to the question “Do you believe in God?”, use “I do” to express agreement with an opinion, and those who use “I do” to expresses such a promise.
       There are, correspondingly, two kinds of atheism: the atheism that rejects the opinion that God exists, and the atheism that involves a refusal to enter into any such promise
       Lash: “the atheism which is the contradictory of the opinion that God exists is both widespread and intellectually uninteresting”.
       Lash: criticism
       My criticism: While it may be that no claim is made in the issuing of a promise, such a claim may nevertheless be presupposed. Notice that when we issue a promise, we issue it to someone – to something like a person.
       So it seems Lash does not assert but does presuppose there’s some such person-like being to whom such a promise might be made.
       But then Dawkins is on target!
       Expression of trust
       Some theists maintain “I believe in God” is used, not to agree that a certain claim – God exists – is true, but rather as an expression of trust.
       I believe in God in the same way as I believe in my wife, or my bank manager. I believe they can be trusted. I believe they are dependable. When I say, “I believe in my wife”, I don’t mean I suppose she exists.
       According to these theists, atheists who think that they can show that religious belief is irrational by showing that the claim “God exists “ is false are missing their target.
       Again, “God exists” is not used to make a claim.
       When someone says “I believe in God” they dont mean they suppose God exists.
       My criticism of “trust” move
       Suppose I say, “I believe in fairies”, meaning by this, not that I believe in the truth of the opinion that fairies exists, but that I place my faith, my trust, in fairies to keep the garden tidy, say. If it’s pointed out to me there’s excellent evidence there are no fairies at the bottom of the garden, it won’t do for me to say, “Ah, but I never claimed there was, did I?”
       My criticism of “trust” move
       Even if I made no such claim, the fact is that my placing my trust in fairies is unreasonable given overwhelming evidence there’s no such thing.
       Ditto placing my trust in God.
       Further problem: these strategies are often applied in an inconsistent and partisan way.
       For example…
       Lash says he offers no opinions.
       Yet he seem to offer various opinions on the subject of God. Books full.
       E.g. God is both “the mystery we confess to be Creator of the world” and that upon which we are absolutely dependent. God “freely, and forgivingly, communicates Himself.” Our creator, Lash adds, issues invitations to us and is that upon which we should have our hearts set.
       So is Lash offering us opinions, or isn’t he? He seems to say plenty about God, but then, when it looks like what he said might be subjected to damaging critical scrutiny, it turns out he never said anything after all.
       Theological sleight-of-hand with words?


Hi Stephen - what is the source for this quotation: “It would make no difference if there had never been a historical person as Jesus is portrayed in the gospels.” Thanks, Sam
Anonymous said…
Hi Stephen,

I unfortunately could not make it to your debate with the Professor John Lennox. Is there a video of the debate? If not, do you think you could post your notes for the debate on the blog?

Thanks very much!
Stephen Law said…
Hi Sam - sure the ref is:

Conversations with M. O'C Drury 101

says similar in culture and Value 32.

Hi anon OK will post notes shortly.
Philolinguist said…
"It appears religious language is not actually used in the way Wittgenstein suggests"

That's true. But there are other ways that Wittgenstein's work can be useful in understanding religion. His discussion of 'forms of life' supports the view that religious beliefs are not arrived at through an exhaustive process of ratiocination. Most people are just born into their chosen faith, or into a culture that favors some religious beliefs over others. So in the above sense, our religious beliefs are not up to us.

But that is also true of many (if not most) of our NON-RELIGIOUS beliefs, particularly our moral ones. The atheist credits his moral beliefs to 'common sense' or 'rationality', but many Wittgensteineans would argue that our moral beliefs are thoroughly historically contingent. E.g. there may come an era when homosexuality becomes the norm, and straight sex is viewed with abhorrence. Moral values have a lot to do with preserving hierarchies, and when those hierarchies (e.g. in gender roles) get destabilized, norms can 'trade places' very quickly.

But what becomes of a society in which the historical relativity of values is taken for granted? We are beginning to find out, in this first 'post-traditional' era in human history. For one thing, it will no longer make sense to wish to 'pass on' one's values to future generations. There will be a misplaced emphasis on being 'authentic' to one's 'human' (i.e. homo sapien) qualities, misplaced since we are only 'human' because of our moral values, NOT vice-versa. There are no moral norms attached to being a mere higher primate. Non-human primates have no morality; they have instincts, and not very edifying ones. So the search for 'authenticity' leads to shallowness and ultimately, brutishness.

But like the proverbial frog in the pot, we won't even notice. If each generation is expected to re-discover and re-shape morality for itself, then the moral values of past generations will count for nothing, and there will be no 'high culture' to aspire to. We won't even know what we missed, and will happily shovel coals on humanity's funeral pyre. Many religious texts teach that the end of humanity will be marked by brutishness (literally, animal-like behavior), self-centredness and hyper-sensuality (if we have nothing else to live for, our appetites are all that's left). Nothing good comes of that combination.

Don't be fooled by the warm glow of civility that still hangs over (some of) us. That glow is fading, and is even now being swiftly overtaken; by barbaric ideologies that exploit the post-traditional rhetoric of moral and cultural equivalence to undermine the last vestiges of all that's best in humanity, in the name of all the worst. Nietzsche was right; he speaks for the victors, the 'Übermensch'.

There is only one hope, and that is in a God who can save us from our own historical contingency and finitude, because all He requires from us (first and foremost) is faith in HIM, not in historically contingent institutions and interpretations, or in our own intelligence, abilities or goodness. It is through acknowledging our ignorance, foolishness and wickedness that we turn to Him, and he will intervene directly in our hearts and lives to counter the powers and principles of this fallen world. Trust in yourself, and you will perish. Judging by the signs, time is short.
wombat said…
It has always seemed rather odd that the ambiguity of "I believe in x" as either referring to "x exists" or alternately "I have trust in x" in a religious context has been able to survive so long given that for example the Bible has been translated into many languages, not all of which share the same linguistic roots. Surely one of them must force the issue, making the translator choose between them or possibly expand the phrasing so that both options are explicitly present.
("x exists and I have trust in x")

One would also expect that there are sufficient persons competent in both languages to check the translation as least for reasonably widespread languages.

Doubly perplexing given the tendency in past centuries to go to war over points of doctrine.
Wittgenstein's Poker said…
This brings to mind the scene in the movie Contact, where Jodie Foster's character (Eleanor Arroway – the skeptical scientist ) challenges Matthew McConaughey's character (Palmer Joss – the hipster theologian) to justify his claim that science fails to give the meaning that human's yearn for….with the unstated claim that God and religion are what provide that meaning.

Arroway presses her point that without proof of God's existence, such meaning is empty and opens one up to self-delusion. Joss pauses for a moment and then asks her, "Did you love your father?" Arroway – taken aback by the question – answers, "Yes, very much." To which Joss fires back, "Prove it."

Somehow, the script writer thought this would be a clever, gotcha moment. Instead, it turned out to be the most idiotic line of the entire movie. At least it gave a good example of the kind of "theological sleight-of-hand with words" as you put it.

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