January 16, 2019

What Did Wittgenstein Say About Religion

“When contemporary atheists criticise religious beliefs, they usually criticise beliefs that only crude religious thinkers embrace. Or so some people claim. The beliefs of the sophisticated religious believer, it’s suggested, are immune to such assaults.

Those making this kind of response often appeal to the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) – in particular, to remarks he made in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief (1967) and Culture and Value (1970), both published posthumously. Wittgenstein made a number of interesting, if rather cryptic, comments about religious belief in these books, and did seem to suggest that such atheist criticisms miss their mark.

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.

In Lectures, Wittgenstein said that, as a non-believer, he couldn’t contradict what the religious person believes:

If you ask me whether or not I believe in a Judgment 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.

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?”

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