Wittgenstein on religous belief

Why the sentence “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” should not be evaluated as false.

I find that my suggestion that religious beliefs standing in apparent contradiction to well-established truths of science should not be regarded as simply “false” (in the sense that the belief that Little Rock is the capital of Iowa is false) is not at all original.

A reader who is a professional philosopher writes:

You may be interested to know (if you don’t already) that Wittgenstein held a view of religious belief quite similar to your own.

From Culture and Value (a collection of his notes on a range of topics):

“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 that is appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe, through thick and thin, which you can do only as the result of a life. Here you have a message!–don’t treat it as you would another historical message! Make a quite different place for it in your life.–There is nothing paradoxical about that!

Queer as it sounds: the historical accounts of the Gospels might, in the historical sense, be demonstrably false, and yet belief would lose nothing through this: not, however, because it has to do with ‘universal truths of reason’! Rather, because historical proof (the historical proof-game) is irrelevant to belief. This message (the Gospels) is seized on by a human being believingly (i.e. lovingly): That is the certainty characterizing this particular acceptance-as-true, nothing else.

The believer’s relation to these messages is neither a relation to historical truth (probability) nor yet that to a doctrine consisting of ‘truths of reason’. There is such a thing.–(We have quite different attitudes even to different species of what we call fiction!)”

There is much more in this vein in Culture and Value and in Lectures on…Religious Belief.

The only place in which Wittgenstein might quibble with your remarks is in your characterization of Biblical historical claims as metaphorical. I suspect he would think that even this misconstrues the status of those claims (although much less egregiously than regarding them as susceptible to ‘the historical proof-game’)–that it still fails to take the measure of the distinctive character of the religious person’s attitude toward these claims.

I myself have some doubts about the view of religious belief you and Wittgenstein share. It is appealing, in that appears to promise less conflict between religious doctrine and other areas of thought (by opening the possibility that our perceptions of such conflicts are based on a misunderstanding of the commitments involved in believing religious doctrine).

On the other hand, some of the ways in which some religious people attempt to deploy their beliefs in public life, and some of the demands they make upon the state, the evolution issue being a case in point, seem intelligible only if they are construing their beliefs as having the same kind of meaning and status as scientific and historical claims. I’m inclined to think that your and Wittgenstein’s view of religious belief is most plausible if understood as expressing an ideal, one which ordinary religious people, being no less prone to confusion and blindness than anyone else, may sometimes fail to achieve.

[I must confess to being a little daunted to find myself agreeing with Wittgenstein, as my own sympathies lie much more with Popper and Ramsay.]

My correspondent is surely right that “metaphor” is an imprecise term to describe the way in which those believers too grown-up to take the Bible stories as literal truth hold them. “Myth” (in the Jungian sense) would have been more nearly accurate, though still not quite right.

My sense is that most religious believers don’t believe in God the way they believe in the Sun or the supermarket, and that most of them couldn’t give a coherent account of the meaning of the word “believe” in, e.g., the sentence “I believe in One God.” But if the “demand” is simply that the state not use its control of the educational system to denigrate those beliefs, then it is not necessary to be a literal believer in the Genesis story to be queasy about having biology teachers teach as Truth what seems to be a directly contradictory account.

One option, suggested by my friend Mike O’Hare, would be to make the teaching of evolution less dogmatic.

Teachers could say, “This is the theory of evolution. It is believed by almost all scientists competent to form an opinion, and it is based on the following observations and reasoning. You are responsible for being able to state the theory and the evidence supporting it, but it’s not my job to tell you what to believe.”

That approach would be useful in teaching critical thinking, but of course since it’s not the way most things are taught in school, singling out evolution for such treatment would suggest — falsely — that it is a matter of legitimate scientific controversy in a way that the heliocentric theory of planetary motion is not.

This line of reasoning suggests making all teaching less dogmatic: exposing schoolchildren in history class to conflicting ideas about historical events, for example.

In many ways, that seems like an attractive idea, but I doubt it’s fully practicable with current staffing. If we want our schoolteachers to be able to do complicated things, we’re going to have to buy ourselves a better grade of schoolteacher.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com