Now, though, I see that Jean Kazez has linked approvingly to a good essay by James Wood in The Guardian. I agree with most of what Wood says, so let me focus on the less good bits.
Wood doesn't say that Wittgenstein is wrong, but it might be worth pointing out that the fact that his insight can be used as an excuse for lazy thinking doesn't mean that he is guilty of such thinking, nor that all those who agree with him are. Perhaps more importantly, prayer's proposing that God exists and can be communicated with does not make it a proposition in the relevant sense. Only a prayer that says something like "Oh God, you exist and can be communicated with" is that kind of proposition. Maybe prayer presupposes the existence of God, but that isn't the same thing, and might be not quite rightly put anyway.
Now here are two passages from later in the article:
There is an amusing clip on YouTube, in which Dawkins confronts Rowan Williams. Dawkins asks the archbishop of Canterbury if he really believes in miracles such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, happenings in which the laws of physics and biology are suspended. Well, not literally, says Williams. But, says Dawkins, pouncing, surely Williams believes that these are not just metaphors? No, says the archbishop, they are not just metaphors, they are openings in history, "spaces" when history opens up to its own depths, and something like what we call a "miracle" might occur. Dawkins rightly says that this sounds very nice but is surely nothing more than poetic language. Williams rather shamefacedly agrees. The scene is amusing because both men are so obviously arguing past each other, and are so obviously arguing about language and the role of metaphor. Dawkins comes off as the victor, because he has the easier task, and holds the literalist high ground: either the resurrection happened or it didn't; either these words mean something or they do not. Williams seems awkwardly trapped between a need to turn his words into metaphor and a desire to retain some element of literal content.
Dawkins is dead to metaphor, and tries to annul it by insisting on the literal occurrence, contained in actual words, of the virgin birth and the resurrection. And Williams insists that such literalism misses the target, and instead has recourse to the metaphor of "event", of a "space" opening up in history, an indefinably miraculous aberration. One feels sympathy for both sides – and perhaps simultaneously a plague on both their houses – because Dawkins seems so bullishly literal, and Williams so softly evasive. Contra Dawkins, God should be allowed some metaphorical space; but contra Williams, God's presence in the world, God's intervention, should not surely be only metaphorical. God is not just a metaphor.I think this is probably right as a commentary on how we feel about the encounter between Dawkins and Williams, although obviously individual reactions will vary. But it seems unfair to Williams to saddle him with the view that God's presence in the world is only metaphorical when Williams explicitly denies that this is what he is saying. The fact that Williams feels he has to resort to metaphors of opening in order to explain his purportedly non-metaphorical use of language does not make that use metaphorical after all.
At the risk of being reductive, I see three possibilities for theists: God is something, God is nothing, or God is neither something nor nothing. The first is the view of fundamentalists (among others), the second is the view of those who believe that God-talk really is ultimately nothing but metaphorical, and the third is, I think, Wittgenstein's view of what the best kind of religious belief amounts to, as well as being the view of many believers.
So what can it mean to say that God is neither something nor nothing? He is not something in the sense that he is not (meant to be) an object, something just like a human being only bigger, stronger, invisible, smarter, etc. He is not a policeman in the sky or one being among others, only greater. He is not just hard to comprehend but impossible to comprehend, essentially a mystery. On the other hand he is not nothing either, not just a metaphorical posit for talk that is all really about love or kindness or whatever. God would not be mysterious if he were just a metaphor. Perhaps the thing to say is that God is something but not a something.
Anyway, I think Wood is better on how Dawkins goes wrong than he is on Williams. And I think there is a parallel or connection between Wittgenstein's thoughts on God and his thoughts on feelings such as pain, but I think I'll leave that for another post.