Monday, December 19, 2011

Wittgenstein: religion

Here's what I have so far on religion for the IEP article:
Wittgenstein had a lifelong interest in religion and claimed to see every problem from a religious point of view, but never committed himself to any formal religion. His various remarks on ethics also suggest a particular point of view, and Wittgenstein often spoke of ethics and religion together. This point of view or attitude can be seen in the four main themes that run through Wittgenstein’s writings on ethics and religion: goodness, value or meaning are not to be found in the world; living the right way involves acceptance of or agreement with the world, or life, or God’s will, or fate; one who lives this way will see the world as a miracle; there is no answer to the problem of life–the solution is the disappearance of the problem.
Wittgenstein opposed interpretations of religion that emphasize doctrine or philosophical arguments intended to prove God’s existence, but was greatly drawn to religious rituals and symbols, and considered becoming a priest. He likened the ritual of religion to a great gesture, as when one kisses a photograph. This is not based on the false belief that the person in the photograph will feel the kiss or return it, nor is it based on any other belief. Neither is the kiss just a substitute for a particular phrase, like “I love you.” Like the kiss, religious activity does express an attitude, but it is not just the expression of an attitude in the sense that several other forms of expression might do just as well. There might be no substitute that would do. The same might be said of the whole language-game (or games) of religion, but this is a controversial point. If religious utterances, such as “God exists,” are treated as gestures of a certain kind then this seems not to be treating them as literal statements. Many religious believers, including Wittgensteinian ones, would object strongly to this. There is room, though, for a good deal of sophisticated disagreement about what it means to take a statement literally. For instance, Charles Taylor’s view, roughly, is that the real is whatever will not go away. If we cannot reduce talk about God to anything else, or replace it, or prove it false, then perhaps God is as real as anything else.
The main source of information about Wittgenstein’s thoughts on religion is second hand reports of things he said in lectures or conversation and scattered remarks in notebooks. There is not much to go on, in other words. Nevertheless, ideas about religion that come from him and his followers have been much discussed. One such idea is Wittgensteinian fideism. This is the belief, associated with Wittgensteinian philosophers of religion, that faith is beyond criticism either because it is a distinct language-game with its own rules or because faith is really a matter of certain forms of behavior, etc. Whether Wittgenstein is guilty of such fideism is a controversial matter. He would probably agree that philosophy as such cannot criticize religion, but this does not mean that there is anything wrong with people doing so. As with ethics, philosophy does not, as he sees it, have the power to tell us what to believe or to do, but neither does it tell us not to reject this or that ethical theory or religious belief.

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