My view in a nutshell is that he is right on the edge between theism and atheism. More on the edge than I would have thought possible, like Robin Hood getting even closer to the bull’s-eye than anyone else by splitting an arrow that was already there. He sometimes chides himself for having only weak faith, but his faith is weak. He wrestles with God, with himself, with his faith, and with his relative lack of faith. He is clearly attracted to Christianity, but he rejects it. For instance, in February 1937 he writes that he rejects “the Christian solution of the problem of life (salvation, resurrection, judgement, heaven, hell).”[i] He still has a relationship with God, peppering his writings with such expressions as “God willing” and “Thank God” in a way that is clearly not just a manner of speaking. No atheist would write “God! let me come into a relationship with you in which I “can be cheerful in my work”!”[ii] At the same time, though, this remark shows that he is not in the kind of relationship he wants.One might be tempted to compare him to Simone Weil, who famously writes:I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.[iii]This is not Wittgenstein’s position, or so it seems to me. There is no sense in which he is quite sure that there is a God. On the contrary, he says repeatedly that there is no one there. This remark could be interpreted as the rejection only of a crude sort of theism, but Wittgenstein does not follow it up with any more sophisticated theology. Although he undeniably has a kind of faith, the idea that he believes there is a God is very deniable indeed. There is also no sense in which he has a love of God that could not be an illusion. His relationship with God is more like a struggle than an instance of love (“To get rid of the torments of the mind, that is to get rid of religion,” he writes on February 21st 1937), although of course one can be tormented by or struggle with a loved one.[iv] And whatever love he might have for God could be an illusion, or at least infected with some measure of illusion. Wittgenstein is aware of the danger of superstition. One last quotation might serve as a kind of encapsulation of the nature of his faith. On February 22nd 1937 he writes:Now I often tell myself in doubtful times: “There is no one here.” and look around. Would that this not become something base in me!I think I should tell myself: “Don’t be servile in your religion!” Or try not to be! For that is in the direction of superstition.A human being lives his ordinary life with the illumination of a light of which he is not aware until it is extinguished. Once it is extinguished, life is suddenly deprived of all value, meaning, or whatever one wants to say. One suddenly becomes aware that mere existence—as one would like to say—is in itself still completely empty, bleak. It is as if the sheen was wiped away from all things,
everything is dead.[v]
Should we call this unnoticed, meaning-giving illumination God? It would be misleading to label Wittgenstein as either a theist or an atheist. He wears religious language like a necessary but ill-fitting and uncomfortable garment. Yet he won’t take it off, and sometimes seems to feel an obligation toward it, however much he is inclined to rebel against it. What is interesting is not the generalizations or labels but the details of his case.
[i] Wittgenstein Public and Private Occasions, edited by James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, p. 169.[ii] Ibid., p. 181, from 15th February 1937.[iii] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr, Routledge Classics, 2002, p. 114.[iv] Wittgenstein 2003, p. 199.[v] Ibid., p. 207.
I think that he was neither a theist nor an atheist, at least not as those terms are standardly used (and how else are we to use them?). He has a religious point of view, but not religious belief. So maybe it's no better to call him a religiously-inclined atheist (as I did in an earlier draft) than to call him a non-religious theist.
Having offered a "last quotation" to encapsulate Wittgenstein's faith (which is probably a bad idea in the first place), here's another:
A religious question is either a question of life or it is (empty) chatter. This language game--one could say--gets played only with questions of life. Much like the word "ouch" does not have any meaning--except as a scream of pain.
I want to say: If eternal bliss means nothing for my life, my way of life, then I don't have to rack my brain about it; if I am to rightfully think about it, then what I think must stand in a precise relation to my life, otherwise what I think is rubbish or my life is in danger.--An authority which is not effective, which I don't have to heed, is no authority. If I rightfully speak of an authority I must also be dependent upon it. (pp. 211-213)It seems to me that he's not sure whether his faith (if that is the right word for it) is rubbish or not. Maybe this is a common concern for believers, but if so that does not prove that he is a real believer. Is his way of life dependent on God? He doesn't seem sure. And so I, taking him at his word as best I can, am not sure either.
But actually it might well be a mistake to focus on supposedly telling quotations like these. Perhaps his regular, less doubt-filled, writing is a better guide. And there he does seem dependent on God, he does seem at home in that language game. That is, it would be extremely difficult to translate his writings into language devoid of reference to God. (I still think he's some distance from Simone Weil though.)