Religious Antirealists

Many points of religious doctrine look like knowledge claims.

  • “There was an original human pair,”
  • “Muhammed split the moon into two pieces,”
  • “There was a global flood”

… and so on.

These claims appear to compete with scientific claims. They appear to aim at truth. We might take this to be evidence that religious doctrines actually do aim at truth, and if we were to do so, we would be accepting a position called religious realism. Realism would not be limited to religious doctrines. Many religious practices make little sense unless we assume their practitioners think they’re effective. Why pray to god if there is no god there to hear?

Now, there are also antirealists who argue that truth is not an aim of religion. Wittgenstein, for example, argues that religious beliefs are methodological rules rather than hypothetical conjectures. To believe in the resurrection of Christ is not to accept any proposition as true, but to have a commitment to a particular methodology.

Consider:

(A): “Everything happens for a reason”

On Wittgenstein’s view, someone who accepts (A) actually accepts the following rule of interpretation, (A*):

(A*): “For all events, infer at least one purpose.”

So, if I were to disagree with you about the truth of (A), then all I’m really saying is that (A*) is not a methodological proposition that I accept. I see the world one way, and you see the world another way. You infer purposes. I do not. Thus, religious discourse is impervious to external evidence. Religious beliefs are not held on the basis of empirical evidence, and neither are they revised in the light of it. They are commitments to a particular style of reasoning: they are ways of framing all subsequent experience.

Wittgenstein notes that this shows that religion and science are playing different games with different rules. He says ‘Whether a thing is a blunder or not—it is a blunder in a particular system.’ (2009, 170) So, the rugby player doesn’t blunder when he picks up the ball and runs with it, despite this being a blunder in a game of soccer. And the religious person doesn’t blunder when they claim that there was a global flood, even though this would be a blunder in science.

What about the claim that some religious practices are thought to be effective? Wittgenstein also thinks this is wrong:

Kissing the picture of one’s beloved. That is obviously not based on the belief that it will have some specific effect on the object which the picture represents… it aims at nothing at all; we just behave this way and then we feel satisfied.

To interpret kissing a picture as though it had some particular aim would be to uncharitably mischaracterize the intentional states of the agent. It would be to portray them as insane.

But just how uncharitable is it in every case? There seem to be some very clear counterexamples to the antirealist position. For example, members of the Christian Science Church choose prayer over conventional medicine to cure diseases. This has led to many otherwise preventable deaths of the children of Christian Science Church members. Why did the parents act this way? Is there really a better explanation of their actions than the claim that they believed that their prayers would be effective? The parents did not just ‘behave this way and then … feel satisfied’. No. The parents made a mistake. They had a particular belief about effective health care, and their belief was wrong. To describe their behavior—allowing their children to die—as ritualistic or aimless or whatever, is about as uncharitable as you are going to get.

The antirealist has two choices. He can say that the prayers of the christian scientists aren’t truly religious acts, or he can deny that their prayers actually have the aims that they say they do. If he takes the first option, and argues that the prayers of the Christian Scientists are not truly religious, then this is a blatant ‘no true scotsman’ fallacy. If he argues, on the other hand, that the Christian Science Church members only appear to be trying to cure their children of disease, but in reality, their prayers are aimless. Well, then he’s just wrong.

Christian Science Church members, David and Ginger Twitchell, refused to seek medical help for their son, Robyn’s, obstructed bowel. Instead of taking him to the hospital, they prayed for him day and night. He died and the parents were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. After the trial, David Twitchell, expressed his deep regret and remorse. His failure, he said, was in not praying with sufficient faith. Had he prayed in the way that God required, his son would still be alive today. I see no reason not to take Twitchell at his word. His prayers had a particular aim, and he sincerely believed they would be effective.

Some other antirealists, like D.Z. Phillips, argue that religious people and scientists talk past each other when they each claim that their beliefs are true. “Truth” is an ambiguous term. The scientific concept of truth is a relation between statements and the way the world actually is, whereas the religious concept of truth isn’t like this. When Jesus proclaimed that he was ‘the way, the truth, and the light’, he didn’t mean that he was a relation between sentences and the world. Religious truth is a value-laden concept. If religious truth and scientific truth are different things, it seems to follow that there is a logical divide between science and religion that cannot be broached.

While it may be true that the word “truth” is used differently in different contexts, this does not imply that truth is an ambiguous relation. You see, if religious “truth” and scientific “truth” are just homonyms, then we can easily get around the problem. We can just dub the religious concept of truth “R-truth” and the scientific concept of truth “S-truth”. Well, now the apparent logical divide is gone. The hardline skeptical scientist would say “there are no S-true propositions in religion”, and the hardline religious believer would say “there is no R-truth in science”. The question of interest, then, is just whether any religious propositions aim to be S-true. Well, as far as I can tell, the claim that there was a global flood is taken by many evangelicals to be S-true, not R-true, and the fact that the creationist Ken Ham just spent over $100 million on building a Noah’s Ark museum full of evidence for a young earth is the pudding where the proof can be found.  

 

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