(Sample Material) UPSC Mains Philosophy (Optional) Study Kit "Philosophy of Religion (Religious Beliefs and Language-games)"

Sample Material of UPSC Mains Philosophy (Optional) Study Kit

Topic: Philosophy of Religion (Religious Beliefs and Language-games)


RECENTLY, many philosophers of religion have protested against the philosophical assertion that religious beliefs must be recognized as distinctive language-games. They feel that such an assertion gives the misleading impression that these language-games are cut off from all others. This protest has been made by Ronald Hepburn, John Hick, and Kai Nielsen, to give but three examples. Hepburn says, ‘Within traditional Christian theology ... questions about the divine existence cannot be deflected into the question “Does ‘God’ play an intelligible role in the     language-game?”

Hick thinks that there is something wrong in saying that ‘The logical implications of religious statements do not extend across the border of the Sprachspiei into assertions concerning the character of the universe beyond that fragment of it which is the religious speech of human beings.’ Nielsen objects to the excessive compartmentalization of modes of social life involved in saying that religious beliefs are distinctive language-games and argues that ‘Religious discourse is not something isolated, sufficient unto it seIf’. Although ‘’Reality’’ may be systematically ambiguous ... what constitutes evidence, or tests for the truth or reliability of specific claims, is not completely idiosyncratic to the context or activity we are talking about.

Activities are not that insulated. ‘I do not want to discuss the writings of these philosophers in this paper. I have already tried to meet some of their objections elsewhere. Rather, I want to treat their remarks as symptoms of a general misgiving about talking of religious beliefs in the way I have indicated which one comes across with increasing frequency in philosophical writings and in philosophical discussions. I write this paper as one who has talked of religious beliefs as distinctive language-games, but also as one who has come to feel misgivings in some respects about doing so.

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What do these misgivings amount to? Partly, at least, they amount to a feeling that if religious beliefs are isolated, self-sufficient language-games, it becomes difficult to explain why people should cherish religious beliefs in the way they do. On the view suggested, religious beliefs seem more like esoteric games, enjoyed by the initiates no doubt, but of little significance outside the internal formalities of their activities. Religious activities begin to look like hobbies; something with which men occupy themselves at week-ends. From other directions, the misgivings involve the suspicion that religious beliefs are being placed outside the reach of any possible criticism, and that the appeal of the internality of religious criteria of meaningfulness can act as a quasi-justification for what would otherwise be recognized as nonsense. There is little doubt that talk about religious beliefs as distinctive language-games has occasioned these misgivings. As I shall try to show later in the paper, to some extent, there is good reason for these misgivings. It is also true, however, that these misgivings must be handled with great care. Some attempts at removing them lead to confusions about the logical grammar of certain religious beliefs. In the first sections of the paper I shall consider some of these.


In face of the misgiving that talk of religious beliefs as distinctive language-games may make them appear to be self-contained esoteric games, some philosophers of religion have denied that such talk is legitimate. What must be established, they argue, is the importance of religious beliefs. People must be given reasons why they ought to believe in God. In this way, religious beliefs are given a basis; they are shown to be reasonable. My difficulty is that I do not understand what is involved in this enterprise. In his ‘Lecture On Ethics’, Wittgenstein emphasizes the difference between absolute judgements of value, and relative judgements of value. Words such as ‘good’, ‘important’, ‘right’, have a relative and an absolute use. For example, if I say that this is a good chair, I may be referring to its adequacy in fulfilling certain purposes. If I say it is important not to catch cold, I may be referring to the unpleasant consequences of doing so. If I say that this is the right road, I may be referring to the fact that it would get me to my destination if I follow it.6 Now, in these instances, I can reverse my judgement as follows: ‘This is not a good chair since I no longer want to relax, but to work’, ‘It is not important that I do not catch a cold since I don’t care about the consequences.

Doing what I want to do will be worth it’, ‘This is not the right road for me, since I no longer want to get to where it would take me.’ But as weIl as a relative use of words like ‘good’, ‘important’, ‘right’, or ‘ought’, there is an absolute use of the words. Wittgenstein iIIustrates, the difference where ‘ought’ is concerned in the following example: Supposing that I could play tennis and one of you saw me playing and said, ‘Well, you play pretty badly’, and suppose I answered, ‘I know, I’m playing badly but I don’t want to play any better’, all the other man could say would be ‘Ah, then that’s all right.’ But suppose I had told one of you a preposterous lie and he came up to me and said, ‘You’re behaving like a beast’ and then I were to say, ‘I know I behave badly, but then I don’t want to behave any better’, could he then say, ‘Ah (then that’s ail right? Certainly not; he would say, ‘Well you ought to want to behave better.’ Here you have an absolute judgement of value, whereas the first instance was one of a relative judgement!

Many religious apologists feel that if religious beliefs are not to appear as esoteric games they must be shown to be important. This is true as far as it goes. What remains problematic is the way in which the apologists think the importance of religion can be established. When they say it is important to believe in God, how are they using the word ‘important’? Are they making a relative or an absolute judgement of value? Sometimes it seems as if relative judgements of value are being made. We are told to believe in God because he is the most powerful being. We are told to believe in God because only those who believe flourish in the end. We are told to believe in God because history is in his hand, and that despite appearances, the final victory is his. All these advocacies are founded on relative judgements of value. As in the other case we mentioned, the judgements are reversible. If the Devil happened to be more powerful than God, he would have to be worshipped. If believers are not to flourish in the end belief becomes pointless. Belief in God is pointless if historical development goes in one direction rather than another.

But need religious beliefs be thought of in this way? Belief in God is represented as a means to a further end. The end is all important, the means relatively unimportant. Belief in God has a point only if certain consequences follow. This seems to falsify the absolute character which belief in God has for many believers. They would say that God’s divinity cannot be justified by external considerations. If we can see nothing in it, there is nothing apart from it which will somehow establish its point. Rush Rhees made a similar observation when he compared an absolute judgement of value in morality with a relative judgement of value:

‘You ought to make sure that the strip is firmly clamped before you start drilling.’ ‘What if I don’t?’ ‘When I tell you what will happen if you don’t, you see what I mean.’ But, ‘You ought to want to behave better.’ ‘What if I don’t?’ ‘What more could I tell yoU?’

We cannot give a man reasons why he should be good. Similarly, if a man urges someone to come to God, and he asks, ‘What if I don’t?’ what more is there to say? Certainly, one could not get him to believe by telling him that terrible things will happen to him if he does not believe. Even if it were true that these things are going to happen, and even if a person believed because of them, he would not be believing in God. He would be believing in the best thing for himself. He would have a policy, not a faith. Furthermore, if religious beliefs have only a relative value, one can no longer give an account of the distinction between other-worldliness and worldliness, a distinction which is important in most religions. The distinction cannot be accounted for if one assumes that the value of religious beliefs can be assessed by applying them to a wider common measure. Consider the following arguments: (i) We should believe in God. He is the most powerful of all beings. We are all to be judged by him in the end. He is to determine our fate. In this argument, there is only one concept of power: worldly power. As it happens God is more powerful than we are, but it is the same kind of power; (ii) Many battles are fought. At times it looks as if the good is defeated and evil triumphs. But there is no reason to fear, the ultimate victory is God’s. Here a common measure is applied to God and the powers of evil, as if God’s victory is demonstrable, something recognized by good and evil alike. The man who says God is not victorious would be contradicting the man who says he is victorious. These apologetic manreuvres remind one of Polus in Plato’s Gorgias.

Polus did not understand Socrates when the latter said that goodness is to a man’s advantage. He pointed to Archelaus the Tyrant of Macedonia. Surely, here was a wicked man who flourished. Is it not easy for even a child to show that Socrates is mistaken? But the fallacy in Polus’s argument is his supposition that he and Socrates can only mean one thing when they speak of advantage, namely, what he, Polus, means by it. “For Socrates, however, it is not the world’s view of advantage which is to determine what is good, but what is good which is to determine what is to count as advantage. In what way are some apologists similar to Polus? In this way: when someone shows them how much power the forces ranged against religion have, they reply, ‘But our God is more powerful!’ But they use the same concept of power. Their idea of power is not qualitatively different from that of their opponents. On the contrary, in their view, the world and God share the same kind of power, only God has more of it. But, like Polus, they need to realize that for many believers, it is not the outcome, the course of events, which is to determine whether God is victorious, but faith in God which determines what is regarded as victory. If this were not so, there would be no tension between the world’s ways of regarding matters, and religious reactions to them. The same tension exists in ethics. There are those for whom justice, to be worth pursuing, must be acceptable to a thousand tough characters. Others, like Socrates, recognizing that in Athens or any other city, anything may happen to one, can say without contradiction, that all will be well. In the eyes of the world, all cannot be well if anything will happen to one. Things must go in one way rather than another. Since, for many believers, love of God determines what is to count as important, there will be situations where what the believer calls success will be failure in the eyes of the world, what he calls joy will seem like grief, what he calls victory will seem like certain defeat. So it was, Christians believe, at the Cross of Christ. In drawing attention to this tension between two points of view my aim is not to advocate either, but to show that any account of religious beliefs which seems to deny that such a tension exists, falsifies the nature of the beliefs in question.

What we have seen in the first section of the paper is how, if philosophers are not careful, misgivings about treating religious beliefs as esoteric games can lead to an attempt to show why religious beliefs are important which distorts the nature of the values involved in such beliefs


Misgivings about the philosophical characterization of religious beliefs as distinctive language-games not only lead to attempts to give an external justification of religious values, but also to attempts both by philosophers who are sympathetic and by philosophers who are unsympathetic to religion to show that their conclusions are reached by criteria of rationality which their opponents do or ought to accept. Unless believers and non-believers can be shown to be using common criteria of rationality, it is said, then the misgivings about religious beliefs being esoteric games cannot be avoided.

Wittgenstein raised the question whether, in relation to religion, the non-believer contradicts the believer when he says that he does not believe what the believer believes.9 If one man contradicts another, they can be said to share a common understanding, to be playing the same game. Consider the following examples. The man who says that the sun is ninety million miles away from the earth contradicts the man who says that the sun is only twenty million miles away from the earth. The man who says that the profit from a business venture is one hundred thousand pounds, is contradicted by the man who says that the profit is fifty thousand pounds. The man who says that there are unicorns contradicts the man who says that there are no unicorns. In these examples, the disputants participate in a common understanding. The disputants about the distance of the sun from the earth share a common understanding, namely, methods of calculation in astronomy. The disputants about the business profit share a common understanding, namely, business methods of calculating gain and loss. The disputants about the unicorns share a common understanding, namely, methods of verifying the existence of various kinds of animals. The disputants differ about the facts, but they are one in logic, that is, they appeal to the same criteria to settle the disagreement. But what if one man says that handling the ball is a foul, and another says that handling the ball is not a foul? Are they contradicting each other? Surely, they are only doing so if they are playing the same game, referring to the same rules.

In the light of these examples, what are we to say about the man who believes in God and the man who does not? Are they contradicting each other? Are two people, one of whom says there is a God and the other of whom says he does not believe in God, like two people who disagree about the existence of unicorns? Wittgenstein shows that they are not. The main reason for the difference is that God’s reality is not one of a kind; he is not a being among beings. The word ‘God’ is not the name of a thing. Thus, the reality of God cannot be assessed by a common measure which also applies to things other than God. But these are conclusions for which reasons must be given.

If I say that something exists, it makes sense to think of that something ceasing to exist. But religious believers do not want to say that God might cease to exist. This is not because, as a matter of fact, they think God will exist for ever, but because it is meaningless to speak of God’s ceasing to exist. Again, we cannot ask of God the kinds of questions we can ask of things which come to be and pass away, ‘What brought him into existence?’ ‘When will he cease to exist?’ ‘He was existing yesterday, how about today?’ Again, we find religious believers saying that it is a terrible thing not to believe in God. But if believing in God is to believe in the existence of a thing, an object, one might wonder why it is so terrible to say that the thing in question does not exist? Or one might be puzzled as to why there is such a fuss about these matters anyway, since religious believers only believe them to be true. We might say, as we would normally in such cases, ‘You only believe-oh well.’ But is this the way in which the word ‘belief’ is used in religion? Is it not queer to say of worshippers, ‘They only believe there is a God’?

What is the reaction of philosophers to these differences? They are not unaware of them. On the contrary, we have quarterly reminders of their multiplicity. But most philosophers who write on the subject see these differences as an indication that serious blunders have been committed in the name of religion for some reason or another. Once the differences are seen as blunders, it is assumed that what are sometimes called ‘the logical peculiarities’ of religious discourse, are deviations from or distortions of non-religious ways of speaking with which we are familiar. Thus, the reality of God is made subject to wider criteria of intelligibility. Like the particular hypotheses about the distance of the sun from the earth, the profit in business, or the existence of unicorns, beliefs about God are thought to have a relative reality; that is, the reality of a hypothesis which is relative to the criteria by which it is assessed. In the case of religious beliefs, it is said that when they are brought into relation with the relevant criteria of assessment, they are shown to be mistakes, distortions, iIIusions, or blunders. If I understand Wittgenstein, he is saying that this conclusion arises, partly, at least, from a deep philosophical prejudice. One characteristic of this prejudice is the craving for generality, the insistence that what constitutes an intelligible move in one context, must constitute an intelligible move in all contexts; the insistence, to take our examples, that the use of ‘existence’ and ‘belief’ is the same in all contexts, and the failure to recognize this as an iIIegitimate elevation of one use of these words as a paradigm for any use of the words. What Wittgenstein shows us in his remarks on religious belief, is why there is good reason to note the different uses which ‘belief’ and ‘existence’ have, and to resist the craving for generality.

One of the ways of generalizing which has serious implications, and leads to a host of misunderstandings in philosophical discussions of religion, is to think that nothing can be believed unless there is evidence or grounds for that belief. Of course, where certain religious beliefs are concerned, for example, belief in the authenticity of a holy relic, grounds and evidence for the belief are relevant. But one cannot conclude that it makes sense to ask for the evidence or grounds of every religious belief. Wittgenstein considers belief in the Last Judgement. Now one way of proceeding is to ask what evidence there is for believing in the Last Judgement. One could imagine degrees of belief concerning it: some say that they are sure about it, others say that possibly there will be a Last Judgement, others do not believe in it. But despite these disagreements, we can say as we did of our earlier examples, that the disputants are one in logic. The Last Judgement seems to be thought of as a future event which mayor may not occur. Those who feel sure it will occur, those who think it might possibly occur, and those who do not think it will occur, are all, logically, on the same level. They are all playing the same game: they are expressing their belief, half-belief, or unbelief, in a hypothesis. So this religious belief is taken to be a hypothesis.

But need religious beliefs always be hypotheses? Clearly not. Wittgenstein points out that the word ‘God’ is among the earliest learnt. We learn it through pictures, stories, catechisms, etc. But, Wittgenstein Warns us, this does not have ‘the same consequences as with pictures of aunts. I wasn’t shown that which the picture pictured.’12 Later, Wittgenstein iIlustrates the point as follows:

Take ‘God created man.’ Pictures of Michelangelo showing the creation of the world. In general, there is nothing which explains the meanings of words as well as a picture, and I take it that Michelangelo was as good as anyone can be and did his best, and here is the picture of the Deity creating Adam.

If we ever saw this, we certainly wouldn’t think this the Deity. The picture has to be used in an entirely different way if we are to call the man in that queer blanket ‘God’, and so on. You could imagine that religion was taught by means of these pictures. ‘Of course we can only express ourselves by means of pictures.’ This is rather queer ... I could show Moore the pictures of a tropical plant. There is a technique of comparison between picture and plant. If I showed him the picture of .Michelangelo and said: ‘Of course, I can’t show you the real thing, only the picture ... .’ The absurdity is, I’ve never taught him the technique of using this picture.

So the difference between a man who does and a man who does not believe in God, is like the difference between a man who does and a man who does not believe in a picture. But what does believing in a picture amount to? Is it like believing in a hypothesis? Certainly not. As Wittgenstein says, ‘The whole weight may be in the picture.’14 A man’s belief in the Last Judgement may show itself in a way a man has this before his mind when he takes any decisions of importance, in the way it determines his attitude to his aspirations and failures, or to the fortunes or misfortunes which befall him. In referring to these features of the religious person’s beliefs, Wittgenstein is stressing the grammar of belief in this context. He is bringing out what ‘recognition of a belief’ amounts to here. It does not involve the weighing of evidence, or reasoning to a conclusion. What it does involve is seeing how the belief regulates a person’s life. ‘Here believing obviously plays much more this role: suppose we said that a certain picture might play the role of constantly admonishing me, or I always think of it. Here, an enormous difference would be between those people for whom the picture is constantly in the foreground, and the others who just didn’t use it at all.’ What, then, are we to say of those who do not use the picture, who do not believe in it? Do they contradict those who do? Wittgenstein shows that they do not. Suppose someone is ill and he says: ‘This is a punishment’, and I say: ‘If I’m ill, I don’t think of punishment at all.’ If you say: ‘Do you believe the opposite?’-you can call it believing the opposite, but it is entirely different from what we would normally call believing the opposite. I think differently, in a different way. I say different things to myself. I have different pictures. It is this way: if someone said: ‘Wittgenstein, you don’t take illness as punishment, so what do you believe?’-I’d say: ‘I don’t have any thoughts of punishment.”

Those who do not use the picture cannot be compared, therefore, with those who do not believe in a hypothesis. Believing in the picture means, for example, putting one’s trust in it, sacrificing for it, letting it regulate one’s life, and so on. Not believing in the picture means that the picture plays no part in one’s thinking. Wittgenstein brings out the difference between this and disputants over a hypothesis very neatly when he says, ‘Suppose someone were a believer and said: “I believe in a Last Judgement”, and I said: “Well, I’m not so sure. Possibly.” You would say that there is an enormous gulf between us. If he said “There is a German aeroplane overhead”, and I said “Possibly, I’m not so sure”, you’d say we were fairly near.’

Beliefs, such as belief in the Last Judgement, are not testable hypotheses but absolutes for believers in so far as they predominate in and determine much of their thinking. The absolute beliefs are the criteria not the object of assessment. To construe these beliefs as hypotheses which mayor may not be true is to falsify their character. As Wittgenstein says, ‘The point is that if there were evidence, this would in fact destroy the whole business.”B The difficulty is in seeing what might be meant in saying that absolute religious beliefs could turn out to be mistakes or blunders. As Wittgenstein points out, ‘Whether a thing is a blunder or not-it is a blunder in a particular system. Just as something is a blunder in a particular game and not in another.’ Some blunders may be pretty fundamental. Others may be elementary. We can see what has gone wrong if, when asked to go on in the same way, someone continues the series 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 ... by repeating it. But, Wittgenstein says, ‘If you suddenly wrote numbers down on the blackboard, and then said,: “Now I’m going to add,” and then said: “2 and 21 is 13,” etc. I’d say: “This is no blunder.” ‘ We do not say that the person has made a blunder in adding. We say that he is not adding at all, We may say that he is fooling, or that he is insane. Consider now the view that evidence for religious beliefs is very slender. Wittgenstein considers the example of a man who dreams of the Last Judgement and then says he knows what it must be like. If we think of this as we think of attempts to assess next week’s weather, it is queer to think of the dream as slender evidence. ‘If you compare it with anything in Science which we call evidence, you can’t credit that anyone could soberly argue: “Well, I had this dream therefore ... Last Judgement.” You might say: “For a blunder, that’s too big.” ‘ As in the other case, you might look for other explanations. You might say that the believer is joking or insane. But this brings us precisely to the heart of the misgivings I mentioned at the outset: how do we know that religious practices aren’t forms of disguised nonsense, which, for some reason or another, believers do not recognize as such? This question brings us to the final section of the paper.


So far, I have been stressing how certain philosophers, because they have feared the implications of describing religious beliefs as distinctive language-games, have tried to show why religious beliefs are important in much the same way as one might show a certain course of action to be prudential; or have tried to show the rationality of religious beliefs by assuming that the existence of God is to be established by reference to criteria under which it falls as one appropriate instance among many. Such attempts, I argued, falsify the absolute character of many religious beliefs and values. Against this, it might be urged that, in my view, religious believers can say what they like. Such a reaction is strengthened when philosophers talk of language-games as having criteria of intelligibility within them, and of the impossibility of rendering one language-game uninte11igible in terms of criteria of inte1Iigibility taken from another. It is important, however, not to confuse the view I have argued for with another which has superficial resemblances to it. The view I have in mind was once put forward by T. H. McPherson, ‘Religion belongs to the sphere of the unsayable, so it is not to be wondered at that in theology there is much nonsense (Le. many absurdities); this is the natural result of trying to put into words-and to discuss-various kinds of inexpressible “experiences”, and of trying to say things about God.’ J. A. Passmore comments on this observation, ‘One difficulty with this line of reasoning considered as a defence of religion, is that it “saves” religion only at the cost of leaving the door open to any sort of transcendental metaphysics—and indeed to superstition and nonsense of the most arrant sort. One difference between calling religious beliefs distinctive language-games and McPherson’s observations, is that there is no talk of incomprehensibility in the former. On the contrary, within religious practices there will be criteria for what can and cannot be said. So a believer can commit blunders within his religion. But this observation might not satisfy the critics, since they might argue that a set of pointless rules could have an internal consistency. People can follow, and therefore fail to follow, pointless rules. In that way they may make mistakes. But the possibility of their being correct or incorrect would not of itself confer a point on a set of pointless rules. To argue, therefore, that religious beliefs are distinctive language-games with rules which their adherents may follow or fail to follow, does not, of itself, show that the rules have any point. I think the misgivings I have outlined are justified. They point to a strain in the analogy between religious beliefs and games. The point of religious beliefs, why people should cherish them in the way they do, cannot be shown simply by distinguishing between religious beliefs and other features of human existence. What I am saying is that the importance of religion in people’s lives cannot be understood simply by distinguishing between religion and other modes of social life, although, as we have seen, there are important distinctions to be made in this way. I had said elsewhere that if religion were thought of as cut off from other modes of social life it could not have the importance it has, but I had not realized the full implications of these remarks. I have been helped to see them more clearly by Rush Rhees’s important paper, ‘Wittgenstein’s Builders’.

In the Tractatus Wittgenstein thought that all propositions must, simply by being propositions, have a general form. Rhees says that although Wittgenstein had given up the idea of ‘all propositions’ in the Investigations, he was still interested in human language and in what belonging to a common language meant. When he says that any language is a family of language-games, and that any of these might be a complete language by itself, he does not say whether people who might take part in several such games would be speaking the same language in each of them. In fact I find it hard to see on this view that they would ever be speaking a language.
Why does Rhees say this? One important reason, as he says, is that Wittgenstein takes it for granted that the same language is being spoken in the different language-games. But if this is so, the sameness or unity of that language cannot be explained by describing the way any particular language-game is played. The problem becomes acute when Wittgenstein says that each language-game could be a complete language in itself. One reason why Wittgenstein said that each language-game is complete is that he wanted to rid us of the supposition that all propositions have a general form. The different language-games do not make up one big game. For the most part, this is what I have been stressing in relation to religious language-games in this paper, but it gives rise to new problems. The different games do not make up a game, and yet Wittgenstein wants to say that a language, the same language, is a family of language-games; that is, that this is the kind of unity a language has. At this point, there is a strain in the analogy between language and a game.

In the example of the builders at the beginning of the Investigations, Wittgenstein says that the language of orders and response, one man shouting ‘Slab!’ and another bringing one, could be the entire language of a tribe. Rhees says, ‘But I feel that there is something wrong here. The trouble is not to imagine a people with a language of such a limited vocabulary. The trouble is to imagine that they spoke the language only to give these special orders on this job and otherwise never spoke at all. I do not think it would be speaking a language.’

As Rhees points out, Wittgenstein imagines the children of the tribe being taught these shouts by adults. But such teaching would not be part of the technique of order and response on the actual job. Presumably, men go home and sometimes discuss their work with their families. Sometimes one has to discuss snags which crop up in the course of a job. These things are not part of a technique either. What Wittgenstein describes, Rhees argues, is more like a game with building-stones and the correct methods of reacting to signals, than people actually building a house. What Rhees is stressing is that learning a language cannot be equated with learning what is generally done. ‘It has more to do with what it makes sense to answer or what it makes sense to ask, or what sense one remark may have in connection with another.’29 The expressions used by the builders cannot have their meaning entirely within the job. We would not be able to grasp the meaning of expressions, see the bearing of one expression on another, appreciate why something can be said here but not there, unless expressions were connected with contexts other than those in which we are using them now. Rhees says that when a child comes to learn the differences between sensible discourse and a jumble of words, this is not something you can teach him by any sort of drill, as you might perhaps teach him the names of objects. I think he gets it chiefly from the way in which the members of his family speak to him and answer him. In this way he gets an idea of how remarks may be connected, and of how what people say to one another makes sense. In any case, it is not like learning the meaning of this or that expression. And although he can go on speaking, this is not like going on with the use of any particular expression or set of expressions, although of course it includes that.

What Rhees says of the builders can also be said of worshippers. If the orders and responses of the builders are cut off from everything outside the techniques on the job, we seem to be talking about a game with building-blocks, a system of responses to signs, rather than about the building of an actual house. Similarly, if we think of religious worship as cut off from everything outside the formalities of worship; it ceases to be worship and becomes an esoteric game. What is the difference between a rehearsal for an act of worship and the actual act of worship? The answer cannot be in terms of responses to signs, since the responses to signs may be correct in the rehearsal. The difference has to do with the point the activity has in the life of the worshippers, the bearing it has on other features of their lives. Religion has something to say about aspects of human existence which are quite intelligible without reference to religion: birth, death, joy, misery, despair, hope, fortune, and misfortune. The connection between these and religion is not contingent. A host of religious beliefs could not be what they are without them. The force of religious beliefs depends, in part, on what is outside religion. Consider, for example, Jesus’s words, ‘Not as the world giveth give I unto you.’ Here, the force of the contrast between the teaching of Jesus and worldliness, depends, logically, on both parts of the contrast. One could not understand the sense in which Jesus gives, unless one also understands the sense in which the world gives. So far from it being true that religious beliefs can be thought of as isolated language-games, cut off from all other forms of life, the fact is that religious beliefs cannot be understood at all unless their relation to other modes of life is taken into account. Suppose someone were to say in objection to this, ‘No, what you need to understand is religious language,’ what would one think of it? One could not be blamed if it reminded one of those who think that all will be well if an acceptable liturgy is devised piece of empty aestheticism. Religious beliefs could then be described literally as a game, a neat set of rules with ever increasing refinements in their interpretation and execution. It would be impossible to distinguish between genuine and sham worship. As long as the moves and responses in the liturgical game were correct, nothing more could be said.

In fact, we should have described what religious practices often do become for those for whom they have lost their meaning: a charming game which provides a welcome contrast to the daily routine, but which has no relevance to anything outside the doors of the church. I suppose that Father Sergius knew more about religious language, the formalities of worship, than Pashenka. She was so absorbed in her day to day duties in cleaning the church, that she never had time to read the Bible herself or to attend worship. But her devotion, sacrifice and humility were such, that Sergius was led to say that she lived for God and imagined she lived for men, while he, versed in religious rite and language, lived for men and imagined he lived for God.

Religion must take the world seriously. I have argued that religious reactions to various situations cannot be assessed according to some external criteria of adequacy. On the other hand, the connections between religious beliefs and such situations must not be fantastic. This in no way contradicts the earlier arguments, since whether the connections are fantastic is decided by criteria which are not in dispute. For example, some religious believers may try to explain away the reality of suffering, or try to say that all suffering has some purpose. When they speak like this, one may accuse them of not taking suffering seriously. Or if religious believers talk of death as if it were a sleep of long duration, one may accuse them of not taking death seriously. In these examples, what is said about suffering and death can be judged in terms of what we already know and believe about these matters. The religious responses are fantastic because they ignore or distort what we already know. What is said falls under standards of judgement with which we are already acquainted. When what is said by religious believers does violate the facts or distort our apprehension of situations, no appeal to the fact that what is said is said in the name of religion can justify or excuse the violation and distortion.

Furthermore, one must stress the connection between religious beliefs and the world, not only in bringing out the force which these beliefs have, but also in bringing out the nature of the difficulties which the beliefs may occasion. If religious beliefs were isolated language-games, cut off from everything which is not formally religious, how could there be any of the characteristic difficulties connected with religious beliefs? The only difficulties which could arise would be akin to the difficulties connected with mastering a complex technique. But these are not the kind of difficulties which do arise in connection with religious beliefs. Is not striving to believe itself an important feature of religious belief? Why should this be so? Consider, for example, difficulties which arise because of a tension between a believer’s beliefs and his desires. He may find it difficult to overcome his pride, his envy, or his lust. But these difficulties cannot be understood unless serious account is taken of what pride, envy and lust involve. Neither can the positive virtues be understood without reference to the vices to which they are contrasted.

Consider also difficulties of another kind, not difficulties in holding to one’s beliefs in face of temptation, but difficulties in believing. The problem of evil occasions the most well known of these. One might have heard someone talk of what it means to accept a tragedy as the will of God. He might have explained what Jesus meant when he said that a man must be prepared to leave his father and mother for his sake, by pointing out that this does not imply that children should forsake their parents. What Jesus was trying to show, he might say, is that for the believer, the death of a loved one must not make life meaningless. If it did, he would have given the loved one a place in his life which should only be given to God. The believer must be able to leave his father and mother, that is, face parting with them, and still be able to find the meaning of his life in God. Listening to this exposition, one might have thought it expressed what one’s own beliefs amounted to. But then, suddenly, one has to face the death of one’s child, and one realizes that one cannot put into practice, or find any strength or comfort in, the beliefs one had said were one’s own. The untimely death of one’s child renders talk of God’s love meaningless for one. One might want to believe, but one simply cannot. This is not because a hypothesis has been assessed or a theory tested, and found wanting. It would be nearer the truth to say that a person cannot bring himself to react in a certain way, he has no use for a certain picture of the situation. The point I wish to stress, however, is that no sense can be made of this difficulty unless due account is taken of the tragedy. If religious beliefs were esoteric games, why should the tragedy have any bearing on them at all? Why should the tragedy be a difficulty for faith or a trial of faith? From the examples we have considered, it can be seen that the meaning and force of religious beliefs depend in part on the relation of these beliefs with features of human existence other than religion. Without such dependence, religion would not have the importance it does have in people’s lives. It is an awareness of these important truths which in part accounts for the philosophical objections to talking of religious beliefs as distinctive language-games. But these objections are confused.

They are the result of drawing false conclusions from important truths. Having recognized, correctly, that the meaning of religious beliefs is partly dependent on features of human life outside religion, philosophers conclude, wrongly, that one would be contradicting oneself if one claimed to recognize this dependence, and also claimed that religious beliefs are distinctive language-games. They are led to this conclusion only because they assume that the relation between religious beliefs and the non-religious facts, is that between what is justified and its justification, or that between a conclusion and its grounds. This is a farreaching confusion. To say that the meaning of religious beliefs is partly dependent on non-religious facts, is not to say that those beliefs are justified by, or could be inferred from, the facts in question. The main points I have been trying to emphasize in this paper can be summed up in terms of some examples.

A boxer crosses himself before the fight-a mother places a garland on a statue of the Virgin Mary-parents pray for their child lost in a wreck. Are these blunders or religious activities? What decides the answer to this question is the surroundings, what the people involved say about their actions, what their expectations are, what, if anything, would render the activity pointless, and so on. Does the boxer think that anyone who crosses himself before a fight will not come to serious harm in it? Does the mother think that the garland’s value is prudential?

Do the parents believe that all true prayers for the recovery of children lead to that recovery? If these questions are answered in the affirmative, the beliefs involved become testable hypotheses. They are, as a matter of fact, blunders, mistakes, regarding causal connections of a kind. We can say that the people involved are reasoning wrongly, meaning by this that they contradict what we already know. The activities are brought under a system where theory, repeatability, explanatory force, etc. are important features, and they are shown to be wanting, shown to be blunders. But perhaps the activities have a different meaning. Perhaps the boxer is dedicating his performance in crossing himself, expressing the hope that it be worthy of what he believes in, and so on. The mother may be venerating the birth of her child as God’s gift, thanking him for it and contemplating the virtues of motherhood as found in the mother of Jesus. The parents may be making their desires known to God, wanting the situation which has occasioned them to be met in him. The beliefs involved are not testable hypotheses, but ways of reacting to and meeting such situations. They are expressions of faith and trust. Not to use these objects of faith, not to have any time for the, reactions involved, is not to believe. The distinction between religious belief and superstition is extremely important. I want to emphasize it by considering one of the above examples in a little more detail.

Consider again the example of two mothers who ask the Virgin Mary to protect their newly-born babies. Tylor would say that this is an example of ‘a blind belief in processes whoIIy irrelevant to their supposed results’. What I am stressing is that such a description begs the question as to what is meant by ‘belief’, ‘processes’, ‘relevance’ and ‘results’ in this context. For Tylor, the supposed results would be the future material welfare of the child, and the irrelevant processes would be the bringing of the child to a statue of the Virgin Mary and the connections which might be thought to exist between this and the future fortunes of the child. How could the irrelevance be demonstrated? The answer seems to be simple. All one needs is a comparison of the material fortunes of babies for whom the blessing of the Virgin has been sought, and the material fortunes of those who have received no such blessing.

The results will be statistically random. One is reminded of the suggestion that the efficacy of prayer could be shown by observing two patients suffering from the same ailment one of whom is treated medically and the other of whom is simply prayed for. The idea seems to be that prayer is a way of getting things done which competes with other ways of getting things done, and that the superiority of one way over the other could be settled experimentally. Now, of course, I am not denying that a mother who brings her baby to the Virgin Mary could have the kind of expectations which Tylor would attribute to any mother who asks the Virgin to protect her baby. And I agree that if these were her expectations, her act would be a superstitious one. What characterizes the superstitious act in this context? Firstly, there is the trust in non-existent quasi-causal connections; the belief that someone long dead called the Virgin Mary, can, if she so desires, determine the course of an individual’s life, keep him from harm, make his ventures succeed, and so on. Secondly, the Virgin Mary is seen as a means to ends which are intelligible without reference to her: freedom from harm, successful ventnres, etc. In other words, the act of homage to the Virgin Mary has no importance in itself; she is reduced to the status of a lucky charm.

What one says to the Virgin makes no difference. But someone may object to this. How can this be said? Surely, what is said to her makes all the difference in the world. If one worships before her one is blessed with good fortune, but if one blasphemes one is cursed with bad fortune. But this is precisely why I say that what one says to the Virgin makes no difference. As it happens, freedom from physical harm, fortune in one’s ventures, is secured in this way, but the way is only important in so far as these things are secured. If they could be obtained more economically or more abundantly by pursuing some other way, that way would be adopted. What is said is only important as long as it leads to the desired end, an end which can be understood independently of what is said. On this view, the act of bringing one’s child to the Virgin could be shown to be valid or invalid in terms of future consequences. But why is it confused to understand all acts of homage to the Virgin in this way. The answer is because the religious character of the homage paid to the Virgin is completely ignored. Or, at least, it is assumed that its religious character is reducible to its efficacy as one way among others of securing certain ends. As I have said, bringing a child to a statue of the Virgin may be superstitious, but it may not. A mother may bring her new-born baby to the mother of Jesus in an act of veneration and thanksgiving: one mother greets another at the birth of a child. Connected with this act of greeting are a number of associated beliefs and attitudes: wonder and gratitude in face of new life, humility at being the means of bringing a child into the world, and, in this case, recognition of life as God’s gift, the givenness of life. But what about the protection sought for the child? What is important to recognize is that the protection must be understood in terms of these beliefs and attitudes.

These virtues and attitudes are all contained in the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus. For the believer, she is the paradigm of these virtues and attitudes. They constitute her holiness. Now when her protection is sought, the protection is the protection of her holiness: the mother wants the child’s life to be orientated in these virtues. The first act in securing such an orientation is the bringing of the child to the Virgin. This orientation is what the believer would call the blessing of the Virgin Mary. The difference between the two situations I want to contrast should now be clear. In the one case, the protection determines whether or not the act of bringing the child to the Virgin and the alleged holiness of the Virgin have been efficacious or not. In the other case, it is the holiness of the Virgin which determines the nature of the protection. In Tylor’s account there is no need to refer to the religious significance which the Virgin Mary has for believers. But on the view I am urging, you cannot understand the request for a blessing unless that is taken account of, or think of the blessing as one way among many of producing the same result.

The above remarks can be applied to one of Tylor’s own examples. Tylor believes that the soul is migrant, ‘capable of leaving the body far behind, to flash swiftly from place to pIace’. He traces among various peoples the belief in the soul as breath or a ghost: And if any should think such expression due to mere metaphor, they may judge the strength of the implied connexion between breath and spirit by cases of most unequivocal significance. Among the Seminoles of Florida, when a woman died in childbirth, the infant was held over her face to receive her parting spirit, and thus acquire strength and knowledge for its future use. These Indians could have well understood why at the death-bed of an ancient Roman, the nearest kinsman leant over to inhale the last breath of the departing .... Their state of mind is kept up to this day among Tyrolese peasants, who can still fancy a good man’s soul to issue from his mouth at death like a little white cloud.

Tylor thinks that the meaning of these examples is unequivocal: power is being transferred from one being to another by means of the transfer of a soul which he envisages as a non-material substance. Notice the neglect of the situations in which these actions take place. All Tylor sees is the alleged transfer of pseudo power by odd means. If we asked TyIor why the mother’s soul should be transferred to the baby rather than to anyone else, or why the ancient Roman’s soul should be transferred to the nearest kinsman rather than to anyone else, I suppose he would answer that such a transfer was laid down by social rules. He might even say that such a transfer is natural. But the naturalness is not brought out at all by Tylor’s analysis. On his view, the power, via the migrant soul, could have gone into any being, but, as it happened, it was decreed or thought natural that it should go where it did. We get a very different picture if we take note of the situations in which these actions take place: the relationship between a dying mother and her child, and the relationship between a dying man and his nearest kinsman. In these cases, why should Tylor find the symbolic actions odd? A mother has given her life in bringing her child into the world. The breath of life, her mother’s life, her mother’s soul, is breathed into the child. Surely, this is an act of great beauty. But one cannot understand it outside the relationship between a dying mother and her child. Similarly, it is in terms of the relationship between a dying man and his next of kin that the symbolic act of passing on authority and tradition is to be understood. It would not make sense to say that anyone could be the object of these acts. If the wrong child were held over the dying woman’s face, what would be terrible is not, as Tylor thinks, that power has been transferred to the wrong person, but that this child hasn’t the relationship to the woman that her own child has: it is not the child for whom she gave her life. The expression of love and sacrifice expressed in the mother’s parting breath is violated if it is received by the wrong child.

In the examples we have considered, we have seen that the religious or ritualistic practices could not be what they are were it not for factors independent of them. The internal consistency of rules, something to which astrology could appeal, does not show that the rules have a point. To see this one must take account of the connection between the practices and other features of the lives people lead. It is such connections which enable us to see that astrology is superstitious and that many religious practices can be distinguished from superstition, while other so-called religious practices turn out to be superstitious. But the main point I wish to stress is that it does not make sense to ask for a proof of the validity of religious beliefs, whatever that might mean. Consider finally the example of the mother who reacts to the birth of her baby by an act of devotion to the Virgin Mary. It is true that the act of devotion could not be what it is without the birth of the baby, which, after all, occasioned it. It is also true that the connection between the religious act and the baby’s birth must not be fantastic.3i It must be shown not to be superstition. But having made these points, it is also important to stress that birth is not evidence from which one can assess the religious reaction to it. People react to the birth of children in various ways. Some may say that the birth of a child is always a cause for rejoicing. Others may say that whether one rejoices at the birth of a child should be determined by the physical and mental health of the child, or by whether the family into which it is born can look after it properly. Others may say that one should always give thanks to God When a child is born. Others may condemn the folly of those responsible for bringing a child into a world such as this.

All these reactions are reactions to the birth of a child, and could not mean what they do apart from the fact of the birth. But it does not follow that the various reactions can be inferred from the birth, or that they are conclusions for which the birth of the baby is the ground. All one can say is that people do respond in this way. Many who respond in one way will find the other responses shallow, trivial, fantastic, meaningless, or even evil. But the force of the responses cannot be justified in any external way; it can merely be shown. This is true of religious responses, the religious beliefs which have an absolute character and value. Philosophy may clarify certain misunderstandings about them. It may show the naivety of certain objections to religion, or that some so-called religious beliefs are superstitions. But philosophy is neither for nor against religious beliefs. After it has sought to clarify the grammar of such beliefs its work is over. As a result of such clarification, someone may see dimly that religious beliefs are not what he had taken them to be. He may stop objecting to them, even though he does not believe in them. Someone else may find that now he is able to believe. Another person may hate religion more than he did before the philosophical clarification. The results are unpredictable. In any case, they are not the business of philosophy.

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