More smart things from the Chicago blog

A report on a Simon Blackburn talk about religion and respect. It sounds to me like Blackburn has it basically right here — the fundamental claim being “really? We should have respect for false beliefs why?”

Particularly interesting is a distinction he draws between religious beliefs that entail claims about the universe and expressive religious “beliefs” that basically are emotions.

The next part of Blackburn’s paper takes a different approach to the problem. He notes a distinction between religion and “onto-religion.” Onto-religion describes an ultimate reality and asserts its existence. Fundamentalist believers see their entire religious texts this way, but they are not the only ones who hold onto-religious beliefs. Claims about the existence of God, or gods, and what He, or they, require from us are onto-religious to the extent that they are taken literally. Religion, as opposed to onto-religion, does not make claims of this kind. “Religion is not to be taken to describe other worlds, nor even past and future events in this world, but only to orientate us towards this world.” This view, put forth by Ludwig Wittgenstein in Culture and Value, is referred to as expressive theology. There are many ways that it can be applied. One can say that claims made by religious people about the existence of another world should be taken metaphorically, that this is how they mean them. This, however, is implausible. These people use onto-religious claims as causal explanations and sources of expectation of real phenomena. Another view is that religious people are confused. They think that they are representing the existence of something when they should see themselves as expressing stances towards this world.

Blackburn asserts that whatever form of expressive theology one follows, it makes it harder to be an atheist. It may be easy for an atheist to reject the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent God who lives somewhere in the sky; however, it is much harder, and less desirable, to reject the emotions and values expressed by a religious text. “Perhaps, ‘God exists’ is to be seen as an expression of love or delight—and who wants to be put down as against love and delight?” However, these might not be the only things expressed by the statement “God exists.” Blackburn worries when these statements are used as authority; this is related to his point about respect creep. Claims that certain things are demanded and others are prohibited by God serve to amplify claims about the desirability or undesirability of certain behavior. It is one thing to say, “Don’t do that,” and quite another to say “God commands that you do not do that.” This is worrisome for Blackburn because he notes that this amplificatory power seems to be used for evil much of the time, for example, to justify the subordination of women. At the workshop it was mentioned that the amplificatory effect has been used for good as well, like in the case of religion’s role in the abolition of slavery. Blackburn accepted this, but he responded that the question of whether religion ultimately maximizes utility is one to which we will never have an answer because we cannot examine the closest world to ours where religion does not exist.

This amplificatory effect, however, does not really make sense without onto-religion. This is why Blackburn argues that expressive theology does not capture the nature of the beliefs of a lot of people. If the claim that it is sinful to be gay is nothing more than a metaphorical expression of a general distaste for homosexuality, as opposed to a claim that gays will be punished in the afterlife, it is hard to see why people would be so vehement in their views on the subject. This is equally true with respect to claims to land. Blackburn mentioned a recent violent dispute in Jerusalem between Armenian and Greek Orthodox clergy about the use of the Church of Holy Sepulchre, which they share. People are less likely to compromise when they believe that God is on their side.

Blackburn has shown that expressive theology cannot be completely right; however, he thinks that it does have value. To the extent that religion is onto-religion, Blackburn does not think that an atheist should, or even can, respect it; but there is another part to the story. As much as it makes little sense, for Blackburn, to talk about respecting beliefs that one doesn’t share, it is still possible and desirable to respect emotions that one doesn’t share or even understand; we might even admire their expression. This admiration can take the form of allowing a private space for grief, or some other action for a different emotion. Some of the expressions described by expressive theology are more like emotions than they are like actual beliefs, which are cognitive states that have content and truth values.

This, too, seems basically right. He seems to be imagining expressive religion as a sort of poem — just a really compelling way of expressing one’s emotions. I’m not sure Blackburn’s right that the amplicificatory effect of such claims requires onto-religion, however. Suppose someone wrote a really convincing poem about a moral position — might we come to believe that moral position more intensely, and defend it more vehemently. If we imagine expressive religion that way, then it might not require onto-religion. Of course, it still won’t be rational


15 Responses to “More smart things from the Chicago blog”

  1. Mike Says:

    In an unrelated context, I was thinking about that issue today. I’ll need to read his paper, so this is more about my unrelated thoughts.

    Aren’t all moral beliefs based at least somewhat on superstition? (Query: How does a skeptic or relativist define superstition? Can we define superstition if one does not believe in Truth?)

    We all have first premises. Yours are different from mine. And Christians have different ones from either of us.

    How can either of us say our first premises are true? SO who are we to knock Christians?

    How can we say there’s something wrong with starting from the first premise of “God: Obey Him,” where as you star from (I take it) Equality, and I start from Liberty?

    Seems like, at base, we are all making shit up. At the very least, none of us can claim a monopoly on Truth.

    Now, maybe you believe in Absolute Reality, Truth, and other things with capital letters. In which case you’d say you found Truth. I’d say, “Prove it!” ;)

  2. ben wolfson Says:

    Of course, it still won’t be rational…

    But then, what’s so all-fired great about rationality?

    The amplificatory effects of whatever Blackburn’s on about clearly don’t require an onto-religion; a community of the like-minded will suffice. You get this with vehement atheists as well.

    (Religions are obviously more than passels of expressions sometimes conjoined with ontological claims, though one might forgive another for not getting this as a result of the general atomization of, you know, MODERNITY. The mourner’s kaddish is neither a particular person’s expression of emotion or endorsement of norms of whatever nor a claim about the nature of reality but is obviously important in Judaism, and precisely what it involves is likely to be hard to describe outside the broader religious context, as is also the case for scads and dozens of like rituals in any number of religions—why anyone would take “the religious person” as the unit of analysis is furth of my ken.)

  3. Paul Gowder Says:

    Mike: my starting premise is something much more complicated than that. (I fear we’re talking 1/2 democracy, 1/2 perfectionism, 1/2 raw intuition, and a healthy measure of Millian utilitarianism for my starting premise.) But equality is a conclusion, not a premise, any way (except to the extent it’s implied by democracy).

    Anyway, you underestimate the power of systematic thought on these matters. Some (Rawls can be credited with this, in part, in Theory) argue, for example, that the ideas of liberty and equality can be reconciled — that, thought of properly, they amount to the same idea. Remind me, and I’ll dig up the sections to read next time I’m in the office w/ my copy.

    Likewise, others make what we could call (to borrow a term from law) procedural arguments — arguments from the nature of any substantive normative claims, or of what we’re committed to when we make substantive claims. This is a mode of argument most naturally associated with Kantians, you can find one version of it in Habermas’s discourse ethics (read the long chapter — I think it’s chapter 3, but I may be forgetting — of his Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action), and yet another version of it in, yet again, Rawls (though it’s about the nature of political justification, rather than making moral claims, in the latter’s case).

    The point is that those strategies of argument, and many others, can impose rational pressure on even those who start, as you say, from different premises.

    Likewise, some starting premises are just worse than others. For example, the starting premise “morality is what God says” has deep internal flaws and incoherencies that don’t exist with starting premises like “equality is really important” or “liberty is really important.

    And some starting premises prove very hard to apply. Unreflective libertarians, for example, are very bad at making sense out of exactly what this noncoercion business actually means. It might not mean anything at all.

    Anyway, one of these days we need to sit down and have a big political argument. Bring liquor. :-)

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    (Also, Mike, let’s not forget that the starting premise “God: obey him” has an internal problem that neither liberty nor equality faces, namely that, at least on the onto-religious view that most believers hold, it presupposes — falsely! — the existence of a god. Which I take to be part of, or at least related to, Blackburn’s point: even if you believe that moral claims, qua moral claims, are never ultimately resolvable* between people who hold different fundamental comprehensive doctrines (for which you may read “starting premises” w/o any meaningful loss of information), we can certainly exclude those moral claims that rely on false non-moral claims.

    * There is a hot debate on whether moral converge is possible/to be expected in the same way as is scientific convergence. I’m cautiously on the “yes” side of this, that is, on the opposite side from pretty much everyone I respect except hardasses like Raz (and a fellow perfectionist, a professor in my dpt. who reads this blog: Hi Rob!), who I think is with me on this, though I’m not sure he’s declared accordingly, it seems to be implied by his position on all other major issues. For the other side, oh, I guess read the paper on convergence in Bernard Williams’s Moral Luck. Again, bring liquor. :-)

  5. Paul Gowder Says:

    Ben: I think Blackburn would say that what’s so all-fired great about rationality is that all those expressive outbursts all-too-often get turned, by the religious, into moral claims, and it would be nice if some kind of truth and/or coherence standards were applied to them. It’s, uh, rather useful to be able to criticize “God hates fags” as irrational, rather than to simply burst out with one’s own counterexpressiveness (“Darwin loves fags!”).

    Also: I don’t understand why continental-types think the sentence “X is a symptom of modernity” constitutes some kind of objection to X.

    Are religions “more than passels of expressions sometimes conjoined with ontological claims?” I’m not sure. I suppose they might also represent some kind of collective thing — it might be important to being a religion that it is something shared by others, in communal rituals, etc. But so what? One can object to the bits of religion that carry claims (whether moral or ontological) or attitudes without objecting to the bits that are about shared rituals: nobody minds the Shriners.

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    Except for the damn little motorcycles. I mind those.

  7. ben wolfson Says:

    Also: I don’t understand why continental-types think the sentence “X is a symptom of modernity” constitutes some kind of objection to X.


    I suppose they might also represent some kind of collective thing

    Deep thinking on the subject of religion, courtesy Paul Gowder.

  8. Paul Gowder Says:

    Is religion worth deep thinking?

    I mean, more so than are the shriners? Because of the wonky ontological and moral claims?

  9. ben wolfson Says:

    I see you’ve decided to become a tiresome idiot.

  10. Paul Gowder Says:

    Likewise, apparently.

  11. ben wolfson Says:

    My religion demands it of me.

  12. Paul Gowder Says:

    And I respect that.

  13. Paul Frederickson Says:

    The funny thing about all of this is that even atheism is a religion. In atheism’s case, it is usually a scrupulous conformity to the institutionalized system of a dogmatic science where theories are taken as the law of the gods and not objectively viewed that at any given time they can all be proved wrong, which should spark atheists more towards a center of nihilism (or at least postmodern relativism) rather than a false, strange belief that they know the absolute truth. For how can truth exist if nothing can ever be absolutely certain? That is the hallmark of true science – the case of constant exploration and openness to the fallibility of the human mind.

    After all, there is no human on the face of the earth that does not consider some object or thing, seen or unseen, as the determining ruler and most important part of their very lives, be it themselves or a bowl of chocolate fudge.

    Therefore, it’s silly to suppose that an atheist is the only person with the right answer, especially since it places oneself in the exact same hypocritical position most atheists accuse the entire rest of the non-atheistic world of being (assurance of beliefs).

    If one wishes to uphold the virtues of diversity, then one must practice them within one’s own mind and remain open to the constant possibility they may be wrong, every minute of the day. If someone whines about something, they must be the first to set the standard of difference, else their whining is a moot point and they’re simply mimicking those they find fault with.

  14. mtraven Says:

    I ran across this post recently. Summary: religion is not about belief, or doesn’t have to be. Sounds like Blackburn is converging on the same point with his distinction between onto-religion and expressive religion.

  15. Overcoming Bias : Beliefs Require Reasons, or: Is the Pope Catholic? Should he be? Says:

    [...] "God loves me."  "The world was created ten thousand years ago."  One might reinterpret religion to strip away the propositional content, but then one loses everything that makes religion different from any random social [...]

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