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…