Wittgenstein and Philosophy of Religion

  • Robert L. Arrington, Mark Addis
  • Jan 1, 2005
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Robert L. Arrington and Mark Addis, eds. Wittgenstein and Philosophy of Religion. New York: Routledge, 2004. 187 pages with index. $34.35. ISBN 0-415-33555-8.

Can religion be reduced to a way of talking about the world, a special grammar that is insulated from any external proof? Is the practice of apologetics, or giving reasons for one�s faith, important or basically irrelevant? Does philosophy explain anything or merely describe the world using language that other philosophers find attractive and appropriate? Though Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote very little on the topic of religion and developed no formal philosophy of religion, his philosophical remarks raise these provocative questions. Religious thinkers have struggled to make sense of Wittgenstein�s philosophy of �language-games� and have both hailed him as a friend and attacked him as an enemy of religion.

In the newly published paperback edition of this volume, Mark Addis and Robert Arrington present us with a variety of perspectives in order to help us understand the importance of Wittgenstein�s thought for philosophy of religion. Leading Wittgenstein scholars present thorough and engaging academic articles as chapters in this book. Written for the scholar, these articles are carefully documented and represent both sympathetic and critical readings of Wittgenstein�s comments on religion. The authors address topics as diverse as Wittgenstein�s view of magic, his alleged fideism, the application of his thinking for addressing creation and free will, and comparison of his thinking with other notable philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Though not an easy read, the critical reader will be rewarded with a deeper understanding of the implications of Wittgenstein�s thought for the philosophy of religion.

An essay by Paul Helm addressing the similarities and differences between a Wittgensteinian view of religion and Reformed Epistemology is especially intriguing for those interested in how one comes to hold a belief in God. Helm notes that Wittgenstein treated belief in God as an assumption, a basic belief that creates a pattern into which other beliefs fit. Belief in God entails a �way of life� not a defensible or defeasible doctrinal position. Because of this, the existence of God as a belief is impervious to any outside criticism. When the scientist criticizes religious ideas of creation, for example, the religious observer fears no threat since the scientist is merely an adherent of a different �language-game� or a different way of talking about the world. Neither of these perspectives can be considered privileged since there is no objective way to judge between language-games. Within the �religious-game,� we understand the meaning of creation. Within the �science-game,� empirical evidence gives meaning to theory. There is no Archimedean point, as it were, from which to judge all systems. This has the unfortunate result of removing any objective knowledge of metaphysical reality (or any other reality outside of language) from the realm of the knowable.

Reformed epistemologists such as Alvin Plantinga would agree that belief in God can be a properly basic belief (that is not based upon positive empirical evidence). We can properly begin with an assumption of God�s existence and allow this to affect our perception of the world. However, reformed epistemologists fundamentally disagree with any notion of anti-realism with respect to the existence of God. In other words, though Plantinga and others would admit that there need not be positive evidence in order to justify one�s belief in God, they would maintain that God�s actual existence is of utmost importance. Indeed, Plantinga argues that we must take care to demonstrate that belief in God is not internally inconsistent or logically impossible. For the Wittgensteinian, the meaning of the phrase �God exists� is found merely in the way it is used to promote a religious way of life. The reformed epistemologist counters this argument by noting that though we may not be able to conclusively demonstrate God�s existence by appeals to evidence, His existence may still be an objective fact.

In another chapter, Iakovos Vasiliou explores how evangelism in Wittgenstein�s eyes means no more than attempting to get people to accept our language-game and our way of life. Reasons or justifications for belief can only be used within one�s own game. Thus, in order to achieve conversions, we must persuade others to reject their entire view of the world and adopt ours, while admitting that our view is no more than an alternate interpretation or way of speaking. While this idea recognizes the importance of worldview in evangelism, it leaves out any tools for rational discussion of the truth! Apologetics is rendered irrelevant by this view. Instead of attempting to show why Christianity is true, according to proponents of Wittgensteinian religion, we must merely make it appealing.

Oddly, this has become a popular view of evangelism in our American evangelical culture. Instead of funding missionaries, we hire marketing strategists. Rather than reasoning for the truth of the resurrection, we are offering designer coffee, catchy music, and entertaining sermons. Instead of presenting evidence, we are hoping that people will simply enjoy the environment of our community. While the community of Christ is a powerful part of a full apologetic, are we to agree that evidence is unimportant? Is this a model of evangelism that comports with Scripture? Wittgenstein applied this view by noting that the historical truth of the resurrection is unimportant. If those in the history language game could demonstrate that the resurrection was false, this would do no harm to those immersed in Christian religious practice (or the Christian language game). Paul directly contradicts this view when he claims, �If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins� (1 Corinthians 15:17). For the Christian, the truth is of utmost importance.

Essays such as these, characterize the thoughtful and engaging treatment of the subject presented to us by this book. Moving beyond the simplistic dismissal of Wittgenstein, or the overly eager and misguided urge to reinterpret him for a Christian audience, these essays cause us to stop and consider the serious claims he made upon the world of philosophy and religion. How we understand and apply (or reject) the claims made by philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein will have a profound affect upon our view of apologetics, evangelism, missions, and theology. As Christians, we must take care not to allow the truth to be relegated to the category of mere opinion or interpretation. If Christianity is merely one of many �language games,� apologetics is irrelevant, evangelism is unnecessary, missions becomes marketing, and theology is merely a creative enterprise giving us a language to describe our community. Instead, we ought to remind ourselves of the words of Jesus in his reply to Pilate: "In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me" (John 18:38).

Darrell Dooyema
Denver Seminary
January 2005