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Simon Glendinning

June 25th, 2018

A different conversation: Wittgenstein and a new type of atheism

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Simon Glendinning

June 25th, 2018

A different conversation: Wittgenstein and a new type of atheism

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Discussion between religious believers and atheists tends to produce much heat and little light, with the latter often adopting a hostile stance in dismissing the believer’s ideas as irrational and unbefitting of intelligent conversation. How can we break this cycle? Simon Glendinning has identified in the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein an intriguing passage which opens the path to a different type of atheism. Wittgenstein’s atheist need not see religious claims as irrational and contradictory to their own views.

Flickr, Henrik Johansson, Creative Commons

The culture of atheism that is most visible in European societies today is best known for its expressions of outright hostility to, and even contempt for, religion. The basic reason for this is often a conception of reason itself: a conception which affirms a radical opposition between faith and reason, religion and science. Religion is the subject of “critique” by rational, scientific thought. Religious believers believe what they believe because they are deluded. Call this the outlook of modern atheism.

If we conceive the story of Europe’s modernity as a radical break from forms of society dominated by myth, superstition and religion, one can readily come to think that Europe is increasingly becoming a culture marked by modern atheism. Under the pressure of critique and a growing respect for the legitimate authority of scientific knowledge of nature, religion will likely, in such a culture, wither away. This is the “secularisation thesis”, and it is the basic story told by modern atheists about the promise of Europe’s modernity.

Modern atheism can be criticised in turn. For example, one might argue that proponents of the secularisation thesis fail to see the Christian eschatological character of their own conception of history. Moreover, it is not implausible to see the way atheists are bound together by their profound mistrust of theism as a modern variation of the religious bond of profound trust in God. At issue in modern atheism, that is to say, is less a radical break with Europe’s dominant Christian heritage, but the persistence of a specifically Christian understanding of ourselves in a secularized form.

There is, however, one very intriguing dimension of this secularizing development that is not widely recognised: namely, the contrasting ways that religious believers and atheists construe their relation to each other. A central tradition within European Christianity conceives the one who does not believe in God as someone who is unable, or is no longer able, to seek God. The way the atheist understands her relation to the believer takes a distinctively different form. The believer thinks: “I seek God, and the atheist is no longer able to do so.” The atheist thinks: “There is no God, but this other person believes there is.” Rather than an existential question about the person, the atheist foregrounds the (presumed) content of a person’s beliefs, and affirms the opposite of the believer. It is the picture of two beliefs in contradiction that characterizes the modern atheist’s conception of the difference between the believer and the atheist that I want to examine here. 

Not everyone who is not religious construes the difference between the believer and the non-believer as “believing the opposite”. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein did not hold religious beliefs. But he argued that when it came to his relation with people who do hold religious beliefs he was not in a marketplace of contradictory claims. For example, regarding someone who believes in the Last Judgment, and by this we should think of something whose life really is shaped by this belief, Wittgenstein says:

If someone said: “Wittgenstein do you believe in this? I’d say “No.” “Do you contradict this man?” I’d say: “No.”… If he said “there is a German aircraft overhead,” and I said “Possibly. I’m not so sure,” you’d say we were fairly near. [But with religious belief] it isn’t a question of my being anywhere near him, but on an entirely different plane… If you ask me whether or not I believe in a Judgment Day in the sense in which religious people have belief in it, I wouldn’t say “No. I don’t believe there will be such a thing.” It would seem to me utterly crazy to say this.

Wittgenstein goes on to accept that you can say of him that he “believes the opposite” of the religious believer in some sense, but it is, he insists, “entirely different from what we would ordinarily call believing the opposite.” It is not about having the opposite thoughts, but of having different sorts of thoughts altogether and, for Wittgenstein himself, of typically having no thoughts at all concerning what is to the fore in the believer’s life.

It is quite wrong to confuse Wittgenstein with a modern atheist. He was, I think, writing and thinking in what I want to call an a-theist condition, cultivating a new kind of atheism for our time. I also want to suggest that the contrast between Wittgenstein’s own a-theism and modern atheism is marked in Wittgenstein’s own text, and developed in a fascinating way.

On the face of it such a contrast seems not to be a theme in Wittgenstein’s lectures on religious belief, where the focus is the contrast between Wittgenstein himself and the believer. However, there is a moment in the transcription of the lectures where Wittgenstein speaks not of “Wittgenstein” and his own response to a believer, but about what “an atheist” might say. The sentence in the published text of his student’s notes is all the more intriguing for being poorly typeset. It runs as follows: “If an atheist says: ‘there won’t be a Judgment Day, and another person says there will,’ do they mean the same? – not clear what criterion of meaning the same is”.

There really is no clearly expressed thought transcribed here. Indeed, there seem to be two distinct but equally plausible ways of rendering the notes into good sentences, depending on the placement of the speech marks. First, we could read it as a remark on the complexity of these cases, with Wittgenstein here replacing himself with “an atheist” in the contrast to a believer, as one might well suppose he might. We could then read it like this:

Suppose an atheist says: “There won’t be a Judgment Day,” and another person says: “There will be a Judgment Day.” Should we say that these two people mean the same [by “Judgment Day”]? The question is not so simple because it is not clear what criterion of “meaning the same” is in play here.

This seems natural enough, but one can also give the lecture notes a slightly different rendition by leaving the speech marks as they are in the notes, a rendition which situates Wittgenstein’s remarks as belonging to a critical reading of a typical atheist’s interpretation of the scene of contradiction:

An atheist might say: “There won’t be a Judgment Day, but another person says there will.” Should we see it like this? Should we suppose that we can line up the beliefs like this, as the atheist supposes, can we put them side-by-side, one affirming and the other denying the same thing? Can we affirm that the two mean the same? What criterion of “meaning the same” would speak for this?

The text continues: “They might describe the same things. You might say this already shows that they mean the same thing.” But this continuation can also be read in two ways, in line with the two former renditions:

There is a criterion of meaning that would seem to settle this question conclusively: namely, if they describe the same things when they are asked what Judgment Day is. If they both describe the same things this shows they mean the same.

Or, alternatively:

The atheist is sure they do mean the same. He says that they might describe the same things and that this is the criterion for them meaning the same thing. He says that if they do describe the same things, then this settles the matter: they mean the same.

Given Wittgenstein’s insistence that he does not contradict the believer, I strongly favour reading these notes as giving a probing reading of a modern atheist interpretation of the scene of contradiction. Moreover, the remarks that follow seem clearly intended to show that the conviction that we should say they “mean the same” is a characteristically atheist interpretation, and that Wittgenstein rejects it. For Wittgenstein goes on to insist that at issue here are not two contradictory sentences but something more like two cultures in our culture – specifically, the culture of religion and the culture of science. 

The atheist’s effort to see the expression of beliefs as straightforward contradictions requires a specific interpretation of religious statements: one has to think of the religious believer as someone who, at this point in their thinking and believing, simply “reasons wrongly”: someone whose view on this needs rational correction, like someone in the grip of a superstition.

Wittgenstein accepts that some people are convinced by superstitions. At issue here are cases where (among other things) someone draws conclusions on the basis of extremely weak reasons or on the basis of faulty reasoning. It is in such cases where, in opposing that evidence or correcting their reasoning, someone really does contradict them.

But this is not the point of view that interests Wittgenstein. What we might call the “authentic” religious believer is not someone who, as the modern atheist supposes, “reasons wrongly” on some point – rather someone who does not use reason at this point. It is not a culture of scientific knowledge, but of religious faith.

What, however, of Wittgenstein’s own relation to these two cultures? What is this third “position” that I am calling a-theism? The feature of modern atheism that encourages the idea that it straightforwardly contradicts religious belief is that it construes the latter as “reasoning wrongly” about the world. So the mark of an a-theist variation will be some kind of resistance to this way of construing religious points of view, but without adopting the religious point of view. In other words, we need to show that it is not that a-theists are indifferent to both points of view, or do not care one way or the other, or are agnostic, but that they are (in different ways) resistant to both religious theism and to modern atheism.

We might think of the a-theist in terms not of one spectrum (theist-atheist) but of two related spectrums: the first one concerning the degree of resistance to religious theism, and the second concerning the degree of resistance to making the reasonableness of a religious point of view a question of reason and science. To identify the a-theist condition we need to ask people to think not only about standard “questions of God’s existence or non-existence,” but also about whether they think scientific rationality “always…sometimes….never” has the last word on the reasonableness of religious beliefs.

At the extreme “negative” end of the first spectrum there are those who are the least attracted to religious theism, and at the extreme “negative” end of the second spectrum there are those who would never make the reasonableness of religious theism a question of science. So, moving up the scale of the first we have people who are increasingly more attracted to religious points of view, with unalloyed belief in God as the “positive” end-point of this spectrum. And moving up the scale of the second we have people who are increasingly more attracted to the idea of making the reasonableness of religious theism a question of science, with a modern atheist affirmation “always” as the “positive” end-point of this spectrum.

Taking the two spectrums together, the opposite extremes would be, on the one hand, believers who are never inclined to make the reasonableness of religious theism a question of science, and, on the other hand, non-believers who are always attracted to making the reasonableness of religious theism a question of science. The former are authentic believers, the latter are modern atheists.

Among the various possibilities of combination, we would find Wittgenstein near the “negative” end of the first (“God”) scale, but also near the “negative” end of the second (“science”) scale. He says he is not a religious man – but he is also resistant to (“honestly disgusted” by) those who see every problem from a scientific point of view. One might say that although, in one respect, he seems rightly to pass for an atheist, in another respect he is also close to (and yet, he insists, still on an “entirely different level” from) an authentic believer.

Whether they found themselves already in this culture or shifted into it later in life, the central characteristic of what I am calling a-theists is that, unlike modern atheists, they do not experience their lack of religious belief as the achievement of a superior cognitive position but, like the theist, as a defining existential condition. They are not enemies of religion, but on a different “plane”: they are estranged from it or strangers to it, certainly; but they are as likely to envy the believer’s being able to seek God as they are to be content with their own attained level.

Serious doubts about God are no sooner entertained by modern atheists than they are completely dismissed as rationally absurd. However, as efforts to cultivate a distinctive culture of a-theism grow – distinct from but not an enemy of the old theist culture – then in a Europe beyond modernity the culture of modern atheism may… wither away.

About the author

Simon Glendinning is Professor of European Philosophy in the European Institute at the LSE. He has published numerous essays on Europe’s cultural history and identity, and is currently completing a two-volume book entitled “Europe: A Philosophical History”.



Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

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