Religious Error Theory

In this post, I want to clarify a fundamental point of contention between New Atheists and many defenders of religion. Specifically I want to explore what is really going on in disputes over whether religious people’s religious belief statements should be taken literally and judged good or bad by their literal content. I will explicate what the defenders are really saying about the nature of religious belief, positing that they have something like an emotivism or expressivist view of religious language, in which religious people only mean to express feelings or commitments or identities and not literal truths, when making outlandish belief statements.

On the other hand, the New Atheists can critique that expressivist position with arguments influenced by what philosophers call “error theory”. Error theorists argue that even in cases in which people effectively are only expressing their feelings in their statements, they nonetheless can mean to refer to literal beliefs, and this is what is happening in the case of religious belief statements and that makes them important to rebut on their own terms.

Some moral philosophers have thought that values in general, and morality specifically, are primarily emotional matters. They think that when we use the word “good”, all we do, and all we mean to do, is express the fact that we like something. And, on the flip side, “bad” is the expression of the fact we dislike something. Using value terms is simply emoting and not referring to any kinds of truths about the things themselves to which we have are applying the value terms. When I call something good I tell you nothing about the thing to which I refer except that it was able to make me like it. Moral philosophers who hold positions like these are known as emotivists.

Error theorists agree with emotivists that value terms in fact do not refer to any kind of objective truths about reality. Error theorists agree that in effect all we are doing when we use value terms is expressing our feelings.

But where error theorists significantly depart with emotivists is in their theory of what we mean to do when we talk about values. Error theorists think that while we are only in fact expressing our emotions, we nonetheless usually think we are referring to truths about objective values. The error theorist posits that people are systematically in error about what they are doing when using value terms. They are only truly only expressing subjective emotions but they imagine themselves to be referring to some sorts of objective facts.

A lot of defenders of religion take a similar “expressivist”, “noncognitivist” sort of view of religion in which the cognitive elements of religious life are irrelevant. They judge that what people are really doing when asserting fantastic things of various kinds is expressing values, fears, hopes, and loyalties. If the emotions and the commitments that the religious are expressing are noble, humane, generous, loving, and inspirational, then the religious defenders think “who cares that taken literally the content of what they are saying is sheer falsehood?” If the only real effects of the fantastic assertions by the average believer is to express and reinforce positive emotions and activities, then there is nothing to criticize in them. Only when religious language expresses hatred and leads to harmful activities is it bad. But that can be denounced entirely separately of critiquing the falseness of what their belief statements literally mean.

Put another way, if one’s superstitious “beliefs” do not interfere with any of one’s abilities to live a properly rational and calculative ordinary life in the modern world and, even, to engage in work that involves rigorous logical care (as, say, a mathematician, a lawyer, a surgeon, a scientist, etc.), because such faith-based “beliefs” never lead one to mistakenly apply a religious category of explanation where a naturalistic one is appropriate, then effectively one’s professions of “belief” are revealed to be merely expressions of values and identity and commitments, rather than affirmations of strange things at all.

In effect, if you only actually base your practical decisions on the beliefs which are grounded in common sense and rigorous reason and never on your fantastic, faith-based beliefs, then the latter beliefs are not really, properly speaking, beliefs but only expressions of values, identities, and commitments, and should only be judged by their value as such.

The person who says the Earth was created in 6 days 6,000 years ago and yet still gets their kids vaccinated, as though evolution were real, is in practice living according to his rational beliefs and so his wildly false and anti-scientific professions of faith are not functioning as beliefs about the world, but instead are just functioning as expressions of hope or feeling or value or commitment to religious community, etc.

An error theorist, or possibly a New Atheist, would want to say that even though in effect a majority of modern religious believers thankfully rarely or never treat their most literally absurd beliefs seriously when making real world decisions of important consequence that deal with facts about the natural world, nonetheless they do still quite often truly believe them. Religious people are not consciously intending to only express feelings, hopes, identities, commitments, etc. when saying religious things. They at least think they are referring to supernatural facts or (at least) “truths” of some kind.

If all they meant to do was express their feelings, commitments, identities, etc., then indeed there would be little to get upset about. In that case religious statements would be as potentially innocuous as saying “God bless you” to sneezers has become. If unlike me, you don’t opt out and go with Gesundheit but instead say “God bless you” when someone sneezes all you communicate is a polite customary acknowledgment of someone else’s discomfort which has no intention of literally evoking a deity’s blessings or even of affirming the existence of such a deity. In such a case “God Bless You” is as arbitrary and philosophically empty as any other random combination of sounds designated by convention as a way of expressing a meaning. We could say “Quazick”, perhaps or “Hinfibble” or “God bless you” and any could mean entirely the same thing: “I am a polite person who follows customs and wants to acknowledge your discomfort when you sneezed just then”. We do not believe in Thor just because we still call the fifth day of the week Thursday and this is inherited from those who saw it as “Thor’s Day”.  All we express in the word “Thursday” is “fifth day of the week” (or something like that) and not “I believe in the literal god of thunder whose name is Thor”.

But the majority of religious believers do not merely mean to express their values and their identities through religious words which have lost their literal connotations completely, they mean to form their values, their identities, and their metaphysics through these words. While pragmatic realities may rein in the average believers’ abilities to apply their metaphysics in tangible ways which would damagingly override or alter their common sense and their scientific engagements with the world, and instead let them engage the common sens in ways that involve prudence about believing in the physical world and the laws of nature, etc., nonetheless, religious beliefs do lead to poor philosophical thinking about metaphysics and about the content of values, and they do so even in the cases of average, non-crazy believers. There are real inferences about the dirtiness of sex, say, or the “ensouled” character of the unborn, or the abominability of homosexual sex, or the value of trusting one’s heart over the truth, etc.

Values are matters for objective dispute and determination. I think the emotivists are quite wrong to think they are not. And I think that those who look at religious people only as usually just expressing feelings and rarely as truly believing, implicitly are treating values within a falsely emotivist paradigm too. They are implicitly saying “all values are just expressions of feeling anyway and so there is nothing particularly irrationalistic about religiously expressing values”.

What this elides is the real differences between value formation which effectively incorporates feedback from the world about what actually creates greater human flourishing and what does not. Religious values sometimes do respond to the world but when they do not it is because of the literally affirmed belief contents of their religions. And worse, when religious values counter progressive, modern values in powerfully stifling or regressive ways, this also is attributable to the literally affirmed belief contents of the religions.

And it is not only the most raving fundamentalists who literally believe what they religiously profess when it comes to the realms of politics, ethics, and other vital values in life.

This is the fundamental disaster of the non-overlapping magisteria compromise. In the terms of this discussion we can see that the defender of religion is thinking that as long as religious beliefs do not interfere with people’s abilities to non-superstitiously engage the physical world, then the entire realm of meaning, purposes, and actions can be ceded over to irrationalism. As though choices about how to live and what to esteem the most highest are ones that should be decided by emotionalist deferences to hopes, fears, traditions, and ingrained identities.

Most religious people, even many of the moderate ones, do not merely mean to express emotions, identities, or allegiances with their faith professions. They do think those beliefs have literal metaphysical content and even though they usually do not let their bad metaphysics functionally interfere with their common sense and scientific worlds, they do let their metaphysical beliefs lead to poor philosophical positions in numerous other areas—most consequentially in the realms of moral and political values.

And so attacking the false content of faith-based beliefs is necessary. And attacking the irrationalistic, emotionalistic “faith-based” approach to values formation and determination is vital to the promotion of reason and progress in values.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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