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?

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.

  • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

    Daniel Fincke:

    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.

    Well, they also mean to express facts. “Jesus rose from the dead” is a factual claim, not a normative one. Those who want to see religion as entirely a matter of identity and value must also see it as fact-free. It is believers more than non-believers who would complain about that.

    Of course, to someone who claims that values are matters of fact, I guess it’s all much the same. May I suggest an exercise, if you’re going to press that view? Formalize one example of such an argument. Take your best such example. Choose your logic. Axiomatize what you need. Then create a derivation whose result is a normative claim. I think you’ll find the exercise enlightening.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I didn’t mean to imply that they some were not making any fact claims whatsoever. I understood Jesus’s resurrection powers to fall under the category of metaphysics. And, yes, many believers would push back against the expressivist accounts offered on their behalf by their more sophisticated outside defenders. Obviously, I was not addressing the literalist viewpoint in the foregoing.

      Of course, to someone who claims that values are matters of fact, I guess it’s all much the same. May I suggest an exercise, if you’re going to press that view? Formalize one example of such an argument. Take your best such example. Choose your logic. Axiomatize what you need. Then create a derivation whose result is a normative claim. I think you’ll find the exercise enlightening.

      Please, Russell, enough with the condescension. I will address your arguments in turn. And I have already answered most of your objections in advance in the posts you read but dismissed without any counter-arguments.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      The counter-argument is to do what I tried a couple of times: to point to where an argument first makes normative claims. One of the benefits to formalizing any such argument is that it makes that much more clear. There is a change in modality. Which is apparent even when the logic isn’t itself modal.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      The point I have made several times (and which I will make again in a post answering one of your objections from Thursday, which I will publish on Wednesday) is that hypothetical imperatives cash out in descriptive terms. Effectively to be the beings we are we must function in the ways constitutive of our being. That’s a factual observation. There is no norm inherently in it. We could, for example, theoretically try to become some other kinds of beings were it an option for us.

      The suppressed norm that I have mentioned explicitly on a couple of occasions is that it is a practical contradiction to destroy (or reduce on net) the preconditions of one’s own being–i.e., the very functional powers or externalized effects through which one exists at all, and so any being if it has an interest in its own being ought not undermine the preconditions of that being by destroying its own functional preconditions. And it is irrational, a practical contradiction, for any desiring, rational agent to destroy, or reduce on net, the the preconditions of its every desire (i.e, to destroy its functional powers).

      This is the “ought” that then determines which descriptions of the world (as hypothetical imperatives) are relevant to our actions.

      This is not smuggling in any idiosyncratically moral assumptions, contrary to your charge in the past. It is just an acknowledgment of the most basic of all practical contadictions. It is a matter of logic. Then the factual interpretation of all value relationships as relations of effectiveness combined with the translation of all ought statements into hypothetical imperative statements based on facts about effectiveness relationships, supplies the material for determining concrete specific norms in interaction with the wide range of individual diversity of powers and surrounding environments of opportunities and limitations. In that way specific value relationships and norms are richly informed by specific contexts and not monolithic or the “thin gruel” you were also worried about on Thursday.

    • http://www.russellturpin.com/ rturpin

      Daniel Fincke:

      The suppressed norm that I have mentioned explicitly on a couple of occasions is that it is a practical contradiction to destroy (or reduce on net) the preconditions of one’s own being…

      There are myriad examples of people committing suicide or sacrificing their lives for what they consider ethical reasons, eliminating the preconditions of their own being. There are many other examples where people simply put other goals above optimizing health, undermining the preconditions of their own being. You’re certainly free to hold that that is always wrong. But…

      It is just an acknowledgment of the most basic of all practical contradictions.

      “Practical contradiction” is just a label. It’s not an argument. If you tell a professional football player or boxer about the stats on head injuries, and how those shorten life, destroy physical competence, and end careers, they might respond that life choices are full of such practical contradictions. And they’re right.

      It is a matter of logic.

      What is a matter of logic? Making the sustenance “of the preconditions of one’s own being” the starting point for ethical discussion? Well, no. Using a label like “practical contradiction,” that has the term “contradiction” as one, doesn’t create an actual logical connection. That is one reason I urge formalizing such arguments. By the time one puts together a formal definition for a notion like “practical contradiction,” the complexities involved become pretty apparent.

      Just to be clear, I am not arguing that we shouldn’t value the things that keep us going, individually, socially, and ecologically. Those are important. I place quite a high value on them!

  • http://somewhatabnormal.blogspot.com/ Robert Oerter

    Nice analogy, and a good point about NOMA ceding the realm of values to religion/irrationalism.

    You snuck in “greater human flourishing” as the implied goal of values judgments. But one who rejects that goal can still agree on the basic point. If I give money to charity, do I do so because I feel sorry for the poor, because it contributes to a more stable world, or because God told me to? Reasons matter.

  • JD

    This sounds like a discussion I recently had with another philosophy grad student. He said that people arguing against religion typically fail to understand religious speech for what it is, which is fundamentally different from other types of speech; essentially, to subject religious speech to the standards by which we judge scientific speech is a category error. So for example, a statement like “I believe in God” is not meant, and should not merely be interpreted as, a straightforward statement of the existence of a thing called “God.” Of course, the obvious objection is why it should be illegitimate to ask whether this “God,” you know, actually exists — a question which doesn’t go away just because the theist didn’t intend for his statement to be subjected to that question. But I also noted that there’s a further problem: theists actually *do* want their religious speech to count in the realm of secular or scientific discourse. So it’s a dodge: Theists’ take their beliefs into account, and many of them think the rest of us should do so too, in gov’t policy, in social standing of LGBTQ people and atheists, etc., but as soon as we challenge the truth of those beliefs, they say we’re misunderstanding what their speech really means, and subjecting it to illegitimate demands. So “God exists” is literal (and true) when arguing that we need to keep “God” in the pledge and on our money, but sneaks temporarily over to the figurative side whenever it needs to avoid evidence challenges. This particular grad student doesn’t argue that religious speech should count in public policy, so I assume he’s just going for non-overlapping magisteria. But of course, that NOMA wall never holds — even though many theists do compartmentalize this way, many other theists, who do impose their religious views in the public sphere, are able to use that NOMA wall as a shield against the kind of scrutiny that the public sphere would otherwise require.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes. And the mistake the irreligious defenders of religion are making is they are interpreting “what makes sense of religious utterances so they can be understood as rationally meaningful and expressive of something actual” with “what religious believers actually mean and do with what they mean”.

    • http://themidwestatheist.blogspot.com Leo B

      Yeah, PZ writes about such irreligious defenders of religion every now and then. Basically, I think he puts it as “defending a religion that doesn’t exist.”

  • James Thompson

    Broken links

    Links on right side are all 404′s

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, James. We know. I’ve brought it to the attention of the web guys who take care of the technical side of the blog for me and I’m waiting for them to figure out what is wrong. You can find any articles by just copying their titles and “camels with hammers” into Google.

  • Suzanne

    I am a new reader here and afraid this will be slightly off-topic (but not totally I hope), still this is one of the things that I cannot get out of my mind, maybe because most of my friends and some relatives belong to the category. I wonder if you ever addressed the issue in some way and could refer me to such post (especially now with the bugs in the archive…).
    The category I mean would be “mild believer” (“average believer”?). In my 90% catholic country (not US) the majority of (young and middle age) catholics are I think of that kind. They can be going to church often, rarely or not at all. They can be quite engaged it “reforming” the church in the way that they read catholic anti-fundamentalist writers and conduct a bit of systematic thinking (…humanists…) or they only give their suggestions occasionally when they are in strong disagreement how the church treats some aspects of everyday life (contraception, divorces etc.). They’d be anticlerical from mildly to strongly. But what for me is very common to all of them is that they throw out “quite a lot” of traditional catholic teaching and still call themselves believers by all means. In other words they choose what they like and leave out the rest. It often makes me wonder what is that they believe in, but what I see as most important here they just seem to really need this kind of catholic framework, be it for the beautiful words Jesus said, or the rituals the church provides (who doesn’t want to get married in church) or whatever else. I certainly don’t want to stay at – their upbringing messed up with their minds and they didn’t try to overcome its influence. So what do you think about the idea that what many of them really deeply need for some reason is a transcendental point of reference for values (the Truth, the Good and the Beauty) – sort of good would lose a lot of its value if it can’t be relied on transcendental god (up to the world falling apart) – and the catholic faith is in what due do various circumstances they dress up this strong internal drive.

  • http://www.secularcafe.org/index.php davidb

    Oh, bloody hell, it’s late at night here (my euphemism for not being entirely sober).

    I think the OP misses an important factor entirely – which I shall term the experiential side of religious belief.

    I’ll come back to this tomorrow, but in the meantime check out youtube on the Toronto Blessing.

    If you do so, it should, I think, become apparent that factors like suggestion, wishful thinking, and positive reinforcement are major factors in religious belief – have an experience like a Toronto Blessing …. look for words ….physiological experience, and it will, I suggest be hard to deny.

    My own epiphany on Toronto Blessing lines was not even Christian, but was a result of being initiated into Transcendental Meditation.

    Having felt that sort of physiological hit (all my muscles started to twitch) it was hard to deny that something profound was happening, much as I now see that people who have experienced the Toronto Blessing and its ilk find that hard to deny.

    Going further, I can quite see that an open minded innocent might decide to try a Scientology auditing, and a mixture of positive reinforcement, wish fulfilment and positive reinforcement can easily elicit physiological effects that persuade the subject that something profound is happening.

    The point – suggestion, wish fulfilment, positive reinforcement can elicit physiological effects which lead to people taking the whole thing on board, whether quasi hinduism (as in my case), evangelical christianity, scientology, or whatever.

    Reason, I think, makes little difference to people confronted with direct experience.

    Unless, perhaps, the reason is less about the beliefs that people acquire though such experiences, but more about looking reasonably about how factors like suggestion, reinforcement and wish fulfilment can lead to people believing all sorts of nonsense – as I did, for a while.

    As I say, I’ll have a look at this post when sober at some point tomorrow, to see if I could express it better, and see if there are any comments on it.

    David B

  • http://thekindlyones.org/ Michael S. Pearl

    New Atheists can critique that expressivist position with arguments influenced by what philosophers call “error theory”. … 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 that makes them important to rebut on their own terms. … 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 … 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. … Your Thoughts?

    1. New Atheist critiques can certainly be influenced by error theory without acceding to the contention that it is important to rebut belief expressions (or believers) on their own terms. Indeed, in general, New Atheists do not seem to regard it as particularly important to engage with religious beliefs and believers “on their own terms.” It would be interesting to see some attention devoted to the importance (or unimportance) of engaging with other positions on their own terms.

    2. If it is asserted that God is a fact, and if it is also asserted that it is appropriate to describe God as “personal”, and if it is further asserted that it is appropriate to identify God with love, is this a metaphysical belief or a belief with literal metaphysical content? If so, are there “poor philosophical positions” which follow necessarily (which would be to say unavoidably) from this belief in and about God?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X