Theological noncognitivism

Posted on February 6, 2010


As part of getting ready for Budapest, I have been thinking about theological noncognitivism. It is the claim that religious discourse is meaningless, and is related to moral noncognitivism. Most logical positivists were theological and moral noncognitivists, claiming that such discourse was meaningless because it was unverifiable. The verificationist criterion of meaning has been criticised at great length and I would not wish to hang any claims upon it. Yet, I think there is something right about it when it come to religion. One basic difference is that I do not think that the content of religious beliefs is unverifiable simplicita. Yes, it is often such as to make testing it (I use the different term to indicate a less stringent notion) difficult but it is possible to treat religious claims as factual claims about the world and, as such, find adequate evidence for judging it reasonable to conclude them false. However, as I have often stated in this blog, this is definitely not the way religious people normally treat religious discourse, instead ensuring that religious claims are protected against possible falsification. In other words, it is not so much that religious claims are unverifiable but that religious social values make them so. At the same time, theists have to believe the claims to be true in something close enough to their literal meaning to motivate their religious behaviour. This is a position that is difficult to reconcile once it is thought about at any length – witness the great amount of theological discourse that tries to.

For me, the resultant difficulty has been how to express the noncognitivism that is part of my own position. I made an effort to express it in my Fixation of superstitious beliefs paper and will be talking about it in Budapest. Clearly, I can not simply say that religious discourse is meaningless. Firstly, as I’ve just explained, it is not just a matter of the claims made but also of the attitude taken. Secondly, I suspect that religious discourse is full of nonliteral meaning tied to the functions of religious practices. After some toing-and-froing, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to express what I am trying to get at is to talk about the noncognitive function of religious beliefs, i.e. the function of the beliefs which is not connected to their truth. This seems to nicely relate my views to those of standard theological noncognitivists, pointing toward both the similarities and the differences. At least, that is my hope.