Are Religious Beliefs Explanations?

Norman Lillegard

The current revival of interest in philosophical theology and in debates between naturalists and theists has largely ignored or bypassed some of the Wittgensteinian notions which had some currency twenty years ago. This paper attempts to revive some interest in those notions by reexamining the idea that religious beliefs do not generally function as explanations and therefore cannot compete with scientific beliefs.

One way into this issue might be via a consideration of the role of hypotheses in explanations. Scientific explanations get started generally with hypotheses (at least on a Popperian account) which are then put to various tests in attempts to get independent evidence for the explicans. Now there surely is something quite odd in the suggestion that such a religious belief as that God created the universe, or guides its development, is in any way a hypothesis. This belief is normally aquired in "dogmatic" contexts, it is not held in a tentative fashion, and its function in a believer's life is, arguably, quite distinct from the function of hypotheses, and thus of explanations, in the lives of scientists. Does this show that religion and science simply bypass one another? Perhaps.

It will no doubt be argued that even if religious beliefs are not hypotheses they still have a definite cognitive content, are true or false, and thus are capable of contradicting scientific claims. To deny this would seem to be tantamount to endorsing some kind of emotivism with respect to religious belief, and in fact suspicions of emotivism have undoubtedly contributed to what I think are premature dismissal of Wittgensteinian approaches in the philosophy of religion. This paper will attempt to lay out some alternatives to the emotivism/cognitivism dichotomy, to show that these are procrustean beds which cannot accomodate a sufficiently nuanced account of what religious beliefs amount to. Doing that will involve some consideration of how people come to change their beliefs in various contexts. I will argue that the dynamics of belief change in the sciences and in religion are distinct in ways that support the idea that religious beliefs do not generally function as hypotheses or indeed function as explanations at all.

Copyright © Norman Lillegard