Stephen Law in Aeon:
When contemporary atheists criticise religious beliefs, they usually criticise beliefs that only crude religious thinkers embrace. Or so some people claim. The beliefs of the sophisticated religious believer, it’s suggested, are immune to such assaults.
Those making this kind of response often appeal to the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) – in particular, to remarks he made in Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics,Psychology and Religious Belief (1967) and Culture and Value (1970), both published posthumously. Wittgenstein made a number of interesting, if rather cryptic, comments about religious belief in these books, and did seem to suggest that such atheist criticisms miss their mark.
What follows is a brief guide to the leading ‘Wittgensteinian’ defences of religious belief, rooted in Wittgenstein’s later work. Note that it’s contentious what Wittgenstein’s later views about religious belief are. The views I discuss are not necessarily Wittgenstein’s own, but attributed to him. Examine these different positions more closely, and we find little to reassure most religious believers that their beliefs are ‘off limits’ so far as atheist criticism is concerned. This is not to say that contemporary atheist criticisms of faith are good – they might not be. It’s just that going Wittgensteinian provides little immunity to such attacks.