Street front of Emmanuel College, Cambridge (1769) by James Essex
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Braithwaite – An Empiricists view on the Nature of Religion

The Non-cognitive view

Taking up the challenges put down by Flew and earlier by A.J.Ayer, R.B. Braithwaite, a Cambridge professor, delivered a lecture in 1955 which became something of a classic. It was called ‘An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief‘.

An Empiricists View of the Nature of Religious Belief

In the lecture, Braithwaite argued that religious statements were neither synthetic nor analytic in character. A religious assertion was primarily a moral assertion: ‘the primary use of a moral assertion is that of expressing the intention of the asserter to act in a particular sort of way specified in the assertion.’ It expressed an intention to follow, a Christian – i.e. as Braithwaite put it, an agapeistic – way of life.

Religious assertions do not prima facie look like moral assertions and Braithwaite was aware of this. Some are straightforward historical statements; e.g ‘Jesus was crucified’. Others are partly or wholly meta-historical; e.g. (partly) ‘Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost’ or (wholly) ‘God created the heavens and the earth’.

Good Friday

The Icon of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ by Olga Christine

Now, these meta-historical assertions are, said Braithwaite, ‘stories’ of which two things must be noted; a) they consist of propositions ‘capable of empirical test’ ; and b) they ‘are thought by the religious man in connexion with his resolution to follow the way of life advocated by his religion’.

It is not exactly clear what Braithwaite means when he says that they are capable of empirical test. Religious assertions, as we have seen are – for Braithwaite – moral assertions. The ‘stories’ act as psychological aids towards the living of an agapeistic life.

Braithwaite says the following in his lecture: ‘The tests for what it is to live agapeistically are as empirical as are those for living in quest of happiness…’ Does he mean that the empirical test is whether the believer actually finds it possible to live an agapeistic life if these stories are acting as psychological aids? Braithwaite is clear on one thing at least: it is not necessary for a religious believer to believe the ‘truth’ of the story involved – ‘what is necessary is that the story should be entertained in thought‘.

Read the Original Lecture here.

10 Point Summary of Braithwaite’s Lecture

This is a ten point summary of Braithwaite’s lecture:

  1. He wishes to modify the verification principle by allowing use as we as ‘verifiability’. Speaking as an empiricist, he hopes to show how religious statement is used.
  2. Religious assertions are not about a) empirical facts; or b) analytical or logical matters; ‘Theological propositions are not explanations of facts in the world of nature in the way in which established scientific hypotheses are.’
  3. Those religious philosophers who want to hold that religious statements are meaningful whatever the empirical facts may be ‘indulging… in a sort of “double-think” attitude.
  4. Moral statements have a use in guiding conduct: ‘and if they have a use they surely have a meaning – in some sense of meaning.’
  5. Religious assertions are primarily moral assertions, expressing an attitude – a feeling of approval towards the action. It shows the ‘asserter’s intention to follow a specified policy of behaviour.’
  6. A religious assertion is distinguishable from a moral assertion because the former will refer to a story as well as an intention.
  7. The ‘typical’ meaning of the body of Christian assertions is that they proclaim the intention to follow an agapeistic way of life – both in the inner life of the heart and the outer life of conduct.
  8. Religions may resemble each other closely in terms of conduct (cf. Christianity and Buddhism) but they differ from each other in the stories that relate to the conduct.
  9. It is not necessary for a religious person to believe in the truth of story involved in the assertions.
  10. How does entertaining a story relate to the resolve to live a certain way of life? Braithwaite answers his own question by claiming that the relation is a psychological and a casual one. The Christian stories are psychological aids towards the living of an agapeistic way of life. Braithwaite claims that he is following his ‘patron saint’ in religion, Matthew Arnold, in ‘cementing…imagination and conduct’ (Matthew Arnold’s God and the Bible)

Read the Original Lecture here.

The appeal of Braithwaite’s view is  that of its neatness and simplicity. It solves the questions raised by the existence of different world revisions. The religions are not making rival truth claims. They are entertaining different stories which aid conduct in a psychological way.

It also solves the question of how religious people know that their beliefs are true. Braithwaite has ‘solved’ this particular problem by abolishing it. There can be little doubt too that he was articulated very well what is called the axiological element of religious belief. (The ‘axiological’ side is the effective element, the valuing element – how it changes and affects the way in which we feel and live).

Many people, however, would find Braithwaite’s ‘solution’ unacceptable as an account of religious belief, certainly as it has been conceived traditionally.

For most Christian thinkers down the centuries, it seems that belief must have an Ontological as well as an axiological side. In other words, religious beliefs must be about realities which exist (in some sense) outside the minds of human beings whether or not human beings give them any thought. (‘onto’ is the Greek word for ‘being’).

Religious realities must affect us, certainly if we are ourselves religious, but they also must have ‘being’, must be real and not just ‘intentions’ which are there only if we happen to be thinking them.

Braithwaite

This would be the response many would make – and have made – to Braithwaite. God must exist, for example, in an ontological sense outside the valuing mind of human beings. Braithwaite would, therefore, be classified as a’reductionist’ by many religious thinkers; i.e he has ‘reduced’ (in their view) religious matters to moral matters.

He makes no attempt to offer an answer to the question, ‘Where does the world come from?’ in the way traditional religious thinkers have. For Braithwaite, there is just this world, it is a ‘given’, and we may have a ‘religious’ attitude to it. Nevertheless, there is no suggestion in Braithwaite’s lecture that there is God who exists outside the mind of believers or an after life in which the wrongs of this world are righted by an all-knowing and all-loving God.

God the Father

Braithwaite’s God is, therefore not real in the way most believers have thought God must be if he is to be God. Today, his view of religious belief would be classified as non-realist. Perhaps the most well known non-realist today is the dean of Emmanuel College.

Further Reading: The Foundations of Mathematics, and other logical essays … Edited by R. B. Braithwaite, etc (International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method.)

You might also like to read about: What is the Via Negativa?

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