There’s a popular idea that religion is about believing certain things to be true. If you read a lot of atheist writers actually, they’ll often talk about whether the central claims of religion are true and make sense, and apologists will argue back that do. And that is absolutely valid and valuable discussion: believing that things are true is a central part in of a lot of what religion is about People kill and die for dogma and throughout history there have been long and bloody disputes about the supposed truth of very specific details. But what I’m gonna be inviting you today is the idea that religion is often about more than just supposedly true claims.
One of the most famous analyses of religious statements came from Anthony Flew, with his parable of the gardener. Flew imagines two explorers who come to a garden in a jungle clearing. One says that there must be a gardener who maintains it; the other is skeptical. So they set a watch, and they don’t see a gardener. And the believer says, “Ahah, the gardener must be invisible.” So they use bloodhounds, thermal cameras, tripwires, all kinds of methods of detection, and they never find a gardener. And every time the believer says, “Ah, the gardener can’t be smelled, or seen on thermal cameras, but he is there.” And eventually the skeptic says, “Look, if there’s a gardener but they’re invisible and they be smelled and they can’t be detected in any way, then how is that really different from what I’m saying, which is that there is no gardener? How is the world you’re picturing really different from the one I’m picturing?” And Flew’s point is that religious claims can sometimes similarly be unfalsifiable. If no evidence can count against them, if they cannot be falsified, then surely, he said, they’re just re describing the same world that the atheist sees?
Take the statement “God loves us.” We can come up with a rough idea of what it would mean for a human being to love us and if somebody said, “I love you,” we can think of evidence that would count for and against that idea. But God doesn’t really prevent people from dying, doesn’t really prevent suffering, and doesn’t really prevent evil either. And yet believers will still say, “God loves us.” But if no evidence can count against this idea then how is, “God loves us,” really putting forward a vision of a different world from, “God doesn’t love us.” What is actually being said here? Now this is just an example – don’t get too bogged down in it – but as you can see, Flew is looking at religious claims as if they are supposed to be true statements about the world. But the philosopher R.M. Hare has an interesting reply. He tells a story about a lunatic who is absolutely convinced that all university dons want to murder him. His friends try to introduce him to nice dons, and he says, “No, they’re just lying to lull me into a false sense of security!” There’s absolutely no evidence that can convince this guy, his belief is completely unfalsifiable, and so according to Flew he’s not really saying anything about dons at all because no matter what we tell him about them his beliefs doesn’t change. So what is he really saying?
Hare says that what he’s expressing is a “blik,” which is a word Hare made up. Bliks are not so much beliefs as they are ways of looking at the world. There’s no evidence that can convince this guy, so his blik is more about assessing what does and doesn’t count as evidence, and what is worth paying attention to. As another example, take the idea, “Everything that happens, happens for a reason, even if we don’t know it.” This is completely unfalsifiable: you couldn’t begin to find evidence against this idea, or even, I think, for it actually, because it’s completely consistent with anything happening or not happening. And yet, someone who says this is looking at the world differently from someone who doesn’t say it. And that difference is what the idea of bliks tries to capture.