Lecture Series

12 May 2015
Thirteenth BWS Lecture
Speaker: Dr Mikel Burley
Title: Wittgenstein and Philosophy of Religion: Beyond Fideism and Atheism
venue: Please note the change of time and change of venue. BWS Lectures will no longer take place at the University of Hertfordshire but will be graciously hosted by Bloomsbury Publishing, at the following address:

50 Bedford Square
London WC1B 3DP
in The Conservatory

see map

time: 6.15 p.m. A wine reception will follow. The event is free, but registration is required. Please email 

Curiously, it has been claimed of Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy both that it promotes a kind of fideism – an attempt to ‘insulate’ or ‘protect’ religious beliefs from fair and reasonable criticism – and, contrarily, that its unavoidable consequence is an acceptance of atheism. Wittgenstein himself maintained, however, that in contrast with the work of some other philosophers, his own approach interferes in no way with religious beliefs.

Getting clear about the implications of Wittgenstein’s philosophical methods for our understanding of religion is of more than merely exegetical interest. Since his work engages with deep issues concerning the place of religion in human life and the relation between religion and philosophy, the exegetical inquiry inevitably carries us into compelling issues in the philosophy of religion more generally.

By means of a close critical examination of the debates over ‘Wittgensteinian fideism’ and Wittgenstein’s purported naturalism, I shall argue for three main contentions. Firstly, that the ‘fideism’ label is problematically ambiguous. It has become associated with two distinct principles, which I call the non-interference principle and the incomprehensibility principle respectively. Secondly, I argue that the former of these two principles is benign and thoroughly consistent with Wittgenstein’s approach whereas the latter is pernicious and deserves to be rejected. For this reason, Wittgensteinians such as D. Z. Phillips are right to repudiate the term ‘Wittgensteinian fideism’, though not for all the reasons that Phillips offers.

Thirdly, I shall argue that, contrary to what some commentators have supposed, there is no good reason to think that Wittgenstein’s ‘naturalism’ and ‘anthropocentrism’ are undermining of religious belief. Although Wittgenstein does indeed lay stress on the idea that much of our linguistic and cultural lives can usefully be viewed as a refinement or development of instinctive reactions to the world, this approach has atheistic implications only if one imports anti-religious assumptions into one’s conception of the natural and the instinctive. Once the unnecessary nature of these assumptions has been noticed, the possibility is opened up of a philosophy of religion that is neither defensive nor illegitimately reductive of religious convictions.

About the speaker

Mikel Burley is Lecturer in Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, where he teaches courses both in philosophy of religion and in religious studies (including Hindu and Buddhist traditions). He is especially interested in developing interdisciplinary methods that draw upon ethnographical and biographical literature in order to enrich a philosophical understanding of religious forms of life.

Mikel’s work is both influenced by, and critically engages with, the later work of Wittgenstein and the Wittgenstein-inspired contemplative hermeneutics of D. Z. Phillips.

His recent books include: Contemplating Religious Forms of Life: Wittgenstein and D. Z. Phillips (Continuum, 2012) andLanguage, Ethics and Animal Life: Wittgenstein and Beyond(co-edited; Bloomsbury, 2012); and soon to be published is Rebirth and the Stream of Life: A Philosophical Study of Reincarnation, Karma and Ethics (Bloomsbury, forthcoming).

The event is free, but registration is required. Please email