Let us take another look at Wittgenstein’s arresting remark, in Culture and Value, that religion as madness, or religious madness (of which Abraham’s preparation to sacrifice his son Isaac is a paradigm example) springs from irreligiousness.
The obvious questions one must ask Wittgenstein are: What do you mean by “religion as madness”? And what do you mean by “irreligiousness”?
“Religion as madness” can only mean “religious madness” or “religiousness gone mad”. And what do these expressions mean? That depends on what we mean by “madness” in the first place.
The word “mad” is ambiguous. It can mean a clinical condition of insanity or lunacy, or intense anger, or an intense desire for something, or pronounced or marked irrationality. “He is mad at her selfishness.”, “She is mad about teas from Mariage Frères.”, and “Did you really go 100 mph on that freeway? That was madness!” express these different senses of “mad”.
Only the first and last senses of “mad” - “mad” in the sense of a clinical condition of lunacy and “mad” in the sense of pronounced or marked irrationality - are relevant in the context of Wittgenstein’s remark.
Religious madness can be or can become a clinical condition of insanity or lunacy, but usually it takes the form of pronounced or marked irrationality in belief, emotion, and behavior in the guise or form of religiousness. Thus, I construe “religious madness” as referring to a pronounced or marked condition of irrationality in belief, emotion, and behavior in the forms of religiousness.
And what makes a belief, emotion, or behavior irrational?
I maintain that irrationality is in its essence a violation or abrogation of principles of common sense. There are two central principles of common sense which are at the core of rationality: a) A belief must be held only if there is evidence for it, and b) A belief must be rejected if there is evidence against it.
Irrationality, therefore, consists in the violation of these two basic principles of (common sense) rationality. An irrational belief is a belief for which there is no evidence and/or against which there is evidence. An irrational emotion is an emotion based on an irrational belief. And an irrational behavior is behavior based on an irrational belief directly, or indirectly by being driven by an irrational emotion.
Insanity or lunacy is characterized by a persistent state of pronounced irrationality in belief, emotion, and behavior, but it is important to consider the fact that there are temporary or recurrent states or bouts of irrationality in belief, emotion, and behavior.
Irrationality is also a matter of extent or range. One’s irrationality can be confined to a specific domain or area of belief, emotion, and behavior, or it can extend to and encompass several domains of belief, emotion, and behavior.
The latter condition verges on clinical lunacy or insanity, but it is a fact of human nature that one can be eminently rational in one area or domain and succumb to irrationality in another domain.
Isaac Newton’s rationality in the realm of physics was unparalleled, but he was irrational in his approach to alchemy and the Bible and wasted his precious genius, time, and energy in pursuing his alchemical and Biblical “studies”. If this was true of Newton, one can only speculate on the condition of lesser mortals!
Think of all those Indian scientists who, at the end of a day’s rigorous scientific work in their prestigious institutions, took off their white coats and headed toward the ashram of the late “Satya” Sai Baba and fell for his standard repertoire of a magician’s tricks!
Think of some of the scientists in the West who suspended elementary standards of testing and fell for Uri Geller’s stunts with bending metal through “mind power” alone!
What a curious division in a single mind between its application of rigorous rationality in one domain and its abrogation of it in another domain!
Humans are prone to irrationality not only in the usual sense of doing something contrary to their knowledge, but also, and more dangerously, in the sense of believing something contrary to their knowledge.
What’s all this got to do with Wittgenstein’s remark?
It has a bearing on it in that it helps to dispel two errors pertaining to talk of “religion as madness” or religious madness: a) the error of thinking that “religion as madness” or “religious madness” invariably or essentially refers to the clinical condition of insanity or lunacy, and b) the error of thinking that “religion as madness”, or religious irrationality, implies irrationality in all other non-religious domains of one’s life, that to ascribe religious irrationality to someone implies that the person cannot hold any rational beliefs at all.
In talking of “religion as madness”, or religious madness, or religious irrationality, we are not talking, except in unusual cases, of madness or irrationality in the clinical terms of insanity or lunacy. We are simply talking of pronounced or marked irrationality of belief, emotion, and behavior manifested in the forms of religiousness.
Further, in talking of “religion as madness” in the sense of pronounced or marked irrationality of belief, emotion, and behavior manifested in terms of religiousness, we are not suggesting that this form of irrationality must necessarily permeate the whole of one’s life.
The commonplace fact of division in the human mind and psyche between rigorous rationality in one domain or area and even egregious irrationality in another area blocks that suggestion. The same person can harbor or hold highly rational beliefs on some matters and highly irrational beliefs on other matters. So, the fact that a person has succumbed to religious irrationality does not imply that they cannot harbor any rational beliefs at all about other matters.
It also works in the other direction. From the fact that a person holds rational beliefs in one domain, it certainly does not follow that he or she must be free from religious irrationality or irrational religious beliefs.
Given the universal propensity for “divided rationality”, the fact that a person holds rational beliefs in one domain does not even make it probable that he or she is free from religious irrationality.
Hence, any inference from the fact that a person is rational in some domain to the conclusion that he or she is likely to be rational in another domain is illogical.
This throws out of the window an argument made on behalf of some claimants to religious experience: that we should consider their “verbal testimony” on their experiences, their claims on their religious experiences, to be reliable because those claimants are rational in some other, non-religious, domain. This argument is afflicted by non sequitur.
Religious irrationality can vary in its range or extent depending on the length of the leash of common sense with which an individual restrains his or her religiousness. The longer the length of that leash, the less constrained one’s religiousness and, naturally, the greater the extent of religious irrationality. The greater the extent or reach of religious irrationality, the greater the risk of “religion as madness” in the clinical terms of lunacy or insanity.
In other words, religious irrationality waxes or wanes in strength and begins to permeate one’s life in inverse proportion to the dominance of common sense. The more one regulates one’s life by common sense, the less the extent of one’s religious irrationality and the strength of its influence.
The second question pertaining to Wittgenstein’s remark was: What could he have meant by “irreligiousness”?
There is overwhelming evidence, on the basis of his published remarks and reported conversations with him by his close friends and students, that Wittgenstein held a view of religion which accorded central place in a religious life to an acute consciousness of the defects of one’s character (“People are religious to the extent that they believe themselves to be not so much imperfect, as ill. Any man who is half-way decent will think himself extremely imperfect, but a religious man thinks himself wretched.” in Culture and Value), unwavering commitment to one’s religion, and ethical practice stemming from that commitment.
Therefore, he could have only meant by “irreligiousness” a lack of awareness of, or serious reflection on, the defects of one’s character, a lack of commitment to one’s religion, and a lack of ethical practice stemming from that commitment.
Now, given my clarifications of “religion as madness” and “irreligiousness” in Wittgenstein’s remark, how could “religion as madness” or religious irrationality, i.e., irrationality in belief, emotion, and behavior in the forms of religiousness, possibly spring from “irreligiousness” in Wittgenstein’s own sense of this term?
It is obvious that one would have to be religious in the first place to succumb to “religion as madness” or religious irrationality. How then can there even be a possibility of “religion as madness” springing from “irreligiousness”?
One could attempt to render Wittgenstein’s remark coherent by saying something like this on its behalf: a person who is afflicted by “irreligiousness”, let’s say in the form of allowing some vices to go unchecked, turns to religion to assuage a guilty conscience or alleviate her moral conflict. But she fails to resolve this moral conflict and turns increasingly to religion. Eventually, the lack of resolution of the moral conflict over her vices results in “religion as madness”, or religious irrationality.
Does this make Wittgenstein’s remark coherent?
I don’t think so for the obvious reason that this person would already be “religious” in Wittgenstein’s sense of that word if she were to experience any significant moral conflict over her vices. To be in a state of moral conflict over one’s vices already involves an element of what Wittgenstein would consider to be essential to religiousness, i.e., an acute consciousness of the defects of one’s character, or one’s “illness” and “wretchedness”, to use Wittgenstein’s “Kierkegaardian” Christian vocabulary.
Note also that her turn toward religiousness is what exacerbates her moral conflict, her sense of her own “sin”, “illness”, and “wretchedness”. Without her turn toward religiousness, the vices would not be interpreted by her as evidence of her “illness” and “wretchedness”.
Hence, if this person were to succumb to “religion as madness” or religious irrationality, it would actually be an instance of “religion as madness” springing from religiousness!
Alternatively, one could attempt to render Wittgenstein’s remark coherent by saying that a religious person can suffer acutely from any lapses into “irreligiousness” and that this can eventually lead him or her into the condition of “religion as madness” or religious irrationality. Thus, irreligiousness can lead to “religion as madness” or religious irrationality.
But, clearly, this is really a case of “religion as madness” springing from religiousness rather than irreligiousness. It is her preexisting religiousness which exacerbates her conflict and suffering at any lapse into irreligiousness. The notion that one has “lapsed into irreligiousness” can only arise in a religious person. She would not even be conscious of her “lapses into irreligiousness” if she wasn’t very religious in the first place. And to suffer acutely from one’s perception that one has lapsed into “irreligiousness” implies a very high degree of religiousness.
Since these attempts fail to render coherent Wittgenstein’s remark that “Religion as madness is a madness springing from irreligiousness.“, I conclude, again, that it is a piece of baloney and that we should adhere to the plain truth that the roots of religion as madness or religious irrationality lie squarely and deeply in the bog of religiousness itself.