In meta-ethical theory, they have come up with a salient view about moral claims that sheds light on a lot of puzzling religious utterances. Non-cognitivism is the view that strictly speaking, moral claims are neither true, nor false. They are not the sort of speech act that can or should be evaluated with objective criteria of truth. Instead, when someone condemns an act as immoral, what they are saying is more like “I have bad feelings about what’s going on. I need to express those bad feelings. You should have bad feelings too!! Boooo."
Now consider “Jesus loves you,” “Jesus died for you sins,” “God be with you,” “Accept Jesus into your heart and experience salvation,” and so on. If you take these sorts of claims seriously, they’ll make you crazy trying to figure out just what they mean. Like Flew’s frustrated skeptic in the parable of the invisible gardener, it’s hard to see just what’s the difference between a world where these things are true and a world where they aren’t. There appear to be no experiences or no events that could possibly occur that are inconsistent with Jesus’ loving you, or with God’s cherishing you. For comparison, consider your typical university president, or political candidate who keeps fervently repeating that he’s committed to the future, and who says he’s got a vision of excellence.
What “Jesus died for your sins, accept him into your heart” really means is something like “I have sympathy for your plight, we are all lowly and pathetic and in need of paternalistic comforting, you can have it if you perform certain kinds of behaviors and adopt a certain kind of personal posture with regard to your place in the world. When I do these things I feel joyful, I want you to feel joyful too.”
The answer, I think, is that the real measure of whether or not some speech act is cognitive or non-cognitive is not something that is always settled by how the speaker feels about it. The speaker may or may not appreciate the non-cognitive aspects of what they are doing. The university president insists that he is committed to excellence, no matter how poorly his university is doing under his guidance. That what they are saying is non-cognitive will be revealed by the way that the speech acts weave themselves into their worldview. One telling question that I always come back to is this, “just what would it take in principle for you to change your mind about X?” We can’t imagine the university president conceding that in fact he’s not committed to excellence under any circumstances, and it’s hard to imagine how many people who are fond of repeating “Jesus loves you,” and “Jesus dies for your sins,” would ever change their minds about that. Suppose we found compelling archeological (maybe including DNA evidence) grounds that showed that Jesus wasn’t crucified and just live out a normal life as a carpenter. Do you imagine that the people who now insist that Jesus died for our sins would ever accept that evidence and conclude that they were wrong? If a speech act has working its way into a person’s psyche in that fashion we have good reason to think it’s become a non-cognitivist dogma.