Philosophers have made a distinction in human speech acts between those that are cognitive and those that are non-cognitive. Cognitive speech acts amount to assertions. They are claims that the world is one way and not another. So if Barrack Obama’s minister claims “AIDS is the product of a U.S. government conspiracy to kill black people,” he is asserting that something is true. He intends that AIDS originated in one way and not another. If a prosecuting attorney argues that a defendant, call him Smith, is guilty of murdering a liquor store owner in a holdup, she means that the death of the store owner was due to Smith’s actions and not caused by something else. It is not the cases that Smith did not do it. To assert that p is the case is to assert that it is not the case that not-p is true. The world is one way and not another. This is not to say, however, that cognitive speech acts are all true. What it means is that the speech act expresses a proposition that is either true or false. Determining whether it is true is another matter. But by labeling it “cognitive,” we mean that the sentence conveys a description that reflects or represents some state of affairs that is either in the world or it isn’t.
But non-cognitive speech acts don’t admit of evaluation in terms of true or false. Many of our utterances are not intended as claims about what is true. They cannot be usefully construed as denials that their opposites are the case. Consider a cheerleader leading a crowd of football fans through a chant. Or imagine a poet reciting lines of verse for an audience. The cheerleader and the poet aren’t making assertion, as such. “Parkwood High is N-U-M-B-E-R O-N-E,” if it is taken literally as an assertion says something that is probably false. And the poet’s, “Humanity staggers across cold, expanses of empty space to board the 8:15 bus to Manhattan,” isn’t best understood as a real claim about what every human does in the morning on the way to work. Other non-cognitive speech acts include someone’s scream of pain when he hits his thumb with a hammer, or someone’s mindlessly singing the lyrics to a song from the radio. These sorts of utterances are better understood as emotive or expressive of feelings. They may even be done with the intention of inducing similar feelings in their audience. The cheerleader is certainly trying to achieve a certain sort of mental state in her audience. She wants to stir up feelings of excitement, enthusiasm, and support for her team. The poet may want to evoke similar subtle aspects of mood in his audience as he was experiencing when he had an experience. Some non-cognitive speech acts could be understood as something like, “I am feeling this way and I want you to feel it too. Share my emotional state.”
Lots of religious speech acts and behaviors are non-cognitive. Chants, litanies, ritualized actions, crossing yourself, saying “Amen” in response to someone else’s words, songs, some prayers, and call and response exchanges between speaker and audience should all be considered non-cognitive. The best way to understand their function in the lives and minds of the people performing them is often not as bold assertions of some fact they take to reflect the world. There are mixed cases and borderline cases, of course, but we’d be missing something if we took a cheerleader to be literally asserting that, “We will, we will, rock you.” Singing psalms in church or sprinkling water on a newborn baby shouldn’t be understood as assertions of facts. They are speech and behavior gestures that play a different role in humans’ lives.
Non-cognitive speech acts often succeed. That is, they often do produce the desired emotional and mental states in their audiences. Consider the effects of playing the American national anthem and looking at the flag (even if you aren’t American!). That music makes us feel a certain way. Cheers often make us have pronounced feelings. Poetry does evoke strong visceral, intellectual, and emotional reactions in us.
Here is the hazard with non-cognitive religious utterances. Many non-cognitive speech acts induce beliefs in us. That is, many speech acts that are not themselves assertions about the world nevertheless create the mental state of thinking something is true in their audience. No reasons or reasoning have been given. No evidence has been cited. And no argument has been presented. But in many cases, people still end up believing that certain things are true about the world. What started as a subjective expression of emotion, or maybe an act intended only to induce some shared feelings in the listener actually yields a conviction that something is the case, objectively. An absurd example might be a high school student leaving a pep rally feeling like the class of 2008 really is the best, whatever that means. Certainly people are roused to political action by poetry and song. They become motivated to act on their beliefs and bring about change whereas they weren’t before. Or the intense passion of the moment generated by the speech act leaves them with a deep sense of conviction. National anthems, patriotic songs and sentiments have been used in countless cases to rouse people to go to war. And a willingness to go to war is predicated on beliefs that something is true of the enemy, and its contrary is not. Intense public rallies stirring up fervent German nationalism made believing that Jews were the wicked source of Germany’s economic problems much easier.
In psychological experiments, we can see evidence that sensory stimulus that registers with emotional centers in the nervous system has a causal impact on what a person’s believes to be true. If humans are exposed to visual stimuli for less than 200-250 milliseconds, they cannot reliably report what it is they have seen. They don’t seem to be aware that they have been shown a picture at all. If subjects are primed with a fast stimulus, and then given another task, however, there are often measurable effects. In one study, researchers primed strong Republican test subjects with pictures of John Kerry, and then they showed the subjects positive words such as “happy,” “pleasant,” and “hope,” or negative words such as “sad,” “angry,” and “pain.” They also performed the opposite experiment with strongly Democratic subjects and primed pictures of George Bush. When they read the words, the subjects were instructed to identify the word as either positive or negative. In both cases, even though the subjects were not consciously aware that they had seen a picture of Kerry or Bush, their ability to identify the positive words as positive was hindered. After being primed with a picture of Kerry, the Republicans took longer to indicate that “happy” is a positive word. And after having Bush flashed at them, the Democrats took longer to affirm that “hope,” is a positive word. Priming effects like this have been corroborated and explored now in countless experiments and their existence is widely accepted. The significance for religious belief is that a person’s beliefs at the conscious level are often affected by stimuli, and by cognitive systems within their own brains that the subject is utterly unaware of. What feels like a voluntary mental and physical act that seems to be transparent to introspection, in fact, is significantly influenced by forces and aspects of the emotional nervous system that are behind the scenes for us intellectually. We don’t have access to and don’t know about the forces that produce beliefs that appear in consciousness. But they are there and they are making us believe things.
So we can begin to see the ways in which non-cognitive speech acts and behaviors might be working on us to produce or affect beliefs. If priming experiments in psychology show that the contents of their conscious awareness can be causally affected or changed without the subject’s awareness, then the same mechanisms will be at work on us in religious contexts. First, non-cognitive speech acts affect us, sometimes strongly. Second, we are often unaware of the causal factors and stimuli that contribute to the production of the beliefs we find in our minds. Third, the line between non-cognitive and cognitive speech acts is often blurry—“Did that guy singing really have his heart broken by a woman who cheated on him, or is he just singing as if he did?”
The hazards of forming convictions about what is true on the basis of non-cognitive utterances and behaviors should be obvious. A belief that something is the case in the world should not be based upon visceral, emotional, and unconscious processes, if we can help it. It’s dangerous to vote, fight, argue, march, pull triggers, and pass laws on the basis of emotion instead of reason. Passion is a highly unreliable guide to the truth. In fact, for many of us and many of our beliefs, they are inversely correlated.
And here’s the problem with many of the moderate defenses of religious practice. Many people defend religion as being a source of personal fulfillment and meaning. “We don’t take those stories literally. We don’t actually think that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, or that people’s physical bodies will literally ascend to heaven after death. Those are just metaphorical, poetic ways a speaking. Those words aren’t literally true.”
The problem is that the lines between truth, pretend, and metaphor are frequently blurred and crossed. The difference in feeling between mere metaphor and actual assertion, as we have seen, is slight. The fierce feelings of pride, aggression, and enthusiasm produced by rousing cheers from the cheerleaders or from playing the national anthem with a flag raising aren’t compartmentalized in our minds. Fights and murders frequently occur at sporting events. The feelings that non-cognitive speech acts induce aren’t controlled and isolated from the rest of our convictions and our beliefs about what is true. Those feelings produce actions, and actions feed beliefs, then those beliefs feed more actions, and the beliefs and actions catalyze more non-cognitive speech acts that rouse us further. We can’t sing or chant that “Jesus is our Lord and savior” or that “There is only one true God” over and over for years while having strong emotional reactions to the music, a throng of pious believers around you, and while listening to a passionate sermon and not be affected at the level of belief. To think that one can go through the motions repeatedly, acting, talking, singing, and preaching just like one would if X was true and be completely unaffected is naïve self-deception.
When we engage in non-cognitive speech acts without being very clear about the lines between truth, feeling, and assertion vs. non-assertions, we play with fire. If you don’t really believe in God, if you don’t take all the ontological claims in religious doctrine seriously, and if you don’t really think that humans need salvation from an invisible, magical being who reads minds, then how can it be acceptable to repeatedly act and talk as if you do? Those speech acts affect us—they change us. In religious contexts they blur the line between reality and wishing. They affect other people who frequently do take the claims as serious assertions and then act accordingly. They train us to believe and act emotively instead on the basis of good evidence. Religious speech acts foster visceral, intuitive, emotive believing. They train and reinforce bad intellectual habits instead of acute critical thinking skills. Ironically, isn’t it bad faith to act like something is true that you suspect is not?