The Argument Between Belief and Unbelief
For some reason that must be deep in the psyche of our contemporaries there seems to be a lot of interest in the debate about god—is he or isn’t he? Advocates on either side of the issue from the well-known outspoken advocates of atheism to the defenders of the reality of god are on the airways and the bookstands defending their views. The sudden recent interest in this issue puzzles me because it seems like a regression backward to an earlier generation of lively debate on the topic. I had thought the issue had been placed in the “no point of arguing” bucket because there was no way to resolve the issue by discussion. Some seemed inclined, regardless of evidence, to take that “leap of faith” into the world of gods and spirits, apparently believing that it could do no harm to decide for god, whereas believing the contrary might put them uncomfortably in harm’s way if god were real and vindictive.
I fall on the side of the non-believer in that I do not think that the arguments for god have much persuasive ability or much attraction. I used to “believe” in god as a child and young man, but over time and education, the belief in god seemed uninteresting and irrelevant. There was never an “ah-ha” moment when the light bulb went off and I changed my mind on the subject. It was like many childish ideas in that as I got older and knew more about the world and had more experiences, the inherent problems with religious belief just became insurmountable and the concept disappeared from my consciousness and my belief system.
I have never felt a need to become militantly atheistic. I think you have to take the concept seriously in order to debate it seriously, and I do not have much interest in the topic. However since I have been writing on the subject of Christian Humanism I have had numerous people write to me to show me the error of my thinking, asserting that if I just understood more, or listened to their arguments carefully, or gave god a chance, or did not close my mind to religious thinking and opened my heart to the Holy Spirit, or even if I prayed with them about my unbelief, that they could get me back on the path of right thinking on the subject of religion and restore my belief. One of the usual tactics is to tell me that it is my education that destroyed my belief and that education is the work of the devil, subtly taking away belief when I bit into the attractive apple of knowledge. I must admit to being annoyed by the arrogance of belief that dismisses unbelief as a churlish refusal to believe what to them is so obvious.
In graduate school I did a lot of reading in philosophy of religion. Back in the 1950s (when I was in grad school) some of the most interesting philosophers were in England. One writer in particular made a significant impact on my early thinking in the philosophy of religion, Antony Flew, an Oxford professor who was a prolific writer and speaker who regularly took the negative side in frequent debates about the meaningfulness of religious language in general and talk about god in particular. One passage in particular struck me as stating in very simple language the essence of the argument, a short article in his book Logic and Language, entitled “Theology and Falsification,” (Blackwell, 1953). I still have that book in my library.
Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by John Wisdom in his haunting and revolutionary article "Gods." Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, "Some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagrees, "There is no gardener." So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well's The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. "But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves." At last the Sceptic despairs, "But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?"
In this parable we can see how what starts as an assertion, that something exist or that there is some analogy between certain complexes of phenomena, may be reduced step by step to an altogether different status, to an expression perhaps of a "picture preference." The Sceptic says there is no gardener. The Believer says there is a gardener (but invisible, etc.). One man talks about sexual behavior. Another man prefers to talk of Aphrodite (but knows that there is not really a superhuman person additional to, and somehow responsible for, all sexual phenomena). The process of qualification may be checked at any point before the original assertion is completely withdrawn and something of that first assertion will remain (Tautology). Mr. Wells' invisible man could not, admittedly, be seen, but in all other respects he was a man like the rest of us. But though the process of qualification may be and of course usually is, checked in time, it is not always judicially so halted. Someone may dissipate his assertion completely without noticing that he has done so. A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.
And in this, it seems to me, lies the peculiar danger, the endemic evil, of theological utterance. Take such utterances as "God has a plan," "God created the world," "God loves us as a father loves his children." They look at first sight very much like assertions, vast cosmological assertions. Of course, this is no sure sign that they either are, or are intended to be, assertions. But let us confine ourselves to the cases where those who utter such sentences intended them to express assertions. (Merely remarking parenthetically that those who intend or interpret such utterances as crypto-commands, expressions of wishes, disguised ejaculations, concealed ethics, or as anything else but assertions, are unlikely to succeed in making them either properly orthodox or practically effective).
Now to assert that such and such is the case is necessarily equivalent to denying that such and such is not the case. Suppose then that we are in doubt as to what someone who gives vent to an utterance is asserting, or suppose that, more radically, we are sceptical as to whether he is really asserting anything at all, one way of trying to understand (or perhaps to expose) his utterance is to attempt to find what he would regard as counting against, or as being incompatible with, its truth. For if the utterance is indeed an assertion, it will necessarily be equivalent to a denial of the negation of the assertion. [emphasis mine]. And anything which would count against the assertion, or which would induce the speaker to withdraw it and to admit that it had been mistaken, must be part of (or the whole of) the meaning of the negation of that assertion. And to know the meaning of the negation of an assertion, is as near as makes no matter, to know the meaning of that assertion. And if there is nothing which a putative assertion denies then there is nothing which it asserts either: and so it is not really an assertion. When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, "Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?" he was suggesting that the Believer's earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all.
Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding "there wasn't a God after all" or "God does not really love us then." Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children. We are reassured. But then we see a child dying of inoperable cancer of the throat. His earthly father is driven frantic in his efforts to help, but his Heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern. Some qualification is made — God's love is "not merely human love" or it is "an inscrutable love," perhaps — and we realize that such suffering are quite compatible with the truth of the assertion that "God loves us as a father (but of course…)." We are reassured again. But then perhaps we ask: what is this assurance of God's (appropriately qualified) love worth, what is this apparent guarantee really a guarantee against? Just what would have to happen not merely (morally and wrongly) to tempt but also (logically and rightly) to entitle us to say "God does not love us" or even "God does not exist"? I therefore put to the succeeding symposiasts the simple central questions, "What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of, God?"The issue here is so obvious that it does not need any further exposition. It is known in philosophy as the “principle of falsification.” If there is no fact, experience or observation that would lead one to conclude that a statement was not true, then there is nothing that the statement asserts. In other words, if a statement cannot be falsified the statement is meaningless. That is the fundamental issue that must be faced by those who assert the meaningfulness of language about god.
Note: I am not unaware of the controversy surrounding some statements made by Antony Flew prior to his death in which he is alleged to have conceded that modern science may not be inconsistent with deism to which we respond that [a] if true, it is not relevant to the logic of the statement above; and [b] he was in his 80’s, admittedly senile and may have been misquoted or quoted out of context.