The question of whether religious language even makes meaningful assertions can be best traced to the logical positivists, an influential group of 20th century analytic philosophers. They believed that any statement that was not amenable to empirical verification was not meaningful (called the verifiability criterion of meaning), which means that moral, aesthetic and religious claims are meaningless. The verificationist thesis went through various modifications, each weaker than the rest, until the project was pretty much abandoned. The problems with logical positivism are legion. This can most easily be seen in the fact that verificationism is self-defeating. The verificationist thesis is itself not empirically verifiable, which means that, by its own criterion, it is meaningless. But also, most academic philosophers, even though they are atheists, are also uncomfortable with the idea that moral statements are meaningless. Moreover, why should we regard things as only being true if they have empirical verification? You might say that they are then best attested but that doesn’t mean that other claims are not true. Indeed, no one can consistently claim that things are only true when they are confirmed by experience, because there are many common sense beliefs which do not satisfy this criterion: the reality of the external world, the existence of other minds (and even one’s own mind and self, one’s thoughts and feelings), and the existence of objective morality. The external world is not confirmable through observation-statements (it is not possible to give evidence for or against the external world through observation-statements). If you use observation statements to confirm the reality of the external world you have just argued in a circle, because you will have used information from the external world to give evidence for its reality. One may contend that other minds do have observational evidence in the form of behavioural and brain similarities between me (who I know has a mind) and others. However, if this sort of empirical evidence is permissible under the verificationist criterion, then most of natural theology should also be admissible. For other minds, one is using empirical phenomena known to correlate with a mind (even based only on one sample – one’s own mind) and using this to establish the existence of a mind in another person. You are using empirical phenomena to give evidence for something non-material or something that cannot be directly verified. In this respect, attempting to establish other minds by empirical means is not really different from natural theology. Natural theology uses empirical observation statements – fine-tuning, the beginning and contingency of the universe, consciousness, religious experiences etc. to give evidence for something immaterial and not directly verifiable (God). In other words, the sort of verificationist criterion that does rule out natural theology would also rule out the fact that there are other minds besides one’s own, and therefore commit itself to the absurdity of solipsism. Finally, even a weak verificationist principle would rule out objective morality. There is no way that observation statements can support the existence of objective morality – except, ironically, through a concept that has been given evidence for by other observation statements (God). The scientific method itself also cannot be supported by empirical verification, because this would require circular reasoning (using scientific methods of verification in order to verify science itself).
Even though logical positivism is not really defended in academia anymore, it is astounding how much of popular atheism and even popular intellectualism more generally is still inspired by its ideas, especially among atheist scientists and science popularizers who don’t have philosophical training (such as Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Sean Carroll etc.) But even philosophically trained atheists will argue against God in ways that seem suspiciously similar to the logical positivists “of old.” For example, in Peter Millican’s debate against William Lane Craig, you will hear him appealing to experience, and implying that if something is not represented in experience, that means that it is not true or that we can’t know it.
In his classic defense of atheism, George H. Smith contends with many of atheists contemporary with him, that the concept of God is actually meaningless. Firstly he contends that describing God as “supernatural” is not actually informative, because it is a negative concept. When you say that something is “supernatural” you only mean that it is not natural. ““Supernatural” tells us what a god is not –that it is not part of the natural universe – but it does not tell us what a god is.” But this is a strange objection. Clearly, saying that God is not natural does give us information about him, even if it is fairly open-ended. If I tell you that x is a being that is not reptilian, I have given you information about it. The fact that many things could satisfy the description of not-reptilian, doesn’t mean I haven’t told you anything meaningful or informative. Negative statements do give us information about something, and the more negative statements we have about it, the more information we have about it. If you have enough negative statements, you can make up a complete description of something (although it’s obviously less time consuming to describe it positively). At most, what Smith’s objection can support is the notion that we don’t have as much information about God’s being as we would like. But this certainly doesn’t mean that the concept of God is meaningless or uninformative. Smith supports this contention by attempting to claim that all claims about God are essentially negative. Even if they were, as I’ve shown, this wouldn’t mean that we have no meaningful information about God. But it is not true. Classical theism does make use of negative statements about God, but there are also positive attributes . God is immaterial, timeless or eternal (negative characteristics), but also personal, conscious, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good, just and loving ( positive characteristics).
Smith then claims that the concept of a supernatural being is “incomprehensible”, because ““natural existence” is a redundancy. We have no familiarity with “unnatural” existence, or even a vague notion of what such existence would be like.” Smith goes on to contend that the other attributes of God, such as justice, being alive, goodness etc. have no meaning when applied to God, because they derive their meaning from our experience. Thus, they cannot have any meaning when applied to something which is not in our experience. “All of the supposedly positive qualities of God arise in a distinctively human context of finite existence, and when wrenched from this context to apply to a supernatural being, they cease to have meaning.” There really is no problem here. Simply because we normally encounter life in the biological sense, doesn’t mean we can’t conceive of it apart from that arena. We can conceive of perfect knowledge and wisdom, surpassing our own. Knowledge, goodness and justice are all properties which minds can instantiate. Thus, a disembodied mind that has these properties is perfectly conceivable. What is the problem? The concept of Imago Dei is useful here. If, as monotheistic traditions suppose, we are created in the image of God, there will be similarities between humans and God. But God simply instantiates properties (which revelation ascribes to him) perfectly and without limitation. We are talking about mere meaningfulness here, which means that it only needs to be conceivable in order to pass this test. It seems as though Smith is confusing an open-ended or partially known concept with a meaningless concept, which is clearly false. In fact, to suggest that terms are only meaningful when they deal with things we normally come across, would mean that we really couldn’t describe things that are new to our experience and that these terms would be completely meaningless with respect to anything that differ from things we are familiar with and that we normally use language to describe. But, we can describe things that are new to our experience by using existing concepts, but modifying them appropriately where the new things differ from our existing experience. And this is exactly what theology does with God. We use concepts we are familiar with (such as justice and goodness) and modify them appropriately to talk about a perfect being. As usual, the radical empiricism that atheists tend to commit themselves to in objections against God ends up undermining science itself. Science often postulates entities that we can’t observe, in order to explain data. These entities are not present in our experience, and so, according to Smith, we shouldn’t be able to describe them meaningfully at all. If Smith’s objections are accurate, we shouldn’t be able to conceive of or describe the microscopic world of cells or the macroscopic world of cosmology, simply because they represent things to which our existing language of “medium-sized objects” don’t apply.
George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, (New York: Prometheus, 1979)
George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, (New York: Prometheus, 1979) 39