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Rationality of Theism 1: Religious Language and Verificationism


In the second section, Alston is responding to Kai Nielsen’s statement that sophisticated beliefs about God are factually meaningless. Some sophisticated beliefs include the statement that “God transcends space and time, has no body, and yet performs actions that affect things in space and time” (23).

Alston’s response is that it is not clear that such God talk is meaningless, since we can look at the “larger theological-religious setting in which the concept of God is operative.” This includes the Nicene Creed, which says that Christ will return in judgment, answered prayers, and the instruction of apostles by the Holy Spirit.

Now I can see how these acts are, for the most part, meaningful. The return of Christ, answered prayers, and learning from something intangible after Jesus’ death all appear meaningful. At first I was unclear about how the above scenarios could confirm or disconfirm God, but I can sort of see it now. To the extent that a believer commits to a certain meaningful belief, he must also show exactly how the belief could be confirmed or disconfirmed.

Unfortunately, in practice, many religious beliefs become meaningless, since no falsification scenarios are posited, and instead, whenever a belief is plausibly disconfirmed, the goalposts are moved so the believer can maintain belief.

For example with prayer, many say that it will help people get better. When it turns out that people prayed for do not get better, the goalposts are moved, and the believer says that it must be withing God’s plan. Since that plan is not described in any way that would limit any possible experience, the belief that God answers prayers is rendered meaningless.

Without a good understanding of what epistemology makes sense, it’s hard for me to evaluate this. Still, from a brief overview, I think I can agree that there are many ways in which a belief in God, even a sophisticated belief, can be meaningful.

I’m sure the author would agree with my critique of the way that many believers formulate their God. They make their God totally unfalsifiable, able to explain everything. This is quite a flaw, and can plausibly deprive their God of any meaning.

Kindle Notes:

In this chapter I shall consider the challenge to the factual meaningfulness of attempted statements about God posed by the verifiability criterion of factual meaningfulness (571).

The operative principle here is that a statement would never unequivocally count as a factual statement unless it were at least in principle confirmable or infirmable, i.e. unless at least some conceivable, empirically determinable state of affairs would count against its truth and some at least conceivable, empirically determinable state of affairs would count for its truth (697).

Note: Nielsen’s criteria.

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