The following article is taken from Mr. Jim Pierce’s presentation at the Wyoming District’s Tell the Good News About Jesus Convocation held on January 31, 2014 through February 1, 2014. This is part one of his speech, “What the Atheist Can Know About God.”
Before we can understand what the atheist can know about God, or even what the atheist claims they can know about God, we must first talk about what it means to be an atheist.
Along with the Apostle Paul we confess we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4). Part of what this means for Lutherans is that we do not believe in some other Gods. We reject the Gods of the pagans, and so in a real sense we are atheists. That is to say, we fail to believe that the Gods of the pagans have any real existence.
What I have just described to you can be construed as a form of atheism called weak atheism. What is weak atheism? The weak atheist claims they fail to believe in the real existence of a God of any sort, just as we Christians fail to believe in Zeus in virtue of knowing Jesus Christ; but unlike we Christians, the weak atheist lays no claim to any sort of conception of God. That God exists is implicitly rejected by the atheist and this due to their failure to believe. The weak atheist should not be confused with the agnostic. The Agnostic tells us we cannot know God exists, even should it be the case that He does. As far as the weak atheist is concerned there is no reason to believe. We could talk more about this form of atheism, but it really makes no sense at all to me; and it is quite a boring subject. What this sort of atheism amounts to is indifference. It is indifference because the person purporting to hold such a belief can’t be bothered to deal with the reasons and evidences that strongly indicates they are sitting on the fence.
Now, we turn out attention to a more interesting form of atheism, strong atheism.
Some of you may already be familiar with this type of atheism, since its most vocal proponents are notables such as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Antony Flew (who interestingly enough became a deist prior to his death). These men often grabbed headlines and news interviews because of the outlandish things they would say. For example, Dawkins has repeatedly said that religion is an illness. That it is something like a malformation in the human genome.
Strong atheism is the explicit belief that not only is it improbable there exists a God, but such is a demonstrable fact. Like the weak atheist, the strong atheist fails to believe God exists, but the strong atheist insists there is no God and they claim they can prove it!
The arguments the strong atheist will use to demonstrate the non-existence of God are generally grounded in empirical skepticism and a weak verification principle.
Before I move on, I think it important to point out that one is not necessarily an atheist if they are a skeptic, or appeal to a version of the weak verification principle when laying out a theory of how we arrive at knowledge (epistemology). The atheist abuses empiricism to reject God.
So what is empirical skepticism? A strong influence upon empirical skepticism—some may say he is the founder of it as we typically run into amongst strong atheists—is the 18th century philosopher David Hume.
What Hume argued is claims to extraordinary causes require extraordinary evidence. For example, if I make the claim a UFO landed in my back yard and kidnapped Grandma Schmidt, the police are going to want UFO worthy evidence to support my claim, or I may find myself in prison for life. The CSI detectives are going to think it more likely I did something sinister with Grandma Schmidt, rather than extraterrestrials giving her a free trip to the Vega star system! So no matter what I claim happened to Grandma Schmidt, the police will rightly be skeptical until they can find the physical evidence corroborating my story.
Perhaps another example is fitting. If I claim Zeus exists, he is perched on his throne atop Mt. Olympus, you are going to want Zeus worthy evidence. He and his throne better be there and ready for a picture or else! Without the proper evidence supporting my claim, you will be entitled to thinking I am nuts. There has to be extraordinary evidence supporting these extraordinary claims.
Here is how David Hume put this in his Inquiry,
“You then, who are my accusers, have acknowledged, that the chief or sole argument for a divine existence (which I never questioned) is derived from the order of nature; where there appear such marks of intelligence and design, that you think it extravagant to assign for its cause, either chance, or the blind and unguided force of matter…. When we infer any particular cause from an effect, we must proportion the one to the other, and can never be allowed to ascribe to the cause any qualities, but what are exactly sufficient to produce the effect…. But if we ascribe to it farther qualities, or affirm it capable of producing other effects, we can only indulge the license of conjecture, and arbitrarily suppose the existence of qualities and energies, with reason or authority.”(1)
What Hume has stated is the basis for empirical skepticism. If you claim a supernatural cause for the universe, then you better be in a position to show supernatural effects.
At first blush this sounds alright. Obviously we feel much better taking our doctors’ advice regarding the effects of a medicine that has been thoroughly tested in a lab. We typically don’t want to head over to the New Age witch doctor and hear about how light emanating from crystals will rid us of some disease. So, there is a reasonable place for empirical skepticism as described by Hume. However, the strong atheist wrongly concludes from such skepticism that the effects they see all around them are not caused by God. They refuse to see the finger prints of God all over creation.
By now you have likely noticed a strong bias towards materialism underlying the strong atheist’s skepticism. This is because the strong atheist assumes that the whole universe is material; there is nothing in the universe that is not material. Empirical skepticism is the means through which the strong atheist can rule out the existence of things that aren’t comprised of physical matter; things such as souls, angels, demons, and God.
If we don’t want to simply talk about what the universe is comprised of and how we can test truth claims through empirical methods, we may also want to talk about how we answer questions such as “What is truth?” In answer to that question we might be inclined to think about what it means for statements to be either true or false. That is, how do we know what we say, or write refers to anything in the world of experience? What makes our sentences meaningful? One way to answer those questions is through the weak verification principle.
The weak verification principle tells us how statements or propositions are meaningful. The goal of such a principle is not to merely help us with our diction; although, that could be a good thing (especially if you’re me!), but is to give us a framework through which we can arrive at a model of human knowledge (i.e. how we know what we know, so-to-speak). So, what is the weak verification principle?
J.L. Mackie, in his The Miracle of Theism tells us: “Rejecting it [a strong verificationist principle], we can still retain an empiricist or weak verificationist view, that all our terms have to be given meaning by their use in some statements that are verifiable or confirmable in our experience….” (2)
To illustrate what Mackie is saying here about the weak verification principle, suppose I say something like the following: “It is raining in here” and I mean rain and not the sprinkler system going off. My statement would be highly suspect and rightly considered gibberish unless it could be demonstrated as true through empirical methods. Obviously I am being silly to make a point, but perhaps it can be shown I brought a cloud with me from Seattle and we have a cloud burst on the front row here. Of course, if I really believe that it is raining inside the building right now, then I think that suitable grounds for ending this speech and getting me to the hospital right away! We wouldn’t need a team of scientists to verify that I am hallucinating. Well, in good philosophical form, perhaps it is all of you hallucinating that it isn’t raining and I am the only one who sees things as they really are?
Nevertheless, a weak verification principle is going to tell us that a proposition, or statement, is not meaningful if it can’t be tested empirically, at least in principle. At first blush this principle appears commonsensical, but I think you will see it gives us a real problem when we get to statements such as “I love my wife,” “I dislike white chocolate,” or “Last year I really did do my taxes, but the dog ate my 1040!” How do we set out to verify or confirm those statements and similar ones using empirical methods? We can even take this a step further and ask if the weak verification principle is subject to its own standard? That is, we may ask if its own statements are rendered meaningless should it turn out they can’t be empirically tested, at least in principle.
The strong atheist lives and breathes on the weak verification principle. The reason why is the strong atheist wants to eliminate statements which gain their meaning simply by inspecting their terms. Such statements are called analytic statements or analytic propositions, because their truth or falsity may be determined solely through analyzing the meaning of its terms.
The strong atheist will allow for analytic statements in the sense Mackie employs, and namely only if such a statement is using terms which have already been verified by empirical means or confirmed in our experience. What the strong atheist is after, is forcing us to concede that statements or propositions are meaningful if, and only if, they can derive their meaning from observed facts or events which are testable through empirical methods.
So, if we concede to the strong atheist that meaningful statements, those which garner truth, are only those that are verifiable at least in principle (a posteriori sentences), then how do we determine the truth of the proposition “God exists”? At once the atheist will point out that you don’t. Such a statement is not testable and therefore can neither be true or false. In other words, the statement is not meaningful. Can you see how this principle can be used to categorically deny the existence of anything we can’t demonstrate to exist except through empirical means?
In the next article in this series I introduce three objections to the existence of God as raised by the strong atheist.
1) Hume, David (1993). Dialogues and Natural History, p. 14. Oxford University Press
2) Mackie, J.L. (1982). The Miracle of Theism, p.2. Oxford University Press