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29 March 2021updated 08 Sep 2021 8:06am

What the New Atheists miss about the meaning of God

Religion is not a scientific hypothesis, and the idea of God is transcendent in a way that precludes appeals to empirical evidence.

By Adrian Moore

The term “new atheism” was coined by the journalist Gary Wolf. He used it in a 2006 article for Wired entitled “The Church of the Non-Believers”. The chief representatives of Wolf’s “new atheism” were Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. What unites these thinkers, more than anything else, is their conviction that theism is not just unjustified, but pernicious: it must be rigorously opposed.

The label “new atheism” has stuck. Whether it is appropriate is a further question. Dawkins doesn’t think so. In the preface to the tenth edition of The God Delusion, he writes: “It isn’t clear to me how we differ from old atheists.”

One thing that new atheists certainly share with many of their predecessors is the belief that we can discredit theism in the same way that we can discredit a faulty scientific hypothesis: by appeal to a combination of evidence and logical reasoning.

“You can’t escape the scientific implications of religion,” Dawkins said in a debate with the then archbishop of York John Habgood. “A universe with a God would look quite different from a universe without one… Religion is a scientific theory.”

If Dawkins is right, then theists and atheists disagree about what we should believe on the basis of observation. Clearly, Dawkins himself thinks that our observations tell against theism. But he also thinks we can imagine observations that would tell in its favour.

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In fact, Dawkins thinks we can imagine observations that would tell conclusively in theism’s favour. “If he existed and chose to reveal it,” Dawkins writes in The God Delusion, “God himself could clinch the argument, noisily and unequivocally, in his favour.”

What observations does Dawkins think would leave us with no alternative but to acknowledge that God exists? We can certainly imagine all sorts of ear-splitting goings-on that would indicate hitherto unacknowledged forces at work in the universe, and they might even lead us to posit the existence of some being of far greater power and intelligence than us. But God?

Whatever conclusive observations Dawkins has in mind, most theists will say that if such observations are what would clinch the argument in favour of God’s existence, then no wonder that Dawkins is an atheist! On any remotely sophisticated conception, God is transcendent in a way that precludes any evidence – noisy, unequivocal, or otherwise – either for God’s existence or against it. That is why theists typically regard God’s existence as a matter of faith.

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But if God transcends evidence in the way theists maintain, then they face another worry: i.e., that their claims about God, including the very claim that God exists, lack meaning.

[see also: What the New Atheists got wrong]

This worry was expressed by the early 20th-century philosophers known as logical positivists. Logical positivists had much in common with new atheists. They shared a respect for science; many of them shared the conviction that theism is pernicious; and when they classified a claim as meaningless, they meant that it lacked what they sometimes called “literal” meaning: it could not be confirmed or disconfirmed in the way a scientific hypothesis could by appeal to a combination of evidence and logical reasoning.  

Nevertheless, there are various reasons why new atheists should not view logical positivists as simple allies. For one thing, as the British logical positivist AJ Ayer used to emphasise, if the claim that God exists is meaningless, then so is the claim that God does not exist. This is why Ayer denied he was an atheist. But more importantly, logical positivists were always among the first to insist there are different ways to make sense of things beyond “literal” meaning.

A claim that lacked literal meaning could still express feelings (“This music is heart-rending”) or register some sort of commitment (“I give you my word”) or condemn certain courses of action (“Using your own children as unwilling decoys is unconscionable”) or perform countless other functions. The fact that there are different ways to make sense of things leaves room for the view that religious claims, though lacking in literal meaning, still have meaning of some other kind.

There is a noteworthy passage in Language, Truth and Logic in which Ayer concludes that religious claims do not serve the same function as scientific claims and then says: “An interesting feature of this conclusion is that it accords with what many theists are accustomed to say themselves.”

To be sure, there are now huge questions about what other kind of meaning religious claims may have. But unless we are simply deaf to the possibility that there are ways of making sense of things that are very different from any scientific way of making sense of things, we shall recognise these as legitimate and important questions.

It seems to me that one of the first and most basic things we need to acknowledge about theism, if we are properly going to reckon with it, is that it is precisely not what Dawkins takes it to be – a scientific hypothesis.

Adrian Moore is professor of philosophy and tutorial fellow at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is the author of The Infinite, Points of View and The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, senior research fellow in philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.