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Theology & Falsification: A Golden Jubilee Celebration

Can religious beliefs be disproved? If not, what does this imply? 1950 saw the first appearance of a short article which changed the way theologians look at the problem. Antony Flew describes the circumstances in which he wrote it, and we mark the anniversary by reprinting his original article.

My short paper entitled ‘Theology and Falsification’, which is reprinted below, has some claim to have been the most widely read philosophical publication of the second half of the twentieth century. It was first published in Oxford as the first item in the first issue of an ephemeral undergraduate journal called University. It was first reprinted in New Essays in Philosophical Theology edited by Alasdair MacIntyre and myself (SCM Press, 1955). Since then there have been at least forty further reprintings; including translations into German, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Welsh, Finnish and Slovak. (The qualification ‘at least’ goes in since two of the reprintings included in that further forty were made without prior permission.)

Like several of the other contributions to New Essays in Philosophical Theology ‘Theology and Falsification’ was a development of a paper first read to a meeting of the Socratic Club. This was a club which met weekly in termtime for the discussion of religious ideas. It was founded by C.S. Lewis, and throughout the nineteen forties and on into the nineteen fifties its meetings were usually chaired by him.

The five or ten years immediately following the end of World War II were the heyday of what the media dubbed ‘Oxford linguistic philosophy’ – something which, as P.M.S. Hacker was later to say, constituted “a flood of energy and creativity in philosophy such as had not been seen in Oxford since the Middle Ages.” (Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy Blackwell, 1996, p.87). It was mainly in meetings of the Socratic Club that Oxford linguistic philosophers, who were often accused of trivialising a once profound discipline, began to explore what Immanuel Kant famously distinguished as the three great questions of philosophy – God, Freedom and Immortality. At the time when the paper from which ‘Theology and Falsification’ was distilled was presented to the Socratic Club its discussions about God were tending to become sterile confrontations between Logical Positivists, claiming that what pretend to be assertions about God are in truth utterances without literal significance, and the various opponents of Logical Positivists, who found that conclusion unconscionable. I wanted to set these discussions off onto new and hopefully more fruitful lines.

The most radical of all the responses to ‘Theology and Falsification’ was the first, that of R.M. Hare. Hare suggested that religious utterances should be interpreted not as makings of statements but as expressions of what he called a blik – something like a general approach or a general attitude. So far as I know Hare has never developed this idea further in print. But it is he, surely, who deserves the credit for providing the initial stimulus to the production of a ‘religion without propositions’. The most extensive development of such a system of religion is to be found in the numerous works of D.Z. Phillips, who himself accepts the description ‘religion without propositions’ as appropriate. But he has had precursors and associates. Among their writings are: R.B. Braithwaite An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1955); Paul van Buren The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (SCM Press, 1963), Don Cupitt Taking Leave of God (SCM Press, 1988); and T.R. Miles Speaking of God: Theism, Atheism and the Magnus Image (York: William Sessions, 1998).

Finally, let me introduce the present celebratory reprinting by quoting from the epistle ‘To the Sober and Discreet Reader’ which prefaced the pirated first publication of a pamphlet by Thomas Hobbes. This pamphlet, at least in that pirated first publication, was ambitiously entitled Of Liberty and Necessity: A Treatise, wherein all controversy concerning Predestination, Election, Free-will, Grace, Merits, Reprobation, etc. is fully decided and cleared. In that epistle you as the “Reader” are told what the writer “thought fit to acquaint you with, that thou mightest know what a jewel thou has in thy hands, which thou must accordingly value, not by the bulk, but by the preciousness.”

Theology and Falsification

Let us begin with a parable. It is a parable developed from a tale told by John Wisdom in his haunting and revelatory article ‘Gods’.1 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. Wells’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 exists 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’.2 The Sceptic says there is no gardener. The Believer says there is a gardener (but invisible, etc.) One man talks about sexual behaviour. 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).3 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’s 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 judiciously 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 intend 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.4 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 it will be 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 that assertion.5 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 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 a merely human love” or it is “an inscrutable love”, perhaps – and we realise that such sufferings 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 of the existence of, God?”

© Professor Antony Flew 2000

Antony Flew is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Reading University

  1. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1944-5, reprinted as Chap. X of Antony Flew (Ed.) Essays in Logic and Language, First Series (Blackwell, 1951) and in Wisdom’s own Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Blackwell, 1953).
  2. Cf. J. Wisdom, ‘Other Minds’, Mind, 1940; reprinted in his Other Minds (Blackwell, 1952).
  3. Cf. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, II, 655-60.

    Hic siquis mare Neptunum Cereremque vocare
    Constituet fruges et Bacchi nomine abuti
    Mavolat quam laticis proprium proferre vocamen
    Concedamus ut hic terrarum dictitet orbem
    Esse deum matrem dum vera re tamen ipse
    Religione animum turpi contingere parcat.

    [Translation: “Here if anyone decides to call the sea Neptune, and corn Ceres and to misapply the name of Bacchus rather than the title that is proper to that liquor, let us allow him to dub the round world Mother of the Gods, so long as he forebears in reality to infect his mind with base superstition.”]

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