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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Clarifying Theological Noncognitivism

I want to clarify some misconceptions about theological noncognitivism. The first has to do with the way theological noncognitivists use theological terms. The second has to do with the difference between theological noncognitivism and other forms of atheism, such as “weak atheism” or “teapot agnosticism.”

On the usage of theistic terms, such as “God”

Paul Manata has recently criticized me for using the term “God” at all. He says that my arguments for theological noncognitivism and my argument against the ability of presuppositionalism to support itself with valid arguments are inconsistent, because I reject the meaning of the term “God” in the former and yet utilize the term “God” in the latter. How can I use the term “God,” if I reject all claims that have the word God in them?

Well, for one thing, I don’t reject all claims that have the word “God” in them. I never said I did. Manata’s criticism here rests on a fabrication. He says I told him I "reject all claims that have the word God in them." He even used quotation marks, suggesting that I used those exact words. In reality, what I said to Manata was that I reject “any premises which presuppose that the term ‘God’ is understood.”

The difference between my statement and Manata’s misquotation is significant. I reject premises in arguments which presuppose that the term “God” is understood, because the meaning of the term is in dispute. That does not mean that I reject every use of the term “God.”

We can, for example, use the term “God” in a literary sense, to indicate a mythological character. This is the only way I know how to talk about the God of the Bible. Speaking about God in this way does not mean God is anything other than a plot device in a story, a function in a narrative which resonates in the minds of its speakers, listeners, and readers. This notion of God is not problematic. We just assume for the sake of the story that God has whatever qualities are necessary so that it is capable of doing whatever the story would have it do. The plot does not require a sound footing in philosophy to keep moving. It’s just a story.

When we discuss the literary notion of God, however, we might imagine that it functions in the narrative much the way a person functions in the real world; that it signifies the beliefs, desires, and feelings any person might feel. We can even find ourselves imagining this God as if it were an actual person in the world, not worrying about what God is, exactly, because we are not trying to say anything philosophically sophisticated about the world. Believers may thus casually switch from a fictional to a non-fictional narrative. However, we cannot assume that, because we can discuss the literary notion of God, we can understand what it would mean for God to exist in a non-literary sense. Many people make this mistake, which is why we find people talking about “God” without knowing what they mean, if they mean anything at all.

Looked at more broadly, we might say theology is an elaborate extrapolation from mythology into philosophy. My view is that this extrapolation lacks a coherent conceptual footing. It is not the term “God” in general that I reject, but the theistic usage in particular. For many, perhaps most, religious believers, the literary and theistic usages are conflated. We therefore cannot assume that the term “God” is going to be understood when we are making arguments about theism or atheism. This is why I told Paul Manata that I reject arguments which presuppose that the term “God” is understood.

We can use the term “God,” if we make it clear that we are using a literary notion. We can also use the term “God” in an extra-literary sense (even without defining it), if we want to investigate the possibility of theism itself. Only by tentatively adopting the theistic usage can we investigate it’s potential and futility. Thus, when I use the term “God” in arguments against theism, I am not using it in a literary sense, nor am I presupposing that the term “God” is understood. On the contrary, I am supposing that the term “God” is not understood, and I am investigating what happens if we try to understand the term as it is used in theistic discourse.

On "teapot agnosticism" and other forms of atheism

Paul Manata has also criticized me for calling myself an atheist, on the grounds that some philosophers think that theological noncognitivism is incompatible with atheism.

As I pointed out to Manata in his own thread (though he has since deleted the post; see here for an explanation), "
we can define atheism so as to include theological noncognitivism. For theological noncognitivists do not maintain any beliefs that, according to them, could be called 'belief in God.' Therefore, they explicitly deny having anything they would call 'belief in God.' This makes theological noncognitivists atheists, as far as I'm concerned, and it does not require them to attribute any meaning to the term 'God.'" Thus, we can distinguish between strands of atheism and recognize theological noncognitivism as a unique, and uniquely strong, strand.

As I noted in my post on teapot agnosticism, my view is that other strands of atheism are just as problematic as theism, in so far as they presume that theistic terms have any coherence at all.

Now, somebody else has commented on that blog post recently, claiming that theological noncognitivism is the same as teapot agnosticism. Their claim is that the existence of the celestial teapot is just as mysterious as the existence of God. This is not true. As I pointed out in that post, we can understand what it means for a teapot to be in orbit around the sun. The only mystery confronting us in the “celestial teapot” argument is how the teapot got to be in orbit to begin with. Detailed facts about the history of the celestial teapot remain a mystery; but the notion of a celestial teapot is philosophically unproblematic. Not so with theistic notions.

Theistic discourse makes the terms “God” and “the supernatural” impossible to understand. This is what distinguishes me and other theological noncognitivists from “teapot agnostics,” making theological noncognitivism not only a strong form of atheism, but a philosophically necessary attitude towards theism in general.