What is theological noncognitivism?

As an atheist, what does theological noncognitivism mean to you, and what is your position regarding this stance?

Posted: January 3rd 2009


I’ve never heard the phrase either, but I’ve always thought that before talking about the existence of an entity, one has to be able to come up with a definitive description of such an entity. For example, the loch ness monster is a snakelike creature that lives in the Loch, and Bigfoot is a large ape-like creature that lives in the Pacific Northwest.

For a lot of gods, this is a real problem. In the christian area, Jesus could be fairly well defined as “a human with the powers to do the following”, but the other aspects of the trinity aren’t really defined at all.

So, I’ve always thought it was weird to say, “I believe that exists and that belief is very important to my life” without actually being able to define what is.

I also think that the burden is on the theists who say “god exists” to define what they mean by that word.

Posted: January 4th 2009

See all questions answered by Eric_PK

bitbutter www

The ways contemporary theists describe their gods either include self contradiction, or are unintelligible, or fail to tell us what their god actually is. In short, theological non cognitivism (closely related to ignosticism) is the view that we’re lacking a clear idea of what God is supposed to be, and while that’s the case it’s nonsensical to profess belief in this thing.

Some theological noncognitivists consider themselves atheists, at the time of writing I count myself part of this group; until we know what Blorg is, we can’t have a positive belief in it. And if it turns out that Blorg is a term we can’t make sense of (like a square circle) then we can conclude that Blorg doesn’t refer to anything in existence. In either case, we are ablorgists.

Other noncognitivists reject the label atheist, insisting that they need a clear account of what God is supposed to be before the question of belief in his existence can be addressed.

On the face of it, it might look like noncognitivists are mistaken; surely believers have a clear idea of what it is they believe in. Christians, for instance, mean the god of the bible when they talk about God. He’s the creator of the universe, the author of all kinds of miracles, the heavenly father. He’s all knowing, perfectly loving and limitless.

The noncognitivst replies “But what is God?”. So far we’ve seen a list of things God has supposed to have done, we’ve seen secondary and relational characteristics of God, but we’re still missing any information about God’s primary characteristics, about what god actually is.

An article on the site StrongAtheism.net makes this distinction clearly:

Firstly, if one were to say that, “The dress is beautiful”, and I were to respond by asking, “What is a dress?”-it would hardly be a help to me for that individual to respond, “It has a nice design and is comfortable”. While it being comfortable and being designed attractively may play a factor in its being called beautiful, my question has not been answered. I have not asked for further secondary characteristics of the dress, but rather what the dress is itself that it has the capacity to be called “beautiful”.

Similarly, when the Strong-Atheist inquires, “What is God?”-the theist’s reiterating of the various capacities and secondary character traits found in scriptural texts and elsewhere is insufficient. The question inquires specifically into what “God” is, rather than what “God” can do, likes to do, or has done.

I’ve seen one theist, who seemed to appreciate the problem, reply to the challenge of defining God in the following way “by God, I mean whatever it is that you (the atheist) claim not to believe in”. Though if we understand atheism to simply mean the absence of theism, he failed to shift the burden of providing an intelligible God concept.

Aside from having no clue about what God is, there are other reasons that the modern God concept is half-baked. The secondary attributes that God is commonly claimed to posses are a rich source of contradictions. His limitlesness is just one of them. A limitless thing is necessarily a non existent thing, as Nathaniel Branden explains:

“God” claim the mystics, “is infinite.” What does it mean to be infinite? It means to possess no limits. To possess no specific determinite finite number of attributes – no specific particular identifiable qualities. It means to be nothing in particular. But to be nothing in particular is not to be. To assert that an infinite being exists is to assert that something can exist that possesses no identity – that is nothing in particular. To accept the existence of a being who possesses no identity one has to reject the Law of Identity. But to reject the Law of Identity is to reject the total of one’s grasp of reality. Thus the concept of an infinite god is the destruction of man’s concept of existence, of being.

If the God we’re talking about in a given situation is anything like the god that most Christians profess belief in today, I think that theological noncognitivism (and strong atheism) is an appropriate response.

Posted: January 4th 2009

See all questions answered by bitbutter


Attempting to wipe out the validity of the god concept by pointing out to religious believers – who are laboring already under cognitive dissonance so extreme that a dolphin thinking she is a can opener made of grape Jello appears to be cognitively sound compared to a religious believer – that the god concept is cognitively unsound made me laugh so hard that the purple dolphin quivered.

As for using theological noncognitivism as a basis for strong atheism (Gods do not exist), I need to research the topic more as at this time the articles which I have read left me none the wiser as to the role this argument has in refuting/supporting weak/strong atheism. Until then I will continue to present and regard myself as an agnostic atheist (lacking god belief but lacking the knowledge that there are definitively no gods) while pointing out that there is a high probability that there are no gods and that the burden of proof rests with the believers.

Posted: January 4th 2009

See all questions answered by logicel

brian thomson www

I’ve never heard of this particular phrase before, so my first stop is Wikipedia and links from there, but it doesn’t appear particularly enlightening on that basis. “Theological noncognitivism is the argument that religious language… (is) not cognitively meaningful” – by which I understand that it “does not express a (meaningful) concept”. I can see the point, but I’m finding it harder to see the relevance. After all, Christians clearly do have a meaningful concept of “God”, even if it’s all in their heads, and are not going to accept anyone telling them that they’re wrong about that. (Remember Douglas Adams, and his joke about “God vanishing in a puff of logic”?) So, it might be correct, but it doesn’t appear to be very useful.

I can see straight away that one of the cited sources, Drange (1998), attempts to redefine words such as “atheist” and “agnostic” in his own terms. He seems to hold the view that an atheist acknowledges the proposition of “God” as valid, that atheism is always defined in terms of the Christian “God” (and therefore invalid), and so only agnostics can hold the valid theological noncognitivist position.

I might not be an academic in “social sciences” (I’m in Engineering), but I had little difficulty spotting the holes in that paper. Out here in the real world, we do not need academics to tell us what we do and do not believe! A better approach would be to ask the atheists, something Drange rejects, so it’s a good thing you came here, then.

There are arguments for “God” that start and end in Theology, and you sometimes have theists throwing them at us, as if we care about or accept their Theology as having any wider validity. Theological Noncognitivitism appears to be an argument for strong atheism that is only comprehensible to academics in the “social sciences”. However, the “common or garden Christian” is not concerned with epistemological questions at all, and defines his or her personal god according to history and circumstances, not academic theology or “social sciences” (“ah don’t do that there book-learnin’ stuff”), and is unlikely to care for these arguments – which makes them of little use in the current environment that an atheist faces.

In my view, the idea of using essentially human concepts (such as Cognition) to answer questions of universal scientific significance (what’s out there?) is a bit of a stretch, and so I’m not surprised to see that the article draws parallels with Ignosticism. You can see responses of that nature to other questions on this site: someone throws words like “God” around in a philosophical argument, and the response is “well, what do you mean by 'God’?” I agree with Drange that you have to formally define a proposition before you can formally refute it, but in my experience, Christians simply do not want their “God” to be formally defined, and prefer a flexible, woolly, personal “God” that does everything and nothing at the same time.

Posted: January 4th 2009

See all questions answered by brian thomson


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