Is ‘God’ Meaningless? Exploring Theological Noncognitivism

What is theological noncognitivism? [1] Most people may not be familiar with the term, but more familiar with the sentiment. Theological noncognitivism roughly holds that all theological discourse is meaningless. Unlike atheism, which essentially rejects the proposition that “God exists,” theological noncognitivism holds that propositions like “God exists” are not even meaningful or intelligible in any way. To really understand this position, it is important to talk about the position’s philosophical origins.

Logical Positivism

Around the early 1900s, groups of intellectuals came together and formed what is now referred to as the Vienna Circle. This group included philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, and the like. The philosophical movement which emerged from these meetings of intellectuals became the dominating philosophical school of thought in the Western world. This philosophical movement is known as logical positivism.

Defining logical positivism can be a bit tricky. Some of the reasons for this are as follows: (a) the position itself went through various phases or reformulations, and (b) many of the logical positivists held positions which seem to conflict with other logical positivists. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this article, we can refer to the following definition: logical positivism is a movement which roughly holds that the only statements that are meaningful in terms of conveying truths are those which are empirically verifiable. [2]

For the logical positivists, there are only two main types of truths, which can be expressed through propositions: analytic a priori propositions and synthetic a posteriori propositions. Another way to put it is to say that the only truths, for the logical positivists, are those which are true by definition (which includes mathematical truths) and those which can be established through empirical verification. For those familiar with empiricism, notice how logical positivists do not openly accept truths which are accessed through empirical observation. Rather, they only accept truths which can be empirically verified.

This represents a key principle of logical positivism, the verification principle. The verification principle holds that a statement is only cognitively meaningful if it can be proven true or false. Hence, any and all metaphysical claims are utter nonsense, which include religious claims.

This principle can apply to many fields, but more specifically, as it pertains to religion, this is where we get the position of theological noncognitivism. Theological noncognitivism adheres to the same principle of the logical positivists but is specific to theology. So for example, claims such as “God is great” or even “God exists” are meaningless. An interesting way of putting it is to say — not that these claims are false — but these claims do not even have the dignity of being false. [3] They are simply meaningless. 

To give an example, imagine the statement, hremi hemheo aghrublah. Is that statement true or false? I am sure you are unable to decipher the meaning of that statement, which is exactly the point. The statement is meaningless. Therefore, it cannot be evaluated as being either true or false.


One of the most common criticisms of logical positivism actually come from the logical positivists themselves. One of the most apparent problems of logical positivism is that the main principle upon which their philosophy is built, the verification principle, is self-refuting. The verification principle holds that a statement is only cognitively meaningful if it can be empirically proven true or false. Can that statement be empirically proven true or false? The answer is no. So then, what reason do we have to subscribe to the verification principle as a means of being the absolute standard? The verification principle cannot even justify itself.

Some logical positivists adhere to a slightly different principle which is the principle of falsification. The falsification principle holds that a statement is only cognitively meaningful if it is open to the possibility of falsification. Hence, it can be proven false. Going back to the last example, consider the statement, hremi hemheo aghrublah. Can that statement be proven false? Again, the answer is no. Consider the existence of God. Can God’s existence be proven false?

Remember for theological noncognitivists, the statement “God exists” cannot be proven true nor can it be proven false. However, that is precisely the problem. To illustrate this problem we can refer to an analogy which was developed by Anthony Flew, a prominent philosopher and theological noncognitivist for some time:

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. 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 Skeptic 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?’ [4]

The gardener in this analogy is meant to represent God. For Flew, God, like the gardener, suffers from “death by a thousand qualifications.” The reason is because God is defined in such a way, with so many qualifications, that it renders Him meaningless.

There is so much one could say about this analogy. However, I would argue that to make the gardener analogy more reflective of our reality, we would have to imagine two explorers stumbling, not upon a clearing, but upon a 3 story mansion in a deserted jungle. If you were to come across such a mansion, and never found anyone there in the jungle to claim the mansion, it does not seem reasonable to conclude that it just appeared out of nowhere without an intelligent mind behind it.

However, going back to the falsification principle, this analogy still does nothing to justify the principle. Recall that the falsification principle holds that a statement is only cognitively meaningful if it can be proven false. Is that a statement which can be proven false? Once again, the answer is no. Hence, these principles (verificationism and falsificationism) are principles which have to be assumed in order for them to work. 

One possible response to this critique could be that these are principles which are not intended to justify themselves. These principles act more like axioms which are meant to explain the nature of how things work. My pushback to that would simply be this: such an epistemological framework (or method of discovering truths) still remains so limited that it cannot even justify the truth of itself. Even if it is simply just an axiom, why should I subscribe to that axiom and not any other random axiom or principle? For example, the principle of Dawudism holds that only religious claims are claims that are truly meaningful. All other claims are frivolous and therefore it is completely irrelevant whether they are true or false.

For argument’s sake, I will grant that these principles are principles which justified themselves or even that they did not need to justify themselves. One of the main problems with these principles is that they are very reductive. It is saying the only claims which are not just true but meaningful, are those claims which can be empirically verified (or falsified). This excludes not only religious discourse, but ethical discourse as well.

Metaethical Noncognitivism

In fact, for those who have some background in philosophy, you may be more familiar with the term noncognitivism. Noncognitivism is a metaethical position which holds that all moral claims are meaningless. For noncognitivists, there are no moral facts.

To illustrate this point, we can refer to a helpful distinction made by C.L. Stevenson, an American analytic philosopher and noncognitivist. In his work on the nature of ethical disagreements, he makes a distinction between two types of disagreements: disagreements in belief and disagreements in attitude. A disagreement in belief pertains to the facts of the matter, whereas a disagreement in attitude pertains to the preferences or values of the individuals. [5]

Consider the following example: two people (Person A and Person B) decide to go out for pizza. They go to Boli’s and order a pepperoni pizza. All of a sudden, the two individuals get into an argument. Person A refuses to order the pizza because he believes the pepperoni is pork. Person B, however, assures Person A that the pepperoni is beef. But Person A disagrees. This is an example of a disagreement in belief. How can someone resolve this disagreement? They can simply verify the meat by asking the cook or speaking with the manager.

Compare that with the following. Imagine after finding out that the meat is beef, they both try the pizza. Person A likes it and tells Person B that it is more delicious than Papa John’s pizza. Person B disagrees and states that Papa John’s pizza is more delicious. How can someone resolve this disagreement? You can’t! The reason is because this is a disagreement in attitude. These two positions express the attitudes or preferences of the two individuals. Hence, there is no fact of the matter.

For C.L. Stevenson, ethical disagreements, invoking statements like “abortion is morally wrong” or “abortion is morally right,” or even “murder is morally wrong,” all constitute disagreements in attitude. This may be shocking to some people but it is actually quite consistent with the view of many philosophers. 

Take the great Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose ideas in many ways had a large influence on many of the logical positivists. Hume, being an empiricist, came to the realization that under empiricism we cannot logically derive any kind of normative claim from a descriptive claim. This is famously referred to as Hume’s Is-Ought problem, which claims you cannot get an ought from an is. In other words, ought statements (i.e. normative claims) cannot be logically derived from is statements (descriptive claims). Considering the fact that we only have access to descriptive facts, we cannot logically infer the truth of value claims, which includes moral claims. Hence, the proposition “murder is wrong” cannot be logically justified under a strictly empiricist framework. Empirically, you can come to know that murder causes immense suffering and that it takes the life of an innocent person. But what empirical fact could ever tell you that it is morally wrong?

You will find some philosophers who unapologetically agree that you cannot really say that murder is wrong. In this sense, they are willing to bite the bullet for the sake of remaining logically consistent. If that is the position you hold, that is perfectly fine. The point of this article is not to disprove any particular metaethical theory. Rather, it is to highlight a fundamental problem with noncognitivism, which is that it seems to go against the commonly held intuition that there are moral facts. 

Religious Discourse

Before I conclude, it is worth mentioning a few things about engaging in religious discourse (or more specifically apologetics). One strategy that has become quite popular in recent times is that of appealing to logic or invoking logical arguments to prove the existence of God. Some people would say that such an approach is problematic and perhaps even blameworthy. Just to be clear, I personally do not have the scholarly qualifications to make or even endorse such a claim. However, philosophically speaking, I believe there could be some merit to that sentiment. 

I state this for several reasons: first, it may be the case that you cannot logically prove the existence of God, just like how you cannot scientifically prove the existence of God. The problem here is not with God, but with science and logic itself. Science and even logic are human enterprises. They are fallible tools that we use to understand the world around us. Hence, it does not make much sense to use such limited tools to try to understand that which goes beyond our human experience. These are fallible tools and God by definition is ineffable. 

Additionally, appealing to logical proofs or even logic itself may lead to the rational justification of disbelieving in God. In other words, by appealing to such arguments you are not only validating a skeptic’s rejection of God, you are actively justifying it. 

The reason is because you are implicitly agreeing to the epistemic framework of the skeptic by attempting to operate under their framework. To use the terminology of Malcolm X, you are using the “white man’s” language to try and justify your beliefs. Islam has its own unique philosophical framework which differs greatly from the West in that Western philosophy is fundamentally built on doubt, whereas Islamic philosophy is fundamentally built on certainty. [6] And that is why you will never be able to logically prove the existence of God. Subscribing to those strict epistemological terms already makes it a losing battle. 

Imagine if I said I only believe in truths which are told to me by my magic eight ball. Your response should not be to try and prove God’s existence by appealing to my magic eight ball. Instead, the best thing would be to challenge my epistemic framework. Ask me why I am so committed to adhering to such a restrictive epistemology.

This is not to say that logic or science is bad and that we should be anti-science or anti-logic. This is also not to say that we should not engage with each other logically. This is also not to say that these arguments or logical proofs for the existence of God are useless and not worth learning. Rather, the point is simply that all of these philosophical frameworks are limited (i.e. the magic eight ball, empiricism, logical positivism, theological noncognitivism, Dawudism, and even rationalism) and therefore you cannot use such limited means to establish any kind of absolute truth, let alone the greatest absolute truth such as “God exists.”

Works Cited:

[1] This is an edited transcript of a lecture that was delivered at the 47th ICNA-MAS convention. 
[2] “Logical positivism,” Wikipedia, accessed May 11, 2022, 
[3] This was a statement that was beautifully expressed by William Lane Craig in his lecture on Epistemological Objection to God: Verificationism and Logical Positivism and Falsificationism. 
[4] Flew, A., & MacIntyre, A. (1964). “Theology and Falsification.” In New Essays in Philosophical Theology. essay, Macmillan.
[5] Stevenson, Charles L. 1998. The nature of ethical disagreement. In Steven M. Cahn (ed.), Exploring Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology. Oxford University Press. 
[6] This acute observation was made by Seyyed Hossein Nasr in “The Meaning and Role of ‘Philosophy’ in Islam.” Studia Islamica, no. 37 (1973): 57–80.

Photo by Kenrick Mills on Unsplash

About the Author: Dawud Omar teaches various courses in philosophy at Howard University and Marymount University, as well as other colleges. He received his BA in Philosophy, with a minor in Linguistics, and his MA in Philosophy from George Mason University. His primary areas of interest include ethics, metaethics, and political philosophy. He also has a deep interest in Islamic studies and likes to spend his time learning and delivering lectures on the side.

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