The Teflon God

As you know, the debate between theists and a-theists is heating up a bit lately. (That we can even have such a debate is a healthy trend, considering that in earlier days such disputes were resolved by burning the nonbeliever at the stake.) There will, of course, be no resolution of it, as theists make claims that are carefully tuned to be unfalsifiable, then insist that, simply by virtue of being unfalsifiable, they are every bit as respectable as models that include no supernatural agents. (One of this faction’s most articulate spokesmen is Dr. William Vallicella, who has joined the battle again in recent posts, and who defends his theism with considerable agility.)

An outstanding response to this tactic was a brief article titled Theology and Falsification, written 50 years ago by the British philosopher Antony Flew. It begins:

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’. 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 he 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 a nutshell, this is what makes atheists want to take the faithful by the shoulders and shake them awake (and while I admit some high-profile atheists have gotten a bit strident about that lately, it’s nothing compared to the vigor with which religious beliefs have been forced upon the skeptical over the millennia). Flew’s little paper is only five paragraphs long, but it is extraordinarily strong. It makes no claim to refute theism — as mentioned above, one of the secrets to the robustness of successful religions, and theistic philosophies, is that they have been refined and adjusted so as to make this impossible — but it gets this ploy right out in plain view.

Read Dr. Vallicella’s latest post here, and then read Dr. Flew’s paper here.

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