One of the many problems atheists have with Christianity involves the issue of Verificationism. They may say, “I can’t believe Christianity because it can’t be verified,” and some might include, “…scientifically.” Some may even say, “It’s not true unless it can be verified.” Greg Bahnsen has a chapter in Always Ready entitled, “The Problem of Religious Language,” wherein he deals with both Verificationism and Falsificationism. The summary of the problem is that any religious utterance cannot be considered “meaningful” unless it can be checked against real-world data. Any talk of God, for instance, must correspond to something observable in the world in order to be considered “meaningful,” and thereby either true or not true. Let’s look at a couple of issues here, after a brief definition. This is not meant to be a thorough, philosophical, historical evaluation, but rather a summary evaluation with regard to the most pertinent issues.
Verificationism: (From Wikipedia) The view that a statement or question is only legitimate if there is some way to determine whether the statement is true or false, or what the answer to the question is.
Ultimately, this view has its place only under umbrellas of thought. It’s a manner of navigating through and within worldviews themselves. When this view was originally articulated, the worldview of Empiricism was assumed, which means it was conceived in a ~CT-affirming environment. Empiricists generally hold that what constitutes “reality” is only what can be perceived by “sensory experience” (experienced using the 5 senses). If the sensory world is in fact all that exists, then it might make good sense that any statement or claim made must be checked against sensory world data in order to be meaningful. However, Empiricism depends upon knowledge and principles not ascertainable by its own means, and further, it effectively closes off any subsequent discovery of knowledge that is beyond its scope, which fatally restricts its ability to say what “kinds” of knowledge there are, and how much of it there actually is. And so a conflict with an atheist over what’s “verifiable” reduces to a conflict over worldviews. Go figure.
Another problem with Verificationism is that it cannot even show itself credible and effectively severs, by its own criteria, any possibility of “meaning” in Verificationism. Can the statement, “The view that a statement or question is only legitimate if there is some way to determine whether the statement is true or false, or what the answer to the question is,” be determined true or false itself? Is there a way to determine the answer to that very question? What would the observational data look like? There is no way to legitimize this claim without either reducing to a fideism or arguing viciously circularly (in that the data itself must be “verifiable” in order to be used in determining the statement true or false, thereby begging the question).
To be sure, Christians utilize a form of verificationism (within Christianity) when they check any claim concerning the doctrines of God and his Creation against the data of the Bible, to determine whether the claim follows by “good and necessary consequence.” Hence, any claim to knowledge of particular aspects of God, or the nature of reality with respect to God, not derivable from the text of Scripture, is consequently rejected as “speculation,” which turns out to be sinful. There are, of course, different levels of foundational principles against which different levels of claims can be checked. And so I don’t have to see if the Bible says, “Matthias should write a post!” in order to write this post.
When atheists charge Christians with making “unverifiable” claims whenever they speak of God, they are simply admitting that their own worldview is not broad enough to make sense of the claims we make. Remember what I said above. They may not realize this is what they’re saying, but it is the brute summary of their words. While they portray the issue as though Christians are merely saying meaningless things, the reality is that they simply lack the wherewithal to perceive meaning in our claims. It is, once again, fundamentally, a collision of worldviews. The Bible exists within the empirical realm, and recounts historical events within the empirical realm, but some elements the Bible speaks of exist *outside* this realm. Rather than admit the blind spot of empiricism, these atheists often find it easier to assert that it is impossible that those elements exist. In simple terms, they close their eyes and say that only what they can see is what is real.
As far as we’re concerned, we’re making absolutely meaningful and verifiable claims. We have the Bible, after all, which gives meaning to our claims. And due to the authoritative nature of the Bible, we can be absolutely sure of the knowledge we have concerning everything it speaks about. The atheist cannot make sense of the Bible on his own terms. And…well, that’s the point.
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