MOVING THE SEMANTIC GOALPOSTS – theological sleight-of-hand with words

From my book Believing Bullshit.

Moving the goalposts

The expression “moving the goalposts” refers to a certain disreputable strategy in an argument. Suppose I claim Fred has never been to Brazil. It’s pointed out to me that Fred went to Brazil on his honeymoon. My claim has been shown to be false, but rather than admit this I just switch claims: “Well, he’s never been to Brazil on business.” I have just moved the goalposts. The analogy is with football. It looks like someone’s going to score a goal, but suddenly, at the last moment, the goalposts are moved and the ball misses the target.

 We’re all familiar with this sort of strategy. I focus here on a certain kind of example. It involves shifting ones meaning. I call it Moving The Semantic Goalposts.

Moving The Semantic Goalposts has been developed into something like an art form in certain theological circles, where it is capable of producing a kind of Intellectual Black Hole. In truth, comparatively few religious people engage in this sort of tactic, certainly not in the systematic fashion described here. Many rightly condemn it.

Let’s start with an example, which I call effing the ineffable.


Effing the ineffable

This strategy is sometimes employed to deal with the evidential problem of evil. As we saw in the introduction (2nd appendix), traditional Theism faces an obvious objection: enormous amounts of seemingly pointless suffering looks like very powerful evidence against the existence of a maximally powerful and maximally good deity.

In response, some say, “Ah, yes. You may indeed, have succeeded in showing that there’s no “God”, if that’s how you define him. But that’s not what sophisticated theists such as myself mean by ‘God’.” They then add, “What we’re talking about is, in truth, ineffable and beyond our comprehension. So you have not refuted my sort of theism.”

Here’s an actual example made on a blog by a Christian minister in response to the evidential problem of evil:


it is a central claim of the tradition that God is ultimately mysterious and not finally knowable. We cannot attain to a position of oversight with respect to God, we are always in an inferior position – that’s part of what the word ‘God’ means – something which is above and beyond our comprehension. Any analysis which seeks to render God’s attributes definable is not engaging with a Christian analysis.[i]

Fair enough. If what people mean by “God” is something indefinable, something beyond the grasp of our conceptual and linguistic apparatus, then obviously any criticism of theism based on the assumption that God is, say, maximally powerful, knowledgeable and good must miss its mark. If all that’s being claimed is that there’s a transcendent something-or-other – an indescribable cosmic thingamajig – well, yes, that’s certainly a hard claim to refute. I concede that it isn’t vulnerable to the evidential problem of evil.

However, those who play the ineffability card to deal with the problem of evil typically don’t stop there. Even while insisting on god’s ineffability, they nevertheless continue to eff the ineffable. They almost always go on to say all sorts of positive things about god, such as that he is good, he is something we ought to worship, and so on.

So, for example, our Christian blogger, in response to the suggestion that enormous amounts of pointless suffering are excellent evidence that there’s no good God, adds:

what’s at stake is what is meant or understood by ‘God’ in that sentence. I’m not persuaded that we can put much flesh on the bones of ‘good’ when that term is ascribed to God; the God I worship is beyond good and evil, he doesn’t fit within those categories. Though I’d still want to call him ‘good’…

When it’s pointed out that a good God would not, presumably, engage in the indiscriminate torture of children, or unleash hundreds of millions of years of animal pain and suffering for no good reason, God’s goodness turns out to be of an ineffable variety. However, it subsequently turns out we can put some “flesh on the bones of ‘good’” when applied to God, because it’s then supposed that “good” is, say, a rather more appropriate way of describing God than, say, “indifferent”, “callous”, or “evil”. Indeed, our blogger speaks of the “God I worship”. But this raises the question: why is it that our grasp of the meaning of “good” as applied to God won’t allow us to say that the indiscriminate torture of children is evidence there’s no such God, yet is sufficient to allow us to say that God nevertheless merits our boundless adoration, gratitude and praise?

Let me clear about what I am and am not criticising here. Is God ineffable and beyond our comprehension? Let’s acknowledge the possibility that the answer: “In one way yes and in another no” might be correct. I’m neither rejecting that suggestion, nor criticising anyone for making it. What I’m objecting to is the unjustified and partisan use of this suggestion to immunize theism against powerful counter arguments, while at the same time allowing a degree of effability whenever, say, there appears to be something positive to be said in its favour.

Seesaw meanings

Effing the ineffable involves an example of what I call a seesaw meaning. It relies on seesawing between two meanings of an expression. Suppose I ask someone to go to the bank. They say there are no such financial institutions nearby. I say I meant the riverbank. They say there’s no point: you can’t take money out of a river. This irritating individual is seesawing between two meanings of the word “bank”. When it suits them for the word to mean one thing, they tilt the seesaw in one direction. When it suits them for the word to mean the other thing, they tilt it back the other way. Effing the ineffable involves seesawing between effable and ineffable meanings of the word “God”.

Defending the evil God hypothesis

The mischievous character of effing the ineffable is nicely brought out by noting how the exact same seesaw strategy can be used to immunize other sorts of god hypothesis against criticism.

Take the evil god hypothesis outlined in my introduction. Suppose the universe is the creation of a maximally powerful and evil being. As I pointed out, this claim faces an objection mirroring the evidential problem of evil – the evidential problem of good. Surely there’s far too much good stuff – too much love, laughter and ice cream – for the universe to be creation of such an evil being?

But now imagine another Earth-like planet where theists believe in, not a good god, but this evil god. Call this planet Eth. The Ethians are struck by the problem of good, and some of them reject belief in an evil God on that basis. But other Ethians remain committed to their deity. And some of them attempt to deal with the problem of good by means of the same sort of semantic sleight-of-hand outlined above. When critics raise the problem of good, these Ethians say:

Ah, I see you are guilty of a crude misunderstanding. True, evil god creates love, laughter and ice cream, etc. but you must remember that ‘evil’, as applied to god, means something other than it means when applied to us Ethians. Indeed, God’s ‘evilness’ is of an ineffable, incomprehensible sort.

If these Ethians nevertheless continue to express horror at the boundless cruelty and malice of their deity, perhaps even using him to explain all the bad stuff that exists (“Look at all this terrible suffering – clearly this is evidence that evil god exists!”) most of us would see through their linguistic ruse straight away.

Karen Armstrong’s The Case For God

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong, former Roman Catholic nun and best-selling author of several books about religion, defends her variety of religious belief against the attacks of the “new Atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whom she condemns as theologically illiterate.[ii]

Armstrong also addresses the evidential problem of evil. In response to the question, “How do we account for the great evil we see in a world supposedly created and governed by a benevolent deity?” Armstrong maintains this question betrays a misunderstanding of what “God” means. “God” says Armstrong, “is merely a symbol of indescribable transcendence.” It points “beyond itself to an ineffable reality”[iii]. Armstrong insists that

All faith systems have been at pains to show that the ultimate cannot be adequately expressed in any theoretical system, however august, because it lies beyond the reach of words and concepts.[iv]

Of course, by insisting “God” is nothing more than a symbol of indescribable transcendence, Armstrong begs the question of whether there is any indescribable transcendence for “God” to label. Perhaps there isn’t.

Still, Armstrong does at least succeed in rendering her brand of theism immune to the evidential problem of evil. If God can’t be described, then he can’t be described as, say, all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. Armstrong seems to concede that the problem of evil would indeed constitute an excellent argument against the existence of a God of that sort. But that’s not the sort of God that, she claims, the vast majority of religious people down through the centuries, have believed in.

So far, so good. Armstrong has dealt with the problem of evil. However, reading through Armstrong’s book, it becomes apparent her God is not quite so mysterious and ineffable after all.

Indeed, Armstrong says that “God” is a symbol of “absolute goodness, beauty, order, peace, truthfulness, justice…”[v]. Not only does Armstrong appear here to be effing the ineffable, it seems she also thinks she knows things about this indescribable transcendence of which “God” is the name. She knows not only that it is the sort of thing to which moral concepts apply, but also that the correct concept to apply is absolute goodness rather than, say, absolute indifference, or absolute evil. How is she able to know this?

Because it turns out that what “God” symbolizes isn’t something entirely incomprehensible and ineffable. “God” says Armstrong, refers to a “sacred reality” of which she supposes some of us, after lengthy immersion in the right sort of religious practices, can at least catch “momentary glimpses”[vi].

Armstrong’s book is in large measure an exercise in such dodging and weaving. When objections such as the evidential problem of evil are raised, Armstrong pulls the protective cloak of ineffability around her God, rendering him invulnerable. But then, when it suits her, she lets the cloak slip a bit, so that certain dedicated religious folk can take a peek and provide us with at least some hints about the nature of this “sacred reality” that she supposes is out there – a reality which, it turns out, can be described as absolute goodness, beauty, order, peace, truthfulness, justice and so on after all. This is another example of seesawing between effable and ineffable meanings.

Of course, if Armstrong could justify her view that the use of “God” is such as to allow her to say God is absolute goodness, beauty, order, etc. but not such as to allow critics to run the evidential problem of evil, then my suggestion that Armstrong is just seesawing back and forth between meanings to suit herself would be unfair. But I can find no such justification in Armstrong’s book, or even any attempt to provide one.

The apophatic theologian

Some theists hold the “apophatic” view that we cannot say what god is, only what he is not. Apophaticism is associated particularly with the Christian philosopher Aquinas and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who said:

No attributes of God can be inferred – He is Infinite and we can only say what He is not.”

The immunizing potential of apophaticism is obvious. If you never say what God is, then you can never be contradicted or proved wrong. Refuse, for example, to say that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, and the evidential problem of evil is no longer a problem.

Professor Denys Turner of the University of Cambridge is a theologian who embraces a version of apophaticism. According to Turner, “God” stands for something radically other – something beyond our understanding. “God” is not the name of a further “thing” that exists in addition to chairs, tables, planets, and the universe. To describe God, we would need to categorize him, but, argues Turner, he is beyond categorization – he is not an instance of any kind, not even a unique instance, for “there cannot be a kind of thing such that logically there can be only one of them.”[vii]

It might seem, then, that Turner’s version of theism offers the atheist nothing to deny. The atheist says, “There’s no such thing as God”, to which Turner replies: “Yes, I agree, there’s no such thing!

Still, Turner thinks there remains something affirmed by theists that atheists can deny, and this is that “the world is created out of nothing”[viii]. “God”, suggests Turner, is the name of whatever is the answer to the question “Why is there anything at all?”[ix]Turner sums up what he thinks any decent sort of atheist has to do like so:


It is no use supposing that you disagree with me if you say, “There is no such thing as God’. For I got there well before you. What I say is merely: the world is created out of nothing, that’s how to understand God. Deny that, and you are indeed some sort of decent atheist. But note what the issue is between us: it is about the legitimacy of a certain very odd kind of intellectual curiosity, about the right to ask a certain kind of question.[x]


Note Turner’s concluding remark that the issue between the atheist and a theist like himself is whether a deep curiosity about such questions as, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is even legitimate. In fact, Turner then goes on to characterize the atheist as a person who isn’t engaged by such questions, as a stodgy, unimaginative lump who remains steadfastly unamazed by the fact that there is anything at all. But if that’s what an atheist is, then I’m not an atheist, and neither are most philosophers (which will come as a surprise to very many of them). Personally, I’m fascinated by the question “Why is there anything at all?” and have been for as long as can remember. Does that mean I am a theist?

No. For a start, I acknowledge the possibility that there is no answer to that question, because no answer is required. Perhaps, as is sometimes the case with philosophical questions, there’s something wrong with the question (perhaps asking “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is a bit like asking “What’s north of the north pole?”)

But in any case, even if the question is proper (and I acknowledge it might be), and indeed, even if it does have an answer, does it follow the answer is God? Because Turner simply defines “God” as whatever is the answer to the question, it follows his answer must be “yes”. But notice how very thin a notion of God Turner is working with. To say God might exist is to say no more than that there might be an answer – an answer about which, Turner adds, nothing positive can be said.

The truth, of course, is that most apophaticists aren’t just suggesting we take the question of why there is anything at all seriously. Nor are they just saying there’s an answer to the question. Even while professing ignorance about the transcendent whatsit (I’m trying to avoid the word “thing”) they suppose is the answer, they usually have a great deal lot to say about it, even if it’s all heavily qualified and couched in the language of analogy, metaphor and so on. Indeed, most apophaticists appear to think this transcendent whatsit worthy of our worship and gratitude, which raises the question of how, if “God” is a label for some unknowable, incomprehensible reality, they can be in a position to know that worship and gratitude are appropriate attitudes for us to have towards it. In fact, if Turner is right and the world is created, doesn’t the appalling amount of suffering the world contains give us excellent grounds for adding two more characteristics to the list of those apophaticists say their God is not – their God is not worthy of either our worship or gratitude?


The unexplained analogy

Another example of Moving The Semantic Goalposts is the unexplained analogy.

In my introduction (2nd appendix), I outlined an objection to a certain sort of argument for theism – the argument that the universe appears, for example, to be fine-tuned, and that an intelligent designer god provides the best available explanation for its fine-tuned character. If God is supposed to be a non-temporal agent – a sort a cosmic super-intelligence that creates time and space – then we run up against the objection that talk of such a non-temporal agent appears to make scarcely more sense than, say, talk of a non-spatial mountain.

To recap: for something to be a mountain requires that it have parts spatially arranged in a particular way. It must have a summit and sides, for example, which requires that one part be higher than another. Strip away this spatial framework, and talk of there being a mountain no longer makes sense.

Similarly, to talk of an agent is to talk about a being that has beliefs and desires on the basis of which it more or less rationally acts. However, the concepts of belief and desire are concepts of psychological states having temporal duration. But if desires are states with temporal duration, how could this agent possess the desire to create the universe? And, we might add, how did this agent perform the act of creation if there was not yet any time in which actions might be performed?

In order to deal with this sort of difficulty, we might, as some theists do, insist that theistic talk of an intelligent designer should not be understood literally. We are positing, not literally an intelligent agent, but something merely analogous to such an agent.

But does this shift from literal to analogical talk succeed in salvaging the explanation of fine-tuning? Compare a similar case. Suppose I try to explain some natural phenomenon by appealing to the existence of a non-spatial mountain. Critics point out that talk of non-spatial mountains is nonsensical. I roll my eyes and insist they are guilty of a crude misunderstanding. I am not talking about a literal mountain, oh no, but something merely analogous to a mountain. Does this save my explanation?

Not yet. Suppose my analogy is this: that the guilt of a nation concerning some terrible deed weighs down like a huge mountain on the collective psyche of its citizens. This is an interesting analogy that might be developed in various ways. Notice that it does actually avoid the conceptual problem that plagues the literal version of the claim. Guilt, it would appear, really isn’t the kind of thing that occupies space in the way a literal mountain does. There’s no conceptual problem with talk of a non-spatial mountain of guilt.

But remember – I’m supposed to be explaining some natural phenomenon by means of my analogy. Suppose the phenomenon is a major earthquake. People wonder why the earthquake occurred. I maintain the earthquake is a result of the vast weight of this something-analogous-to-a-mountain pressing down and causing a seismic shift.

Now my analogy is spelt out, it’s clear my explanation is hopeless. Collective guilt can’t cause earthquakes. The weight of a real mountain might perhaps cause an earthquake, but not my something-merely-analogous-to-a-mountain. That which is merely analogous to a mountain doesn’t possess the same set of causal and explanatory powers that a real mountain possesses.

You can now see why those who try to explain features of the universe by appealing to something merely analogous to an intelligent agent have a lot of explaining to do. The onus is on them to explain:

(i)             exactly what the intended analogy is,

(ii)           how the analogy avoids the charge of nonsense levelled at the literally-understood version of the claim, and

(iii)          how this something-merely-analogous-to-an-intelligent-designer is nevertheless supposed to retain the relevant explanatory powers that a real intelligent designer would possess.

At least my explanation of the earthquake by appealing to a non-spatial mountain answered questions (i) and (ii). However, I failed to explain how my something-analogous-to-a-mountain could cause or explain an earthquake.

Often, theists don’t even bother to explain (i) and (ii). When asked how we are supposed to make sense of such a non-temporal agent, they just say, “Oh dear – you’re guilty of a crude misunderstanding. You see, talk of an intelligent designer is not meant to be understood literally. It’s merely an analogy.” As if insisting that it’s an analogy is, by itself, sufficient to deal with the problem raised. It is not.

Unless these theists can provide satisfactory answers to these questions, the problem with their explanation remains. Their introduction of an unexplained analogy brings the debate about intelligent design, not – as its proponents seem to imagine – up to a level of great sophistication and profundity, but down to the level of evasion and obfuscation. In truth, they’re engaging in little more than a bit of sanctimonious hand-waving.

None of this is to say that the use of analogy might not provide us with a useful tool in thinking about God. My objection is not to the use of analogy per se, but to the shift from a literal to an unexplained analogical meaning as an immunizing strategy to deal with objections: “Ah, you’ve misunderstood. You see – it’s merely an analogy. So – problem solved!”

Appeals to use

One of the most intriguing methods of immunizing religious claims against possible refutation is to insist they’re not really claims after all. If no claim is made, well, then, there’s no claim there for the theist to be mistaken about, or indeed for the atheist to refute.

If you choose to immunize your religious beliefs against rational criticism by this strategy, appealing to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein is useful, as Wittgenstein stressed the variety of ways in which language is used. Yes, language is used to make claims, but it’s used in many other ways too. Wittgenstein warns us against being seduced by superficial similarities between sentences into overlooking these deeper differences in use.

So if, for example, your claim that God exists is met with some devastating-looking objections, you might try this:

“Ah, I see you are guilty of a crude misunderstanding. You have understood me to be making some sort of claim that you might refute. But of course, as Wittgenstein explained, and as sophisticated religious people like myself know, “God exists” is not used to make a claim at all. The sentences “God exists” and “I believe God exists” might look similar to sentences such as “Electrons exist” and “I believe Mount Everest exists”, but pay close attention and you will see that their use is very different.”

But if religious language is used, not to make claims, but in some other way, how is it used? And, crucially, how does this difference in use mean that what is said is then immune to refutation?

Let’s look briefly at three suggestions: that “I believe in God” is used (i) to express an attitude, (ii) to make a promise, (iii) to express our trust.

(i) Expressing an attitude

Expressivist theories crop up in several areas of philosophy. Take moral discourse, for example. We say that things are morally good or bad, right or wrong, and so on. Of course

            Killing is wrong

looks very much like it is used to make a claim, a claim which, we suppose, is true (of innocent humans, at least). However, if those words are used to make a claim, and if claims are made true by facts – e.g. if my claim that “The pen is on the table” is made true by the fact that the pen is lying there on that table – then we face the philosophical puzzle of finding the peculiar fact that makes “Killing is wrong” true. Where is it? And how do we find out about it? Readers who have some knowledge of moral philosophy will know these are not easy questions to answer.

The philosopher A. J. Ayer developed an ingenious solution to this puzzle.[xi] He maintained that although “Killing is wrong” might look like it’s used to make a claim, it is actually used very differently – to express an attitude. Consider:

            Hoorah for the Red Socks!

            Boo to killing!

Neither of these sentences is used to make any sort of claim. They are used, rather to express how we feel about something.

On Ayer’s view, moral talk is also expressive. “Killing is wrong” is used, in effect, to say, “Boo to killing!”. We use the sentence to express an attitude of disapproval towards killing. But if “Killing is wrong” is used expressively, then what is said is also neither true nor false. But then no mysterious moral fact is required to make it true. Puzzle solved!

Ayer’s theory of how moral language is used is called emotivism or, for obvious reasons, the boo-hoorah theory.

You have probably already guessed how an expressivist account of how “God exists” is used might be used to immunize what is said against any sort of refutation. True, the sentence “God exists” looks superficially similar to, say, “electrons exist”, which is used to make a scientific claim. And when it comes to such scientific claims, it makes sense to ask what the evidence is for supposing it is true. The claim that electrons exist could also turn out to be false. But what if, despite the superficial similarity between the two sentences, “God exists” is used differently? What if it is used, not to make a claim, but to express an attitude?

What sort of attitude? Perhaps an attitude of awe and reverence towards the universe. Perhaps to say “God exists” is, in effect, to go, “Oh Wow!” in amazement that the universe exists at all. If that’s how “God exists” is used, then, because no claim is made, the theist cannot be making any kind of error, and the atheist is left with to refute.

So, if, having said “God exists”, the theist is faced with an objection, they might try to sidestep that criticism by saying, “Oh dear, you appear to have misunderstood. You have supposed I was making some sort of claim that you might refute. No no, no, I was… expressing an attitude of awe and wonder.”


Again, notice how very thin a variety of theism this is. Actually, given that atheists are also awed by the mystery of why there is anything at all, it seems it would also be appropriate for them to say, “God exists!” While this sort of theism might succeed in immunizing itself against any sort of rational refutation, it does so at the price of making itself indistinguishable from the attitude of a great many atheists.

(ii) Making a promise

Sometimes language is used, not to make a claim about the world, but to perform an action. Such “performatives” include, for example,

            I name this ship Titanic

            I promise to clean the car

            I bet you ten pounds

            I apologize

Let’s focus on promises. When I say, “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, in a court of law, I don’t make a claim about the world, a claim that might turn out to be true or false. Rather, I make it true that I have promised by saying those words.

Now suppose we ask a theist:

            Do you believe in God?

They reply,

            I do.

This might look, superficially, much this exchange:

            Do you believe in electrons?

            I do.

But what if “I do” in the former case is understood, not as expressing agreement with a certain theory or opinion, as in the electrons example, but rather as making a promise. Compare:

            Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?

            I do.

Here, “I do” is used to make a not claim, but a promise. But if that’s also how “I do” is meant in response to “Do you believe in God?”, then, similarly, no claim is made. Rather, a promise is given.

According to theologian Nicholas Lash, this is how theists such as himself respond to the question, “Do you believe in God?”

If someone is asked: “Do you believe in God?” and replies “I do”, they may be saying one of two quite different things, because the English expression “I believe in God” is systematically ambiguous. On the one hand, it may be the expression of an opinion; the opinion that God exists. On the other hand, as used in the Creed, in a public act of worship, it promises that life, and love, and all one’s actions are henceforth set steadfastly on the mystery of God, and hence that we are thereby pledged to work towards that comprehensive healing of the world by which all things are brought into their peace and harmony in God. “Nicholas Lash, do you take Janet Chalmers to be your lawful wedded wife?” “I do.” “Janet Chalmers, do you believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth?” “I do” The grammar of these two declarations is the same.[xii]

So there are, Lash says, two kinds of theists. Those whom, in response to the question “Do you believe in God?”, use “I do” to express agreement with an opinion, and those who use “I do” to expresses such a promise. There are, correspondingly, two kinds of atheism: the atheism that rejects the opinion that God exists, and the atheism that involves a refusal to enter into any such promise.[xiii]

According to Lash, atheists like Richard Dawkins are attacking a crude, unsophisticated form of theism on which belief in God amounts to belief in the truth of a certain opinion. Lash says,

the atheism which is the contradictory of the opinion that God exists is both widespread and intellectually uninteresting.[xiv]

But then Lash actually agrees with Dawkins that the opinion that God exists should be rejected. Lash’s kind of “belief in God”, by contrast – which he maintains is the kind of belief shared by the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, properly understood – offers no opinion for the atheist to contradict. If these theists make no claim, then their variety of “belief in God” can neither be contradicted nor shown to be false. In which case, the arguments of critics like Dawkins must entirely miss their mark.

Is Lash’s brand of theism immune to the arguments of critics like Dawkins? It’s not clear to me that it is.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Lash is correct and “I believe in God” is used not reveal ones opinion but to issue a promise. Does it follow that Lash holds no theistic opinion into which Dawkins might sink his teeth?

While it may be that no claim is made in the issuing of a promise, such a claim may nevertheless be presupposed. Notice that when we issue a promise, we issue it to someone – to something like a person. You can’t make a promise to a brick or a daffodil. If you tried, you would be guilty of anthropomorphizing – of mistakenly supposing that the brick or daffodil is something like a person. So if “I believe in God” really is used to make a promise, that raises the question: to whom is this promise made?

Presumably, Lash is not merely making a promise either to himself or to, say, other Christians (if he were, then they, or he, could choose cancel it whenever they liked). If Lash is making a promise, it seems he is making promise to God. But then, on Lash’s view, even if “I believe in God” is not used to assert that one believes there is a God who is something like a person, it does seem that Lash nevertheless presupposes there’s some such person-like being to whom such a promise might be made. In which case, Lash is committed to an opinion that might, be refuted. In fact, it’s precisely the opinion that there exists such a transcendent person to whom such a promise might be made that Dawkins is attacking.

(iii) an expression of trust

Some theists maintain that “I believe in God” is used, not to agree that a certain claim – God exists – is true, but rather as an expression of trust. I believe in God in the same way as I believe in my wife, or my bank manager. I believe they can be trusted. I believe they are dependable. When I say, “I believe in my wife”, I don’t mean that I suppose she exists, but that I have faith in her.

According to these theists, atheists who think that they can show that religious belief is irrational by showing that the claim “God exists “ is false are missing their target. Again, “God exists” is not used to make a claim.

Does this move succeed in immunizing theism against rational criticism? Again, I don’t see how. Often, when we place our trust in someone, it’s a reasonable thing to do. It’s reasonable if we have good reason to suppose the person in whom we are placing our trust exists, and is likely to be reliable. It’s not so reasonable if we have good grounds for supposing the person in whom we are placing our trust is, say, a convicted fraudster, or entirely mythical.

Suppose I say, “I believe in fairies”, meaning by this, not that I believe in the truth of the opinion that fairies exists, but that I place my faith, my trust, in fairies to keep the bottom of the garden tidy, say. If it’s pointed out to me that there’s excellent evidence that there are no fairies at the bottom of the garden, it won’t do for me to say, “Ah, but I never claimed there was, did I?” Even if I made no such claim, the fact is that my placing my trust in fairies is highly unreasonable given the overwhelming evidence there’s no such thing.

Similarly, even if someone who says “I believe in God” is not agreeing to the truth of a claim – the claim that God exists – but rather communicating their trust or faith in God, we might still have excellent grounds for supposing that this trust or faith is misplaced. If, for example, we have excellent evidence that there’s no such transcendent, compassionate being that will ultimately right all wrongs, etc. Which, arguably, we do (that, at least, is what the evidential problem of evil suggests).

So, it’s not clear that the suggestion that “I believe in God” is used to express faith or trust even works as an immunizing tactic.

Now you see it, now you don’t

We have just looked at three strategies promising to immunize religious beliefs against refutation – strategies that turn on the suggestion that religious language is not used to make claims, but in some other way. We have seen that it’s by no means obvious that the last two suggestions even work as immunizing strategies. However, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that they do work. There remains a further problem with these strategies – the main problem with which I’m concerned here. The problem is that those employing these strategies often appear to apply them in an inconsistent and partisan way.

Take for example Nicholas Lash’s suggestion that “I believe in God” is used to make a promise rather than offer an opinion. Even if this is true, Lash does also nevertheless seem to offer various opinions on the subject of God. Books full. For example, in the same article, Lash says God is both “the mystery we confess to be Creator of the world”[xv] and that upon which we are absolutely dependent. So it seems that Lash is of the opinion that there’s a creator upon which we depend. God, Lash says,  “freely, and forgivingly, communicates Himself.”[xvi] Our creator, Lash adds, also issues invitations to us[xvii] and is that upon which we should have our hearts set. In short, Lash regularly uses language that looks remarkably like literal talk about the sort of cosmic super-person that Dawkins denies exists.

Now an atheist will no doubt say, at this point, “But a disagree with these claims made by Lash. I disagree that the world has a creator that is something like a person – a person on whom we should have our hearts set.” To this, Lash says, in effect, “You’re guilty of a crude misunderstanding. You take me to be offering opinions with which you might disagree”.

So is Lash offering us opinions, or isn’t he? He seems to say plenty about God, but then, when it looks like what he said might be subjected to damaging critical scrutiny, it turns out he never said anything after all. Lash is undoubtedly a sincere and intelligent man who is genuinely aiming for rigor and, as far as it is achievable, clarity. But if Lash is doing something else with language other than giving opinions, why, then, doesn’t he just clearly and unambigously do that other thing? Why choose to express yourself in such a quintessentially opinion-stating, and thus highly misleading, manner? It looks suspiciously as if Lash is just seesawing back and forth between opinion-stating and non-opinion-stating use of language to suit himself: opinions are given, but then whipped away whenever anyone takes aim. If Lash is not doing that – if he really isn’t saying anything at all – well then let’s just take him at his word. Let’s accept Lash really means what he says when he says he has nothing to say to us, and move on.

The Meta Goalpost-Shifting -Strategy

I have presented several examples goalpost-shifting strategies. To finish let’s look at one more example – perhaps the most effective of all. As a theist presented with objections to your belief, you may employ not only the various strategies outlined above, you can also shift the goalposts concerning which goalpost shifting strategy you’re using. Say things suggestive of one strategy, but then say things suggestive of others too. Then, if you find yourself running into difficulty with one strategy, just switch to another, and, if necessary, another. Later, when everyone’s lost track of where the conversation started, you can switch back to first one again. Mix in some references to clever and difficult thinkers (Wittgenstein is particularly useful here), pursue The Meta-Goalpost-Shifting Strategy with an air of calm intellectual and spiritual superiority, and many will be duped into thinking that, rather than a master of the dark arts of semantic sleight-of-hand, you are a deep and profound thinker. Indeed, you may succeed in fooling not only others, but yourself too.

As I mentioned at the start of this chapter, Moving The Semantic Goalposts tends to be employed by small minorities within the academic wings of some mainstream religious traditions: intelligensias who fancy they have a more sophisticated grasp of what religion is all about than rather more naive believers (whom they consider as confused as atheists). When combined, in particular, with Playing The Mystery Card, Pseudo-Profundity and “I Just Know!”, Moving The Semantic Goalposts is capable of producing an impressive Intellectual Black Hole.

[ii]  Karen Armstrong, The Case For God (London: The Bodley Head, 2009), 293.

[iii] Karen Armstrong, The Case For God (London: The Bodley Head, 2009), 307

[iv] Karen Armstrong, The Case For God (London: The Bodley Head, 2009), 307

[v] Karen Armstrong, The Case For God (London: The Bodley Head, 2009), 246

[vi] Karen Armstrong, The Case For God (London: The Bodley Head, 2009), 34 – also see 314.

[vii] Denys Turner, “How To Be An Atheist” in his Faith Seeking (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 10.

[viii] Denys Turner, “How To Be An Atheist” in his Faith Seeking (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 13.

[ix] Denys Turner, “How To Be An Atheist” in his Faith Seeking (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 13.

[x] Denys Turner, “How To Be An Atheist” in his Faith Seeking (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 19.

[xi] See A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971).

[xii] Nicholas Lash, “The Impossibility of Atheism” in his Theology for Pilgrims (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008), 34.

[xiii] Lash, incidentally, then goes on to argue that the latter sort of atheism is impossible, as “effective refusal to have anything to do with God can only mean self-destruction, annihilation, return to the nihil from which all things came” (p 35) Lash’s argument for the impossibility of this kind of atheism contains two obvious flaws, (i) Lash here just assumes that there is a God from which all things came, and (ii) in case Lash muddles up two senses of ”refusal to have anything to do with”. I can refuse to have anything to with my mother in the sense that I can ignore her, etc. but of course I still have something to do with her, and indeed do so necessarily: it remains true that if she had not existed, then neither would I. Atheists might similarly refuse to have anything to do with God even if there is, as Lash here just assumes, a God on which their existence depends.

[xiv] Nicholas Lash, “The Impossibility of Atheism” in his Theology for Pilgrims (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008), 34.

[xv] Nicholas Lash, “The Impossibility of Atheism” in his Theology for Pilgrims (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008), 35.

[xvi] Nicholas Lash, “The Impossibility of Atheism” in his Theology for Pilgrims (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008), 26.

[xvii] Nicholas Lash, “The Impossibility of Atheism” in his Theology for Pilgrims (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008), 15.