Religion and Falsifiability

Atheists have for a long time pointed out that evil makes the existence of a perfect God at least less likely, and theists of course have attempted to explain why that is not the case. One interesting aspect of this debate is that, given the way theists argue, there cannot possibly be any amount of evil that would make their God less likely. Their answers to the problem of evil aren’t designed to account for a particular amount of pain and suffering, but for whatever pain and suffering there happens to be.

The free will defense, for example, says that evil is the result of the choices made by fallen human beings (and angels), and that is meant to explain away terrible things no matter how bad they are. The Holocaust, the Black Plague, cancer, atheism — all of these things and more can be blamed on us rather than on the all-powerful being in charge. (The buck has to stop somewhere.) Or consider soul-making theodicies, which argue that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (and, come to think of it, that even what does kill you makes you stronger). Or the view that it is simply a mystery why God allows pain and suffering, but that there must be some reason which we puny humans are too dumb to understand. None of these explanations attempts to account only for a certain amount of evil, but rather for any amount we might encounter. No matter what evil may befall us, we should remain confident that there is an all-loving God who has a reason for allowing it.

But it’s not just the problem of evil, of course. The theistic worldview is designed to accommodate any criticism, no matter how factual. God created the world in six days — unless, of course, science has established that it took far longer than that, in which case it wasn’t literally six days. Noah and his family built a floating zoo — unless that’s actually based on the earlier Epic of Gilgamesh and there is zero evidence of a world-wide flood, in which case it’s just a morality tale. And Jesus predicted the coming of the Son of Man within the lifetime of some of those listening to him — only it didn’t happen, therefore he was actually talking about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. No matter what happens or what we find out, the religion remains unscathed. Theists might suppose that's a good thing. Their view can withstand any onslaught. It is unfalsifiable. But unfalsifiability comes at a price.

A view is falsifiable if it makes an empirical substantive claim — if, in other words, it states that things which can in principle be observed are one way rather than another. An unfalsifiable claim therefore is one that does not say anything about the way the observable world is. It makes no predictions.

Consider once again the existence of evil. A theist might be convinced that the current world is a better place because there is a loving God up there. But if God is compatible with any amount of evil, then that’s not the case. If next week an advanced alien civilization were to land on our planet, imprison us all, and begin using us as their food supply, most theists would say it’s all part of God’s plan. (And some would no doubt claim it’s punishment for gay marriage.) The existence of God cannot guarantee such a thing won’t happen. If God’s perfection is compatible with any amount of suffering, then we cannot expect this to be a better world than it would be without God. And if the entire religion is unfalsifiable, we cannot expect anything else to be one way rather than another, so long as we are talking about empirically verifiable matters.

But didn’t Paul say that if Christ wasn’t raised, then the Christian faith is in vain? And isn’t that a clear case of a falsifiable claim? It certainly appears to be (even if it is one that’s rather difficult to verify). And yet, apologist William Lane Craig famously admitted that, were he to go back in time and see that the resurrection never took place, he would still believe. That seems to be how most Christians feel — never mind that it is absurd, and that it flatly contradicts Paul’s stated view. Ironically, if you want your religion to be unfalsifiable, you have to admit that Jesus might not have been raised from the dead — and that everything else your religion says of an empirical nature might not literally be true.