Definition of Theological Noncognitivism

God: Dictionary Definition
God: Dictionary Definition. Amanda Rohde;E+/Getty

Theological noncognitivism is defined as the position that religious language — and specifically religious terms like "god" — are not (cognitively) meaningful. This position is derived from the broader view in ethical theory that all moral statements are neither true nor false. They aren't propositions about the state of the world; instead, they are statements of preference or perspective. There is obviously a lot of overlap between theological noncognitivism and noncognitivism generally since so many religious statements involve moral claims.

The definition of theological noncognitivism entails that one denies the essential meaningfulness of religious language, religious arguments, and religious apologetics. If they aren't meaningful, then they can't be either true or false and believing them to be true is pointless. Another way of putting it is to say that religious language is "expressive" rather than "descriptive" or "assertive." Religious language creates a picture of the world around us and offers rule for life; it does not, however, describe how reality is actually constructed.

Noncognitivism overlaps irreligion, at least when defined as indifference to religion, as well as apatheism and agnosticism. The word ignosticism is frequently used as a synonym for noncognitivism.

Noncognitivism, when pursued most consistently, means refusing to engage in debates over the truth of religious claims unless and until religious apologists can provide coherent definitions, claims, and ideas to debate.

So long as religious claims are meaningless, there is nothing to even discuss, much less debate.

Noncognitivism is frequently adopted by those who refuse to try to harmonize science and religion. Because religious language is not trying to accurately describe the world around us while science is, the two cannot technically come into conflict - they aren't two competing sets of beliefs about the world, but rather one is a set of beliefs about what the world is like and the other is a set of beliefs about what we should be doing in the world.


Atheism and Noncognitivism

Religious believers naturally use the term "God" and other religious language all of the time as if it were obvious that something coherent and meaningful were meant. When pressed to explain more deeply, though, they can't always back that up — especially when it comes to the key concept of "God". And if they can't explain what, exactly, they mean by "God," then of course it's difficult if not impossible to say that it does or does not exist.

Atheists need to keep this in mind because too often, atheists also act like it's clear what "God" is supposed to mean. Occasionally this is legitimate, for example in cases where a believer has explained in detail what they mean by the term. It is, after all, up to the believer to define their terms — atheists aren't under any obligation to define or explain what others say they believe in; and if believers can't, atheists are automatically justified in not bothering to believe the claims being made.


Related Terms



  • ignosticism


A noncognitivist is someone who declares that the sentence ["God exists"] does not express any proposition at all.
- Theodore Drange, Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism

"All of the supposedly positive qualities of God arise in a distinctively human context of finite existence, and when wrenched from this context to apply to a supernatural being, they cease to have meaning."
- George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God

"[W]e have no understanding of 'a person' without 'a body' and it is only persons that in the last analysis that can act or do things. We have no understanding of 'disembodied action' or 'bodiless doing' and thus no understanding of 'a loving but bodiless being.'"
- Kai Nielsen, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion