This obviously is a problem, for if the term "God" is truly meaningless, then no God exists, certainly not any that have been proffered. However, it is my contention that theological noncognitivism makes at least one of two fundamental errors. First, we must restate what the noncognitivist believes with respect to the term "God." It is vacuous. Second, we must reiterate why they think so. A term is meaningless if it is logically incoherent, or if it cannot be understood.
Next, we must agree upon a couple of quick points:
- One need not be able to explain everything about a concept or term in order to know something about (and hence, mean something by) that concept or term.
- "Logical incoherence" and "meaninglessness" are not identical.
(1) and (2) need some defense, which we will provide. (1) is demonstrated by anything about which one does not have complete knowledge. I know comparably little about space and how shuttles work, yet I know that it is the engines and propulsion systems that move the shuttle and propel it out of the atmosphere. See the relevant terms? "Shuttles," "engines," "systems," "movement," and "atmosphere" are all non-vacuous terms ontologically and epistemologically for me, though I could only explain so much about each term. No one would think I mean nothing fundamentally by these terms. Yet then this suggests that one then does mean something by the term which he expresses according to his knowledge.
The far more important and germane point is (2), however. More theological noncognitivists will respond to a definition of God by pointing out supposed logical inconsistencies (e.g., "how can a loving God allow sin?") than take the former route. On this basis, they assert the term "God" is really vacuous, so that no claim to such a God (like the Christian one) can have any validity. A logical incoherence involves a proposition or claim that is necessarily false; it is a claim which is impossible to be true. Think about "round squares," or "married bachelors," or "2+2=17." But meaninglessness is a concept or proposition by which one intends nothing at all; such a term does not pick out any conceptual referent nor is it infused with any intended meaning by the proposition's proponent.
However, think of the phrase "married bachelor." It is precisely because we understand the meaning behind the two terms that we know the concept is self-contradictory and hence logically incoherent! So, this demonstrates that logical incoherence does not necessarily entail meaninglessness. Thus, even if the noncognitivist rejects the term "God" based on logical incoherence, he cannot thus claim the term is vacuous.
So what does this mean for the noncognitivist? It means that he may say that God does not exist, or that God may exist but he does not know about Him, but he may not claim nothing is meant by the term "God." If he proposes that the Christian concept of God is incoherent, he may be an atheist with respect to God, but he should not say such things as "God exists" is a meaningless proposition. Indeed, because all propositions are true or false of necessity (that's not to say that each proposition is necessarily true or necessarily false; the necessity lies in the fact that any proposition does have a truth-value), positing logical incoherence demands of the noncognitivist that he say the proposition "God exists" is false. In essence, the noncognitivist does not have a leg to stand on with respect to avoiding the question. We should explore the questions raised by God's existence, but let us have none of this nonsense that the term "God" is meaningless.