Reasons for the rise of atheism: empiricism (AP5)

Empiricism is the theory that all knowledge is derived from observation and experience.  It is only though experiencing the world around us we can know about the world around us.

Science is one example of an empirical discipline.  Science uses observations of the world around us, and as we have already seen this focus on evidence has led to supernatural explanations being replaced by natural explanations.

But is this post, we are interested in the wider view of empiricism and how empiricism has supported the rise of atheism.

Before reading any further, read the extract Reasons for the rise of atheism: empiricism and then continue reading.


For empiricists, knowledge can only be gained by experience, by using our sense of sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste.  But can we see God?  Can we hear or touch God?  The empiricists view is that God is not observable in this way.

In response to this, some people might refer to religious experiences, where people claim have experienced God.  These are not accepted by empiricists because they are private and subjective, so they cannot be checked.  Such experiences are not open to empirical examination.

For empiricists such as David Hume (1711-1776) belief in the existence of God is an ‘arbitrary supposition or conjecture’, that is, a guess, an assumption without a basis in observation or reason.

Hume argued that ‘the wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’.  This means that we should only believe thing for which there is evidence and then strength of our belief should be based n how strong the evidence is.  Hume is not saying that God does not exist, but that there is no empirical evidence of God, so belief in God has no reasonable basis.

It seems that theism and empiricism are totally incompatible.  They cannot fit together.  However, atheism and empiricism fit together very nicely indeed.  As the atheism might say, “There is no evidence that God exists, so I don’t believe that God exists.”

The Verification Principle, most associated with the British philosopher A. J. Ayer (1910-1989)argues that statements only have meaning if they can be verified, that is, if we know how to show it is true or false.  ‘Grass is green’ has meaning because I know how to show you if it is true or false.  But statements where there is no way to show if it is true or false are considered to be meaningless.  The Verification Principle is an empirical idea because it says that we can only talk about those things which we can show as either true or false.  Most of the time this would involve using observational evidence to show, for example that grass is green.

However, Ayer argued that there is no way of showing that the statement ‘God exists’ to be either true or false.  There is no evidence that we can refer to, so such a statement is meaningless.  Talking about the existence of God is therefore illogical and a complete waste of time.

In summary, empiricism argues that observational evidence is the only way to obtain knowledge, but there is no such evidence of God.  Additionally, the Verification Principle argues that beliefs about God cannot be verified and so these beliefs are meaningless.