I’m actually surprised that this piece, which is quite good (albeit written in academic-speak) was so popular, for what it says seems self evident.
Flew had a habit of following the latest philosophical fads, but not always understanding their purpose. For instance, when Flew says,
When the Sceptic in the parable asked the Believer, “just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even from no gardener at all?” he was suggesting that the Believer’s earlier statement had been so eroded by qualification that it was no longer an assertion at all, (bolding added)
this is nothing but an inversion of logical positivism’s verification principle of meaning. Flew claims that only scientific statements can be refuted. Religious statements are not meaningful, for if religious statements are not scientific statements, they cannot be refuted. Meaning is then tied to statements that are refutable at least in principle, while meaningless is tied to uninformative or irrefutable statements.
Is such a claim as ‘self evident’ as Coyne claims? I think not, since demarcating science from non-science by way of meaning is a dead end. Religious statements are meaningful, but do not necessarily refer: the statement “Merlin rides a unicorn” is a meaningful statement. Asserting that said statement is meaningless leaves me shrugging my shoulders. Such a statement makes sense to me, but if it is called ‘meaningless,’ in the process all sorts of meaningful statements may turn into meaningless statements. For example, any sort of God-conjecture (“There exists a being with characteristics x,y,z”) is a strictly existential statement, and therefore not falsifiable … since as a matter of logic, strictly existential statements are verifiable, but not falsifiable.
Has Flew then done away with the meaningfulness of strictly existential statements?
Flew does touch on the distastefulness of the behavior of holding on to a statement come what may,
Now it often seems to people who are not religious as if there was no conceivable event or series of events the occurrence of which would be admitted by sophisticated religious people to be a sufficient reason for conceding “There wasn’t a God after all” or “God does not really love us then,”
but Flew misses the point once more, and in the process conflates methodological or procedural rules and objective status of statements: Flew is now talking about ad hoc immunizing procedures when confronted with confounding ‘monsters.’ Monster-barring is not a distasteful behavior solely of the religious individual, but of the pseudo-scientific or non-scientific individual. Scientific statements may be falsifiable, but a scientist may hold on to them come what may as well!
Sagan’s classic The Dragon In My Garage is somewhat better than Flew’s, but it occasionally runs into its own problems or misses the big picture to rag on religion. Russell’s Celestial Teapot is another variation on the same theme, and ought to be preferred over the other two for its focus on doubt, rather than meaning.