Religious Language Revision

  • What is religious language?
    • Unique religious terms about God; descriptions of belief; technical terms e.g. grace; everyday terms given new meaning e.g love, salvation
  • What are the difficulties with religious language?
    • Inadequate; analogical meanings; equivocal; confusing; negative rather than positive; elitist
  • Two types:
    • Cognitive and non-cognitive
  • Cognitive – realist, factual, empirically provable true or false, meaningful statements .

    Also correspondence theory of truth i.e. link between the language used and the object referred to.

  • Non-cognitive – anti-realist – language not to be taken literally or factually using e.g. analogy; expressing religious truth through symbol, myth or metaphor.

Coherence theory of truth – statement is true if it fits with other truth claims.

  • Verification Principle– can it ever be verified? Is it meaningful?
  • LPs – who what where when?
    • Flew and Ayer and Wittgenstein and Russell – Vienna – 1920s – they applied the principles of mathematics to language and came up with idea that assertions could only be meaningful if they could be verified by…
      • The 5 senses
    • 3 kinds of statements:
      • Analytic e.g.
      • Mathematical e.g.
      • Synthetic e.g.
    • Conclusion:
      • Religious language claims subjective, cannot be emp tested and verified.
      • Ayer – claims about the existence of god, life after death, soul etc not valid because cannot be contradicted and therefore are not significant propositions. Religious exp dismissed as interesting only from a psychological stand point.
  • Criticisms of the Verification Principle?
    • Many statements are unverifiable like…
      • Intent
      • Emotion
      • Opinion
      • Even the laws of science
      • Ethical and moral statements.
      • Historical …
  • How did Ayer address these problems?
    • Weak Verification Principle
    • If a proposition could be verified by virtue of the strong likelihood of it being correct e.g. 2nd hand accounts of the battle of Waterloo.
    • Keith Ward suggested god could verify his own existence and
    • Hick suggests that since other historical statements such as Harold got an arrow in his eye at the battle of Hastings then Jesus rose from the dead should also be permitted as meaningful.
  • Who proposed the falsification principle?
    • Flew
  • What is it?
    • The idea that so long as we know what it would take to make an assertion false then a statement can be meaningful.
  • What did he say about religious language claims?
    • That in the mind of the believer nothing could count against them – i.e. despite any evidence to the contrary they would go on believing.
  • What analogy did he use?
    • Parable of the Gardener
  • How does his conclusion run?
    • What is the difference between such a gardener and no gardener at all?
    • He also claimed that to say God loves in the face of the evidence that God allows us to suffer every day is patently false and inconsistent but a believer won’t ever accept that.
  • What did Basil Mitchell present as the 3 ways such hard evidence could be treated by believers?
    • Reject their belief
    • Adapt it
    • Reject the evidence.
  • What idea did RM Hare introduce?
    • Bliks
  • What are they?
    • Ways of viewing the world that are neither verifiable nor falsifiable but are important to the person and affect the way they live their life.
  • What was the name of his example?
    • The paranoid student and the dons.
  • How did he use this example?
    • To show that his viewpoint was meaningful to him even if not empirically true.
  • What is the via negative?
    • Descriptions of god which describe what he is not or lend an infinite quality to an existing finite one e.g….
      • In visible; intangible; inaudible; incomprehensible; Omnipotent; Omni benevolent.
  • What is good about this method?
    • It avoids the pitfalls of suing inadequate language to describe God and gives the sense of an infinite being more adequately than language can do.
  • What are the problems?
    • That these terms do not say anything positive and some would say therefore say nothing at all.
  • Five kinds of ways language is used?
    • Univocal
    • Equivocal
    • Analogical
    • Symbolic
    • Myth
  • Benefits of using univocal language?
    • Gives us some insight into God’s nature.
  • Problems with univocal?
    • If we use the word love in a univocal way then we are equating god’s love for us with John’s love for Jane and this leads to anthropomorphism
  • Benefits of equivocal language?
    • Although we can get some insight into God it makes clear that he is not quite this or may be this in an infinite capacity and avoids the dangers of anthropomorphism.
  • Problems with equivocal?
    • Exposes the fact that basically we don’t know!
  • Benefits of analogy?
    • It is a means by which God can be compared to things we understand.
  • 2 types of analogy?
    • Proportionality:
  • Meaning?
    • All good things God has in infinite capacity.
  • And the other sort?
    • Attribution:
  • Meaning?
    • God is the cause of all good things in humans – these good characteristics are the attributes of God. Our wisdom then is pale reflection of God’s.
  • What is Ian Ramsey’s models and qualifiers approach?
    • God is the model however he is these things in infinite proportion.
  • Religious language can also be symbolic. Meaning?
  • A symbol identifies and participates in the meaning of the concept to which it refers. Symbols go beyond signs to express an inner or deeper meaning.
  • For example the cross -…
  • Identifies the religion but also tells of the meaning death, sacrifice, resurrection and hope of salvation.
  • Is symbolic language cognitive or non?
    • Non-cognitive
  • Problems with symbols?
    • Open to interpretation.
    • Meaning can be lost
    • Can be come focus for worship in own right e.g. saints’ relics
    • Can become outdated.
  • What is the purpose of myth?
    • To convey concepts which go beyond; which try to express the otherworldly; to describe future events.
  • Problems with myth?
    • Outdated
    • Not objective
    • Need demythologising
  • Bultmann said: ‘It is impossible to use electric light… and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.’
  • Dawkins: ‘much of the Bible is …just plain weird… chaotically cobbled together, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors.’
  • Bultmann however at least believed that there was a kerygma (central truth) to be got at.
  • What was Wittgenstein’s contribution?
    • Language Game Theory
  • What is it?
    • Language is a game and you need to know the rules before you can play. It is not necessarily factual but communicates meaning to the other players. It would be a category mistake to hear religious language and misunderstand it e.g. to hear talk of a soul and then go and look for it this would be a ‘blunder that’s too big…’
  • Benefits of the LGT?
    • Provide boundaries for correct use of language
    • Believers can be initiated into the rules of language
    • Can defend religious language against criticisms since truth is judged to be relative and statements are judged against their context and not on their inherent or objective truth of falsehood.
  • Problems with LGT?
    • Cannot be empirically tested.
    • Alienates those outside the game.
    • Rules cannot change to allow outsiders in.
  • What conclusion can you draw about the validity of religious language?


A2 Religious Language – part one

Topics comprise

Language games
Myth and symbol
Verification and falsification



Religious language has some substantial problems regarding its use and comprehension:

  • Difficulties of extending language from one context to an entirely different use
  • Some people claim it is meaningless
  • The difficulty of objectivity


The language of proof and evidence tends not to be much use when talking about God.

Poetry or myth or symbol might be better.

“The only thing we can understand about God is that he can’t be understood. If you can grasp it, it is not God.” ST John of Damascus

He is always totally beyond what we can knowSt Gregory of Nyssa

God does not name himself when asked by Moses – he replies, “I am who I am” i.e. I’m not telling, I can’t be named.

Thomas Aquinas 1225-1274

Maintained that it is possible to speak about God in a meaningful way by analogy.

He understood language as having 3 different uses:

  • Univocal – where a word has only one meaning e.g. zinc, nutmeg
  • Equivoval – where a word has more than one meaning e.g. set, table, well…
  • Analogical – here e.g. approximations about God, like but not the same: Judge, shepherd, light of the world.


Ian Ramsey 1915-1972

Suggests that we use many models about God and each is modified by a qualifier:

God is not just a judge he is the supreme judge; the true vine; the good shepherd; the wise ruler….

Hence he is like but not!

We speak about God not because we know anything about him but because the alternative is to say nothing.St Augustine

Some groups have taken this to its logical conclusion and worship God in silence: e.g. some monastic orders and the Quakers.

A Zen story tells how a teacher specified two things for the search for God:

  • To realise that all efforts to find God are useless
  • To act as if you didn’t know that!


Apophatic Theology

Suggests that God is not any of the things he is called therefore even traditional theology tends to negative descriptions:

In visible

in comprehensible

in expressible

Im mutable

im mortal


In effable

in finite



This is known as the Via Negativa.