Religious Language raises very difficult if not impossible problems

Discuss this statement by examining two of the following: analogy, verification or falsification [40]

The problem with religious language arises from the fact that we use ordinary words to describe or talk about extra-ordinary things like God and what He is like or fundamental questions of existence. In doing so we are using what Aquinas called ‘equivocal’ language that is words that have more than one meaning. The problem here lies in that when we speak about God as ‘a good shepherd’ we don’t mean it literally but metaphorically or symbolically. That God is like a shepherd but not like since he is the ‘greatest’ shepherd there could be but we are not sheep! Or when we talk about there being ‘life after death’ we know what life is and we know what death means but ‘life after death’ is an oxymoron, a logical contradiction. This is the nature of religious language – it uses terms we all understand but in a different way. This, the Logical Positivists say, makes religious assertions meaningless for no one can ever agree on the ‘true’ meaning of these assertions.


The Logical Positivists base their claim that religious language is meaningless on their assertion that all assertions should be verifiable by one or more of the five senses. This they call the Verification Principle. This they regard as empirical, concrete, practical evidence; evidence that can be checked and repeated so that all can agree e.g. ‘the table is round.’

They divide statements up into analytic – those which are true by definition like ‘all bachelors are unmarried men’; synthetic – those whose truth can be verified by testing e.g. it is raining outside and mathematical e.g. 1+1=2. All other statements, they claim, are meaningless.

They regard the world as just this one, the realm of the phenomenon, in which only cognitive experiences are meaningful. The problem for them lies in the fact that religious language is non-cognitive and almost by definition non-verifiable. After all how do you verify ‘God loves me’ or even ‘God exists’? However it is not only religious language that is a problem for them. How would they define opinions like ‘I don’t like Mondays’? or emotions like ‘I love you’? or ‘Picasso was a rubbish artist in his blue period,’ or ‘music by Michael Jackson is better than that by Beethoven.’? Or even intentions like ‘I was going to do my homework but had to go to the dentist instead’ or ‘I will do it tomorrow’?’ and what about moral assertions like ‘it is wrong to murder’? All of these are assertions and belong to the affective side of life but few would deny they have meaning for people.

Even a fairly straightforward assertion like ‘King Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings’ is not directly verifiable. For cases like these AJ Ayer proposed a weak form of the verification principle: so long as we know what it would take to verify an assertion he said that was sufficient to make it meaningful. Presumably, in this case, the Bayeux Tapestry and first-hand accounts would be acceptable.


Antony Flew, recognising that in fact there were many assertions which are not directly verifiable, proposed the Falsification Principle. He suggested that so long as we can know what it would take for something to be proved false and that the claimant accepted the evidence then statements could be said to be meaningful. For example to assert that there is no life on Mars we would have to know what conditions are necessary for life to exist on Mars.

However his argument with the people who made religious claims was that they were very unlikely to accept any evidence that might contradict their claims. He expanded on the Parable of the Gardener. He told of the two explorers who came across a beautiful clearing in a jungle, one of whom ( a theist) claimed that it was so beautiful it must be tended by a gardener. When challenged by his friend (an atheist) they set all sorts of traps but no gardener ever became apparent. The theist argued that the fact that none of the traps had ever been sprung didn’t prove the gardener didn’t exist but that he must be invisible and intangible and inaudible. The atheist wryly commented that he didn’t see the difference between this gardener and no gardener at all. Obviously this is analogical to the situation with theists in general and their claims about God. Despite all evidence to the contrary like evil and suffering, they continue to believe in a good God. This is when religious assertions become meaningless Flew said and God dies the ‘death of a thousand qualifications.’

A more modern analogy was related by RM Hare in his parable of the paranoid student and the dons in which a student becomes convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the dons at his university are out to kill him. He coined the term ‘blik‘ to describe these apparently meaningless viewpoints which nevertheless have powerful influences on the behaviour of the people who believe them. Rather like being afraid of spiders or enclosed spaces – these ‘bliks’ cannot be verified but are not meaningless.


A real stumbling block for believers when making assertions about the nature of their God is that so often He is described either in negative terms – what is called the Via Negativa or Apophatic Way; God is not: visible, touchable, smellable, hearable etc. or in superlatives ‘all good’ ‘all loving’ ‘all powerful’ or the ‘good‘ shepherd etc. but none of these actually says anything about what He is like.


It is of distinct interest that Ayer later retracted his position and acknowledged that the Verification Principle itself was meaningless because it could not be verified! However despite all the problems with understanding religious language it is clear that to believers it is not meaningless and anything which affects life and lives so profoundly cannot be dismissed without making some attempt to understand it.


[And I haven’t even mentioned Wittgenstein and Language Games.]

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?