Religious Language - A2 Philosophy



  • AJ Ayer
  • Language is only meaningful if it an be verified by sense observation; if it cannot be verified empirically then it may be a tautology
  • Influenced by scientific experiments
  • Supporters: Moritz, Schlick, Hick
  • Aims: to indicate which areas of philosophical enquiry are factually meaningless and therefore not to be investigated
  • "The sentence expressing it may be emotionally significant to him; but it is not literally significant" (AJ Ayer, 'Language, Truth and Logic')
  • Putative proposition = statement being tested
  • Practical verifiablity = statements which could be tested in reality
  • Verifiable in principle = can't be verified in practice (e.g. 'there is life on other planets in the Milky Way Galaxy')
  • Religious statements = can't be verified = meaningless
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Criticisms of Verificationism

  • "If I were God I could verify my own existence." (Keith Ward) - just because we can't verify God, it doesn't mean He isn't verifiable
  • The verification principle can not verify itself; it cannot be demonstrated by sense-observance
  • Richard Holder: the principle is ridiculous and illogical - polar bears analogy; the principle would state that all polar bears are white, so non-white objects can't be polar bears. So a brown chimpanzee proves that all polar bears are white
  • Karl Popper: we cannot scientifically verify everything
  • Sense-observation cannot confirm historical events
  • Swinburne: strong verification excludes universal statements of any sort
  • A statement can be meaningful but not verifiable
  • Schrödinger: you can imagine a cat is in a box with a radioactive source; is the cat dead or alive? If you open the box you may trigger the source and kill the cat, therefore it is unverifiable as to whether the cat is dead or alive at any point
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  • Antony Flew
  • We must take something to be true until we have enough evidence to falsify it
  • The falsification of God is "death by a thousand qualifications" (Antony Flew); we try to qualify Him so much that the idea becomes meaningless
  • When applied to religious belief, falsificationism raises a question about the nature of the claims that religious people make
  • Flew's jungle analogy: two explorers in the jungle discover a clearing where weeds and flowers grow, one suggests that there is a gardener who looks after the clearing, the other suggests there is not. The explorers set up watch but no gardener is ever detected, one explorer says that the gardener is invisible -  Flew argues that religious believers act in the same way
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Criticisms of Falsificationism

  • Science can never disprove God as God is not measurable in scientific terms; science is limited whereas God is not
  • R. B. Braithwaite: religious language is meaningful because it is prescriptive - it recommends a course of action (e.g. 'God loves me' has meaning because it advises you to live your life in a loving way)
  • Swinburne: 'toys in the cupboard' - if toys come alive in our bedrooms we wouldn't know, so this cannot be falsified. Perhaps we can't falsify God because we don't know enough about him
  • R. M. Hare: bliks = how you view the world, they are non-rational and cannot be falsified, but this does not make them meaningless
  • John Hick: applied bliks to religion; there are some sane and some insane bliks, but we cannot distinguish between the two. Therefore, the idea that religion is insane is merely based on a whim
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The Apophatic Way/ The Via Negativa

  • Pseudo-Dionysius 
  • We can only talk about God in negation, as words limit our understanding of Him
  • "God is beyond assertion" and "beyond every limitation" (Pseudo-Dionysius)
  • Maimonides: religious language is meaningful when used negatively; by describing what a ship isn't, we get closer to understanding what a ship is
  • It isn't misleading; whereas positive language may be
  • It avoids anthropomorphic features being placed incorrectly on God
  • Applies to every culture in time, unlike symbols/analogies
  • It doesn't limit God
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Criticisms of the Via Negativa

  • How can we describe God in negation if we have no idea what He is?
  • How can we make judgements of something we haven't experienced?
  • Maimonides' ship analogy compares God to an inanimated object which is rooted in human understanding
  • Are negative statements really useful?
  • Antony Flew: the negatives amount to nothing; we learn nothing of God
  • For religious believers, the via negativa contradicts certain statements in scripture which describe God positively
  • If God is not evil, not hurtful, not malicious, not a person, not in time etc, is God nothing?
  • Describing God in negation only implies a positive description anyway, what is the point?
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Ludwig Wittgenstein

  • Anti-realist (words have subjective meanings)
  • Language creates imagery; so it may be meaningful by creating such images
  • "Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use."
  • 'Language Games'
  • Language only makes sense in its 'game' - e.g. French does not make someone who does not speak French, the rules of chess are irrelevant and misunderstood if you aren't in the context of a chess game
  • Therefore, you need to be a member of a religious tradition or 'game' to fully understand the meaning of religious language
  • Coherence of truth = something has meaning if it is coherent to you
  • D.Z. Phillips: philosophy and religion are two different 'games' as both have different definitions of God; you cannot be part of both
  • "Talk about God's reality cannot be considered as talk about the existence of an object" (D.Z. Phillips)
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Criticisms of Wittgenstein

  • Removes the link between claims made with language and empirical evidence
  • Fails to understand what believers mean by the word God
  • They don't allow cross-linking between groups
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  • Paul Tillich: religious language is symbolic not literal, used the flag to demonstrate how we can all participate in symbols
  • Tillich argued that symbols did four things: point to something beyond themselves, participate in that to which they point to, open up levels of reality and open up dimensions of the soul = "The theory of participation"
  • God = ultimate symbol = "the ground of our being"
  • J. Randall: religious language is symbolic and non-cognitive (cannot be proven), it arouses emotion and makes people act, inspires community action, allows someone to express experiences non-literally and clarifies our experience of God
  • Randall called God an intellectual symbol and called him "a ripple of imagination"
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Criticisms of Symbols

  • John Hick: Tillich's idea of participating is unclear, there is little difference between a symbol and a sign
  • William Alston: symbols are meaningless because we don't know whether or not they're true
  • Paul Edwards: symbols are meaningless because they cannot be verified or falsfied, their subjective nature "doesn't convey any facts"
  • John Macquarrie: there is no difference between a symbol and a sign, e.g. "clouds are a sign of rain", the clouds are both a sign and a symbol of the rain
  • Many Christians do not think that all religious language is symbolic, some take the Bible to be the innerant word of God
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  • Myth = a story which communicates the values/ beliefs of a culture or society
  • John Macquarrie: religious language is rooted in the language of mythology, myths are ways of trying to explain something through the use of storytelling - a fictional story conveying an objective truth
  • Macquarrie argued that there were different types of myths in the bible; creation myths (Adam and Eve), good vs. evil myths (Heaven/Hell), birth myths (Virgin Mary) etc.
  • Emile Durkheim: myths are constructs of society, not objetcive realities; as societies develop, myths develop too to reflect the values of society at the time
  • Religiously, myths convey values and beliefs and give insight into human existence, whilst also telling people how to behave (e.g. the sin in the Garden of Eden)
  • Jaspers: myths express intuitive insights, are stories about God rather than external realities and carry meaning
  • Rudolf Bultmann: the Bible isn't literal, but we must demythologise stories in order to separate truth from myth
  • Bergson: myths help us overcome fears
  • Stories are meaningful and memorable; an effective way of conveying truth
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Criticisms of Myths

  • Meanings of myths may be lost over time
  • Some myths are not compatible with scientific truths
  • Which stories are myths and which are real?
  • Myths are left open to interpretation
  • If there is a truth to be expressed, shouldn't it be expressed directly and not through stories?
  • An innerant view of scripture contradicts a belief in myths
  • Different cultures understand myths differently (cultural relativism)
  • Richard Dawkins: myths taken literally are damaging, particularly to children, they are "cosmic child abuse"
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  • Aquinas: religious language is best understood through the use of analogy, he criticised univocal (one objective meaning) and equivocal (subjective meanings) language
  • Aquinas' Analogy of Attribution = our goodness comes directly from God. Bake and bread analogy; a load of bread is good because the baker is good, the attributes of the baker caused the attributes of the bread, even though they do not share the two attributes. Similarly, God's attributes causes our attributes - our goodness comes from him
  • Aquinas' Analogy of Proportion = there is a proportionate relationship between all things; God has life; humans have life; plants have life - a plant being 'alive' doesn't compare to our definition of ourselves as alive. God's life is greater than ours.
  • Ian Ramsey: words like 'kind' and 'caring' cannot be used univocally or equivocally, so we have to qualify the model with words such as 'infinitely' or 'eternally'; by qualifying our terms, we may use analogies to express God
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Criticisms of Analogy

  • Using analogy loses the meaning and purpose behind what we are trying to communicate
  • St Paul: we cannot accurately express God until we 'see' Him
  • Does analogy actually tell us anything?
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