Religious Language

Cognitive/Non-cognitive, Logical Positivism, Verification principle, ayer, tillich, aquinas, falsification principle

HideShow resource information
  • Created by: Sazz
  • Created on: 31-05-10 21:33


Cognitive- Language conveying information that can be checked to be accurate or inaccurate.

There are two types of cognitive language, analytic and synthetic.

Analytic statements- True in all cases. Do not rely on evidence and are true by definition (tautological) eg. red is a colour/ bachelors are unmarried men.

Synthetic statements- Need to be checked to be proved right or wrong eg. It is raining

Non-cognitive- Language conveying information that cannot be checked to be accurate or inaccurate

1 of 12

Wittgenstien and Logical Positivism

Strong Verification Principle- a statement is only meaningful if it can be checked by you to be true or false

Weak Verification Principle- a statement is meaningful if you can think of a hypothetical test that would provide evidence to verify the statement

It is not concerned with the truth of religious language, it simply says that religious statements eg. God exists are meaningless as they cannot be verified.

Ayer rejected the weak verification principle as being too lenient and came up with

  • Direct verification- Something that can be checked through observation
  • Indirect verification- Can be verified through evidence and observations of its affect, even if something is not directly observable eg. black holes

Hume and Empericism support this idea. They believe all knowledge is based on experience and words are ways of expressing knowledge. Unverifiable statements are non-cognitive and so are meaningless.

2 of 12


  • Logical postivism renders art, ethics and (with the strong verification principle) history meaningless. It means we can meaningfully talk about very little.
  • We know things exist that can't be verified eg. love and emotions
  • Solipsism says nothing can be proved to exist except our own minds
  • Kierkegaard says that evidence and reason is a boundary to faith and its whole value is in taking the 'leap to faith'
  • If you don't talk about something that can't be proved you will never find a way of proving it
  • Hick says that you will be able to verify God after you die- Eschalotological verification. He uses the example of the Celestial city. Statements about the existence of a city at the end of a journey are meaningful to a traveller that believes and one that does not until the end of the journey when one is proved right and one wrong. Therefore religious language holds meaning to believers.
  • We cannot verify the verification principle!
3 of 12

Aquinas and Analogies

God is pure actuality, necessary and trancendant, whereas everything in this world is in a state of potentiality. Therefore he is beyond our experience and we have no words worthy of describing him.

  • Univocal- words that have the same meaning in all situations
  • Equivocal- words that have completely different meanings in different contexts eg. a sofa throw/ to throw a ball
  • Analogical- words used to enlighten their meaning in another context eg. 'a stormy night' enlightens the meaning of 'a stormy relationship'.

God's qualities are not the same as human qualities so we cannot use univocal language. God's qualities are not completely different to that of human's (equivocal) or we would have no idea what they were like. Words we apply to humans eg. goodness help us understand God's qualities so they are analogies. Otto calls this schematisation.

4 of 12

Different Types of Analogical Language

Analogical attribution- Our qualities are like God's because he created us eg. Davies uses the example of a good baker who will therefore make good bread.

Analogical proportion- Our qualities are expressed in different ways to God's but have the same basic principles. God's goodness is like ours but on a much greater level eg. comparing our loyalty to God's is like comparing the loyalty of a dog to that of a friend. We understand what is an expression of loyalty based on our experiences of human loyalty.

5 of 12

Positives and Negatives

  • Analogies lack clear and precise understanding
  • Hume says applying God's qualities to humans is anthropomorphism

Aquinas is backed up by Ian T Ramsay who says that the words we use about God are models (descriptions of a quality in a lower form) eg. goodness and to apply them to God we need qualifiers eg. eternally/perfectly. This avoids criticisms of being unclear.

Psuedo-Dionysius says there are no words to describe God so we should talk about him via negativa (what God is not). However, Aquinas rejects this.

Ineffability- Something that cannot be accurately described using words eg. complex and abstract concepts like justice/love, God as he is beyond our experience and religious experience as it is a personal, subjective experience.

6 of 12

Tillich and Symbols

Religious language is symbolic.

Symbols are part of what they represent, and also suggest meaning beyond what they actually are. For example, a beautiful view is part of God's creation and also suggests God as a creator.

Symbols differ from signs as signs have a set meaning that can be learnt and do not point to anything beyond this.

Religious language is

  • Closer to poetry than prose
  • Mythical and heroic eg. God destroying his enemies in the old testament
  • Evocative
  • Designed to make us aware of higher levels of reality and point to transcendent truths, not to describe God literally.
7 of 12

Positives and Negatives

  • Tillich is supported by Randall who says symbols explain religious truths much better than language and are designed to create feelings and emotions that allow you to experience God. He likens this to a piece of artwork like the Mona Lisa. You can never truly understand it unless you have experienced it.
  • Myths can convey important ideas even if they are not true eg. Genesis shows God as an omnipotent creator
  • Vardy points out that myths from all over the world convey similar truths and only differ in cultural influences.
  • To some, religion is more about personal feelings rather than a transcendant God. This is reductionism and Tillich's ideas may be useful for these people.


  • If symbols do not convey literal truths it is hard to reliably find what they are trying to say. Both myths and symbols are subject to subjective interpretation.
  • Hick says Tillich is too vague and doesn't explain the idea of how religious language participates in the qualities of God it is trying to describe.
8 of 12

Flew and the Falsification Principle

If a statement could be proved false using empirical evidence then it is meaningful.

Religious statements are not falsifiable as believers change their beliefs rather than accept evidence that should prove them wrong. For example, when confronted with the problem of evil then Christians will not accept this as evidence that God is not all good but say it is punishment for original sin (Augustine)

John Wisdom and the parable of the gardener gives the example of an explorer who insists on the existance of a gardener in a patch of forest he believes looks tended even thought he cannot see, smell, touch or detect the gardener in any way. He says the gardener is invisible and intangible, but this gardener is no different to an imaginary gardener or no gardener at all. 'The gardener dies a death of a thousand qualifications'.

To assert something is to deny something else eg. Saying God is invisible is saying that we cannot see him.

9 of 12


  • Religious language is meaningful for believers. Hare says that believers have a different blik to non-believers. This is a view on the world that cannot be explained but affects the way you live. For example, in The Parable of the Lunatic then the lunatic has no evidence to suggest that all dons are out to kill him but nothing can truly falsify this so he believes it anyway. Believers need less evidence to prove something to them.Therefore people have different levels of falsification.
  • HOWEVER this means Religious bliks are a view of the world that could be regarded as sane or insane.
  • Mitchell says that criticism affects belief but it will never truly undermine faith as 'just believing' is the valuable thing.
  • Swinburne says that we know things to be true that we cannot falsify eg. we know toys do not come alive in a cupboard when no one can see them.
10 of 12

Wittgenstien and Language Games

The meaning of words is in the use of them.

Each group has its own language which will seem meaningless to people who are not part of the group. eg. music (legato meaning play smoothly). Religious language therefore has meaning to believers.

Applying empirical evidence to religion is trying to apply the rules of one game (science) to another where it does not make sense.

For example, you can only truly understand faith if you have felt it.

This reflects the idea that believing makes you part of a community based on shared beliefs and understanding.

11 of 12


  • If faiths have their own language how can you have inter-faith discussions about religion? Prevents philosophy of religion as no-one outside the 'game' can understand and therefore criticise it.
  • Religious believers are not isolated from society so their language is based on language that is also used by atheists. They make claims about God referring to empirical evidence eg. The Design Argument.
  • Non-believers may have a better understanding of religious language because they have an objective view.
12 of 12




pretty sure logical positivism was Ayer and 2 others. view on langauge similar to hume's fork but i dont know who came first. Wittgenstein did language games....



Yepp I have to agree with bryony, didn't ayer develop basically all of the verificationism parts? And he was influenced by logical positivists like Hume (I think). Wittgenstein was the language games which i think is new on the spec this year :) But great notes still, thanks! :D x



The early logical positivists (like Moritz Schlick and Ruldolf Carnap) were influenced primarily by the verificationalist movement and Hume's idea of the empirical use of verification, also influence by Wittgenstein's early work as presented in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Along came Ayer and formed a weak version of the principle from the previous strong principle.

Similar Religious Studies resources:

See all Religious Studies resources »