Religious Language

Religious Studies: Revision notes on the Philosophy Topic "Religious Language"

  • Created by: Annie
  • Created on: 27-04-13 14:10

Introduction to Religious Language

What is Religious Language?

  • Religious Language is concerned with speaking about God, beliefs, practise and morality
  • Religious Language can be religious belief (e.g. the Last Judgement), religious terms (e.g. "sin" and "grace" or everyday terms with a religious interpretation (e.g. Love)
  • Because we can only talk of God in Human terms, it becomes more difficult to talk about God and the nature of God which is why people question, Is Religious Language meaning ful?

Types of Religious Language?

  • Cognitive (realist) - Factual statements which can be proved true or false
  • Non-cognitive (anti-realist) - Religious statements shouldn't be taken literally, they only express a religious truth and have no objective universal truth. 
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Verification Principle

Key points: Vienna Circle (Schlick, Carnap), Friedrich Waismann, A.J. Ayer. Religious language is meaningless

"to prove something true"

  • Stemmed from the 1920's Logical Positivism movement created by the Vienna Circle
  • Language was only meaningful if it came from experience
  • Empirical testing could prove whether language is meaningful or not

"The meaning of a proposition is in its method of verification" - Schlick

  • Only three types of statements are meaningful: Analytic, Mathematical, Synthetic

"Anyone uttering a stence must know under what conditions he calls it true, and under what confitions he calls it false. If he is unable to state these conditions, he does not know what he has said" - Friedrich Waismann

  • A.J. Ayer - God's existence has no "significant propositions" and that "the notion of a person whose essential atrrubytes are non-empirical is not an intelligible notion at all". 
  • Talk of God, even by atheists, is meaningless because God cannot be proved empirically
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Verification Principle - Criticisms


  • Statements which are clearly meaningful are redenered meaningless - such as unverifiable emotions/opinions, ethical statements, laws of science (such as gravity), historical records
  • The principle fails it's own test - cannot verify the verification principle c.c. Only a recommendation for the use of words

Ayer created the Strong and Weak form of the verification principle. The Strong Form is for facts which are most definitly true however the Weak Form is for statements which are 'veririfiable in principle'  to be meaningful - this allows for historical statements to be true. 

  • Keith Ward - The verification principle exclused nothing since all experiences are allowable because of the criterion of the Weak Verification Principle - "If I were God, I would be able to check the truth of my own existence"
  • Hick - Eschatalogical Verification - We will find the truth of God's existence and religious statements when we die.  
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Verification Principle - Support


  • Weak form would support some religious statements as some evidence can count towards them - such as the Design Argument
  • Ayer's Weak Principle allowed for all statements to be meaningful as all are verifiable by principle
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Falsification Principle

Key Points: Anthony Flew, Wisdom's Parable of the Gardener, Example of Evil and Suffering

                                                       "To prove something false"                                                     "A statement is only meaningful if some evidence may count against it"

Anthony Flew:

  • Religious statements are meaningless because there is nothing that can count against them
  • Religious believers do not consider evidence that God doesn't exist and therefore "God dies the death of a thousand qualifications"

John Wisdom's Parable of the Gardener                                                                          Two explorers come across a garden in a jungle which looks like it has been maintained by a gardener. One explorer claims it is a gardener and the other disagrees. They perform tests to see if a gardener exists but there is no evidence. The explorer then claims that the gardener is invisible however the other explorer is still sceptical. What difference does it make if there is an invisible gardener or no gardener. This demonstrates that people have different responses to the same facts.

The believer, like the explorer, fails to prove the existence of God without with drawing their claims and therefore make excuses - such as when a child suffers from a terminal illness

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Falsification Principle - Alternatives (1)

Key Scholars: Richard Swinburne, John Hick, Basil Mitchell, R.M. Hare, R.B. Baithwaite, Paul Tillich

Richard Swinburne - Toys in a Cupboard - When we are not looking, toys may come to life and interact with each other. We cannot falsify this but we can understand this idea of the toys coming to life. The falsification principle does not work for all statements as some statements can still be meaningful as we can understand the concept of them. 

John Hick - Parable of the Celestial City - Two travellers are going down a road with signs. One interprets that the signs and believes that there will be a celestial city at the end of the road but the other one disagrees. The only way they will find out is when they get to the end of the road. (Eschatalogical Verification)

Basil Mitchell - Parable of the Partisan and the Stranger - In times of war, a partisan meets a stranger who claims to be a leader of a resistance to help the partisan. He convinces the partisan to have trust in the stranger no matter what he does - even though the stanger acts in contradictary ways and people think the partisan is a fool for trusting the stranger. When the stranger appears to have stopped helping, the Partisan has the choice to stop believing in him but doesn't so as the partisan believes that the stranger must have valid reasons for not helping him when he could've done.

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Falsification Principle - Criticisms

R.M. Hare - Religious statements are non-cognitive rather than cognitive, which is what the falsification principle is looking at. Religious language is meaningful because it impacts the way which people look at the world (known as blik) and these beliefs are always going to be unfalsifiable but this does not make them meaningless. Bliks can be categorised as 'sane' or 'insane'. Sane bliks are meaninful. c.c. Anthony Flew - This is a 'dialectical dud cheque' 

R.B. Braithwaite - Religious language is a suggestion of the way which people should act towards each other. This is meaningful as they express an intention to follow a certain code of behaviour

Paul Tillich - Religious Language is non-coginitive and are symbollic, rather than coginitive. 

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Analogical Language

Key Points: Aquinas, Analogy of Attribution, Analogy of Proportionality

Hume: "All desciptions of God fall into danger of anthropomorphism" - Analogy offers another attempt to solve the problem about how we can talk about God.                                                                                                                
C. Brown: "God has revealed himself in action, thought and word. It is appropriate and meaningful to express God Analogically"

 Thomas Aquinas

  • Rejected Via Negativa and Equivocal Language as it couldn't convery information about God other than that he was different to us. Also rejected Univocal Language as it failed to account for his transcendence of God and therefore limited him - Human Love is not like God's love
  • "Via eminentiae" - the 'way of eminence' - shows what we say and know of God - only partial
  • We can speak analogically of God because he is the creator of the Earth and the cause of goodness - God is good because he is the cause of all goodness. We just see this as an imperfect reflection to which is called "the gradation to be found it things". All goodness and love in humanity came first from God, and therefore, God and humanity are analogously related
  • Example: Animal urine - when the animal is healthy, it's urine is healthy. The health of the animal and the urine are different but are connected as the animal produced the urine. God created the world and it depends upon God

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Analogical Language - Analogy of Proportionality/A

Aquinas' Analogy of Proportionality

  • God is the cause of all things in humans; therefore God's attributes are simply a higher level than our own. We ascribe a quality to one thing because it points towards another which has that quality
  • In this way, although we cannot fully understand God, we can begin to understand his nature. We ascribe a quality to one thing because it is caused by another
  • For example, Wisdom - God is wise. God is the cause of wisdom in man - this attributes it to them. Human wisdom is a reflection of God's Wisdom

Analogy of Attribution

  • As all good qualities belong infinitely to God and in proportion to humans - for instant, a plant has life, a human has a life, God has life; there is a proportinate relationship.
  • Hick offered an 'upwards analogy' for instance, speaking of a dog's faithfulness and then going upwards to human faith in God; in the same way, 'downwards' so that human wisdom is seen as a pale reflection of God's wisdom
  • For example, God is powerful. We are powerful, God is all powerful (Omnipotence is proportinal to his nature)
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Analogical Language - Support

Models and Qualifiers

  • Ian Ramsey: In the 20th Century, Ramsey extended and developed Analogical Language with his Models and Qualifiers
  • E.g. God is good. Good is the model. We have an understanding of good so it becomes the model for understanding God's goodness. If we are to understand God's goodness, we have to qualify it or adapt it - God is infinitely good (where infinitely is the qualifier), therefore, God's goodness is greater. 
  • All qualities are infinitely enchanced when applied to God

Remotion and Excellence

  • All creaturely concepts are removed from a word so that when applied, God has no defects.
  • The remaining qualities are projected without limit.
  • Conclusion: God processes all qualities with no ill effects to the ulmost degree
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Analogical Language - Criticisms

  • William Blackstone: We still have to translate analogies into univocal language before they actually mean anything - we have to know how God's love relates to our own love before we can understand anything
  • Analogy presupposes the existence of God, otherwise it is meaningless
  • Only useful for believers
  • For the basis of comparison, there needs to be some shared understanding - which we do not have with God as he is beyond our human understanding
  • There is a lack of a clear understanding of God
  • Analogy of Proportionality: Only meaningful is both the terms are known - we do not know God and so analogy of proportionality is meaningless
  • Culturally misleading
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Symbolic Language

Key Points: What are symbols? Difference between signs and symbols, Symbols of God, Paul Tillich, 

W. Stephens: "We do not live in a world but in a picture of it"
Symbols come from the Greek word "Sumballo" meaning 'to throw together'

  • Symbols may be picutres, objects, actions or words and includes methaphors, similies, signs and myths. It is important to know that symbols should not be literally interpretated as they are subtle modes of communication which go beyond the factual and objective.
  • Symbols can show identification, aid and show participations, focus, expess feelings and beliefs, demonstate creeds and are instantly recognisable as well as being flexible

Difference between a Symbol and a Sign

  • Sign: Simpliy communicates a message by pointing beyond itself - such as a person wanting to grab someone's attention may wave a flag
  • Symbol: Communicates something more powerful - waving a flag may be more meaningful if it was a national flag.

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Symbolic Language - Paul Tillich

  • We can only talk about God symbolic language as it is understandable to humans. Talk of God is symbollic and can't be translated into a literal sense. Religious Experience is also communicated through symbols.

"Symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate beause it transcends the capacit of any finite reality to express it directly" 

  • God is symbolically known as "Being itself", "the Ultimate Concern", "the Ground of Being"
  • Religious Lanugage is language that goes yound the mere words towards the Ultimate Reality - goes beyond the external world and into the internal reality
  • Symbols transcends fact and opens up new levels of reality as it "unlocks dimensions and elements of our soul"
  • The power of symbols allow for thinking to be directed and can develop over time, bringing a communal expression of God
  • Symbols convey a deeper meaning in comparison to a sign
  • Example: "Kingdom" is concerned with God's power and rule in symbolic language
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Symbolic Language - Examples


The Cross

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Symbolic Language - Strengths

  • Symbolic language can solve problems of Equivocal and Univocal language
  • Symbols have deep communicative powers and evoke participation in the intended meaning
  • Truth can be expressed symbolically
  • They give insights into universal condition
  • Symbols help the believer to see the solution but do not provide the full solution
  • Symbols provide spiritual and religious truths as opposed to scientific and psychological truths
  • Symbol is pervasive in human culture - we should not be surprised to find it in religious language


  • P. Ricoeur: The function of language is to articulate our experience of the world to give form to this expression. Through language we communciate our experience to others forming new ways to conceive the wold. Rather than suspending reality, a metaphor creates a new way of seeing or constructing reality and opening new understandings of God that are impossible to communicate by.
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Symbolic Language - Scholarly Support

  • Rowan Williams: The development of symbol in religious language is not a process of the encrustation of an original, simple idea, with distracting and extraneous illustrations or ornaments. Like all other serious human discourse, religious language requires a symbolic foundation - Images must be denied in their human sense so as to lead us back to silence and unknowing
  • J.R. Randall: Religious language is not factual - it takes us beyond to the Ultimate Reality. Religious Language is a human activity and has a unique function (stir emotions & bind communities together)
  • I. Ramsey: Models and Qualifiers
  • Soskice: Language reveals God. Compare metaphors and models used in science. 
  • McFague: Theology is metaphorical - Trinity of Father, Son & Holy Spirit, Mother, Lover, Friend
  • Erika Dinker-von Schubert: Symbols expresses what is beyond rational recognition, it serves to distinguish the human from the animal world. 
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Symbolic Language - Weaknesses

  • P. Edwards: Symbols do not convey factual information and therefore are meaningless. They cannot be verified using sense experience or empirical evidence
  • Symbols are culturally determined and can be misleading. For example, God as a Shepherd is meaningless to an urban society
  • Symbols are superficial, inadequate, inappropriate, subjective & only of use to believers
  • Symbols may become the subject of Worship
  • Tillich does not consider the Objective Reality - this leads to misunderstandings
  • Symbols are outdated - Even Tillich ress that we have to "rediscover the symbolism in a way which is understandable to our time"
  • Feminists have issues with anthropocentric symbols
  • Symbols do not relate to facts and are meaningless as they cannot be verified/falsified
  • Symbols cannot give insight to things beyond human knowledge
  • Symbols cannot be tested for accuracy or relate to the real world
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Key points: Definition, Millar Burrows, R. Bultmann, J. Rogerson, The Creation Story, The Flood, (Include myths!)

"Vehicles for meaning"

  • Uses symbolic language, metaphors, imagery etc. and is a story which expresses a truth when it is not known what actally happened - usually attempts to explains things outside of human understanding
  • Religiously, it conveys concepts of the "other worldly" using mythological terms to describe Eschatological events e.g. The Second Coming of Jesus

Millar Burrows: "Myth is a symbolic, approximate expression of truth which the human mind cannot perceive sharply and completely, but can only glimpse vaguely, and therefore cannot adequately or accurately express"

R. Bultmann: "Myth is that manner of representation in which the unworldly and divine appears as the worldly and the human - any story in which God is seen to act like another human being"

J. Rogerson: "Because myths have their birth not in logic but in intuitions of transcendence, they are of value to traditions that seek to describe the action of the other worldly in the present world"

Examples of Myth: Creation story, The Flood & Tower of Babel, Christ Enthroned, Story of Ganesha, The Story of Holika etc. 

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Myth - Support

  • Myths are stories which attempt to resolve philosophical and religious issues
  • Myths allow symbols to be sustained within narrative
  • Myths embody and express claims that cannot be expressed in any other way
  • As non-cognitive language, myths are not open to truth of falsify
  • If religious language is Anti-Realist, expressing subjective rather than objective truths, then mythological language need not be a burden to understanding
  • Mythological language is part of Wittgenstein's Language Game
  • Problems with myth only occur when we attempt to find literal interpretations
  • Myths deal with insights far deeper than could be provided by history or logic or sense
  • Myths can give insights into the universal human condition
  • Myths see the solution but not the whole solution
  • They offer spiritual and religious truth as opposed to scientific or psychological proof
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Myth - Criticisms

R. Bultmann 

  • "It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits" 
  • Demythologisation - Wanted to find the essence of the message (the religious truth in the overwhelming details of the myth). That way it would be possible to re-experience and re-express the gospel in a way which we could grasp
                "Remove the mythical garments in which the story of salvation was clothes"

Dawkins - "Much of the Bible is just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled together analogy of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and 'improved' by hundreds of anonymous authors"

De Wette - a historical kernal of truth (authoritative word) could be recovered from Biblical Myths

F. Max Miller - myths were originally poetic descriptions of natural phenomena

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Myth - Criticisms (2)

D. F. Strauss

  • Myth was the expression or embodiment of an idea, not a historical event
  • We should shift the focus of myth from the story of a miraculous occurrence to the story of miraculous occurance
  • In the first case, it is assumed that an objectively true narrative about a miracle is being expressed
  • In the second, that an embodied religious truth is being conveyed in a story form which is not necessarily objectively true

Other Objections:

  • Myths don't conform with scientific causality
  • Mytholgoical language is so deeply ingrained in religious talk that it may as well be indispensable
  • What degree of truth do myths offer?
  • Problems with translation across language and culture
  • Interpretation
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Language Game Theory

Ludwig Wittgenstein

  • Language statements are not intended to be true or false for anyone except for those whose are within that form of life e.g. A scientific statement would be true or false for a scientist but not necessarily for an artist. 
  • Language is therefore a game where "forms of life" (such as science, maths, poetry, art, sport and religion) have their own series of words and phrases which are used in their own context depending upon subject area.
  • All forms of life have their own language and have their own rules concerning meaning
  • Language games are non-cognitive - there are not supposed to be universally true, it is about communication which other players in the same game
  • Language can be used correctly/incorrectly within the rules of the game but it shouldn't be used to make factual statements. 
  • Players can't criticise each other's language game or enter into another game without knowing the rules of that form of life as each game has its own "Criteria of coherence" - meaning language can only be understood by playing the right game by the right rules
  • Language is only meaningful if it is understoof within the context of it's own language game
  • People who hear other languages will not understand it and this is called a 'category mistake' e.g. a religious believer may talk of a soul but a scientist may try to search for a physical soul and this clash of language games is called a category mistake
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Language Game Theory - Summary

  • Rules apply to this game and no other
  • People not in the game will not be able to understand its use of the language and it will seem meaningless and without purpose
  • People outside of the game will not be able to understand the rules and will not be able to criticise it
  • Religious belief has its own language and rules
  • Problems only occur when language 'goes on holiday' - words are used outside of their rules
  • Individuals cannot create a private religious game c.c. Descartes - "I think therefore I am"
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Language Game Theory - Support

McCutcheon - There are similairities between games and language - 1. Meaning of 'Game'  2. Different games have different rules 3. Games involve participation 4. Games are not reality 5. Making a wrong move is applying a word in the wrong way. 6. 'You can do that' = 'You can say that'

  • Highlights non-cognitive nature of Religious Language - Religious Language makes no assertions and therefore cannot be disproved
  • Recognises distinctive nature of religious language - it is different from other languages
  • Language games provides boundaries for the correct use of language
  • Believers can be initiated into the rules of language
  • Language games defend language against criticisms of other 'forms of life' since truth is understood as relative and statements are to be judged against their context and not on whether they are inherently or objectively true or false
  • Many feel that religious statements do entail a truth that is not entirely dependant upon context - many claims abelieved to be true for everyone e.g. Christ died for all sins
  • Science vs Religion - if we recognise that they are employing language games and not trying to undermine each other, we will recognise the distinctive contribution each makes
  • Language games unite believes in a common bond
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Language Game Theory - Criticisms

  • Language games do not allow for believers' claims to be empirically tested
  • Religious language alienates those outside the game - it is exclusive
  • The rules of the game cannot be changed to allow outsides in c.c. It is fiar
  • Language Games do not allow for believers' claims to be objectively true
  • In making religious language distinct from all other language, it is essentially isolating those outside of the game
  • Who makes the rules?
  • How can we be sure that the rules are correct and correctly interpreted?
  • Can rules be changed? If so, by whom?
  • If different faiths have their own games, how can communication take place between them?
  • Religious language is not isolated - believers commuicate in other activities. There must be common ground so that non-believers can understand
  • Non-believers might be able to understand religious language better because of their objectivity
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