Religious language

Revision for the wjec exam on the 6th june :)

  • Created by: Rachael
  • Created on: 01-05-13 17:18


Univocal language: When the word has exactly the same meaning all the time, this can have problems though, because you might describe your dog as faithful and loving but you may also use this word to describe god. Does this anthropomorphize God?

Equivocal Language: The same word is used in two completely different ways. The problem here is that if we sue the word good to describe God and it means something completely different to if we were describing a earthly object we cannot comprehend what Good means in term of God.

Cognitive: The statement is subject to being true or false, for example the cat is sat on the chair.

Non- Cognitive: The statement cannot be subject to truth or falsity for example hurray  or ouch.

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Problems of religious language

There are many problems that have to be looked at when using religious language:

  • 1. Some of these words may be seen as contradictory to our logic
  • 2. Some of these words are abstract, metaphysical or puzzling
  • 3. We only have our human language to describe that which is not "of this world"
  • 4. Many would argue that we cannot even attempt to describe God
  • 5. If we give God characteristics of this world, we risk making God sound human even through he is on a high level than we are
  • 6. We may have different understandings of words
  • 7. Religion is full of stories which -interpretated literally /non literally
  • 8. Some terms are used within religion which have slightly different meaning
  • 9. Some say we can't verify or faslify religious language
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Logical positivism

A group of philosophers in 1920s to 1930s, that believed that any statement that cannot be verified/proved is meaningless.  They were logical Positivists, they believed some statements were meaningful and others not, they came up with the verification principle . These philosophers includes Schlick and Neurath.

Their verification principle: A statement is only meaningful if it can be verified by an actual experience or is a tautology. 

A tautology: a logical statement that’s true by definition ( a triangle has thee sides)

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The Vienna circle

The thinkers of the Vienna circle built upon a philosophical tradition stretching back hundreds of years. Empiricists such as Locke and Hume had argued that truth and knowledge were to be found in that which was observable via our senses. The Vienna circle shared the view that science would provide knowledge and that areas such as metaphysics, religion and ethics should be avoided. The Vienna circle claimed that claiming the existence of God is a meaningless issue , we cannot know whether God exists because we cannot have an experience that would verify it.   criticism-

  • It suggests we cannot make statements about history. For example there are no empirical observations that you can make that can verify facts about the life of Julius Caesar.
  • Scientific laws are also meaningless. To say that gravity is constant in all places on earth is impossible to verify. I can only be in one place at once.
  •  Swinburne has pointed out that universal statements cannot be verified e.g. all swans are white . These seem meaningful but are said to be meaningful by the Vienna circle
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  • Ayers argued that statements are only meaningful if they are either analytic or synthetic
  • religious statements are non cognitive and impossible to verify so they are meaningless
  • "No sentence which describes the nature of a transcendent God can possess any literal significance"
  • Ayer wrote a book called Language truth and logic. Ayer argues that for a statement to be meaningful it must either be a tautology (a priori) or verifiable in principle ( a posteriori) However, how much can we really verify?
  • Basically Ayer states that we DO NOT have to conclusively prove something by a direct observation. Verification in principle means that in order for a statement to be meaningful, we need to suggest how it could be possibly verified.
  • For example if we say there are mountains on the far side of the moon, even though at the time he couldn’t prove this, it may be that if we could orbit the moon we could check the truthfulness of this statement.
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Strong and weak VP

Ayre realised that many saw truth and verification in some scientific and historical propositions that have not been verified with truth- this then triggered him to create strong and weak verification.

STRONG VERIFICATION- there is no doubt that a statment is true as we verifiy it using sence experience.- I CAN SEE THAT IT IS RAINING OUTSIDE AS I CAN SEE!

WEAK VERIFICATION-there is some evidence to prove a statment true or false however not enough for it to be conclusively proven.



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Criticisms of the verification principle

Criticisms of weak verification principle: Hick has  questioned whether the verification principle renders religious statements as meaningless. He gives the example of two travelers walking down a long road arguing about whether the road leads to celestial city. Hick draws the analogy between this and the statements a believer may make about God and heaven, like the traveler there believers statements can be verified at the end of the journey. Hick calls this the eschatological verification.

Some thinkers argue that a large number of religious statements are verifiable in principle, for example statements about the life of Jesus. Many thinkers have objected to the verification principle  as it is itself unverifiable. It is not a tautology and no amount of evidence can be found that can establish whether it is true that only things experienced are meaningful. Ayer’s response to this was to argue that the verification principle only applied to statements or propositions not to whole theories.

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Falsification principle

  • Falsification principle: a principle for assessing whether statements are genuine scientific assertions by considering whether any evidence would ever disprove them.
  • Antony Flew formulated the Falsification Principle which accepts that a statement is verifiable and therefore meaningful if it is known what empirical evidence could count against it.
  • John Hick said ‘In order to say something may possibly be true, we must say something which may possibly be false’.
  • In other words the Falsification Principle demands that believers should be able to say what would cause them to withdraw their statements or acknowledge that they are seriously challenged, if those statements are to have meaningful content.
  •  Flew argued that believers do not satisfy these demands and so is religious language is meaningless.
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Flews ideas continued

Flew applied this theory to the use of religious language. The problem with religious language is that it cannot be falsified and it is not a genuine statement at all.  

Flew used the scenario similar to the Gardner one I used earlier. - Flew used Wisdom’s Parable of the Gardener to illustrate how believers will not allow evidence to count against theological statements. Flew argues that the believer is guilty of the same error as the man who believed in the presence of a gardener. Failure to prove God’s existence doesn’t lead to a withdrawal of the believer’s faith claims, rather they continue to believe in a God, who like the Gardener can only be described in negative terms

Flew claims that religious believers shift the goal posts so much that the claims they make are so ‘watered down’ that they are barely statements at all. Flew calls this the ‘death of a thousand qualifications’ . No matter what disaster strikes, a believer will continually argue that God loves them, is testing them or ‘moving in mysterious ways’. Flews point is to ask what would have to happen in order for the existence of God to be disproved. Although Flew himself does not raise the issue of meaninglessness, some thinkers have used the falsification principle to show that religious language is meaningless. However it is important to be aware that it is NOT Flew’s point.

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Criticisms to the falsification principle

Many philosophers argue that religious statements are non-cognitive and so wrong to treat them as such. It is argued that religious statements still have meaning even if they do not contain facts that could be proved true nor false

The Falsification Principle does not work for all statements but they are still meaningful. They cannot be falsified but yet we still understand the meaning behind them. Swinburne uses the example of toys in the cupboard, although one can not prove that the toys do not leave the cupboard and move around when unsupervised, and cannot falsify whether they move or not; the concept of their movement still has meaning because we can understand it. Similarly although it may not be possible to falsify religious statements, the concepts that they convey still have meaning for they can still be understood.

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Criticisms continued

R.M. Hare proposed that a believer’s statements were ‘bliks’: ways of regarding the world that in principle are neither falsifiable nor verifiable. Hare illustrated the point with the example of a university student, convinced the dons were trying to kill him and rejecting any evidence to the contrary. Although the student would not accept any evidence that because it influenced his perception of the university. Hare felt that religious beliefs are ‘bliks’ because of the impact that they have on the way in which people look at the world and their lives.

Basil Mitchell wanted to show that religious statements are meaningful even if they are neither straightforwardly verifiable nor falsifiable. Mitchell argued that Flew was wrong in his supposition that believers never allow anything to count against their beliefs. Using the Parable of the Partisan and the stranger, he claimed that Flew had missed the point that like the partisan, believers, had a prior commitment to trust God based on faith. Mitchell claims that believers do not allow anything to conclusively falsify their belief in God, but this does not mean it is meaningless because they do show, like the partisan, that there is a real problem of which they must be aware.

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Via negative

It basically accepts that statements about God cannot be accurately made as God is utterly different and far greater than anything we can comprehend.  However rather than having no possible knowledge of God, it is argued that negative statements can be made; in other words, we can say what God is not. Hence the name via negativa.

The supporters of Via negativa argue that language when applied to God is equivocal. But a way round the problems this creates we should say what god is not for example, god is not wicked.

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Strengths and weakness of via negative


  • It prevents anthropomorphizing God.
  • It can be seen as more respectful.
  • It supports the view of many thinkers, especially mystics, that God is beyond description and that experience of him is ineffable.
  • Related to this it can be argued that only the via negativa adequately conveys the transcendence of God.


  • It could be argued that the result is very limited understanding off God at best.
  • The via negativa is not a true reflection of how religious people speak of God. They do not talk in the negative but rather seek positive knowledge of what God is.
  • The via negativa claims that no positive statement about God can be made. However if we are saying something negative, we are surely implying the positive statement as well
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Analogy An analogy is describing something that is unfamiliar with something that is familiar. Sometimes the analogy drawn may seem odd when we reflect on the language literally for example her face was like thunder. Analogies are comparisons that are helpful to a point.

We find ourselves saying ‘it is like…but..’ religiously analogies are the only option available given the difficulties of making univocal or equivocal statements about God. Aquinas argued that language cannot be used literally of God.

 Aquinas suggests that even terms such as ‘God is good’ should be understood analogically. When I say that ‘God is good’ I cannot mean exactly the same as when I say that ‘Beth is good’ Gods goodness must be on a different scale (equivocal)

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Analogy of attribution

Analogy of attribution: The qualities we ascribe to each other are a reflection of the qualities of God. Brian Davies uses the example of the baker and the bread. If we say that the bread is good, we are also implying that the baker is good, there is a relationship between the statements. The bread is the product of the baker and his goodness or skill spreads to the bread also.

Aquinas’ own example comes from medieval medicine.  It was believed that if a bull’s urine is healthy then they are healthy. The urine is a reflection of them! Properties such as God’s wisdom, love and goodness that we see in others are reflections of the properties of the creator God. Hence when we see these attributes in others, we are able to make analogies with the attributes of God.    

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Analogy of proportion

Analogy of proportion: The type of properties that something has depends on the nature of the being that possesses them .  An example might be that your younger brother is really good at the guitar however you mean he is good for his age, whereas if you went to see a professional musician that played at your brothers standard you would be disappointed.

When we use words to describe God, we are describing an infinite being. When we use words to describe each other we are describing finite beings. The meaning cannot be the same, it changes in proportion to the nature of the being that is described. Hick uses baron von Hugel’s example of the term faithfulness this is a word we might use of a dog, a human or God. Yet when we assert that God is faithful we are using the word in a  way that makes our faithfulness seem quite tiny in comparison.

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Analogy and Hick

Analogy seems to show that religious language is not absurd and can provide some understanding of God. It may avoid the twin pitfalls of agnosticism and anthropomorphism. However some thinkers such as Duns Scotus argued that analogy is too vague and leaves us unable to understand God and his action.  Hick comments that analogy enables us to make some statements aabout God yet still preserve the degree of mystery present in judeo-Christian theology.

Hick also offers the Christian idea of the incarnation as a possible solution to the problem of meaning. God’s attitudes and character are seen in the stories of Christ and this enables us to make some statements about God. One difficulty with this use of analogy is that it assumes some similarity between God and humans. However if God is completely different to humans then it is difficult to see how words can be used in  a similar way.

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Signs: point us towards something else.

Symbol: ‘participates’ in that to which it points’. Paul Tillich argued that religious language ought to be understood in a similar way. Religious statements are symbolic but nethertheless cognitive statements.  So we are able to learn something of God, but our words become symbolic rather than literal. We are familiar with religious symbols such as the cross or the bread and wine of communion.

What Tillich is suggesting is that even statements such as ‘God is good’ are symbolic rather than literal.     Symbols work on a deep and powerful level. A symbol unlocks something within our soul and expresses something about the ultimate. Tillich refers to God as ‘the ground of being’ , and suggested that this is the only non-symbolic statement that can be made about God.

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Criticisms of symbols

Criticisms of Tillich: Tillich’s ideas can be seen as a little vague prompting some thinkers such as J.H.Randall to agree that language is symbolic but non-cognitive. Randall argues that religious symbols function in a similar way to art. They do not tell us anything about the external reality; they do however tell us much about our own human experiences. Some thinkers have argued that if religious statements are not literally true, then it is difficult to see what content they may have. It is difficult to be clear on what is meant buy the idea of a symbol participating in something.

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Some thinkers have argued that religious ideas conveyed through myths can give cognitive knowledge of God. For many people the idea of myth is the same as the idea of legends, ancient stories that are unlikely to be true. However myths are stories that convey the values and beliefs of the communities that tell them. One example of a myth would be the creation story in the bible. These teach believers that God created everything and that he cares for his people.

Rudolf Bultman defines myth as the use of imagery to express the other worldly in terms of this world. A myth effectively draws readers in and requires a response. What is presented in myths is not the literal truth but a deep truth that requires an existential approach. It inspires action. Bultman attempted to de-mythologise the new testament. This involved the removal of the supernatural (mythical) element to arrive at what eh considered the essential teaching of Jesus and Christianity.  (the kerygma)

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Criticisms of myths

However… Although viewing stories given by religion as myths can be liberating for some believers who struggle to accept them as literally true, it is difficult to see how the interpretation of myths can be straightforward. Theologians often disagree on the meaning of passages, and how something is interpreted may also depend on the culture of the interpreters

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Language Games

Wittgenstein suggested the meaning of words is determined by the Language Game of which the words are part. By this he meant a meaning comes from the circumstance in which they are uttered and the meaning of other words used with them. For Wittgenstein words perform a function in language, they don't just signify an object.

By saying 'Language Games' Wittgenstein didn't mean that the way words are used have meaning follow rigid rules, instead he meant it's a way of expressing the idea that words only make sense in the context of a background of other words that all belong to the same 'Language Game'. His Language Games don't refer to reality as a whole, he uses it to refer to different ways language can be used. They are a way of expressing that words have meaning only in the context of other words and the way they are uttered.

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Language game continued

Religious terminology is a Language Game, and as such the language of religious belief such as 'God' and 'omnipotence' is understandable and meaningful to people who participate in the religious language game. There's no reason to believe one Language Game is preferable over another. If a religious believer says 'God exists' then this has meaning and significance to the person who utters it. However, a person who doesn't share this belief will find it difficult, if not impossible, to understand.

Wittgenstein implies that you need to be a member of a religious tradition to fully understand the meaning and significance of belief. E.g. 'God loves me' has a deep and significant meaning for a religious believer, while for an atheist the expression lacks significance

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Critisims of LG

However… D.Z.Phillips opposes this idea and argues that it prevents philosophy of religion as it suggests that no one who is outside the game can criticize the belief. Phillips develops Wittgenstein's approach by arguing that some of the problems caused by religious language exist because we take language literally. The concept of ‘soul’ for instance is problematic because we are looking for a non-physical thing at the core of our being that will survive death

   However if we pay attention to how the word soul is used in a phrase such as ‘selling his soul’ and ‘saving her soul’ then the word soul seems to be  a way of speaking about what is most important in life. Hence Phillips agrees with Wittgenstein’s ideas, which seem to be that religious statements cannot be understood in a literal way but still have a profound meaning for those who make them.

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