Religious Language

Problems & Solutions

HideShow resource information
  • Created by: Maisie
  • Created on: 01-03-11 20:23

What does it do?

  • means of communicating about religion
  • 3 contexts:

1) to describe/express religious experience

2) to communicate religious experience/content & describe beliefs

3) liturgy (formal acts of worship)

  • Wittgenstein: language games
  • sees religous language as anti-realist & dependent on context
1 of 8


2 biggest issues:

  • how can words be used to accurately describe God (=> issues with univocal/equivocal language)
  • is religious language meaningless (cognitive/non-cognitive language)


  • if we use other forms of lanuguage, how can they be meaningful or comprehensible
  • should religious language be understandable to those outside the religious community
  • does religious language depend on making factual assertions


2 of 8

Via Negativa

  • based on principle of negation - saying what God isn't
  • supporters argue lang. when applied to God = equivocal as he is metaphysical & physical lang. cannot describe him
  • avoids anthropomorphism
  • comes from ideas of Plato....
  • Form of the Good = metaphysical & perfect, this world = physical & imperfect
  • Plotonius: God is beyond description with ordinary lang. - we need to use the apophatic way
  • Maimonides: God is 'wholly other'
  • to make positive statements is improper & disrespectful -> we can know THAT God is but not WHAT God is
  • Pseudo-Dionysius: God is beyond assertion
  • 3 states of knowledge:

1) state of affirmation

2) the 'beyond' state

3) the via negativa/apophatic way

  • Cole: 'by denying all descriptions of God, you get insight & experience rather than unbelief & scepticism'
3 of 8

Verification Principle

  • arguments/statements are meaningful ONLY if they can be verified
  • any statement that can't be = meaningless
  • Hume: only a sense of experience leads to real knowledge & a meaningful statement -> therefore religious statements = meaningless (EMPIRICIST)
  • Vienna Circle - logical positivists - put forward strong verification
  • ONLY statements that can be verified by sense experience are meaningful, excludes religious & historical statements
  • A.J.Ayer -> weak verification
  • statements can be proven 'in principe' or 'in practice'
  • historical statements can now be seen as meaningful BUT religious statements = still meaningless
  • Hick: argues for eschatological verification - statements may be verifiable in future
  • example of Celestial City (life after death)

SWINBURNE: statements can still hold meaning for the believer!

Verification principle cannot itself be verified!!

4 of 8


  • aims to determine which statements are scientific
  • only scientific if they can be falsified
  • Popper: developed theory -> only falsifiable statements are meaningful
  • Flew: explorers in the jungle story - God-talk = meaningless
  • God dies 'a death of a thousand qualifications' -> will always try to qualify their belief in face of contradictory evidence
  • Wisdom: similar story of explorers in the garden BUT comes to a different conclusion - falsification cannot be applied to religious language
  • Hare: argues religion is a Blik -> a way fo viewing the world - not open to falsification
  • story of the crazy university student
  • Mitchell: partisan & stranger story -> demonstrates how theists are able to maintain their faith, there is no need to qualify beliefs
  • Swinburne: toy cupboard story - there are statements which we cannot falsify yet we are still able to understand the meaning behind them
  • Ayer/Hick: maintain their views on verification
5 of 8


  • comparison of 1 more & 1 less complex item to held understanding
  • e.g. God is like a rock
  • univocal vs. equivocal language issue -> Aquinas argues analogy = middle way
  • Aquinas: analogy of proportion & analogy of attribution....
  • proportion = all good qualities belong infinitely to God & also proportionately to humans
  • attribution = God is the cause of all good things in humans -> 'upwards' analogy of attribution
  • therefore we can gain insights into nature of God using analogy
  • Ferre: argues analogy of proportion leaves us with 2 unknowns - no improved understanding of God
  • also argues that proof of God is unattainable - how far will we go in comparing God to other things?
  • Ramsey: models & qualifiers
  • model = words & titles attrubuted to God
  • qualifier = gives model further meaning; qualifies the belief
  • Ross: analogy is not meant to logically prove God - it aims to enhance our understanding only
6 of 8


  • 'object or person which points to an invisible, metaphysical reality & participates in it' -> Tillich
  • sign = 1 dimensional
  • symbol = meaning
  • Tillich: religious language is largely symbolic
  • symbols communicate key beliefs & values -> hold meaning & are difficult to change (e.g. national flag)
  • God = 'ground of being'
  • meanings of symbols CAN be changed though - e.g. Virgin Birth or Swastika (reinterpretation)
  • Dinker-von-Schubert: symbols are important in normal language, therefore it's natural for them to occur in everyday language
  • they identify matters we may not otherwise be able to express/conceive
  • Stephens: our entire perception of the world is symbolic & so we only ever get some information -> religious symbols face same problem
  • Randall: religious language is non-cognitive & non-representative - therefore it may cause confusion
  • to overcome - should focus on FUNCTION not MEANING
  • Edwards: symbols are non-cognitive & therefore meaningless
7 of 8


  • Miller Burrows: 'approximate expression of truth, which the human mind cannot perceive sharply or completely'
  • purpose = to communicate relationship with God, to interpret ultimate reality & to help people gain an insight into diffcult to express concepts
  • origins in Greek/Hellenistic myths
  • Bultmann: myths are outdated & irrelevant in today's society
  • argues Bible should be 'demythologised' to reveal the true 'kerygma'/real truth
  • Max Miller: 'myths are poetic descriptions of natural phenomena' -> idealistic, exaggerated statements
  • De Wette: 'kernel of truth is hidden within myths' - useful for 'historical knowledge' about relationships with God - contextual
  • Strauss: we need to move away from true/false scrutiny....
  • move from a 'story of a MIRACULOUS OCCURENCE' to a 'STORY of a miraculous occurence'
  • i.e. we need to looks at the meaning, not whether the event actually took place
8 of 8




Excellent slideshow, if I were to think of any criticisms I would have to say to add a bit more on mysticism 

Similar Philosophy resources:

See all Philosophy resources »See all Ideas of gods resources »