Religious Language

Verification Principle

The verification principle, as proposed by A.J Ayer, states that something cannot be held to be meaningful until it can be scientifically verified. If something cannot be experience through the senses, it cannot be verified - so Ayer would argue that God cannot be verified analytically or synthetically - so surely religious language is meaningless?

  • Keith Ward attacks this point, saying that just because we can't verify God, it doesn't mean he isn't verifiable "If I were God I could verify my own existence"
  • However, this relies heavily on the assumption of God in the first place 

John Hick argued that we can verify the afterlife in principle. Referring to heaven as the "Celestial City" Hick argued that once we reach this place, we can verify the afterlife - eschatelogical verification

  • However, if heaven doesn't exist in reality, how can it be verified at all?
  • Relies on the assumption of the afterlife 
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Verification Principle - Criticisms

  • It cannot verify itself - or even prove that it exists. How can we take the theory seriously when the theory doesn't apply to the theory itself? 
  • Richard Holder - gives an example of polar bears to illustrate his criticism. He argues that the verification principle would stte that all polar bears are white, therefore non-white objects cannot be polar bears. Verification logic suggests that a brown chimpanzee, for example, proves that all polar bears are white. He calls this ridiculous and illogical 
  • Karl Popper simply argues that we cannot scientifically verify everything 
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Falsification Principle

The falsification principle was set up as an attack on the verification principle and essentially argues the opposite. It states that we must take something to be true until we have sufficient evidence to falsify it. 

Anthony Flew argues that the falsification principle, and states that it actively renders religious language meaningless. He calls the falsification of God "death by a thousand qualifications." He states that we try to qualify God so much, he comes meaningless. It is impossible to reconclide God with issues such as the problem of evil; so for Flew, God is falsified and thus meaningless. 

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Falsification Principle - Main Criticism

Some people attack the falsification principle by arguing that science can never disprove God because God isn't measurable in scientific terms - science is limited 

R.B Braithwaite criticises the principle, arguing that religious language is meaningful because it is prescriptive - it recommends a course of action. So, for example, the phrase "God loves me" has meaning because it advises you to live your life in a loving way. 

Richard Swinburne also attacks the theory, using the example of the toys in the cupboard. he says that if toys came alive in your bedroom, you wouldn't know - so it cannot be falsified. Perhaps we can't falsify God because we don't know enough about him. 

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Hare and Bliks

In a more significant attack on the falsification principle, R.M Hare proposed his concept of bliks. According to Hare, a blik is simply how you view something. 

He uses the example of a student who thinks his teacher will kill him but he has no evidence. Just because there is no evidence to support his claim, it doesn't mean that his blik - his attitude - is meaningless. 

Bliks are non-rational and cannot be falsified because they are groundless (aka they are based on no rational or reasonable grounds). Yet Hare argues that even though they can't be falsified, they are still meaningful to those who believe in them.

Hick took Hare's view and applied it directly to religion. He said that there are sane and insane bliks, but one cannot distinguish between the two. The judgement that religion is insane is merely based on a whim

  • Basil Mitchell objects the the view that religious claims are groundless bliks, and states that it is grounded on valid reasoning. He says that just because God may seem like a resistace leader who occassionally appears to help the enemy (aka allows suffering) the power of faith is stronger than the evidence against God - so religious language is meaingful 
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Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstien, an anti-realist, comes into his own category. He argued that language creates imagery, and so may be meaningful in his picture theory of meaning. Certain words are associated with certain images, and these images help us understand language itself. He said "Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use." 

Language Games: We all use words differently - considering Wittgenstein is an anti-realist, we have to remember that he believes words have subjective meanings. Certain words are only of use to certain groups who understand the purpose of the word. e.g in the Christian group, the word God is meaningful because it means something to them, it is coherent. This comes under Wittgenstein's coherence theory of truth - that something has meaning if it is coherent to you. 

So does that mean that the word God is only meaningful to Christians? Not necessarily, no. Wittgenstein actually argues that "God" is meaningful to atheists in terms of language as well as believers. To one group it means existence, to other, non-existence. 

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D.Z Phillips

A more modern advocate of Wittgenstein's philosophy is reductionist D.Z Phillips. 

Phillips, however, argued that philosophy and religion are two different groups, and as a result both have different definitions of God. Phillips plainly states that because the definitions are different, toy cannot be a part of both 

  • But there are tonnes of religious philosophers... so surely you can be part of both groups?

As a reductionist, Phillips aims to reduce everything down to the simplest possible explanation. He argues that statements such as "God exists" are not factual - they are merely expressions of belief. "Talk about God's reality cannot be considered as talk about the existence of an object."

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Criticisms of Wittgenstein/D.Z Phillips

  • They fail to understand what believers mean by the word God 
  • They unfairly rule out God's existence 
  • They don't allow for cross-linking between groups
  • Their views don't allow for athiest conversions, when we know that such conversions happen. 
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Paul Tillich argues that religious language is symbolic, not literal. He said that symbols are something that we can all participate in, citing a flag as an example - we participate in the feeling of unity surrounding certain national flags. 

He said that symbols do 4 things in particular: 1) they point to something beyond themselves 2) they participate in that to which they point to 3) they open up levels of reality whic are usually closed to us and 4) they open up dimensions of the soul 

Tillich simply called this "the theory of participation." He argued that symbols help describe things that cannot always be expressed in words alone. The only way we can describe God in a meaningful way is through the use of symbols. e.g the cross is symbolic, and symbolises God's love for humanity, love and forgiveness, prayer and worshup and Jesus' sacrifice. 

Tillich said that God was the ultimate symbol, calling him "the ground of our being." He also argues that symbols can change and die out thanks to time and culture. An example for this is the fact that, because Jews used to sacrifice lambs, Jesus was seen as the lamb of God. This symbol was meaningful to them, but lost its meaning as time went on. 

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J. Randall agrees with Tillich, calling religious language symbolic and non-cognitive (cannot be proven). He argues that religious language does 4 things:

  • Arouses emotion and makes people act
  • Stimulates and inspires community action 
  • Allows someone to express experiences non-literally 
  • Clarifies our experience of God - ICE (inspire, clarify and express emotions) 

Randall called God an intellectual symbol and called him - "a ripple of imagination

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Criticisms of Symbols

John Hick criticised Tillich's idea of participating, calling it unclear - he argued that there is little different between a symbol and a sign 

William Alston argues that symbols are meaningless because we don't know whether they are true or not 

Paul Edwards argues that symbols are meaningless because they cannot be verified or falsified thanks to their subjective nature "it doesn't convey any facts." 

John Macquarrie criticises Tillich but he does not criticise symbols. Macquarrie is an advocate of religious symbology, but suggests that there is no difference between a symbol and a sign. In the phrase "cloud are a sign of rain" e.g. the clouds are both a sign and a symbol of rain - we can't differentiate between the two.  Macquarrie instead proposesd the existential response, whereby he said that symbols and signs link to human existence. E.g. water cleanses us, so water is often used symbolically to be seen as cleansing. He also argued for the similarity of relation, which is basically the use of analogy - shephers look after sheep just like God looks after us. 

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Aquinas argued that religious language is best understod through the use of analogy. He criticised univocal and equivocal language 

Univocal - words have one objective meaning (but when we say God is holy and we are holy it doesn't mean the same thing - we don't speak univocally in terms of religion)

Equivocal - words have subjective meanings (but this means there is no objective meaning to words such as "love" which Aquinas calls meaningless) 

Analogy of Attribution - states that our goodness comes directly from God. This is best highlighted with the analogy of a barker and bread. A load of bread is good because the baker is good - the attributes of the baker caused the attributes of the bread, even though the 2 doesn't necessarily share the 2 attributes. Similarly, God's attributes cause our attributes - our gooness comes from him. We don;t know what it means for God to be good, but we know he is good because we see it in ourselves. 

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Analogy of Proportion - to understand the nature of God, it is best to use the analogy of proportion. This states that there is a proportionate relationship between all things. E.g. - God has life; Humans have life; Plants have life. We understand that plants as being "alive" in a sense, but taht doesn't compare to how we define ourselves as alive. Similarly, God's life is greater than ours; all things must be understod in proportion to one another 

Ian Ramsey supports Aquinas' idea of using analogies in religious language. Ramsey argues that 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 qualifuing our terms, we can use analogies to express God 

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Criticism of Analogy

Some argue that by using analogy we lose the meaning and purpose behind what we are trying to communicate - so perhaps it is meaningless as opposed to meaningful 

St. Paul argued that we cannot accurately express God - even through analogy - until we "see" him 

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Via Negativa

The via negative is what Aquinas is what originally attacked with his use of analogy is religious lanauge. 

Put forward by Pseudo-Dionysius, via negative is the belief that words limit our understanding of a transcendent God - he is so vastly different to what we know that human terms limit him. Therefore, instead of saying what God is, PDA states that we should state what God isn;t (which is why words such as immortal, immutable and timeless are often used) in order to come closer to understanding God. Positive terms may be misleading, because they are rooted in our language. For PDA, "God is beyond assertion" "beyong every limitation." No matter how rational we are, we cannot rationalise God. 

Moses Maimonides argess with PDA, arguing that religious language is meaningful when used negatively. He used the example of a ship - by describing what the ship isn't, we get closer to understanding what the ship is. 

  • Brian Davies criticises this point, saying that by eliminating negatives we have no idea whether what remains is God or not 
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Strengths and Weaknesses of Via Negativa


  • It isn't misleading, whereas positive language may be 
  • It avoids being too anthropomorphic and focuses more on a transcendent God 
  • It applies to every culture in every time, unlike symbols and analogies 
  • It doesn't limit God and allows for what William James calls the "mystical approach"


  • Flew - the negatives amount to nothing - we are told nothing of God 
  • Maimonides' ship example has been criticise because it compares God to an inanimate object rooted in human understanding 
  • Negative statements aren't helpful or useful in describing things 
  • For religious believers, via negativa contradicts certain statements in holy scripture that describe God positively 
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John Macquarrie, who argued for symbols but criticised Tillich, also argued for the use of myths. He said that religious language is rooted in the language of mythology, and said that myths are ways of trying to explain something through the use of story telling - a fictional story conveying an objective truth. 

Macquarrie argues that there are different types of myths in the Bible alone, such as creation myths (Adam and Eve), good v evil myths (heaven/hell), birth myths (Virgin Mary) and so on. But do these myths truly convey objective truths. 

Emile Durkheim argues that myths are constructs of society, not objective realities. He states that myths change as societies change; they reflect the values of society at the time.

  • So do myths have an objective truth or are they constructs of society? The argument goes both ways 
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Religiously, myths convey values and beliefs and give insight into human existence. In many cases, they also tell people how they should behave (such as the example of Adam & Eve sinning in the Garden of Eden) 

Jaspers advocates myths, and says that they: 1) express intuitive insights - something that you just know, such as the fact that God will take care of you, 2) are stories about God not external realities - the events aren't necessarily real and 3) carry meaning 

Rudolf Bultmann states that the Bible isn't literal, and argues for the understanding of Biblical stories as myths. Bultmann says we must demythologies stories in order to separate truth from myth. This way we can find true meaning in myths, which makes religious language meaningful. e.g. he argues that Jesus walking on water, once demythologised, has the meaning of helping others through difficult times. 

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Bergson doesn't believe in myths and argues that they are defence reactions against the fear of death. However, he said this in a positive sense, arguing that they are a good way of dealing with death. 

Bishop John Robinson "The Myth of God Incarnate" called the idea of a transcendent God a myth, and said that God exists within people's minds 

Similarly priest Don Cupitt calls God a myth, saying that "God is construct of the mind" "God is a religious ideal" 

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