Religious Language

  • Created by: Estheexd
  • Created on: 07-03-15 21:00

What is Religious language

Religious language is obviously language that deals with God and other theological matters. It includes terms that we ascribe only to God in their primary context e.g. omnipotent and words about religious beliefs such as last judgement. However, even when we speak of religious issues, we almost always have to use language that comes from our common linguistic and lexical store and this raises problems of a particular kind. How can we use everyday language to speak of the supreme deity? 

It is concerned with speaking about God, beliefs, practises and morality. Religious language can be religious beliefs such as the last judgement, religious terms such as sin and grace or everyday terms with a religious belief such as love. However as we can only talk about god in human terms it becomes difficult to talk about god  and the nature of god which comes to the question is religious language meaningless?

Types of religious language?

·         Cognitive (realist) - This is factual statements which can be proven true or false,  e.g. God exists: God loves us.   Non Cognitive (Anti Realistic) - Religious statements shouldn’t be taken seriously as they only express a religious truth and have no objective universal truth, it makes assertions that are to be interpreted in some other way as symbols, metaphors. It is language that serves some other function than expressing factually, objective claims.

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The problem with religious language

Some people say that religious language is cognitive and that something about god may be known. However there is a problem as religious statements are not objective facts that can be proven true or false so the argument put forth is that if we are unable to validate religious language based on objective facts then religious language is considered meaningless.

However how is God meant to be described if nothing is known about God? Is it right to refer a supreme being using human terminology such as 'he' and 'him it feels as if this type of language anthropomorphise or objectifies God. Using these words limits Gods majesty or power in some way. This has led religious believers to seek a way to talk about God in a meaningful way and non believers to demonstrate that religious language is meaningless

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The Logical Positivist

The Fundamental Principle was that only those propositions which be verified logically or empirically have meaning

'The meaning of a proposition is the method of verification' (Moritz Schlick 1882-1936)

They only accepted two forms of verifiable language

·         Analytical Propositions - by which knowledge is gained through logical reasoning, Propositions that are true by definition

·         Synthetic Propositions - by which knowledge can be proven true or false through sense experience or experiment

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The verification Principle

The verification principle is demonstrating truth by using empirical evidence. Language can only be meaningful if it can be proven by sense observation. For verifificationist language tells us about the way the world is. If it can not be proven right or wrong then they are tautologies (meaningless). An example is 'my car is red' this is meaningful as it can be proven true by sense observation, however 'my car is beautiful' is a subjective opinion therefore it can’t be verified and is a meaningless statement.

A problem with early Verificationists is that the approach was strict and scientific and so it meant that what most people said was proven meaningless despite it making sense. Another problem is statement about history. You could say the battle of Hastings was meaningless as it occur in 1066 and it couldn’t be observed or verified

The theory was developed by logical positivists. The principle was stating that we know the meaning of a statement if we know the conditions under which the statement is true or false. The logical positivists regarded religious language as meaningless because it is used to consider things beyond human experience and this leads to problems in understanding the meaning of any assertions made

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The Verification Principle - A.J. Ayer (1910 - 198

He was a logical positivists and a British philosopher who supported the verification principle. He believed that empirical methods have to be used in order to assess if a proposition is verifiable. A proposition would need to be analysed in order to find out if it is meaningful or not. A physic makes propositions about the universe that might be challenged or proven untrue at some future date however A.J. Ayer considers such propositions meaningful because the physic based his findings on experiments. A scientific theory may not be verifiable 'in practise' but because scientists know to verify a theory then it is verifiable 'in principle'. Ayer decided that a proposition is meaningful if we know how to prove its true or false in either principle or practise, if it can’t be proven then it is meaningless. So therefore according to the logical positivists, as religious propositions cannot be analysed by empirical methods it is meaningless.

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The Verification Principle - A.J. Ayer (1910 - 198

Later, Ayer realised that we can accept some scientific and historical prepositions which have not be verified with certainty. He introduced two forms of the verification principle, 'strong' and 'weak' verification to deal with this problem.

·         Strong verification occurs when there is no doubt that a statement is true as one verifies it with sense experience.  An example could be Mary’s hair is red as you can prove it true or false by visiting Mary

·         Weak Verification is a statement that there are some observations that are relevant to proving a statement true or false for example Columbus discovered America is accepted as true as people affirmed the event at the time.

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A challenge to logical postivism

Many philosophers have rejected the Verification principle. The reasons for this rejections are

·         The principle itself is not meaningful as it cant be verified using the verification principle

·         The logical positivists reject religious language as because there is no way of verifying it, however philosopher John Hick argues that when we die the truth of gods existence will be proven true or false (verified) This is know as the eschatological verification. he is making the point that as we do know how to verify propositions such as Gods exist then religious language is meaningful

·         The 'weak' form of verification can support some religious statements. There is some sense experience that could count towards them. 

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The Falsification Principle

A statement is meaningless if it isn’t falsible. It is concerned with scientific statements. In the 1950s Antony Flew applied the falsification principle to religious language and concluded that religious language is meaningless. Flew argued that there was nothing that can counter argue against religious statements. Religious language can neither be proven true (verified) or false because religious believers do not accept any evidence to count against (falsify) their believes. For example Flew argued that Christians held to their beliefs that God is good, whatever evidence is held against Gods Goodness. The believer gives reasons why God remains good and flew stated that these constant qualifications (excuses) render religious statements meaningless because they die the 'the death of a thousand qualifications' Flew uses John Wisdom's parable of the gardener to prove his point that religious statements are meaningless as a religious believer will allow nothing to counter against his or her beliefs.

The falsification principle differs from the logical positivism:

·         It depends on falsification rather than verification to determine if a statement is meaningful

·         The challenge of the falsification is based not on the language used but on the basic insight that to assert something is deny something else. Flew is asking that the proof of God must be based on what the believer is in a position to know and not just to believe

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The Challange to the Falsification Principle

Flews’ Falsification principle resulted in other philosophers aiming to prove that religious language does have meaning even if it can’t be falsified or verified. Many philosophers argued that the stamens are cognitive as they do not contain facts that can be proven true or false so it is wrong to treat them as such.

·         The falsification principle does not work for all statements but these statements are still meaningful. There are statements that can’t be falsified but yet we can still understand the meaning behind them. Richard Swinburne came up with the example of the toys in the cupboard. We can never prove that the toys do not come out of the cupboard and move around when we are not watching. We might not be able to falsify whether the toys move or not but we still understand the concept of the toys moving

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Religious Language is Equivocal

Religious language is the way human language is able to refer to things beyond their understanding, the infinite. Many Mystics such as St John of the cross believe that is possible to talk about God by not using He is but He is not - the via negativa. Mystics resort to saying what God is not for example saying that God is 'not evil' or 'he is not human' by joining these phrases together people learn about God. Many other philosopher agree that negative prepositions take people nearer to understanding God but they do not think that it helps people understand what God is or say anything about God that is defiantly true.

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Religious Language Is Analogical

It is possible to apply words that describe human qualities and characteristics to help understand God. People need to realise that there is a difference between the way in which a word is used to describe human characteristics and the way in which the same word is applied to God

St Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas argued that we only have our every day language with which to talk about God. We understand that a word when applied to God has a different meaning from its everyday use because we understand that God is perfect therefore we use analogies. An analogy is the comparison between two things, when a similarity between two things is suggested by the use of the same word. Some philosophers rejected the view of Analogies, they argues that an analogy has to have a shared understanding, a basis for comparisons. This isn’t possible when speaking about God because God is beyond Human understanding, so many philosophers believe that the use of analogies within religious language is meaningless. Aquinas disagrees. He argued that there is a relationship between the world and God. God created the world and sustains it so there is a point of comparison. Aquinas developed two forms of analogy to talk about God-



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Analogy of Proportion and attribution

·         Analogy of proportion occurs when a word is used to refer to a quality that a thing has in proportion to the kind of reality is has, for example, A dog is loyal in the way in which dogs are loyal. Humans are loyal in proportion to the loyalty of being a human. similarly we can understand God as all powerful as we have the human idea of power. God is proportionally more powerful than humans so although we cannot completely understand the idea of God's omnipotence we can have an insight into Gods power because of our human experience of power.

·         Analogy of Attribution applied when a term, originally used concerning one thing, is applied to a second thing because the one cause the other.
for example, 'the bread is good' because the baker is good.

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Ian Ramsey - Models and Qualifiers

Ian Ramsey developed the theory of analogy, he refers to models and qualifiers.
model is an analogy to help us express something about God, for example - God is Good. the model is Good. when applied to God it is a model for understanding God's goodness.
Ramsey states that we need to adapt the model to qualify it so that we realise that is not literally what God is like, to the statement 'God is good' we need to add the Qualifier 'infinitely'. this will make us think of God's goodness in greater depth until we have a better insight into God's goodness. we will then respond with awe and wonder.

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Paul Tillich - Religious Language is metaphorical

An argument that supports the idea of religious language being meaningful is through Metaphors and Symbols. This way we are helped towards an understanding of God.
Paul Tillich believed that it’s through metaphors and symbols that religious language communicates religious experiences.
Religious language tries to interpret that experience and it is therefore-
1) closer to poetry than prose
2) mythical, heroic and imaginable
3) evocative of the experience it seeks to describe.
He believed that religious language is symbolic because it 'opens up' new levels of reality.
He argued that symbols go beyond the external world to when he described as their 'integral reality.'
Religious symbols open up levels of reality which otherwise were closed to us.
When the bible speaks of 'the kingdom of God'. We understand a kingdom on earth, and by thinking of an earthly kingdom, we can go beyond to understand the ultimate reality of the power in the universe that is God. He believed that a symbol unlocks dimensions and elements of our soul.
Tillich suggest that this power of symbols to direct ways of thinking changes through time. This is because the impact and meaning of words change, and the symbol is no longer able to direct us towards what concerns us ultimately as it did in the past

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·         A symbol is “a pattern or object which points to an invisible metaphysical reality and participates in it”

·         Symbols can be pictorial, abstract, verbal or active (a symbolic action) so for example the cross immediately identifies for believers the death of Jesus, but it does more than simply point to it in a factual way.

·         It participates in it by bringing to the believers consciousness what Jesus death signifies: salvation from sin, sacrifice and atonement, victory over death, the defeat of Satan

·         Paul Tillich used the example of a national flag as a symbol which conveys nationalism, patriotism and national identity.

·         Symbols express what the believer feels about what the symbols conveys. Signs are to do with fact whereas symbols transcend facts and should not be interpreted literally.

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The function of Symbols

  • The functions include-
  • 1) Identifying the concept that they are conveying
  • for example, the use of water in Christian baptism conveys the concept of cleansing the individual of Sin.
  • 2) Sharing in some way the meaning of that concept.
  • for example, Baptism participates in the Christian belief that through the sacrifice of Jesus it is possible to remove original sin.
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Arguments opposing religious language as symbolic

  • Tillich argued that symbols direct people to things beyond the symbol and can lead to revelations about one's faith. However the truth of revelation cant be verified or falsified using empirical evidence. Edwards therefore did not believe that symbols convey any factual knowledge.
  • Some philosophers that the use of symbols might not be appropriate. there is no way of knowing which religious symbols are appropriate to transfer the ultimate truth through things, persons or events.
  • Tillich stated that symbols can lose their value over time. some philosophers would argue that this means it loses its original meaning over time and the meanings convayed may have changed from what was originally intended.
  • a symbol is intended to point the way to understanding something but some philosophers argue that it is not possible for religious symbols to successfully point the way to that which is beyond human experience. we dont know if symbols give the wrong idea off about God and there is no way of knowing. symbols are about the real world. yet Tillich doesnt apply symbols to an objective reality, and this might lead to a missunderstanding of the way in which religious symbols are understood.
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Religious Language as a myth

  •         Myths are story’s that use symbol, metaphor and allegory to convey a religious truth.
  •       The story isn’t true although a religious truth is conveyed.
  •      Many Christians believe the Old Testament (especially the book of genesis) is a myth.

The distinctive use of symbolic language

  •       They convey ideas beyond our own understanding.
  •      Metaphors are often used to help convey the meaning behind the story as can be seen in creation myths that seek to explain the origin of the universe (created by God.)
  •      Myths convey understanding of how things came about - these are called Aetiological myths and these can be used as examples of how myths are used to convey religious truths.

Aetiological myths

  • Provide foundation ideas for religious approaches.
  •  Creation myths are amongst man kind's earliest attempts to explain some of the most profound questions about the nature and origin of the universe.
  • There are common themes included in myths.
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Myths embody and express claims that cant be expressed in any other way, frequently making use of symbol, metaphor and imagery in a narrative context. Myths are stories that use symbol, metaphor an allegory to convey a religious truth. The story itself is not true but through the story, a religious truth is conveyed.

Myths are another distinctive use of symbolic religious language to convey ideas beyond our own understanding. Metaphors are often used within the myth to help convey the meaning behind the story. Myths that convey understanding of how things came about are called aetiological myths and these can be used a examples of how myths are used as a means of conveying religious ‘truths’.

Aetiological myths

These myths provide foundation ideas for religious approaches. Most belief systems include creation myths to explain the origin of the universe. Creation myths are amongst mankind’s earliest attempts to explain some of the most profound questions about the nature and origin of the universe.

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Myth (2)

For religious people a myth communicate a particular world view- a set of values and beliefs. Myths are important as the communicate truths. Peter Vardy has observed the same ideas and values are communicated in myths all over the world. This includes creation stories, stories of virgin births and of great floods. Myths for Christians today communicate response to questions of God, creation and religious questions. Myths are not concerned with the literal truth of the story.  This creates debate among Christians on which stories are myths and which are truths.

Rudolph Bultmann carried out work on the New Testament. He attempted to remove supernatural view of the world including miracles.  However this was stopped because it was conclude that the significance of the myth was the values and beliefs behind them. The truths are expressed through the story therefore they cannot be separated.

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Wittgenstein's Language Games

  • ·         Ludwig Wittgenstein originally supported the logical positivists but came to reject the verification principle.
  • ·         he said that the meaning of words is in their use, the function they perform as agreed by the particular group or society using them.
  • ·         he pointed out that each activity has its own language for example, language in a toolbox- hammer, pliers, a screwdriver etc. and each of the functions of these words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.
  • ·         the items in the toolbox are all tools but without knowing the different roles of each tool, understanding is only superficial.
  • ·         Wittgenstein regarded this kind of language rather like a game with its own set of rules.
  • ·         People in the game will be unable to understand the use of the language
  • ·         for example, without knowing the purpose of the tools in the toolbox we cannot be a builder. if people do not understand the language then it will seem to be meaningless.
  • ·         religious belief has its own language.
  • ·         a non-believer will find religious language meaningless because they are not in the religious language game. but an outsider cannot claim that the language used in a particular game really is meaningless just because it doesn’t make sense to them.
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Criticisms of Language Games

  • if people in diffferent faiths are playing their own language game, how is it possible for there to be discussion between the different faith traditions about God?
  • Religious believers are involved with other language games because they are involved in other aspects of life. this shows that religious language isnt completely isolated. there are common grounds between religious language and other 'language games.' the common ground means non believers are able to understand religious language and decide whether it has meaning for them.
  • non believers may be able to understand religious language better than believers. this is because non believers have an objective vew of the use of religious language.
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