Religious Language

Religious Language

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  • Created by: john doe
  • Created on: 11-04-12 13:22

Problems & Types of language

Problems with Religious Language;

- Language is not big enough for everyone to understand it and mean the same thing.

- Words are based on scientific understanding which cannot be applied to God.

Types of language;

- Cognitive - Sentences which can be proven

- Non Cognitive - conveys facts but cannot be proven

- Analytic statements - true by definition

- Synthetic propositions - need to be confirmed

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Verification Principle

A.J. Ayer

- Logical Positivists (influenced by Wittgenstein, Vienna circle 1920's)


- Any statement not empirically or logically verifiable is meaningless

- Any statement which cannot be proved true or false is meaningless

- Religious language is thus meaningless as there is no way to demonstrate the truth or falsity of 'God - talk'.

- 'meaningless' = no factual significance

- Analytical statements however are meaningful

- Some statements are meaningful to a person e.g. God loves me, but has no literal significance.

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Verification Principle Cont'd

Practical verifiability

- Statements trusted in reality

Verifiability in principle

- Something which is verifiable in principle but not in practice

Strong verification

- Anything verifiable conclusively by observation

Weak verification

- Shown to be probable by observation

Strong verification had 'no probable application'

Ayer rejects religious experience as evidence as it only raises psychological points

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Verification Principle Cont'd

Ayer realized that his weak and strong definitions are unacceptable as strong cannot be applied and weak is "far to literal".

He then suggested new criterea;

Direct - An observation statement

Indirect - A statement that can be verified as other directly verifiable statements support it. (e.g. black holes)

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Criticisms of V.P.

1) The verification principle itself cannot be verified

2) Hick's escatological v.p. suggests that religion talk is not meaningless as it's truth is verifiable in principle if there is life after death, you can verify it when you die.

3) Difficulty knowing what evidence is admissible especially with weak verification. Ayer rejects religious experience as evidence whereas others suggest allowed.

4) it is possible for a statement to be meaningful and unverifiable

5) Schrödinger's cat - cat in a box, you don't know the cat is alive but if you open the box the cat dies by a radioactive source, but it is still meaningful whilst remaining unverifiable.

6) Swinburne's toys in a cupboard, they come alive when you are not there, thus still meaningful yet unverifiable.

7) Popper's falsification principle.

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The University Debate - Falsification Principle (F

Based on Popper's idea that something can only have meaning or be valid if it has something that counts against it. ‘Religious statements die a death of a thousand qualifications’, There is nothing to prove religion wrong, religious believer don't allow anything to falsify their beliefs.

- Gardener analogy of God (suggests that religious believers refuse to let their beliefs be falsified. Instead, when questioned religious believers qualify their beliefs - refuse to believe that their beliefs are irrational.) - explorers in a jungle analogy.

‘God loves all humans’, from this you could say that God allowed a small child to develop incurable cancer and have an awful death, as a result you could use this as evidence to falsify the claim therefore it has meaning. HOWEVER from this religious believers often carry on to say that ‘God loves humans in an inscrutable way, a way different to how we love’ this then has no meaning because it does not allow anything to falsify it

Flew then challenged both R.M.Hare and Basil Mitchell to say what would have to occur to constitute for you a disprove of the love of God? To say ‘nothing’ would be to fall into his trap that religious statements cannot be falsified. 

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The University Debate - RM Hare

What Flew doesn’t realise is that people have different levels of falsification. Not everyone has the same ’blik’.

Blik - A statement which cannot be verified or falsified and describes the way people see and interpret the world.

Parable of lunatic ( used to show that Bliks may be seen to show the sane and insane people. there are no sense- observations available to everyone that will resolve conflicting bliks. If religious beliefs are bliks it suggests that religious beliefs are an interpretation of the world which could be seen as either sane or insane).

Flew makes the mistake of treating religious statements as scientific statements.


- Flew responds saying that religious statements are meant to be a factual statement

- Who is to say what is a sane or insane blik?

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The University Debate - Basil Mitchell

The Partisan and the stranger.( suggests that religious beliefs are potentially statements about how the world is; if this is correct, it means that religious belief statements are as meaningful as any claim about how things are in the world is potentially falsifiable.)

Believers are not blind to the problems; Religious language does have meaning but in a different sort of way.

Religious believers do not discredit any objections but instead they do have a prior commitment to faith.

‘Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’. Their faith is stronger than any of the criticisms thrown at them

Flew responds by pointing out that religious believers are not allowing experience to falsify their beliefs and so the qualify or change their original beliefs.

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Via Negativa

Maimonides & Dionysius

Cannot talk about what God is because it anthropomorphises him, can only say what he is not.

"there is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it"

3 states;

- V.N.

- Bible leads to understanding, but is limited

- 'beyond', God is beyond good


- Saying what something is not does not lead to what it is

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Analogy & Attribution


- Through Analogy we gain a deeper understanding of what God is

Univocal language - The word has the same meaning all the time

Equivocal language - Different meanings in different contexts

Aquinas saw that all good humans came from God thus they can be related to him.

Analogy of Attribution

- God is the cause of all goodness

- human goodness is reflective of God's goodness (whilst of course God's goodness is greater)

- Davies; The bread is good thus the baker is good

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Analogy of Proportion & Models/Qualifiers

Analogy of Proportion

- The quality is proportional to what that object is

- God is good in terms of what he is, we can attribute this to humans but in a proportionally different sense

Models & Qualifiers 

Ian Ramsey

- Take a human attribute and then ascribe it to God

- A model is the quality being described in a lower form

- A qualifier is when you back up the model you just proposed

e.g. God is perfectly just

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Wittgenstein Language Games

Didn't agree with V.P. as words can have meaning dependant on their use. In a particular game you agree to the use of language that only someone from that game can use, if you are not part of the language game then you cannot understand the language used in the game because you don't understand the 'grammar'.You also cannot learn anything about a game that you are not in.

Felicity McCulcheon; draws parallels between games and language, every different game you play has a different set of rules. You need to go by the rules in order to play the game correctly.


- If one is outside of the game they may know more about the game than those in the game (Scholars)

- What happens if someone used to be in the game but is now not.

- To suggest you cannot learn about another game raises two points, Religious conversion & how anyone became a part of their game to begin with.

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Signs & Symbols


- Symbol - something that evokes participation in the intended meaning

- Sign - Pointing you toward something

- Motivational - to fire up emotions

- Social - A common social understanding

- Communicative - expressing faith better than rel. language

Religious language is symbolic and symbols communicate something which is often difficult to put into words.

Religious statements are symbolic but are nevertheless cognitive statements. A symbol participates in that which it points.

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Criticism of Tillich

1) ideas too vague

2) If religious statements are not literal then what merit do they have

3) John Hick; Tillich never explains how the idea of participation works. Tillich would argue that the statement ‘God is good’ is symbolic. Hick asks how the symbol of God being good participates in ‘being itself’?

4) Don Cupitt; religious language should not just be seen as benign the metaphysical as it’s about the things that we experience. This means that problems with religious language disappear as it is not seen as beyond experience.

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