Religious Language

Religious Language A2 for the developments paper 2012

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  • Created by: Lauren
  • Created on: 30-04-12 11:58


  • concerned with speaking about God, & what & why people believe
  • encompasses dogma, doctrine, worship, morality, & words unique to God (omnipotent)
  • not adequate to speak of transcendent God - may be impossible

Religious language can be:

Cognitive = factual statements that can be proved E.g. 'the Queen is the head of state', & that contain factual content E.g. 'God exists'; Flew called them "crypto commands"

Non-cognitive = not factual, to be understood in other ways E.g. symbols, metaphors, myths; express religious truth in religious community E.g. 'Jesus is the lamb of God'; not universal & depend on context

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Verification Principle - can religious language be

  • = is a way of determining if valid; stems from Logical Positivists, group of philosophers in Vienna, 1920s
  • said language can only be meaningful if verifiable by sense experiences & meets 1 of 3 criteria:
    • Analytic statements - a priori; true by definition & contain own verification
    • Mathematical statements - always right, & any inconsistencies are human error
    • Synthetic statements - a posterior; statements verified/falsified through observation, & included theoretical statements that may be proven in the future
  • Vienna circle concluded religious statements are meaningless - don't fit any of criteria & are subjective so cannot be tested
  • Ayer - said God is a metaphysical term & his existence cannot be rationally demonstrated so has no literal significance; any statement with the word God in is meaningless
  • "Notion of a being whose essential attributes are non-empirical is not an intelligible notion at all"
  • Also dismissed talk of afterlife & soul, & experience - "interesting from psychological pov"
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Criticisms of Verification Principle

Many statements are meaningful: 

  • that express opinions/emotions like love
  • ethical/moral statements on which can establish secular & religious laws
  • laws of science cannot be absolutely verified
  • historical statements cannot be verified by sense experience
  • verification principle itself cannot be verified by own criterion
  • Bryan McGee - "People began to realise that this glittering new scalpal was, in one operation after another, killing the patient"
  • Ayer addressed these criticisms - proposed strong (no doubt) & weak (strong likelihood of truth) form - "possible for experience to render it possible"
  • Still unverifiable b. refers to transcendent being, however:
    • Ward - said God can be verified as "can check the truth of our won existence" 
    • Hick - since many religious language claims historical, can be meaningful, E.g. resurrection; also illustrated in Parable of Celestial City, where 2 people on road, 1 believed led nowhere, other to heaven, believed either experienced trials or random chance, but will find out at the end (eschatological verification)
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Falsification Principle

  • Flew - argued religious statements meaningless b. nothing to count against them; believers so convinved of truth refuse to consider contrary evidence
  • Therefore, religious language "dies a death of a thousand qualifications"
  • Asks "What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love or existence of God?"
  • If nothing is allowed to count against it, then the claims mean nothing
  • highlighted this with Wisdom's - Parable of the Gardener = plants among weeds suggest gardener, but never seen; must come at night, but would have removed weeds; but has design so gardener must be invisible - but what is the difference between invisible/intangible gardener & no gardener at all?
  • Said believers also avoid evidence with phrases like 'God moves in mysterious ways'
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Alternatives to Falisification principle

Some think Flew too extreme & offered alternatives:

  • Hare - notion of 'bliks', "ways of regarding world which are in principle neither verifiable or falsifiable"; religious language used to express concepts important to them
  • Mitchell - in Parable of Partisan & Stranger, partisan believes stranger is secret leader of resistance movement despite appearing to act against it; religious believers can accept beliefs can be questioned but continue to believe anyway, called such beliefs 'significant articles of faith'
  • Braithwaite - argues religious language is about the way people should behave towards each other, & is therefore meaningful b. expresses intention to follow certain codes of behaviour
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Three Ways of Speaking about God

Via Negativa

  • Says can know truth by speaking negatively - principle of negation
  • Used by Dionysius in 'Mystical Theology'; rule out what is not to discover what is
  • Avoids pitfalls of inadequate human language to describe God
  • Cole - "unbelief & scepticism" can be avoided
  • Criticisms:
    • Reduces divinty of God to level of human language
    • Saying 'not something' is irrational & makes it more problematic
    • Negation means no meaningful statements (a failure for believers) & is difficult to distinguish between theism & atheism
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Univocal Language

  • Using words in an everyday sense (E.g. God's love same as human love)
  • Possible to understand God b. understand our own terms
  • Hume - "wisdom, thought, design & knowledge we can justly attribute to God because these words are honourable among men"
  • Criticisms:
    • Problems with anthropomorphism - unable to differentiate between God & humans
    • Aquinas - "no name belongsa to God that belongs to creatures"

Equivocal Language

  • Same word with different meaning or vague/ambiguous use of term E.g. when refer to 'good', is different from human goodness
  • Can stress distinctiveness of God's qualities & avoid anthropomorphism
  • Criticisms:
    • Makes Goid so different becomes difficult to understand him
    • Aquinas - "nothing could be known about God at all"
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Analogical Language

  • Aquinas - criticised all 3 ways, led him to develop Doctrine of Analogy = compromise & way of resolving problems caused by 3 ways & enables us to speak meaningfully
  • God not like other beings but can reason in non-literal way
  • We can be compared to God to describe his nature - uses & applies human terms but not in identical way - similar but God's infinitely superior
  • 'Gradation to be found in things' - all things came from God first so humanity is analogously related; all positive qualities belong to God in more perfect ways & we can understand God through experience of our human qualities
  • "there must be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness & every other perfection" - Aquinas said was God
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2 types of Analogy:

  • Analogy of Proportionality - all good qualities belong infinitely to God & in proportion to humans, & not fully but can begin to understand God
  • Analogy of Attribution - view God is the cause of all good things in humans & therefore God's attributes are simply higher level of our own
  • Hick - 'upwards analogy' E.g. animals faithful to humans, humans faithful to God; 'downwards analogy' E.g. God has wisdom, human wisdom merely pale reflection
  • Ramsey - models & qualifiers approach; model is an analogy E.g. good, & apply to God & gives us a model to understand
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Symbolic Language

  • Symbol = something that identifies a concept that it is referring to & also participates in the meaning of that concept
  • Erika Winkler-von Schubert - defined as "pattern or object which points to an invisible metaphysical reality & participates in it"
  • Not like signs (only factual info), as express what believer feels about what symbol conveys E.g. Cross in Christianity = death & resurrection of JC, & salvation, sacrifice & hope (have special significance in most religions)
  • Can be pictures/ objects/ actions, & includes metaphors/ similes/ signs/ myths
  • Is always non-cognitive language (goes beyond normal understanding); & should not be interpreted literally - are subtle modes of communication beyond the factual & objective
  • Statements can include - 'The lord is my shepherd' & 'Jesus is the light of the world' 
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Cont. & Criticisms

  • Tillich - supported symbolic language; claimed was positive way of expressing nature of God in terms of 'ground of our being'; can express the ultimate b. transcends the capacity of any infinite reality to express it directly
  • Ward - "God is that mysterious depth which is mediated in certain symbols & events in our lives"


  • Open to interpretation
  • Can become trivialised & meaning is lost E.g. Sabbath day now just another working day
  • Focus on worship is lost E.g. Relics of Saints
  • Can become outdated E.g. 'Father' considered patriarchal; Tillich - "necessary to rediscover so is understandable in our time"
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  • = A story/ narrative that expresses a truth when it is not known for certain what happened
  • Uses symbols, metaphors & imagery
  • Explains the unexplained with symbolism & imagery, E.g. Creation story, Noah's Ark, the Birth story (where shepherds presented ordinary people, & the men who studied stars represented the rich; Gold = kingship, Frankincense = smoke offered in sacrifice, Myrhh = embalming lotion } all predictions of Jesus) = all attempts by biblical writers to explain what they did not know for certain
  • Burrows - "myth is a symbolic, approximate expression of truth which the human mind cannot perceive sharply...but only glimpse vaguely, & therefore cannot adequately express"
  • Purpose of myths - convey concepts which go beyond ideas of true/false, express 'other wordly' & describe eschatological events E.g. 2nd coming of Jesus
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  • Outdated - deals with anachronistic concepts
  • Strauss - way to deal with this was to shift focus of myth from the story of miraculous occurrence, to the story of a miraculous occurrence (in first, assumed objectively true narrative expressed; in second, religious truth but not actually tru, only cvonveys a message)
  • Bultman - religious language should be de-mythologised b. no value in them at all & impossible for modern humans to believe outdated stories, although there is still truth to be extracted once the myth is stripped away
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OTOH - some argue in support of myth:

  • Religious language is anti-realist so not concerned with true/false statements
  • Rogerson - "Because myths have birth not in logic but in intuitions of tyranscendence, they are of value to traditions that seek to describe the actions of the other worldy in the present world"
  • Vardy - "'God exists' is true...because the phrase has a use & purpose within the form of life of the believing community"
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Language Game Theory

  • Movement away from notion language is just concerned to describe/ picture things
  • Wittgenstein - in 'Philosophical Investigations' advocated functional theory of meaning (words part of anti-realist/post modern approach)
  • Not meant to be true/false for everyone, only those within that form of life E.g. Science/Art
  • All language is a game - words/language used within context context of a subject area
  • Language game non-cognitive (communicates meaning to players in same game); people's lives compartmentalised/ has different facets
  • Language can be be in/correctly used in game, but primary purpose not to make factual statements
  • Player of one game cannot criticise/ enter another game without learning rules first b. each game has own 'criteria of coherence'
  • Said Religious Language is meaningful when understood within context of own language game - is a category mistake when those who don't play game misunderstand it E.g. scientist tries to find soul as physical object = "a blunder too big"
  • Vardy - "In this way of thinking, God exists...but not as a creator who is distinct from the world...God is instead a reality within the believing community"
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Advantages & Weaknesses


  • Highlights non-cognitive nature of religious language & distinguishes it
  • Provides boundaries for correct use of language & believers can be initiated into rules
  • Language games defend language against criticisms from other forms of life


  • Do not allow for believers claims to be empirically tested
  • Alienates those outside the game - rules cannot be changed to let outsiders in
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  • No single theory that satisfies everyone
  • Highly complex & although no definitive turth, offers revealing insights into nature of human existence & quest to find God

Vardy - "In finding the value of religious language, the individual finds God. Believers do not discover religious truths - they make them"

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