Religious Language


Religious Language


There are problems expressing the incomprehensible attributes of God within language. The concept of omniscient is impossible for humans to grasp. In other ways, language corresponds with what you describe, but this cannot be true for religious language.

How is it possible to talk about God? How can we explain ‘timeless’ when we live in finite time? Religious terms attempt to refer to things beyond anyone’s experience.

Believers make cognitive assertions about God, and for them, it is essential that religious language is meaningful.

One of the strongest attacks on the arguments for the existence of God. If statements aren’t cognitive (statements that are true or false) then the arguments are meaningless.


Key Definitions

Realist – what makes a statement true or false is whether it corresponds to a state of affairs. Bivalence – statements are either true or false.

·      Naïve realism – statements about God are to be taken literally. To say that God said ‘Let there be light’ is to be understood in terms of God actually speaking.

·      Critical realism -  statements refer to God but not in a literal sense. Metaphorical language is important– God can only be described by indirect means.

Anti-realist – statements which cannot be verified are neither true nor false – there is no truth to be known. Truth is relative to culture and language games. Truth is what coheres within a world view. This is postmodernist – emphasis on subjectivity. Influenced by Existentialism – it’s all about the individual.

Equivocal – the same word is used with a different meaning or is ambiguous

Univocal – the same word is used with exactly the same meaning

Empiricism – the view that knowledge is based on experience through the five senses

Verification principle -  the theory that sentences are only meaningful if they can be verified by the senses.

Falsification principle – the theory that sentences are only meaningful if some evidence can count against them

blik’- a word coined by R.M. Hare to mean a way of looking at the world

Symbol  - something that represents something else and evokes participation

‘myth’ – a symbolic story that tries to explain a fundamental issue about the purpose of existence

language-games’ – a term used by Wittgenstein

Cognitive language – consists of factual statements which are bivalent.

Non-cognitive language – statements cannot be verified, and serve another purpose.

A.J. Ayer (1910-1989)


Schlick – “the meaning of a proposition is its method of verification”.



Part of the Vienna Circle in the 1920s, headed by Schlick. Part of a wider movement known as logical positivism. Cognitive language expresses an empirical state of affairs.

This was influenced by Hume’s Fork – all statements can be divided into Analytic statements (tautologies, true by definition) and Synthetic statements (need to be verified by sense experience). The Vienna Circle shifted the debate from the issue of truth to the issue of meaning. Something can be false


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