Religious language


Basic principle: Religious language talks about religious and spiritual concepts such as the nature of God and the afterlife; things outside our senses. Some people argue that it is possible to speak meaningfully, truthfully and factually about these issues (e.g. Aquinas) others argue that it is not (e.g. Ayer).

Basic tools for debate:

Inductive or deductive? An inductive conclusion is one based upon sense information, a deductive conclusion is one based upon reason alone.

Analytic or synthetic? An analytic statement is one that is true by definition (‘blue is a colour’) a synthetic statement is true according to evidence (‘it’s raining outside’).

You also need to consider the value of symbol, myth, metaphor and analogy and whether or not these convey a different type of truth to that which is purely factual.


Those opposed:

Logical Positivists: The Vienna circle, inspired by the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (‘whereof I cannot know, thereof I cannot speak’). Group who believed that the only meaningful statements were analytic or synthetic. Religious language is meaningless.

AJ Ayer: Verification Principle; the truth of a statement lies in the method of its verification. Spin-off emotivism: ethical statements are just statements of emotion, not fact.

Antony Flew: Falsification Principle: a statement must be open to challenge to be meaningful; religious people deny challenges to statements of God’s existence; they are therefore meaningless.


Those in favour:

Thomas Aquinas: analogy: Rejected univocal and equivocal language, claimed that analogical language could be used meaningfully to refer to God. Three type of analogy: attribution, proper proportion, improper proportion. Has an empirical starting point: the world from which we can gain understanding of God’s goodness.

John Hick: eschatological verification: the truth of statements about God will be revealed at the end of time/in the afterlife.

Paul Tillich: language as symbol: religious language operates in the same way as symbols; it points to a spiritual reality. Symbolic language also has a profound effect upon people and opens up


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