2009 Specimen paper – Religious language

a) i) Explain what is meant by verification and falsification in the context of religious language. [18]
ii) Evaluate their criticisms of religious language. [12]


i) The verification principle was dreamed up by the Logical Positivists to support their claim that religious language is meaningless. The idea is that unless an assertion or claim can be verified by one or more of the five senses then it is unverifiable. They went on to divide statements into 3 groups: either analytic (true by definition e.g. all bachelors are unmarried men), synthetic (verifiable by testing e.g. it is raining outside) or mathematic (2+2 = 4.)

This principle was then appealed to when assessing the meaningfulness of theists’ statements or assertions about God. For example the claim ‘God exists’ falls into none of the categories of meaningful statements and is therefore regarded as meaningless. Likewise to suggest that ‘God loves me’ is not verifiable either.

AJ Ayer for the LPs soon realised that historical statements also became meaningless if the principle were applied so rigorously and formulated the ‘weak verification principle.’ By which he acknowledged that for historical claims it is sufficient to call a statement like ‘Harold was shot inn the eye by an arrow at the Battle of Hastings’ verifiable if, in the event that we had access to a time machine and were able to go back to the event, we would be able to discover for ourselves whether or not the claim was true.

Anthony Flew also in response to the critics of the verification principle proposed the falsification principle. In it he suggested that a claim can be deemed to be verifiable if we can discover what might actually make it false. For example we cannot actually prove that we cannot travel faster than light so if we can discover what might make the claim false (like discovering that there are things which travel faster than the speed of light) then the claim becomes meaningful. (Not necessarily true but meaningful!!)

Unfortunately he realised that believers were not very likely to give any regard to evidence to the contrary of their beliefs. The story of Job in the Bible is a good example of a man who believed god loved him despite all evidence to the contrary when he lost his wife, family, health, home, livelihood – everything except his life, yet still he believed. This, Flew said, was what made religious claims so meaningless! He updated John Wisdom’s ‘Parable of the Gardener’ adding in a detailed list of all the traps that the two explorers set to trip up the so-called Gardener. When he set none of them off the theist refused to entertain the notion that he didn’t exist and the atheist in despair asked ‘but what is the difference between a gardener who is invisible, intangible and undetectable and no gardener at all?’ Obviously the comparison is with God. As Basil Mitchell put it the believer has three choices when faced with evidence which challenges their faith: adapt their beliefs to accommodate the new information; reject the new info out of hand or reject the belief.

{{ put it this way – you believe your husband loves you; your best friend says she saw him with another woman do you a) refuse to believe it b) face him and forgive him or c) throw him out!!?}}

But for believers who won’t allow any evidence to count against the existence of god makes their claim that God exists meaningless.


ii) One of the most obvious flaws in the verification principle is that it doesn’t allow for claims such as emotional ones: ‘I love him’; opinions: ‘that is a great work of art;’ statements of intent: ‘I had intended to come to school to do my timed essay but I had a cold…’ and many others, although the falsification principle can render some of them meaningful if we can ascertain what might count as evidence against them. (For example if I run into you in the pub and you are hale and hearty!!!)

But rather more importantly the claims of a believer even that they ‘just know’ God exists are not so easily rendered meaningless because they have an importance in their life. They may live their life by a particular code or creed based on an ‘unverifiable’ belief. It is not meaningless to them. RM Hare illustrates this idea with his concept of bliks. These are beliefs which are unverifiable and sometimes paradoxical but which nevertheless dictate our behaviour. He gives the example of ‘the Paranoid student and the Dons’ in which he describes the odd behaviour of a student who believed, against all his friends attempt to dissuade him, that the university dons were attempting to kill him. His behaviour was completely dominated by this unfounded belief. A bit like if you are afraid of spiders no amount of people telling you they won’t hurt you will prevent you checking the room before you go to sleep at night!! It might be meaningless or incomprehensible to an arachnophile but not to you!!

Ultimately of course Ayer retracted his position on the verification principle realising that there was a lot more to language than he had allowed for originally. Wittgenstein even invented a whole new area which he called language games theory in which he suggested that you had to know the rules in order to play the game – a bit like cricket then! But once you did know the rules you were unlikely to find them meaningless, indeed they are likely to enhance your enjoyment of the game. The same is true of religious language – you have to be in it to understand it and once you are you are unlikely to be just a neutral observer.


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