The value of religious language

  • JH Randall argued that religious language serves four functions:
    • Binds the community together
    • Expresses something which cannot be expressed literally
    • Reveals something about the nature of God
    • Arouses emotions and stirs people to action.
  • Attempts to ascertain the accrual truth of the Genesis creation stories often lead to a double misunderstanding: that the stories can be understood without their mythological or symbolic content or that the stories can be understood literally.
  • The purpose of these stories is non-cognitive (affective) and though they do attempt to convey religious truths, making factual confirmation of them ensures their real meaning (the emotional content) will be undiscovered.
  • RB Braithwaite has argued that religious statements serve an ethical purpose i.e. that they refer to the particular way of life of someone who is expressing them, that they reflect the religious convictions which underlie the ethical and moral codes.
  • Opponents would argue that their assertions mean more than just ethical statements.
  • Paul Tillich recognised that religious language is almost entirely symbolic: God is my rock is not intended literally! Recognition of its symbolic nature means that such use of language can be more easily understood.
  • Wittgenstein regarded the question about meaning in religious language as irrelevant. ‘Don’t ask for the meaning, look for the use.’ All language was seen as belonging to particular forms of life and each particular form had its own language game. Misunderstandings arise when one form is judged by another’s rules.
  • Religious language is not meaningless just different.
  • It must be judged on its own terms and non-believers can enter into meaningful discussion about religious issues if they accept the same terms, even though at the end they may not agree with the believer’s faith they can see it as justified.


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