What is religious language? Why do we use it? How does it work?

blue = pro / strengths
green = anti / weaknesses / criticisms of religious lang



It is language which tells us about God and the realm of the numenon rather than of the phenomenon.    

We all use language; it has different forms: univocal; equivocal; analogical. (Religious language is both equivocal and analogical of necessity)

One way is the Via Negativa – what God is not rather than what he is.

Associated with St Augustine and Dionysius – the idea that all the positive qualities of God must be balanced by the realisation that human lang is inadequate when it actually comes to describing God. He is ineffable, utterly transcendent etc

3 states of knowledge – what God is not; reference to Him as the One, the Source i.e. non-personal terms; and the third the attempt to convey that God is beyond understanding. The metaphorical character of language leads people to a greater spiritual awareness. God can however be known through the scriptures.

Aquinas – Analogy of proportion: God is proportionally more ‘good’ than we are.

Analogy of attribution: human wisdom is a reflection of God’s wisdom.

Ramsey’s models and qualifiers: God is the model for the concept of good but it is qualified by being ‘infinitely good’ this can give an insight into God’s goodness.

Metaphorical and symbolic – open up levels of reality beyond ours. (Paul Tillich) symbols change their meaning with time and become more or less relevant. E.g Jewish Food Laws.

Mythstories which use symbol, metaphor and allegory to convey religious truth e.g. the Fall.

Bultmann suggested the mythological content be removed from the stories to discover their truth.

Opponents say to demythologise is to remove religious truth.


Why is its use criticised?

The Verification Principle – (AJ Ayer) philosophers were concerned with how language conveys meaning and the meaningfulness of things we say. Only two verifiable forms of lang:

  • Analytic – can be verified by logic 2+2=4, all bachelors are unmarried.
  • Synthetic – those which can be verified by experiment. Logical Positivists argued pointless to talk about God since any statements cannot be verified by either logic or experiment.

Objections to use of symbols: Edwards

  1. No factual content = meaningless.
  2. No way of knowing if the symbol pointed the right way or not! E.g. the end of days… not here yet!
  3. The symbols are not about objective reality and could be misunderstood.

The Falsification Principle – (Antony Flew) all religious statements are meaningless because believers never allow anything to throw doubt on their faith – Parable of the Gardener and the death of a thousand qualifications.

Flew – the proof of the existence of God must be based on what is known not just believed.

Language games: Wittgenstein – table / raft. Football by hockey rules… if you are not in the game then you will find it incomprehensible– cricket / American football!!!



Of course later Ayer retracted the whole concept as mistaken when he realised there were lots of areas of human experience which did not lend themselves to analytical or synthetic verification like poetry, emotions and speculation!

Function of religious lang is different from practical, finite world and within its own context is meaningful.

Others argued that only believers truly understand and once you understand you believe!

John Hick and eschatological verification

Some religious statements can be verified e.g. God is the Creator could be verified by looking at the evidence for design etc even the idea of life after death could be verified if the evidence of Jesus’ own resurrection is accepted.

It places too high a value on empirical evidence.

The challenge to this idea came from the idea of religious lang statements being non-cognitive, we understand the concepts without the need for proof – toys in the toy cupboard… because checking will nullify the experiment – Schrödinger’s cat…


To what extent is it limited in telling us about God?

RM Hare – ‘blik’ a way of looking at the world, right or wrong! Flat earth? Geocentric? The student’s paranoia…How can it help? What is it used for?


Is its usefulness outweighed by its drawbacks?

Purpose of Religious language

Braithwaite – religious lang is non-cognitive; is a moral discourse about ideals of behaviour;

Randall – religious lang as making a special contribution to human culture. Binds communities together – Durkheim?

Some symbols transcend cultures e.g. light.

Jung’s archetypes: these basic archetypes reveal themselves in art and religious symbols. The cross for example, Jainism, Nazism but also the shape of the cross has changed.

Myths have function and provide explanations of man’s earliest questions / Similarities of creation myths across the world’s cultures.

Criticisms of Wittgenstein:

faiths different lang diff game therefore no common ground?

There is common ground between religious lang and other lang games

Non-believers may not understand fully but may be more objective.

Believers recognise any discussion is limited but is meaningful.

We have to know the rules to use the language: French; science; geography; cookery…

But words describe or explain concepts.

Not all concepts are universally understood or accepted. E.g. some did not think the world was round!

We need common ground to understand any subject’s specialist language.

We need either experience or understanding of someone else’s experience to communicate. We don’t all need to have gone to the moon to understand the experience.

Some say because religious experience is neither a general experience, nor one we can share with others then it is meaningless – as useful to discuss what they might eat on Vega2.!

The result of religious lang is misunderstanding and confusion.



But just because I don’t understand these games doesn’t mean they are meaningless!!

Basil Mitchell – believers need to trust not wait for proof.


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