Religious Language raises very difficult if not impossible problems

Discuss this statement by examining two of the following: analogy, verification or falsification [40]

The problem with religious language arises from the fact that we use ordinary words to describe or talk about extra-ordinary things like God and what He is like or fundamental questions of existence. In doing so we are using what Aquinas called ‘equivocal’ language that is words that have more than one meaning. The problem here lies in that when we speak about God as ‘a good shepherd’ we don’t mean it literally but metaphorically or symbolically. That God is like a shepherd but not like since he is the ‘greatest’ shepherd there could be but we are not sheep! Or when we talk about there being ‘life after death’ we know what life is and we know what death means but ‘life after death’ is an oxymoron, a logical contradiction. This is the nature of religious language – it uses terms we all understand but in a different way. This, the Logical Positivists say, makes religious assertions meaningless for no one can ever agree on the ‘true’ meaning of these assertions.


The Logical Positivists base their claim that religious language is meaningless on their assertion that all assertions should be verifiable by one or more of the five senses. This they call the Verification Principle. This they regard as empirical, concrete, practical evidence; evidence that can be checked and repeated so that all can agree e.g. ‘the table is round.’

They divide statements up into analytic – those which are true by definition like ‘all bachelors are unmarried men’; synthetic – those whose truth can be verified by testing e.g. it is raining outside and mathematical e.g. 1+1=2. All other statements, they claim, are meaningless.

They regard the world as just this one, the realm of the phenomenon, in which only cognitive experiences are meaningful. The problem for them lies in the fact that religious language is non-cognitive and almost by definition non-verifiable. After all how do you verify ‘God loves me’ or even ‘God exists’? However it is not only religious language that is a problem for them. How would they define opinions like ‘I don’t like Mondays’? or emotions like ‘I love you’? or ‘Picasso was a rubbish artist in his blue period,’ or ‘music by Michael Jackson is better than that by Beethoven.’? Or even intentions like ‘I was going to do my homework but had to go to the dentist instead’ or ‘I will do it tomorrow’?’ and what about moral assertions like ‘it is wrong to murder’? All of these are assertions and belong to the affective side of life but few would deny they have meaning for people.

Even a fairly straightforward assertion like ‘King Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings’ is not directly verifiable. For cases like these AJ Ayer proposed a weak form of the verification principle: so long as we know what it would take to verify an assertion he said that was sufficient to make it meaningful. Presumably, in this case, the Bayeux Tapestry and first-hand accounts would be acceptable.


Antony Flew, recognising that in fact there were many assertions which are not directly verifiable, proposed the Falsification Principle. He suggested that so long as we can know what it would take for something to be proved false and that the claimant accepted the evidence then statements could be said to be meaningful. For example to assert that there is no life on Mars we would have to know what conditions are necessary for life to exist on Mars.

However his argument with the people who made religious claims was that they were very unlikely to accept any evidence that might contradict their claims. He expanded on the Parable of the Gardener. He told of the two explorers who came across a beautiful clearing in a jungle, one of whom ( a theist) claimed that it was so beautiful it must be tended by a gardener. When challenged by his friend (an atheist) they set all sorts of traps but no gardener ever became apparent. The theist argued that the fact that none of the traps had ever been sprung didn’t prove the gardener didn’t exist but that he must be invisible and intangible and inaudible. The atheist wryly commented that he didn’t see the difference between this gardener and no gardener at all. Obviously this is analogical to the situation with theists in general and their claims about God. Despite all evidence to the contrary like evil and suffering, they continue to believe in a good God. This is when religious assertions become meaningless Flew said and God dies the ‘death of a thousand qualifications.’

A more modern analogy was related by RM Hare in his parable of the paranoid student and the dons in which a student becomes convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the dons at his university are out to kill him. He coined the term ‘blik‘ to describe these apparently meaningless viewpoints which nevertheless have powerful influences on the behaviour of the people who believe them. Rather like being afraid of spiders or enclosed spaces – these ‘bliks’ cannot be verified but are not meaningless.


A real stumbling block for believers when making assertions about the nature of their God is that so often He is described either in negative terms – what is called the Via Negativa or Apophatic Way; God is not: visible, touchable, smellable, hearable etc. or in superlatives ‘all good’ ‘all loving’ ‘all powerful’ or the ‘good‘ shepherd etc. but none of these actually says anything about what He is like.


It is of distinct interest that Ayer later retracted his position and acknowledged that the Verification Principle itself was meaningless because it could not be verified! However despite all the problems with understanding religious language it is clear that to believers it is not meaningless and anything which affects life and lives so profoundly cannot be dismissed without making some attempt to understand it.


[And I haven’t even mentioned Wittgenstein and Language Games.]


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