Wednesday, 8 May 2013

A2 Religious Studies: Religious Language

(bullet points = weaknesses/criticisms)

There are two main approaches to religious language (and they also serve as buzzwords that make you look good in an exam):

Realist view - words have objective meanings

Anti-realist view - words have subjective meanings

When we talk about religious language, one of the most frequently debated questions is whether God has any meaning.

Verification Principle

Ayer using his favourite Instagram filter
The verification principle, as proposed by A. J. Ayer, states that something cannot be held to be true until it can be scientifically verified. If something cannot be experienced through the senses, it cannot be verified - so Ayer would argue that God cannot be verified analytically or synthetically - so surely religious language is meaningless?

  • Keith Ward attacks this point, saying that just because we can't verify God, it doesn't mean he isn't verifiable:
"If I were God I could verify my own existence."
    • However, this relies heavily on the assumption of God in the first place
John Hick argued that we can verify the afterlife in principle. Referring to heaven as the Celestial City, Hick argued that once we reach the Celestial City, we can verify the afterlife. 
  • However, if heaven doesn't exist in reality, how can it be verified at all?
  • Relies on the assumption of the afterlife
Verification Principle - Main Criticisms
  • It cannot verify itself - or even prove that it exists. How can we take the theory seriously when the theory doesn't apply to the theory itself? (if that makes sense)
  • Richard Holder gives an example of polar bears to illustrate his criticism. He argues that the verification principle would state that all polar bears are white, therefore non-white objects cannot be polar bears. Verification logic suggests that a brown chimpanzee, for example, proves that all polar bears are white. He calls this ridiculous and illogical
  • Karl Popper simply argues that we cannot scientifically verify everything

R. M. Hare / Jim Broadbent
Hare and Bliks

In a more significant attack on the falsification principle, R. M. Hare proposed his concept of bliks. According to Hare, a blik is simply how you view something.

He uses the example of a student who thinks his teacher will kill him but has no evidence. Just because there is no evidence to support his claim, it doesn't mean that his blik - his attitude - is meaningless.

Bliks are non-rational and cannot be falsified because they are groundless (aka they are based on no rational or reasonable grounds). Yet Hare argues that even though they can't be falsified, they are still meaningful to those who believe in them.

John Hick took Hare's view and applied it directly to religion. He said that there are sane and insane bliks, but one cannot distinguish between the two. The judgement that religion is insane is merely based on a whim.
  • However, Basil Mitchell objects to the view that religious claims are groundless bliks, and states that it is grounded on valid reasoning. He says that just because God may seem like a resistance leader who occasionally appears to help the enemy (aka allows suffering), the power of faith is stronger than the evidence against God - so religious language is meaningful
Ludwig Wittgenstein/Phillips

Wittgenstein did philosophy before it was
Wittgenstein, an anti-realist, comes into his own category. He argued that language creates imagery, and so may be meaningful in his picture theory of meaning. Certain words are associated with certain images, and these images help us understand language itself.

He said:

"Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use."

We all use words differently - considering Wittgenstein is an anti-realist, we have to remember that he believes words have subjective meanings. Certain words are only of use to certain groups who understand the purpose of the word. For example, in the Christian group, the word God is meaningful because it means something to them - it is coherent to them. This comes under Wittgenstein's coherence theory of truth - that something has meaning if it is coherent to you. 

So does that mean that the word God is only meaningful to Christians? Not necessarily, no. Wittgenstein actually argues that 'God' is meaningful to atheists in terms of language as well as believers. To one group it means existence, to the other, non-existence.

A more modern advocate of Wittgenstein's philosophy is reductionist D. Z. Phillips, and in an exam you can usually talk about the two together.

Phillips, however, argued that philosophy and religion are two different groups, and as a result both have different definitions of God. Phillips plainly states that because the definitions are different, you cannot be a part of both.
  • But there are tonnes of religious philosophers... so surely you can be part of both groups?
As a reductionist, Phillips aims to reduce everything down to the simplest possible explanation. He argues that statements such as 'God exists' are not factual - they are merely expressions of belief:

"Talk about God's reality cannot be considered as talk about the existence of an object"

Criticisms of Wittgenstein/Phillips

  • They fail to understand what believers mean by the word God
  • They unfairly rule out God's existence
  • They don't allow for cross-linking between groups, as mentioned above
  • Their views don't allow for atheist to theist conversions, when we know that such conversions happen 

Tillich takes a selfie
Paul Tillich argues that religious language is symbolic, not literal. He said that symbols are something that we can all participate in, citing a flag as an example - we participate in the feeling of unity surrounding certain national flags.

He said that symbols do four things in particular:
  1. They point to something beyond themselves
  2. They participate in that to which they point to
  3. They open up levels of reality which are usually closed to us
  4. They open up dimensions of the soul
Tillich simply called this:

"The theory of participation"

He argued that symbols help describe things that cannot always be expressed in words alone. The only way we can describe God in a meaningful way is through the use of symbols.

Example: the cross is symbolic, and symbolises God's love for humanity, love and forgiveness, prayer and worship and Jesus's sacrifice. 

Tillich said that God was the ultimate symbol, calling him:

"The ground of our being"

He also argued that symbols can change and die out thanks to time and culture. An example for this is the fact that, because Jews used to sacrifice lambs, Jesus was seen as the lamb of God. This symbol was meaningful to them, but lost its meaning as time went on.

J. Randall agrees with Tillich, calling religious language symbolic and non-cognitive (cannot be proven). He argues that religious language does four things:
  1. Arouses emotion and makes people act
  2. Stimulates and inspires community action
  3. Allows someone to express experiences non-literally
  4. Clarifies our experience of God
I remember this by thinking of 'ICE'. I = inspire, C = clarify, E = express emotions.

Randall called God an intellectual symbol and called him:

"A ripple of imagination"

Criticisms of Symbols

  • John Hick criticised Tillich's idea of participating, calling it unclear - he argued that there is little different between a symbol and a sign
  • William Alston argues that symbols are meaningless because we don't know whether they're true or not
  • Paul Edwards argues that symbols are meaningless because they cannot be verified or falsified thanks to their subjective nature:
"It doesn't convey any facts"

John Macquarrie / someone
from Father Ted
John Macquarrie criticises Tillich but he does not criticise symbols. Macquarrie is an advocate of religious symbology, but suggests that there is no difference between a symbol in a sign. In the phrase 'clouds are a sign of rain', for example, the clouds are both a sign and a symbol of rain - we can't differentiate between the two.

Macquarrie instead proposed the existential response, whereby he said that symbols and signs link to human existence. For example, water cleanses us, so water is often used symbolically to be seen as cleansing (baptism, for example). 

He also argued for the similarity of relation, which is basically the use of analogy; shepherds look after sheep just like God looks after us.


Aquinas argued that religious language is best understood through the use of analogy. He criticised univocal and equivocal language:

Univocal - words have one objective meaning
  • But when we say God is Holy and we are holy it doesn't mean the same thing - we don't speak univocally in terms of religion
Equivocal - words have subjective meanings
  • But this means there is no objective meaning to words such as 'love', which Aquinas calls meaningless
Instead, Aquinas argued for two types of analogy:

Analogy of Attribution

The analogy of attribution states that our goodness comes directly from God. This is best highlighted with the analogy of a baker and bread. A load of bread is good because the baker is good; the attributes of the baker caused the attributes of the bread, even though the two don't necessarily share the two attributes. Similarly, God's attributes cause our attributes - our goodness comes from him. We don't know what it means for God to be good, but we know he is good because we see it in ourselves.

Analogy of Proportion

To understand the nature of God, it is best to use the analogy of proportion. This states that there is a proportionate relationship between all things. For example, the following statements are all proportionate to one another:

  1. God has life
  2. Humans have life
  3. Plants have life
We understand plants as being 'alive' in a sense, but that doesn't compare to how we define ourselves as alive. Similarly, God's life is greater than ours; all things must be understood in proportion to one another.

Ian Ramsey supports Aquinas's idea of using analogies in religious language. Ramsey argues that words like 'kind' and 'caring' cannot be used univocally or equivocally, so we have to qualify the model with words such as 'infinitely' or 'eternally'. By qualifying our terms, we can use analogies to express God.

Criticisms of Analogy
  • Some argue that by using analogy we lose the meaning and purpose behind what we are trying to communicate - so perhaps it is meaningless as opposed to meaningful
  • St. Paul argued that we cannot accurately express God - even through analogy - until we 'see' him
The Apophatic Way/Via Negativa

The via negative is what Aquinas originally attacked with his use of analogy in religious language.

Pseudo-Dionysius's 'bitch please' face
Put forward by Pseudo-Dionysius, via negativa is the belief that words limit our understanding of a transcendent God; he is so vastly different to what we know that human terms limit him.

Therefore, instead of saying what God is, Pseudo-Dionysius states that we should state what God isn't (which is why words such as immortal, immutable and timeless are often used) in order to come closer to understanding God. Positive terms may be misleading, because they are rooted in our language.

Pseudo-Dionysius said:

"God is beyond assertion"

"beyond every limitation"

No matter how rational we are, he argues that we cannot rationalise God.

Moses Maimonides agrees with Pseudo-Dionysius, arguing that religious language is meaningful when used negatively. He used the example of a ship - by describing what a ship isn't, we get closer to understanding what a ship is.
  • Brian Davies criticises this point, saying that by eliminating negatives we have no idea whether what remains is God or not

Strengths of Via Negativa/Apophatic Way
  1. It isn't misleading, whereas positive language may be
  2. It avoids being too anthropomorphic (human-based) and focuses more on a transcendent God
  3. It applies to every culture in every time, unlike symbols and analogies
  4. It doesn't limit God, and allows for what William James calles the 'mystical approach'
Weaknesses of Via Negativa/Apophatic Way
  • How can we describe what God isn't if we have no idea of what he is?
  • How can we make judgements of something we haven't experienced?
  • Maimonides's ship example has been criticised because it compares God to an inanimate object rooted in human understanding
  • Negative statements aren't helpful or useful in describing things
  • Antony Flew argues that the negatives amount to nothing - so we are told nothing of God
  • How do you know the God you are worshipping if you can only reliably say what he isn't?
  • We understand people through actions - if we don't know what God is, how should we act?
  • For religious believers, via negativa contradicts certain statements in holy scripture that describe God positively

John Macquarrie, who argued for symbols but criticised Tillich, also argued for the use of myths. He said that religious language is rooted in the language of mythology, and said that myths are ways of trying to explain something through the use of storytelling - a fictional story conveying an objective truth.

Macquarrie argues that there are different types myth in the Bible alone, such as creation myths (Adam and Eve), good v. evil myths (heaven/hell), birth myths (Virgin Mary) and so on. But do these myths truly convey objective truths?
  • And who decides what the truths are? Surely people will read myths differently and take different messages from them?
Emile Durkheim argues that myths are constructs of society, not objective realities. He states that myths change as societies change; they reflect the values of society at the time. 
  • So do myths have an objective truth or are they constructs of society? The argument goes both ways
Religiously, myths convey values and beliefs and give insight into human existence. In many cases, they also tell people how they should behave (such as the example of Adam and Eve sinning in the Garden of Eden).

Jaspers doesn't know where
the camera is
Jaspers advocates myths, and says that they:
  1. Express intuitive insights - something that you just know, such as the fact that God will take care of you
  2. Are stories about God(s), not external realities - the events aren't necessarily real
  3. Carry meaning

Rudolf Bultmann states that the Bible isn't literal, and argues for the understanding of Biblical stories as myths. Bultmann says we must demythologise stories in order to separate truth from myth. This way we can find true meaning in myths, which makes religious language meaningful. For example, he argues that Jesus walking on water, once demythologised, has the meaning of helping others through difficult times.

Bergson doesn't believe in myths, and argues that they are defence reactions against the fear of death. However, he said this in a positive sense, arguing that they are a good way of dealing with death.

Bishop John Robinson, writer of The Myth of God Incarnate, called the idea of a transcendent God a myth, and said that God only exists within people's minds.

Similarly, priest Don Cupitt calls God a myth, saying that:

"God is a construct of the mind"

"God is a religious ideal"

Strengths of Myths

  1. Macquarrie argues for the existential response - if we understand myths in relation to our own existence, they become meaningful
  2. Durkheim argues that myths embody society's beliefs and values
  3. Bergson argues that myths help us overcome fears
  4. Stories are meaningful and memorable - arguably an effective way of conveying truth
Weaknesses of Myths
  • Meanings of myths may be lost in time
  • Some myths are not compatible with scientific truths
  • How do we know which stories are myths and which stories are real?
  • People may interpret myths differently
  • Some would argue that if there is a truth to be expressed, it should be expressed directly and not through stories
  • Many believers take scripture literally, which is contradictory to the belief in myths
  • Different cultures may understand myths differently
  • Richard Dawkins argues that myths taken literally (like the story of hell) are damaging, particularly to children. He calls this:
"cosmic child abuse"

What a nice quote to end the topic on. This is probably the biggest topic in the course, and often questions will just focus on certain areas such as:
  1. Verification principle
  2. Falsification principle
  3. Bliks/Hare (not sure if they'd ask just one question on this but they can be bastards)
  4. Wittgenstein
  5. Tillich and symbols
  6. Analogy
  7. Via negative
  8. Myths
Certain topics bleed into others, though. If you're asked about symbols you can bring in analogies and myths, for example, so long as you relate it back to the question. Perhaps use analogies/myths to attack symbols or something like that. Hope this helps! :)


  1. I really find your revision notes so helpful, thankyou...and the touch of comedy you add makes it a bit more easier to take in aha x

    1. Hey, thanks v much :) & I'm glad making it a bit light hearted helps it sink in a bit easier, that's what I was hoping for! x

  2. Great post, and great blog- really helpful
    Although I think you may have misunderstood 'Falsification principle' Or I have?
    I understood the Falsification principle to be 'statements are meaningless unless falsified' basically Flew felt that religious believers wouldn't allow their beliefs to be disproved and thus concluded that statements were meaningless unless it was possible to falsify them.

    1. Hi - I was taught that Flew said that we have to hold things to be true until we can falsify them - falsification decides whether something has meaning or not. Because he refers to God's 'death by a thousand qualifications', he is saying that falsification proves religious language to be meaningless.

    2. As a heads up (from a Theology and Philosophy tutor) Jake's version of the falsification in this blog is incorrect. The comment from HW is the correct version of the Falsification Principle.

  3. My exam is in 5 days and I am so glad I found this! Thank you so much, you awesome human being!

  4. thank you so so so so much for this, you are amazing!

  5. This is awesome, thanks so much for making it. Have you done other A2 topics in a similar format?

  6. I'm slightly confused on the myth part. It says that a weakness on myth is that "Some myths are not compatible with scientific truths" but isn't the point of myth for it to not be taken literally? If so wouldn't this be a strength as it allows be to both accept religion and science?

    1. *If so wouldn't this be a strength as it allows you to both accept religion and science?

  7. thanks for the heads-up, 'Unknown'. have now deleted the incorrect info

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. My exam is in 2 days, this was helpful, I just need more arguments for and against Tillich's Religious Language as Symbols