Overview – Religious Language

Religious language in A level philosophy looks at the meaning of religious statements, such as:

  • “God exists”
  • “God answers my prayers”
  • “God loves us”

This topic is not about whether these statements are true or false. Instead, the debate is about whether such religious language is meaningful or whether it is meaningless.

You also need to know the difference between cognitivist and non-cognitivist views of religious language.

Cognitivism and non-cognitivism

All the arguments we’ve looked at so far (ontological, cosmological, teleological, problem of evil) assume a cognitivist view of religious language.

The arguments so far treat “God exists” as a scientific, empirical statement – i.e. a statement that aims to literally describe how the world is. They then aim to show that this statement is either true or false.

But some philosophers argue that religious language is non-cognitive. This is to say that religious language is not to be taken literally as true or false.

Cognitive statements
Non-cognitive statements
Aim to literally describe how the world is Do not aim to literally describe how the world is
Are true or false Are not true or false

  • “Water boils at 100°c”
  • “Triangles have 3 sides”
  • “The Eiffel Tower is in Paris”
  • “The Eiffel Tower is in Berlin”

  • “Ouch!”
  • “Boo!”
  • “Hooray!”
  • “Don’t do that!”

Cognitivism is perhaps the ‘common-sense’ view of religious language. When someone says “God exists”, “God loves me”, or “God answers my prayers” then, according to cognitivism, they are making a statement that is intended to be taken literally as true or false.

Non-cognitivist statements are neither true or false. In the context of religious language, a non-cognitivist might say religious statements like those above express someone’s attitude to the world.

Religious language is meaningless

AJ Ayer: verification principle

If you don’t remember from metaethics, AJ Ayer’s verification principle says: a statement only has meaning if it is either:

  • An analytic truth (e.g. “a triangle has 3 sides”)
  • Empirically verifiable (e.g. “water boils at 100c”)

Any statement that does not fit these descriptions is meaningless, according to verificationism. This is a similar claim to Hume’s Fork from epistemology.

Applying the verification principle to religious language, Ayer argues that statements like “God answers my prayers” and “God exists” are not analytic truths. Further, they are not empirically verifiable, because they are not falsifiable (see below).

Therefore, according to Ayer’s verificationism, religious language is meaningless.

Problem: Self-defeating

In response to Ayer’s argument you can argue that Ayer’s verification principle fails its own test.

Ayer’s claim that “a statement is only meaningful if it is analytic or empirically verifiable” is itself neither an analytic truth or empirically verifiable! Therefore, according to its own criteria, the verification principle is meaningless.


Falsifiability is an explanation of what it takes for a theory to be meaningful. It’s got nothing to do with whether the theory is true or false.

A theory is falsifiable if it is inconsistent with some possible observation.

  • Falsifiable theories are meaningful and capable of being true or false
  • Unfalsifiable theories are meaningless, and not capable of being true or false.

An example of an unfalsifiable statement would be: “everything in the universe doubles in size every 10 seconds.” This statement is unfalsifiable because no possible observation could disprove this statement. If you measured something with a ruler to try to disprove the claim, the defender of it could just say that the ruler also doubled in size as well!

In the context of religious language, an example of an unfalsifiable theory could be a young earth creationist hypothesis:

  • Creationist: “the earth is 10,000 years old”
  • Scientist: “But I’ve found a fossil that carbon dating suggests is more than 1,000,000 years old”
  • Creationist: “God put that fossil there on purpose to trick you into thinking the earth is older than it really is”

This young earth creationist theory cannot possibly be proven wrong. No matter how many fossils you find, or how much evidence you accumulate, it can’t count as evidence against this theory because the creationist can always say God planted the fossils there as a trick.

Unfalsifiable theories are meaningless because a theory that cannot be proven wrong cannot be proved right either!

In contrast, “water boils at 100°c” can be proven wrong by possible observation. If we heated a beaker of water yet it didn’t boil despite a reliable thermometer showing 500°c, this observation would count against the theory. Therefore, “water boils at 100°c” is a falsifiable and meaningful statement.

Anthony Flew: Invisible Gardener

Anthony Flew gives the following analogy in an attempt to show that religious language – in particular the statement “God exists” – is unfalsifiable, and therefore meaningless:

  • Two explorers find a clearing in a jungle. Both weeds and flowers grow here.
  • Explorer A says the clearing is the work of a gardener. Explorer B disagrees.
  • To settle the argument, they keep watch for the gardener.
  • After a few days, they haven’t seen him, but Explorer A says it’s because the gardener is invisible
  • So, they set up an electric fence and guard dogs to catch the gardener instead
  • But, after a few more days, they still haven’t detected him
  • Explorer A then says that not only is the gardener invisible, he’s also intangible, makes no sound, has no smell, etc.
  • Explorer B: What is the difference between this claim and the claim that the gardener doesn’t even exist?
  • In other words, Explorer A’s theory is unfalsifiable – nothing could possibly prove this theory wrong, but nothing could prove it correct either.
  • Because it is unfalsifiable, Explorer A’s theory is meaningless.

In case it’s not obvious:

  • Jungle clearing = the world
  • Invisible gardener = God
  • Flowers = Good
  • Weeds = Evil

So, Flew is arguing that “God exists” is meaningless because it is unfalsifiable in the same way the existence of the invisible gardener is unfalsifiable.

Religious language is meaningful

Hick: eschatological verification

Hick argues that many religious claims are about things beyond the limits of human life. However, these claims are not unfalsifiable, because it is possible to verify them after we die.

Eschatological verification = a statement that can be verified after death.

So, for example, the statement “there is an afterlife” is unfalsifiable while we are living. However,

  • If “there is an afterlife” is true, then it can be verified as true after we die.
  • If it is false, however, then it cannot be falsified because you won’t exist to verify it one way or the other

Basil Mitchell: resistance fighter

Mitchell agrees with Flew that, in order for a statement to be meaningful, it must be possible for some observation to prove it wrong (i.e. that it must be falsifiable).

But just because there are observations that count against a certain viewpoint, doesn’t mean we have to withdraw from that viewpoint

For example:

  • You are in a war, your country has been occupied by an enemy
  • You meet someone who claims to be leader of the resistance
  • You trust this man
  • But he sometimes acts ambiguously, doing things that appear to support the enemy
  • Yet you continue to believe in him despite this evidence, because you trust him

So, just because there is some evidence against God (i.e. the existence of evil) doesn’t mean you have to withdraw belief in him

R.M. Hare: bliks

According to Hare, religious statements are not things that can just be shown to be true or false. Instead, they are part of someone’s view of the world – Hare calls these attitudes ‘bliks’.

Examples of bliks:

  • A paranoid person who thinks university lecturers are trying to kill him. Even if you assure him they’re not trying to kill him (and provide evidence), they still believe it anyway
  • When people think they’re ugly when they’re not. No amount of evidence/reassurance will convince them otherwise!

Disagreements in bliks can’t be settled by appealing to evidence and so are technically unfalsifiable.

However, Hare argues that bliks are still meaningful because they are part of someone’s world view and determine what does and does not count as evidence.

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