Overview – Religious Language

Religious language in A level philosophy is not about whether statements like “God exists” are true or false. Instead, it’s the study of what statements like this mean.

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”, according to cognitivism, they are making a statement that is intended to be taken literally as true or false.


The 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.


Part of Ayer’s idea of what it means for something to be empirically verifiable is that it must be falsifiable.

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

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.

  • 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 theory is the 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. However, this isn’t a good thing 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.

The water boils at 100°c theory is falsifiable and therefore meaningful. The young earth theory is unfalsifiable and therefore meaningless.

Ayer argues that “God exists” is not an analytic truth. He also argues that “God exists” is not falsifiable and hence not empirically verifiable. Therefore, “God exists” is meaningless according to Ayer’s verificationism.

Problem: self-defeating

It can be argued that Ayer’s principle for what makes a meaningful statement 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.

Anthony Flew’s jungle clearing analogy

Anthony Flew gives the following analogy in an attempt to show that religious language 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 religious language is meaningless.

Basil Mitchell’s cognitivism:

Mitchell agrees with flew that, in order for a statement to be meaningful, it must be possible for some observation to prove it wrong.

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:

It’s not entirely clear whether Hare is a cognitivist or a non-cognitivist. He could be interpreted either way. Anyway, here’s his argument:

Religious beliefs 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. Yet these disagreements are still meaningful.

This is kind of cognitivist in that bliks are either true or false. But it’s kind of non-cognitivist as bliks are unfalsifiable – no evidence counts against them.


“I believe in God” could mean:

  • I believe God exists (cognitive)
  • I believe in God (like if I said “I believe in you” as you were going into the exam – this isn’t really a description of reality, hence it’s non-cognitive)

Wittgenstein: Language games

The meaning of a word comes from how it is used – not from some definition.

There’s a difference between surface grammar and depth grammar. Compare:

  • “The bus passes the bus stop”
  • “The peace of the Lord passes understanding”

These two sentences have the same surface grammar, but mean entirely different things (different depth grammar).

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