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 (in a similar way to how moral non-cognitivism says moral judgements are not to be taken as literally 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
E.g.:

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

  • “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

Despite how it may sound, falsifiability is not about being true or false. Instead, falsifiability is part of what it takes for a statement to be meaningful.

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

A statement is falsifiable if it is inconsistent with some possible observation. In other words, there has to be some possible evidence that could count against that statement – otherwise the statement is meaningless.

The statement “water boils at 100°c” is falsifiable because it could be proven wrong by some possible observation. For example, if we heated a beaker of water and it didn’t boil despite a reliable thermometer showing 500°c, this observation would count against the statement. So, “water boils at 100°c” is a falsifiable and meaningful statement because there are possible tests that could prove it wrong.

In contrast, the statement “everything in the universe doubles in size every 10 seconds” is unfalsifiable because no possible observation could disprove it. You could use a ruler to measure things every 10 seconds but this couldn’t disprove the claim because you could just say that the ruler doubled in size as well! There is seemingly no possible experiment that could disprove the statement “everything in the universe doubles in size every 10 seconds” and so it is unfalsifiable and meaningless.

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


Note: You can think of the arguments below as responses to Flew (and Ayer’s) claim that religious language is unfalsifiable.

Hick: eschatological verification

Eschatological verification: A statement that can be verified after death, or at the end of time.

John Hick agrees with Ayer and Flew that “God exists” is not empirically verifiable in this life. However, Hick argues that many religious claims are about things beyond the limits of human life. And, he argues, such religious claims are falsifiable because it is possible to verify them after we die. For example, many theists believe in a life after death during which they will meet or otherwise experience God (which would be unambiguous verification that “God exists” is true).

To illustrate this, Hick tells a parable of a ‘celestial city’:

  • Two men are travelling on a road – it is the only road there is, so they both must travel it
  • Traveller A believes the road leads to a celestial city, whereas Traveller B believes the road leads nowhere and that the journey is meaningless
  • As they travel along the road, they experience both “refreshment and delight” and “hardship and danger”
  • If Traveller A is correct, they will eventually arrive at the celestial city and he will be proved right
  • If Traveller B is correct, they will just keep going forever, and neither will be proved right

In this parable, Traveller A is the theist and Traveller B is the atheist. The “hardship and danger” represents the problem of evil. If the theist is correct, his belief will be verified in the afterlife when he meets God – this is the equivalent of reaching the celestial city. However, if the atheist is correct, his belief will never be verified because he’ll be dead and unable to verify anything – this is the equivalent of walking forever.

So, in short, Hick says “God exists” is not technically unfalsifiable (and so it isn’t meaningless) because it is eschatologically verifiable:

  • If “God exists” is true, then it can be verified after we die
  • But if “God exists” is false, then it is unfalsifiable

Basil Mitchell: resistance fighter

Mitchell agrees with Flew that in order for a statement or belief to be meaningful it must be possible for some observation to count against it (i.e. it must be falsifiable in order to be meaningful).

But, Mitchell argues, just because there are some observations that count against a certain belief, that doesn’t automatically mean we have to reject that belief. Mitchell gives the following example to illustrate this:

  • You are in a war, your country has been occupied by an enemy
  • You meet a stranger who claims to be leader of the resistance
  • You trust this man
  • But the stranger acts ambiguously, sometimes doing things that appear to support the enemy rather than your own side
  • Yet you continue to believe the stranger is on your side despite this and trust that he has good reasons for these ambiguous actions

In this analogy, the stranger represents God and his ambiguous actions represent the problem of evil. Mitchell is arguing that we can accept that the existence of evil counts as evidence against the statement “God exists” (and so it is falsifiable) without having to withdraw from belief in this statement.

Mitchell argues that religious beliefs are not ‘provisional hypotheses’ like scientific statements that the believer is totally detached from. But nor are religious beliefs ‘vacuous formulae’ that the believer holds regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

Instead, reasonable religious beliefs are a kind of middle ground: They are ‘significant articles of faith’. The religious believer is invested in these beliefs and so doesn’t withdraw from them as soon as the slightest evidence to the contrary turns up. However, this is not to say that the religious believer would believe “God exists” in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that would be irrational or, to use Mitchell’s term above, a ‘vacuous formulae’.

So, Mitchell is arguing that we can accept that the existence of evil counts as evidence against God’s existence (and so “God exists” is falsifiable and meaningful) without withdrawing belief in God.

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’.

To illustrate what bliks are, Hare uses the example of a paranoid student who thinks university lecturers are trying to kill him.

You assure this student that university lecturers are not trying to kill him and provide tons of evidence, yet the student still believes it anyway. Imagine, for example, that you decide to go with him to speak to a university lecturer and the lecturer acts totally normal:

You: See, he’s fine – the university lecturer isn’t trying to kill you!

Paranoid student: But he was just pretending to be normal so as not to reveal his true plan to kill me!

So, no amount of evidence/reassurance will convince the student that his blik is false. In other words, their blik is unfalsifiable.

But despite being unfalsifiable, Hare argues that bliks are still meaningful to the person who holds them. In the case of the university lecturers example, the blik clearly means something to the paranoid person because it has an effect on his behaviour: He won’t go to lectures, and will look over his shoulder to check university lecturers aren’t following him, for example.

Hare argues that religious language is the same: “God exists” may be unfalsifiable to people who have this blik, but it clearly means something to them. For example, people who believe “God exists” might pray or go to Church – it means enough to them that it affects their behaviour.

In other words, a blik is unfalsifiable but still meaningful to the person who holds it.

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