Revision:Religious Language

The basic premise of the school (circle) is that:

  • Religious believers make propositions
  • Statement of fact equates with meaning and need to be verified
  • To statement of facts you can answer true or false.

They believe that meaningful statements can fall into two categories:

Analytical Propositions: Statements that contain all the information within the statement e.g. red is a colour (tautologies), or 2+2=4 (mathematical statements)

Synthetic Propositions: These are factual statements which can be confirmed a posteriori

There are 2 different types:

  • Strong Version (associated with the Vienna Circle) which accepts only directly verifiable statements
  • Weak Version (associated with A.J Ayer) which argues that a statement is factual and meaningful if sense experience can go at least some way to confirming it (e.g the teleological argument meets this).


A.J Ayer

A.J Ayer writes “The term God is a Metaphysical Term. And if God is a metaphysical term, it cannot even be probable that God exists. The statement is neither true nor false it is meaningless” Ayer denies the possibility of God’s existence altogether on the grounds that there is no way of empirically verifying his existence. He believed that ethical statements fell short of the verification principle because they could not be verified empirically.

This lead him towards emotivism which asserts that moral statements are meaningless because they simply express feelings and influence the feelings of others (known as the boo hurrah theory).



  • Saves wasted time discussing God
  • We often regard verification and falsification as ways of distinguishing between sense and nonsense
  • Supports the design argument for God’s existence because it is based on a posteriori evidence
  • Supports the claim of an afterlife and religious experience


  • There is no empirical evidence to support the verification principle - doesn’t meet its own criteria
  • There are many terms that are metaphysical (such as love and beauty) which do have meaning for the users and the effects of these metaphysical terms can be seen through one’s actions (empirically)
  • Vardy argues that the fact that you can’t verify it doesn’t mean that it is meaningless
  • It is not consistent with modern science as many scientific statements such as atoms or forces are not verifiable
  • Historical Statements cannot be empirically verified and are therefore rendered meaningless under the strong verification principle
  • Keith Ward reasoned that God’s existence can, in principle, be verified since God himself can verify his own existence
  • If you apply the weak verification principle then you can justify anything


The parable of the Eschatological City

Two people are travelling together along a road. One of them believes that it leads to the Celestial city, the other that it leads to nowhere but since this is the only road there is, both must travel it.

During their journey, they meet moments of refreshment and delight and with moments of hardship. One interprets the pleasant parts as encouragement and the obstacles as trials of her purpose and lessons in endurance in order to prepare for the celestial city. The other however believes none of this and sees it as an unavoidable ramble. But since there was no other choice, enjoys the good and endures the bad.

During the course of their journey, they do not entertain different expectations about the coming details of the road, but only about its ultimate destination. Yet when they turn the last corner, it will be apparent that one of them has been wrong.

Hick used the parable to explain that just because God cannot be verified now does not mean that they will be verified in the future. Hick in a way is using the weak verification principle in reverse.

Falsifcation Principle

The Parable of the Gardener and the Weeds

Anthony Flew drew upon the parable to prove his point originally used by John Wisdom to illustrate the ambiguity of the universe.

Two explorers return to come across a garden in which had grown flowers and weeds. Even though there are some areas which are overgrown, there are certain areas that appear to be tended to. One argues that there is a gardener on account of the flowers, the other argues that they could be no gardener on account of the weeds


Sir Karl Popper

Flew was influenced by Sir Karl Popper a philosopher of science. He argued that the scientific method was based not on verification but on falsification. A scientist proposes a hypothesis which he then sets out to test. If the scientists knows how to show that his hypothesis might be false then his statement is synthetic and therefore meaningful


Antony Flew

Flew applied the falsification principle to religious language, and concluded that religious statements are meaningless. This is because there is nothing that can count against religious statements – they can be neither proved true (verified) or false (falsified).

Flew believed that a statement is meaningful if it is known what empirical evidence could count against it: in other words if it can be verified e.g. on what individual ground will you stop believing in God. But using the example in the parable, Flew said that religious believers do not give the condition which will count against their claim.

An often quoted example of how a proposition may be falsified can be seen with the statement all swans are white. We may see hundreds of white swans but this does not prove the statement. However, when we see one black swan we know that the proposition is false.

Flew argued Christians say ‘God is Good’ no matter what evidence is offered against this. He stated that these constant qualifications render religious statements meaningless because they die the “death by a thousand qualifications”.

The falsification challenge is based upon the insight that to assert something is to deny something else. Also when we state something is the case you are also denying the opposite. Therefore there has to be some sense experience that would count against your claim.

Critique of the Falsifcation principle


Realists believe that a statement is true if it corresponds to the state of affairs that it attempts to describe. E.g The statement The Holy Qu’ran was dictated by the Archangel is either true or false, depending on whether or not this happened. Most Theists are realist about God. This does not mean that we can necessarily know whether a given statement is true or false but the realist would say there is a truth to be known.


Richard Swinburne

Swinburne uses the analogy of the toys and cupboard to challenge the falsification principle as well as in support of Realism

He believed that the falsification principle does not work for all statements but they are still meaningful. He uses the analogy of the toys in the cupboard, although one cannot prove or falsify that the toys do not leave the cupboard when unsupervised, the concept of their movement still has enough meaning because we can understand it.


Basil Mitchell

Mitchell wanted to show us that religious statements are meaningful even if they are neither straightforwardly verifiable nor falsifiable. Mitchell argued that Flew was wrong in his supposition that believers never, allow anything to count against their beliefs. He used the Parable of the Partisan and the Stranger to explain that religious language can not be verified / falsified

The Parable of the Partisan

A stranger meets a resistance worker, who is on his side. He asks the stranger to trust him even though he might see him doing things that appear to be going against the cause they are both working for. True that he does see him do odd things but he still has faith in the resistance worker.

He therefore claimed that Flew missed the point that like the resistance worker, believers have a commitment to trust God based on faith. Mitchell also claims that believer do not allow anything to conclusively falsify their belief in God, but this does not mean it is meaningless because they do show that there is a real problem of which they must be aware.

Mitchell’s point is that religious belief is based upon facts, but that belief cannot be verified/falsified. All the peculiar and problematic parts of religious belief will be revealed at the end of time according to religious belief.

This is similar to John Hick’s theory of eschatological verification

Criticisms of Mitchell


  • It is debatable to what extent Mitchell’s parable of the stranger gets over the problem of falsification and the fact that religious believers will not allow anything to count against their faith.
  • The parable of the stranger is a weak analogy of faith in God when it comes to the problem of evil


Anti Realist

Anti-realist believe that a statement is true when it is coherent within a specific form of life. The anti-realist would say that the statement The Holy Qu’ran was dictated by the archangel is true because it is coherent with Islam.

They would probably also argue that talk of God is meaningful because it is coherent with certain religious groups. They may also say that God has no existence beyond human minds and language.


R.M Hare

Proposed that a believer’s statements were ‘Bliks’, ways of regarding the world that may not be based on reason or fact and are neither falsifiable nor verifiable. He felt that religious beliefs are ‘Bliks’ because of the impact that they have on the way in which people look at the world and their lives.

Hare illustrated this point in the Parable of the Lunatic


The Parable of the lunatic

A certain lunatic is convinced that all dons want to murder him. His friends introduce him to all the mildest and most respectable dons that they can find, and after each of them has retired, they say, ‘You see, he doesn’t really want to murder you; he spoke to you in a most cordial manner; surely you are convinced now?’ But the lunatic replies, ‘Yes, but that was only is diabolical cunning; he’s really plotting against me the whole time, like the rest of them; I know it, I tell you.’ However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is still the same.

Hare said that people either have the right or wrong ‘Blik’. The lunatic above has the wrong ‘Blik’ about dons, whereas his friends have the right ‘Blik’

Criticisms of Hare

Hare’s theory has been criticised notably by John Hick who argued:

  • Religious beliefs/ bliks are based upon reason (evidence)
  • There is inconsistency as Hare claims that there is a distinction between sane and insane ‘Bliks’. But he also claims that ‘Bliks’ are unverifiable and unfalsifiable. If we cannot either prove or disprove religious ‘Bliks’ we cannot call them right, wrong, sane or insane either.
  • Is everything relativist (general criticism)
Functionalist (supports Anti-realism)

A functionalist would argue that we should look towards the function (s) that religious language serves.

Richard Braithwaite argues that religious assertions serve primarily an ethical function. Thus religious statements, likewise express and recommend a commitment to a certain general policy or way of life.

The Via Negativa (a.k.a The Apophatic Way)

Also known as the Apophatic Way and is based on the equivocal approach to language. In negative theology it is accepted that the Divine is ineffable (too great or too extreme to be expressed in words.)

Believe that all words must be denied or negated in order to understand Ultimate reality. It is possible to talk about God by not saying what He is but by saying what he is not.

Scholars argue that every positive quality attributed to God (the via positiva) such as God is all loving and all good, must always be balanced by the recognition that human language is inadequate when trying to describe the attributes of God.



He believed that the Demiurge is the creator of the cosmos and beyond the intelligible Gods is the one. But although the Absolute one in his indescribable nature is beyond the reach of human though, yet the mind of man can ascend in mysticism through wordless prayer, draw close to him almost to the point of union with God.


Philo of Alexandria

He distinguished between the existence of God which could be discovered and the nature of God which he believed was inaccessible to man. This nature of God could only be talked about in negative terms, stating what God is not, via negative.



The via negative does not deny the experience of God but denies the use of language to describe what God is. There is no language statements made of God that one can make, rather God becomes unified with self. Thus the infinite can penetrate into the finite but there is no corresponding language statements made. Hence the experience is ineffable.



Is a key exponent of the via negative and he carries great authority for this approach. He argues that the divine names do not literally describe God but point to God

He was a mystic and took Moses as representing the mystical tradition. Moses received the 10 commandments but in order to do so he approached God through the cloud. But the closer Moses got to God it seems that he saw less. Like Moses he argues, the soul of the mystic enters the darkness of God where it remains speechless, united in passivity, with him who is completely unknowable. So Dionysius concludes that any statement you make about God will be equivocal and meaningless.


Was a Jewish Philosopher. He argued that humans beings can know that God exists but not know anything about God, because God is not like human beings. For example God does not feel emotions. He suggested that this way of talking about God is found in the jewish scriptures where God is described as being 'I am who I am' he is beyond desription



  • It comes the closest to meeting the challenge of the falsification principle. (e.g if we found God’s body then it would falsify the statement that God is immortal)
  • It reminds us that language is unstable when applied to God.

Stiver has argued in support of the Via Negativa identifying the following characteristics:

  • There is a move beyond words to denying them; this is not scepticism, but designed to lead to the truth and the experience of God.
  • No cognitive or descriptive content is allowed.
  • This principle undercuts any approach involving cognitive meaning



  • Brian Davis criticised Maimonides by say that only saying what something is not gives no indication of what it actually is.
  • How useful is it to say what God is not
  • Can language of this negative nature be valuable?
  • It is based on a contradiction in the sense that we do naturally speak the unspeakable even if it is in a negative way.
  • Christianity is based on revelation, which reveals the divine nature, surely this militates against an Apophatic way.
  • Does it really say nothing? Even in saying ‘God is not this, God is not that’ aren’t we really asserting something?
  • Used on its own, the Via Negativia way does not distinguish theism from atheism. To speak only negatively of God is to deny him altogether.
  • If we never speak positively of God we will never get a clear picture of what he is.
  • It could be argued that a definition of God that speaks only of negative attributes ‘dies the death of a thousand qualification’ (Flew)
  • Believers would want to speak positively of God, not negatively.

The Middle Way: Analogy

An analogy is an attempt to explain the meaning of something which is difficult to understand in the light comparison with something else which is within our frame of reference. The most famous early proponent speaking about God in analogical terms was St Thomas Aquinas.

Rejected the Via Negativa for whilst it safeguards the transcendence and mystery of God it means that there is very little that can be said about God.


Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas Aquinas would disagree with the Verification Principle, as he believes that humans can only describe God using analogy as we can only describe God using our own language.

Aquinas argued that there were two types of analogy used in religious language:


Analogy of Attribution

Which is based on causation. He argued that it is possible to work out the nature of God by examining his creation. God was the source and cause of goodness and therefore connected with it. This is essentially Aquinas’ moral argument for the existence of God


Analogy of Proportionality

States that beings have attributes in proportion to the kind of reality that beings possess. For example a cabbage has life in proportion to a cabbage. Thus God has goodness in proportion to his goodness just as humans have goodness in proportion to their goodness.

Aquinas' theory would therefore argue that religious language cannot be proved or disproved, as they are metaphors of something we cannot describe fully using human language.

Ian Ramsay

Ramsey developed the doctrine by reference to what he termed "models and qualifiers". If we say that God is good, the model is the word goodness. As human beings, we have an understanding of the nature of goodness ( Mother Teresa was a good woman, for example), and when applied to God it is a model for our understanding the nature of God's goodness. But, as we are dealing with God, the model word requires adaptation, thus the term "qualifiers". We recognise that God cannot be literally "good", in our sense of the concepts usage; thus we need to qualify the statement the "God is good" by adding the qualifier "infinitely". The statement now reads God is ininitely good. In this way, we can develop a greater insight into the nature of God's goodness, enabling us to respond to this insight with a sense of awe and wonder. (To Edit)


  • challenges the verification principle by explaining the complexity of religious language
  • Avoids anthropomorphising God because words are not meant to be taken literally
  • Avoids agnosticism because it conveys the knowledge of God
  • Helps to explain difficult concepts, such as God’s agapeic love



  • Aquinas based his work upon a number of assumptions that came from religious belief.
  • Makes assertions about God even though it recognises that words are limited.
  • It is debatable whether it gets around the falsification and verification principle as it does not stand up to verification because the object one is trying to illustrate by use of analogy cannot be empirically verified
  • The analogy of attribution raises the problem of evil. The world also compromises evil so does God posses these qualities as well
  • Richard Swinburne argues that we don’t really need analogy at all. When we say ‘God is good’ and ‘humans are good’ we may be using good to apply to different things, but we are using it to mean the same thing i.e we are using the word good univocally


Myths do not solve problems or questions, but they express an attitude in the presence of mystery. So like religious experience they are not meant to be verifiable. Religious myth is non cognitive and according to Macquarrie, not meant to be rationalised.

It seeks to explore humanities relationship to God, and humanities place in the cosmos, human destiny, and the place of humankind and the universe in God's plan of salvation and judgment; it does not posit any cosmological truths.

The myth could be a story that is not true but has some other value for example Braithwaite argued that religious stories are inspirational to us, and they provide us with the motivation to lead a moral life.


Sarah Tyler

Sarah Tyler defines myth as a literary form describing otherworldly matters in this worldly terms; myth is a linguistic method of interpreting ultimate reality. She also said that myths are vehicles for conveying complex religious truths in cosmic dimensions, in a manner that this worldly descriptions could not convey.



Macquarrie argues that we should not ignore the meaningfulness of myth. They answer not the how questions, but the why questions concerned with human existence. They give an insight into what man’s relationship with God ought to be



Bultmann was the theologian who tackled the problem of how to make the New Testament relevant in the 20th century.

Bultmann, in Demythologising the NT, argued for interpreting the NT in existentialist terms. He held that people today found it difficult to believe the stories of the NT. Influenced by Heidegger, he went on to include the resurrection and the miraculous stories in his classification of stories that need to be demythologized. The resurrection should be understood as a spiritual experience which left the disciples newly motivated to continue Jesus’ work

Bultmann was arguing that people focused on the myth rather than the real meaning behind it. The real meaning was in danger of becoming obsolete. At best, he argues that we should address religious truths in new methods that are more appropriate to our own age.



  • The danger in too much interpretation is that the resurrection may be understood as myth and this is the risk believers have to face when facing the challenge of falsification.
  • The Verification Principle would argue, that if myths are the product of emotions then they are particularly meaningless and non cognitive.
  • Fundamentalist conservatives reject outright Bultmann’s work seeing the religious language contained in the Bible in a more univocal way.
  • A fundamental difficulty with interpreting religious stories as myths is that it undermines their status as true accounts of the events.
  • Alvin Plantinga argues that to claim that “God exists” is to make an existential assertion. It is not to talk symbolically of mythological of to adopt a certain attitude.

Extra Information

These notes can be used for the OCR Religious Studies (philosophy and ethics) course.

This page was created by Chrisateen