Critically Assess the Claim That Religious Language Is Meaningless
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Religious language has been argued about by many philosophers to whether or not the ways in which we speak about religion are relevant or meaningful. This issue of religious language looks at the way we talk about God, debate ideas and communicate our theist or atheist ideologies. For some, religious language is meaningful and full of purpose while others see it to being incomprehensible and pointless.
The Vienna Circle was made up of many great philosophers who were against metaphysics due to it leading to illogical thoughts like there being another world to ours. This view transcended onto the philosophical issue of religious language – David Hume for instance – thought that religious language was meaningless due to its irrational diction. A. J. Ayer furthered this point of view within the United Kingdom with a varied response to his ideas. It was through this logical thinking that the verification movement began. Verification claimed that language can only be meaningful if it can be confirmed through sense experience; this movement was based on science, rational thought process and empirical evidence. Simply put, the meaningfulness of a statement is illustrated through the means in which you verify it. An example of sense observation verification is if you were to say “My jumper is red”.
Anyone can look at your jumper and see that it is indeed red. Although, if you were to say “my jumper is red and is beautiful” it makes it harder to verify the second half of the statement due to its inability to clarify if it is ‘true’ or ‘false’. To verificationists if it is unable to be verified then it is meaningless. Applying this to religion, if you said “God is good” it is almost impossible to verify its truth or logic. Therefore, religious language is indeed meaningless. However, the verification movement is full of flaws. Taking the previous explanation into consideration it is impossible to verify historical statements. For example, if you claim that the Battle of Waterloo happened in 1815 which lead to Napoleon being defeated you would not be able to verify it through sense observation making it meaningless. Moreover, Swinburne gives the example of “all ravens are black”. If you take this statement, scientifically it is considered true that all ravens have only black feathers.
But, Swinburne explained that you can never be 100% sure if this is true how ever many ravens you look at there is still a chance that one is not black. Thus, these two criticisms suggest that verification might not be the best solution to the issue of religious language. Perhaps, it is indeed meaningful as you can not verify fully that it is not. Although in order to critically assess the claim that religious language is meaningless you must look at what is meant by “meaningless” and “meaningful”. To A. J. Ayer who supported verification, he defined meaningless to meaning it was not “factually significant”. This means that it can not further our knowledge or be supported by scientific experience or theory. Although, Ayer appreciate that a religious statement “may be emotionally significant… (but) not literally significant.” Ayer begins to expand on verification by expressing the differences between analytic and synthetic statements. An analytical statement is one that holds the answer in itself or empirical information like ‘2+2=4’.
This is a strong example of verification compared to a synthetic statement like “it is raining outside”. While this synthetic statement might be true, it relies n your sense experiences to confirm it is. Religious language or statements such as “God exists” are impossible to categorise into these two categories making all religious language meaningless according to Ayer. Although, Ayer then reviewed his work after ‘Language Truth and Logic’ was widely criticised. He decided to re-write certain sections of his book concerning his verification model; this then became known as ‘Language, Truth and Logic 2’. Ayer changed his definition of verification due to the strong and weak categories not having a big enough distinction – for example, strong analytical claims can’t be applied to any form of statement. Furthermore, Ayer rejected his previous definition of ‘weak verification’ claiming it was “far too liberal… (and) allows meaning to any statement whatsoever”.
An example of the issue is the religious statement “God is real and lives within us” – according to verification this does have meaning due to it being a synthetic statement; however, this did not suit Ayer’s opinion that all religious statements have no meaning. In order to improve his ideas, Ayer added direct and indirect verifiability. Direct verification records “an actual or possible observation”. For example if you asked “do all trees have leaves in autumn?” you would be able to verify the answer through observation through the senses. Whereas, indirect verification is knowledge that could be proved however we have other knowledge that proves it. An example of this could be a scientific experiment trying to prove that a barometer would rise due to pressure according to your position on a mountain, but Galileo indirectly proved this through discovering that two objects of differing weights would reach the ground at the same time even if they are dropped from the same height. Applying this to religious language, it makes it even harder to verify statements such as “it is bad to murder because God is good and forbids it” because you cannot directly or indirectly support it with empirical fact.
Aquinas however thought that religious language was meaningful unlike many philosophers who followed him. Aquinas used the example of analogy to prove this. He believed any religious statements that you make are being made from a human’s perception and cannot be compared to the brilliance of God. For example, you may get a good grade in an essay and you may claim that God is also good but the two types of ‘good’ are completely different. The univocal language that we use in day to day life is not meaningless though it does help us to make connections between the world around us and God himself. Analogy of attribution highlights words that can be applied to humans as well as to God. For example, if you claim ‘Anne is good’ and then say ‘God is good’ then these are both meaningful statements. When you state that God is good you are saying that he is the source of all goodness because God is the creator and sustains all things. This is meaningful because the statement ‘God is good’ illustrates that if God created all goodness he must be good himself.
According to the analogy of proportion if you say “my car is great” then you are saying it lives up to your expectation of what greatness is. If you say the religious statement ‘God is a great God’ you are agreeing that God measures up to what a great God should be. To Aquinas, this was meaningful because you were expressing through analogy the goodness of God. Although verificationists would argues that analogy, symbol and myth are all just as meaningless as they can neither be verified nor falsified. Falsification is another way of verifying religious language. In order for religious language to be meaningful it must be proved through verification and not disproved through falsification. Karl Popper give the scientific example of falsification is gravity; we know it is there due to when you throw a ball in the air it will always return to the ground. However, we can also tell that gravity can not, not exist due to the alignment of the planets making gravity scientifically verified.
This is also known as demarcation which is the separation between scientific and non-scientific statements. If you say “badgers are black and white” then through falsification you are also claiming that “badgers are not, not black and white” which is the equivalent of saying “I have only ever seen black and white badgers”. This shows that religious language is indeed meaningless due to it’s inability to firstly be verified or to be falsified. The Via Negativa, which literally translates as the negative way, argues that you can’t say what God is instead you can say what he isn’t. Many religious people would say this is a far more respectable way to talk about God as it does not necessarily make religious statements meaningless. For example, while it is hard to meaningfully say “God is good” due to it not having an empirical evidence to support this, it is meaningful to say that ‘God is not evil’. However, many philosophers have criticised this and believe it results in a limited amount of information about God and does not give us a true reflection of the ways in which Christians speak about God as no positive statements can be made.
C. S. Lewis supported the Via Negativa coming to the conclusion that using negative theology eradicates any misconceptions we have about God. Ludwig Wittgenstein addresses the issue of religious language with his theory on Language Games. This links to one of the weaknesses of the Via Negativa of it not realistically showing how people of faith talk about their creator. Wittgenstein believed that like a game of chess there are rules that you must follow when using language. For example, in chess the Queen piece can move anywhere across the board, and without knowing this rule it makes it incredibly hard to win. Similarly with religious language you must know the rules in order for it to be meaningful. Immediately this comes with a problem – there are no written rules to language, it is fluid and does not follow a set structure like a game of chess. What Wittgenstein meant was that religious and normal language must follow the same guidelines that we uncover through using language more and more.
For example, the word “necessary” can mean in normal context that it is a vital action – “it is necessary that I do my philosophy essay for Miss King if I want to sleep tonight”. However, “necessary” can also mean in religious sense of something that is definite and constant – “God is a necessary higher being who created the world.” Wittgenstein eventually came to the conclusion that religious language was in fact meaningless as we did not understand the rules of it. By this he means that we will never know the true and honest meaning of the word “necessary” in a religious sense because we cannot comprehend God well enough. Wittgenstein did not support verification of religious language even though they both come to the same conclusion that religious language is meaningless. Wittgenstein believed that empirical evidence and language do not connect and cannot be compared to one another to decide what is true or false. In fact Wittgenstein thought that verification did not give any meaning to language whether it was religious or not.
However, many philosophers have criticised Wittgenstein’s opinions due to it merely highlighting the differences between normal and religious language. In conclusion, it is hard to decide if religious language is or is not meaningful. While many philosophers would argue that it has no meaning it is important to see that none of them suggest what should be used instead of language. Religion is an important part of our society in my opinion and should not be classified as meaningless by those who are not religious. While it is easy to understand that religious language might only be relevant to other religious people it does not mean that it is completely pointless to the rest of society. On the contrary, religious language defines the incomprehensible and without it not only would religion become redundant so would many of philosopy’s greatest arguments.
[ 1 ]. Richard Swinburne
[ 2 ]. Ayer, ‘Language, Truth and Logic’.
[ 3 ]. Ayer, ‘Language, Truth and Logic’.
[ 4 ]. Ayer, ‘Language, Truth and Logic’.