Many philosophers past and present have tried to analyse language to determine whether or not language has meaning. The topic of religious language caught the interest of philosophers around the world. Early analysis of language came from the Vienna Circle, was a group of philosophers including Schlich and Neurath who gave rise to the logical positivist movement. Logical Positivism being the movement in philosophy that believed that the aim of philosophy should be analysis of language, especially the language of science.
From the Vienna Circle came the theory which suggested that opposed religious language having any meaning, this was the Verification Principle. This stated that statements are only meaningful if they can be verified by the senses. They believed that statements only held meaning if they were empirically based, thus regarded mathematic statements as holding a lot of meaning, as all would agree 5 plus 5 equals 10 and this is empirically verifiable and true. The Verification Principle was developed and it was claimed that a statement could be meaningful if it was a tautology, something we know to be true by definition, for instance ‘all squares have four sides. Whilst tautologies are meaningful in that they are correct if thought about logically, they don’t tell us anything about the world which isn’t apparent, thus doesn’t lead to any new discoveries or a deepening of current knowledge.
The Verification Principle implies then that religious language is therefore meaningless as it is no verifiable by the senses, nobody has ever sensed could, although they can claim so, it is not empirically proven that God exists. When talking about language used to describe God one may argue that we know God to be all powerful because it is the definition of God, and we know this to be true. This argument would claim that it is a tautology and so it is meaningful, however this is would be a very weak argument which would be unable to stand up against theories opposing it.
A.J. Ayer proposed what would late be known as the weak Verification Principle… In his book ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ he rejects metaphysics as meaningless; this could explain the enthusiasm to provide a less rigid theory which could possibly imply that religious language is meaningful. His form of the Verification Principle stated that for a statement to be meaningful it must either be a tautology or verifiable in principle. This differed greatly from the ideas of the Vienna Circle as he stipulated it was not necessary to conclusively prove something by direct observation. He suggested that in order for a statement to be considered meaningful, we should be able to specify what would be required for the statement to be considered true. In this case religious language is meaningful, as it wouldn’t be difficult for somebody to suggest how it could be proven that God is faithful for example.
The falsification principle came about thereafter the Verification Principle. It looked at religious language from a new angle though. Karl Popper was prolific for his role in the Falsification Principle, he asserted that any theory that cannot be disproved is not valid. Therefore because we cannot disprove any of the statements used to talk about and describe God, it is meaningless.
Anthony Flew although he did not openly say that religious language is meaningless, his work leads many to believe that he did regard it as meaningless. He argued that religious language could not be falsified and therefore isn’t a genuine statement. He asked what would have to happen to disprove the existence of God. He used an analogy of an invisible gardener who tends to a garden who is unseen and cannot be trapped. But there is no way of disproving it existence because the statements used to describe him don’t allow it. Flew argued this was the same for religious believers as they ‘move the goalposts’ in religious language by making great claims about God which allow flexibility to get around any problem that God faces but this doesn’t mean it is true. There is no way of disproving that God doesn’t have an ultimate claim for us all, because it cannot be falsified it is false according to Flew.
Hume suggested that all language not empirically grounded should be “committed to the flames for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion” Through this he implied that religious language was meaningless and has little merit to it.
John Hick was a believer and questioned whether the Verification Principle renders religious statements meaningless, he used an analogy to illustrate that religious statements could be verified at the end of life, he calls this eschatological verification. Thus because there is a way that it could be verified, Hick argues that religious language is meaningful.
Some people claim that religious language is non-cognitive; it is not scientific, but instead emotional. Therefore it is not subject to the Verification Principle. Ayer agreed that something could hold meaning for one person and not for another, simply due to differences in belief. R.M. Hare had similar ideas and said people have bliks about the world, these are personal to them. These beliefs are not based on logic or empirical evidence. He suggests that religious believers have bliks about the world and use God to support it. Similarly empiricists have bliks and the way they see the world leads them to believe that everything must be scientifically proven. Hare says neither is more wrong or more right, thus religious language is meaningful but only to those with the same bliks.
Wittgenstein supported the ideas of Ayer and Hare; he posits that religious language is used differently and in different contexts, and has different meaning from person to person. He says that if you were to understand and practice it too, you would regard it as meaningful, but if you totally reject it then of course it would be meaningless. You could argue the same is true to different types of statements for instance mathematics or quantum physics, some people might not understand quantum physics or the reasoning behind it thus it holds no meaning for them. However, just because you don’t understand or use religious language doesn’t mean that it isn’t meaningful.
Some philosophers argue that religious statements are analogical and so they cannot be proved or disproved. They are simply metaphors, because any attempt to use precise language would only be anthropomorphising God. Therefore the verification principle doesn’t render religious language meaningless.
The Verification Principle is a challenge to religious language and its meaningfulness but not deadening as first thought. As it suggests that sense based verification is the oonly means of assessing meaningfulness, a reductionist viewpoint at best, but because there could be other ways of verifying religious language, such as Hick’s eschatological verification, religious language is not meaningless. Some may argue that religious language is meaningful dependent on the individual and their own beliefs. Due to its lack of empirical background it is a stretch to say it would have meaning for atheists, but it certainly has meaning for those who already have faith.