Religious language appears to be used by most religious believers without any sense of there being a problem with what they are saying. For them the term ‘God’ itself is freely applied and used. No difficulties are detected in the application of that ‘name’. However, theologians and philosophers recognise that ‘God-talk’ is a much more complex matter than often appears. Moreover, one branch of philosophy has argued that ‘God-talk’ is meaningless.
The following statements highlight the complexity:
* God loves us like a father
* God is my rock
* God wrestled with Jacob
* God was crucified.
Does religious language have the same meaning as ‘ordinary language’? And what gives ‘ordinary language’ its sense anyway? Can a non-believer understand the language of a believer?
What are the main issues involved?
* How does one decide what, if any, language about God is appropriate?
* How do we decide what language used of God is to be understood as literal, symbolic or metaphorical?
* How should language about God be understood if God is not a phenomenal being? God is often held to be timeless, spaceless and bodiless – such a God will not be able to love, wrestle, or act like human persons.
How, if God is completely different from anything that comes within the range of our experience, can we speak of God in ways that we speak of other things in our world?
In the contemporary world, especially the Western world, scientific study has come to play not only a vital role in the practice of everyday living, but has also influenced the types of beliefs about life and meaning that are popular.
Technological and scientific progress has been so great in the past few centuries that many people have come to put a significant amount of faith in scientific study as a way of solving problems and answering questions that have plagued humanity for long periods of time. Its methods have even become the pre-eminent paradigm (model, example) of how we come to know things (epistemology), of rational enquiry and rational method.
One example of the expression of awe at scientific advance was the thought of Renï¿½ Descartes. He was deeply impressed by the successes of the time in the field of the natural sciences (physics) and mathematics. His aim was to produce a system of philosophy which could achieve and operate with a similarly high degree of certainty as these sciences seemed to.
One ‘popular’ view in the contemporary West is that the conflict between science and religion has left religion ‘disproven’, or at least relegated to the private experiences of the individual with nothing meaningful to say to the wider, public world. Science, one could argue, has become almost a new ‘religion’ in the sense that it is in it that some people’s faith and hope are being ultimately placed.
Logical Positivism: Background
One very influential line of thinking on the relation between science and religion is that of Logical Positivism. In this, particularly, the legitimacy of religious language (and, by extension, religious belief) has been called into question, and, indeed, such language is even declared to be ‘meaningless’. The claim is that propositions such as ‘God creates’, or ‘God loves’, are cognitively meaningless, lacking any clear propositional sense. We do not even know what ‘existence’ means when predicated of God.
Logical Positivism originated with a group of philosophers in Vienna who, after W.W.I, formed the ‘Vienna Circle’. It became influential in the English-speaking world with A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic of 1936. Its most famous spokesmen were Rudolf Carnap and Moritz Schlick.
Religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, for example, in some sense assume some sort of ‘factual’ character in their belief assertions. Logical Positivism developed a criterion by which to distinguish the factual from the non-factual.
The Verification Principle
Logical Positivism tries to specify the conditions under which a proposition is meaningful. There are 2 types of meaningful statements (based on Kant’s distinction):
* Analytic propositions: statements whose truth or falsehood is determined by the meanings of the words in the statement – e.g., definitions, and truths of mathematics and logic. These, however, cannot give us any information about something existence in the physical reality because they are solely about language – e.g., ‘a bachelor is an unmarried man’; or ‘2 plus 2 equals 4’.
* Synthetic propositions: must be verifiable through some form of empirical evidence, as in science. All ‘substantial’ knowledge is empirical knowledge.
Religious statements cannot be empirically verified, and therefore they must, in this system, be meaningless. The statement ‘God exists’ is meaningless.
A criticism can be advanced about a strict application of this verification principle (VP). There are many statements that we can make which, although they cannot be empirically verified, strictly speaking, are nonetheless meaningful:
* Statements about emotions: ‘Romeo and Juliet were greatly in love’. The effects of such emotion can be empirically perceived, but not strictly the thing ‘love’ in itself.
* Imperative statements: purely grammatically, a command is not a factual statement that can be verified empirically (e.g. ‘open your books at page 13’).
* Historical statements: ‘Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492’ is a meaningful statement and yet strictly cannot be directly verified.
* General statements and scientific laws: ‘All metals expand when heated’ is meaningful as a general rule, and yet not all metals can be tested to see if this is true.
* Scientific theories: quarks and black holes are not directly observable.
Moreover, the VP itself is meaningless according to its own test as a meaningful statement.
A.J. Ayer argues for a weaker form. Scientific laws and historical statements are, in principle, potentially verifiable. In theory, although not in practice, it is possible to test/verify all scientific statements. There is also another sort of meaning – the expression of people’s desires that Ayer saw ethical statements as doing.
But, again, Ayer continues to maintain that religious statements are not, even in principle, even potentially verifiable since God is not a part of our empirically testable world.
According to Ayer, the positivist view rules out not only theism but also atheism and agnosticism; if ‘God exists’ is meaningless, it can be neither affirmed nor denied nor even proposed as a possibility whose truth is not ascertainable. Yet, as C.S. Evans argues,
In a more extended sense, positivism certainly leads to atheism, if by an atheist we mean someone who declares it is unreasonable to believe in God or even seriously to consider belief as a possibility.
A 1950s variation on the VP is Anthony Flew’s ‘falsification principle’ (FP), which undertakes to take account of the weaknesses of the VP and to strengthen its bases by modifying it.
Read Flew’s use of John Wisdom’s parable of the gardener (in Hick, ed., p. 225)
Flew claims that “sophisticated religious believers” are similar to the believer in the parable in that they do not admit that any conceivable event(s) would provide us with a sufficient reason for admitting that propositions like ‘God loves us’ or ‘God exists’ are false. Instead the believer qualifies or weakens the claim by adding that God’s love is inscrutable or mysterious. Is the original assertion, then, still meaningful, or has it “died the death of a thousand qualifications”? In other words, Flew challenges the believer to specify what would count as a falsification of her religious claims; and he argues that if nothing could then the claims are vacuous.
On the one hand, Flew’s suggestions could possibly free the LP challenge from its narrow conception of experience as sense experience that can potentially be verifiable, to include more general types of experience and language that can be falsifiable. For e.g., whereas the ‘strong’ VP has problems with statements of love (since they cannot strictly be verified), the FP can include them by asking negatively what type of conditions would falsify the statement that ‘Romeo and Juliet were greatly in love’.
— However, critics have recognised that
what Flew really wants is some set of empirically observable conditions which would falsify theological assertions.
— In Flew’s parable, is it really unreasonable to argue for the existence of a gardener who tends that plot when it is perfectly possible to notice how extremely odd that piece of land is when compared to its surroundings?
— The sceptic and the believer do not disagree, in Flew’s parable, on what counts as evidence, but only on what counts as a proper/legitimate interpretation of that evidence. Does that mean that there is not a possible ‘true’ or ‘false’, as non-cognitivists advance? And does it mean that either interpretation given is any less rational than the other?
Finally, the fact that one reassesses and modifies one’s original proposal/hypothesis is surely a reasonable thing to do – unless, of course, there is overwhelming evidence that the general hypothesis is not true. Then, but only then, is it irrational to continue to modify it.
The Complexity of Theological Talk
Famously Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the meaning of language has to do with how it is used. The important and influential defences of the ‘meaningfulness’ of religious language have paid more attention than the LPs to how religious language is actually used.
* R.M. Hare’s ‘blik’
Hare claimed that Flew was basically right about the falsifiability of religious beliefs (religious beliefs are not really cognitive assertions because they are not falsifiable) but wrong about the implications of this (nevertheless, they are meaningful and important).
Hare interprets religious beliefs as bliks, a term he coined.
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 his diabolical cunning; he’s really plotting against me the whole time, like the rest of them.
As Hare sees it, bliks are like unfalsifiable convictions that all have (‘lunatic’ and ‘sane’); they are not propositional assertions, therefore, but it is nevertheless important to have the ‘right’ blik, presumably because of their impact on our conduct. This bears some resemblance to R.G. Collingwood’s concept of an “ultimate presupposition” which is a fundamental metaphysical conviction which is used as a bias for interpreting all of one’s experiences. Such presuppositions are not falsifiable because they are ultimate, although they are cognitive, something that Hare does not intend to argue.
— Describing bliks as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ appears strange, however, in a non-cognitivist scheme. Hare fails to explain how non-assertions can b right or wrong. Criticising this non-cognitivistic approach, John Hick argues that
a serious and rational concern with religion will inevitably make us want to know whether the way the believer feels and acts is appropriate to the actual character of the universe, and whether the things he says as a believer are true.
It was R.B. Braithwaite who pushed these kinds of thoughts explicitly in the non-cognitivist direction. He argued that although religious statements are not cognitive assertions, they nevertheless can be non-cognitively meaningful because of their practical value.
A proposition such as ‘God is love’, rather than asserting a transcendent metaphysical reality, may be a disguised imperative or a piece of moral guidance. Perhaps it is equivalent to something like ‘A person ought to regard love as the most important thing in life’.
This non-cognitivist theory rejects as improper questions about whether religious statements are factually true: religion is here reduced to a “way of life”, with the traditional beliefs which were a part of that way of life transformed into ‘myths’, ‘symbols’ or ‘illustrative parables’. It is the use of such parables and stories in religions which differentiates religion from mere morality. The illustrative elements are important, therefore, but it is not important whether or not the stories are true.
— Some religious utterances do, however, aim to be true, and so should be classed as statements/propositions. As Evans declares,
It is true that religious beliefs have profound, far-reaching implications for one’s way of life. But it is questionable whether these practical implications can be divorced from the beliefs which formed their traditional basis. Religious believers do claim that ‘love should be the most important thing in life,’ but they claim this because God exists, whose nature is love, and because human beings were created in God’s image.
Hence the non-cognitivist approach is unrepresentative of the way in which religious believers intend to use their religious language.
Certain answers to the verification/falsification challenge, therefore, have more in common with its empiricism than the above do.
* Mitchell’s principle and practice
Basil Mitchell argues that religious beliefs, which are cognitive assertions, are falsifiable in principle but not in practice. Believers are not, however, able to say precisely what would count as a falsification, which implies that in practice we may not be able to say with certainty whether such beliefs have been falsified.
He explains this through a parable:
In an occupied country during a war, a resistance fighter meets a mysterious stranger and spends a night in earnest conversation. The stranger tells the fighter that he is on the resistance’s side, even in command of it, and he begs the fighter to have faith in im no matter what happens. The stranger I hereafter seen only from a distance, sometimes doing things which obviously help the resistance, sometimes doing things which appear to betray it. How long should the resistance fighter maintain his faith in the stranger? Is it even possible to say when such faith becomes unreasonable? Do the stranger’s apparently unfriendly acts count decisively against the favourable evidence?
Apparently things unworthy of a good and all-powerful God, such as unexplained evil and suffering, do not count decisively against a loving God’s existence, for the believer believes that she has sufficient evidence for God’s reality and goodness.
* Hick’s eschatological verificationism
Hick argues that the “removal of grounds for rational doubt”, the settling of the question, is an eschatological one – i.e.,
that when history is completed I will be seen to have led to a particular end-state and to have fulfilled a specific purpose, namely, that of creating ‘children of God’.
* History and faith
It could be argued that much within at least the Christian faith has historical foundations. For example, a large part of the New Testament is a record of the significance of an historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth, for certain people who encountered and subsequently followed him. In principle, therefore, there is much that is verifiable and falsifiable. While, in some sense the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not an historical event (it is an eschatological event) a certain understanding of it and its significance would be drastically altered if the, in principle verifiable, empty tomb incident turned out to be a hoax of some kind.
Logical Positivism was an attempt to take seriously the progresses made in scientific knowledge for the philosophical project. In so doing it intended to purge philosophical thinking and speaking of all that was unworthy of decent philosophical conversation.
However, in so summarily and easily dismissing theological statements as meaningless the LPs failed to account for the great variety of the types of religious utterances, which include many other sorts of things than mere statements/factual propositions. As such, when applying itself to the issue of religious language (and also arguably to the whole epistemological and methodological endeavour) Logical Positivism is too simplistic and naï¿½ve.
Perhaps, then, to say that statements are not ‘factually meaningful’ is no more than to say that they do not have meaning in the way that scientific statements have meaning. Viewed in this sort of way, the work of the LPs may be understood as the beginnings of a large task of mapping different sorts of linguistic meaning, and different ways of getting that meaning. The LPs themselves did not see it that way, but in particular the later work of Wittgenstein indicated that Logical Positivism was inadequate and that there was a further programme of work to be done in mapping linguistic meaning.
Bultmann believed myths had to be reinterpreted, and he did that existentially. He saw the resurrection not as a history fact, but as a miracle of faith in the lives of the disciples