Religious Language -
'What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.'
What Is Religious Language?
We often refer to 'everyday language'. For example, having a conversation in acafé about the weather is nothing unusual; it is a topic directly related to everydayexperience. If, however, the conversation was to turn and I started to talk aboutGod, then the language drifts from the everyday to the 'mysterious', the'metaphysical'. If I were then to go on to make an
about God - forexample, 'God exists' - then the listener might well begin to question the validityof the assertion.To assert is to insist that something is true. When we talk of the 'mysterious' thenmany doubt the truth of such statements. For a variety of reasons, many of usquestion the validity of such statements as 'God exists', 'God is timeless', 'God islove' and so on. We know such statements are made all the time, and yet wewonder whether they have any real
That is, what does it mean to say'God is timeless' and how is this different from saying 'The sky is blue'?
Verification and Falsification
In order to be able to say whether or not language is meaningful it might behelpful to have rules by which words can be judged. The rules of language weredebated by the Vienna Circle: a group of philosophers - influenced byWittgenstein's early philosophy - and scientists who met periodically fordiscussions in Vienna during the 1920s and 30s. The Circle rejected the need formetaphysics (the 'transcendental science' that examines the transition inphilosophy from the physical world to a world
sense perception). For them,a sentence could only be meaningful if it could be related to experience: it had tobe positive, and it had to be logical; hence the term 'logical positivism'.The same however, could not be said of religious language. Here, it is not a caseof whether a statement is true or not, it is rather that they cannot be proven oneway or the other (i.e. they are not verifiable) and are, therefore, meaningless. Thestatement 'God exists and He is good' is, for the logical positivist, beyond senseexperience, unverifiable and, therefore, meaningless.Of course, there are different
of verification. For example, you mightargue that the statement 'Julius Caesar led an expedition to Britain in 55 BC' issomewhat difficult to verify in the sense that there are no living witnesses to theevent and, also, that documents relating to the event are rather scanty.Nonetheless, pick up just about any encyclopaedia and it would likely confirm thestatement. Therefore, the evidence - such as it is - is weighed in favour of thehistorical statement being true; at least until evidence to the contrary is revealed.This, in the words of A.J. Ayer, is a form of 'weak verification': there is muchevidence, but not
evidence.Ayer was later to state that his earlier work was 'mostly false', and we can seewhy he came to that conclusion. By weakening verification you are opening theback door to religious language again. For example, in what respect does thestatement 'there are atoms' differ from 'God watches over me'? Both are difficultto verify in the strong sense (have you ever seen an atom?), but could be verifiedin the weaker sense. In fact, if nothing else, the existence of God could be verifiedwhen you die (what John Hick called 'eschatological verification').