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A2 Roy Jackson - Religious Language

A2 Roy Jackson - Religious Language

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Published by: dusty_badger on Mar 25, 2012
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Religious Language -
Roy Jackson
'What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.'
Ludwig Wittgenstein
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').
Religious Language -
Roy Jackson
In the 1950s a debate - led by Anthony Flew - on falsification ensued. It is onething to say that a religious statement cannot be true because it cannot beverified, but what if we say that a statement is presumed to be true
falsified.This way, science accepts that statements can be proven to be false (i.e. the sun -in given circumstance - may not rise tomorrow) but the statement is stillmeaningful because it admits it! In other words, scientific statements make anassertion about the world and then challenges us to prove it to be untrue.In this sense we can at least say that scientific statements are saying somethingpositive and, therefore, meaningful, whereas - the theory goes - religiousstatements assert nothing! For example, if I were to say that 'God watches overme' then I am making an assertion that cannot be falsified; especially if I alsostate that God is invisible! Of course, if I then get run over by a bus that mightsuggest that God was distracted momentarily, but equally I could retort that it waspart of God's plan that I get flattened by a double-decker. The point is that I willnot allow for anything to count against my belief that He is watching over me.Quite simply, the statement I am making is 'unscientific' because I am notallowing for the possibility of falsification. The statement, therefore, is really notasserting anything at all and must be meaningless.There are, however, two major problems with falsification. Firstly, it could beargued (and, indeed, has by R.M. Hare) that religious language could still havemeaning without being factual. Here, it depends on what is meant by 'meaning'!Does a statement that affects a person's life have meaning or not? For the personaffected it certainly does. Although not falsifiable, they still have significance.Secondly, religious adherents often admit - in a scientific way - that statements
be falsified by conflicting evidence (for example, the evidence of evil conflictswith the idea of a good God), but that faith in 'God's plan' is of greater validity.
How Can We Talk About God?
As it is generally considered that neither falsification nor verification provides anadequate criterion for establishing meaning, other ways of talking about God havebeen approached. One can use simile. For example, 'God is like a watchmaker':One can picture a watchmaker, making his device and getting it to tick awaynicely and can extract from that an image of God creating the world and getting itrolling. An extension of this is the use of metaphor. A metaphor is frequently usedin literature as it is regarded as an imaginative way of trying to express something(for example, 'his poetry is a metaphor for spiritual hunger.') Metaphor isfrequently used in religious language, such as 'heaven is a land of milk andhoney'. Note here that, unlike a simile, we are not saying that heaven is
milkand honey; rather, the image conjured up is an association of sweetness, warmth,security, plenty, and so on.There is a danger, however, about saying that all talk of God is metaphorical. Weknow the remark 'I only meant that metaphorically'; in other words, it has anelement of 'untruth' about it. All very poetic and everything, but not real.Alternatively, we can use negatives. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) argued that God is unknowable and that the only way one can talk aboutGod is by saying what He is
However, by
saying He is not physical, not finite,not knowable and so on, does that tell us any more about what He
other thanthe opposite? In which case, why not simply say that He is infinite, spiritual andunknowable? Sometimes it seems more comprehensible to say 'God
good' or'God
the creator'.

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