20th century religious language C/B grade summary notes


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  • Religious language as not cognitive and therefore meaningless
  • Verificationism is the method or approach of the logical positivists, who thought only empirical/scientific statements were meaningful.. 
  • The idea is that for language to be meaningful it must be about – refer to – reality. 
  • Ayer’s verification principle is that to be meaningful, a statement must be either analytic (true by definition) or empirically verifiable (we can test whether it is true or false through experience)
  • All religious language is meaningless because it is neither analytic nor empirically verifiable
  • ‘God’ is a being supposedly beyond the empirical world we can experience – so there’s no way to verify it.

Hick’s critique – eschatological verification

  • Religious language is empirically verifiable – in an afterlife.
  • When we die, we will see God and then we’ll know
  • Parable of the celestial city – two travellers on a road (life), one believes a celestial city (afterlife) is at the end, the other doesn’t.
  • When they reach the end, Hick remarks they will discover that one had been right all along.

Response to Hick

  • However – if there is no afterlife, we won’t know.
  • If death is annihilation there won’t be a moment of realisation of that.
  • So – Hick has only shown that religious language is possibly verifiable but not actually verifiable.


  • Religious language as not cognitive and therefore meaningless
  • Popper invented falsificationism, science doesn’t work by just looking for things which verify a theory – it works through trying to prove itself wrong – looking for falsifications of itself.
  • Falsificationism is therefore a better theory of empiricism than verificationism is.
  • Flew applied this to religious language
  • For a belief to be meaningful, it must be falsifiable, meaning we must be able to imagine how it could be false.
  • All our beliefs about reality could be false – so an unfalsifiable belief can’t be about reality – so that would make it meaningless.
  • A statement is only meaningful if it is falsifiable – meaning if we can imagine how it could be false.
  • Religious believers can’t say what could prove their belief in God false. If you were to ask them what it would take to prove that God wasn’t real – they couldn’t tell you.
  • So, religious language is meaningless.

Mitchell’s critique of Flew

  • Mitchell argues that Flew has unfairly characterised religious belief as irrationally blind to evidence against it.
  • However, religious people do accept that there is evidence against their belief – such as the problem of evil.
  • Some religious people are indeed blind in their faith – but most actually do struggle with the issue of evil.
  • Michell’s story of the partizan – who had faith that a stranger was their leader even when seeing them fighting for the other side. This is an analogy for faith in God despite seeing evil in the world.

Response to Mitchell

  • The problem for Mitchell is that he may be right that religious people accept that there is some evidence against their belief (problem of evil)
  • However – this is not enough to make religious belief falsifiable. 
  • For a belief to be falsifiable it need to be admitted not merely that there is some evidence against it, but what evidence, were we to discover it, would completely disprove the belief.
  • Religious people still cannot do that – so their belief is still unfalsifiable and thus meaningless as Flew argued.

Hare’s non-cognitive approach

  • Ayer and Flew regard religious language as a failed attempt to describe reality – because it’s unverifiable (Ayer) or unfalsifiable (Flew).
  • However, Hare says they are wrong in their foundational assumption that religious language actually is an attempt to describe reality at all. So, they can’t go on to conclude that it is a failed attempt.
  • Hare claims instead that religious language expresses non-cognitive attitude/emotion/worldview which he called our ‘Blik’.
  • Our attitude is not a cognitive belief about the world.
  • Hare claims that religious language affects human behaviour and mentality – so this makes it meaningful to those who have it.
  • So, religious language is non-cognitively meaningful.
  • Hare illustrated his theory with the story of a student with an attitude of paranoia thinking their professors were trying to kill them.
  • Religion is just like that – an expression of personal feeling/attitude.

Evaluation of Hare

  • Most religious people would reject Hare’s theory. 
  • They would claim that they aren’t just expressing their personal feelings/attitudes. 
  • They might be doing a bit of that – but they are also expressing a cognitive belief that god exists.
  • E.g. look Aquinas’ cosmological argument – it looks like a logical argument – you can say it’s false, but it’s hard to argue that it’s just an expression of his personal feelings/attitudes. It looks like Aquinas really has a cognitive belief that god exists in reality.

Wittgenstein’s language games

  • Wittgenstein thought that Ayer and Flew had misunderstood religious language.
  • Ayer and Flew thought that religious language was a failed attempt to describe reality.
  • Wittgenstein initially agreed with Ayer’s theory – but later in his life changed his mind.
  • Ayer and Flew think that words get their meaning by being scientific – by referring to reality.
  • Wittgenstein disagreed with this – claiming instead that words get their meaning by participating in the social reality.
  • The social reality is the set of different types of social interaction that exist.
  • Every different type of social interaction is like a ‘game’, Wittgenstein argued, because it follows rules.
  • The things a person says depends on the social context they are speaking in. We speak very differently when with friends verses family verses at a job interview.
  • So, words must get their meaninging from the social context in which they are spoken.
  • Religion is its own type of language game – religious language is meaningful within the religious language game to people who are religious.
  • Science is a different language game to religion – so religious language is meaningless in the scientific language game.


  • Wittgenstein says religion and science are totally different language games.
  • This is how he manages to argue that religious meaning may not be cognitively meaningful but still has meaning to religious people.
  • The issue is, scientific and religious meaning actually seem to overlap in the case of natural theology.
  • Wittgensttein is sometimes accused of reducing religious meaning to pure faith, unjustifiably excluding the role reason and natural theology play in Christian meaning & belief.

Optional further evaluation: 

  • Most scientists would reject the idea that there is scientific evidence for God. They would argue that polkinghorne is not doing genuine science when he tries to prove God using science.
  • So, Wittgenstein seems right to separate scientific meaning from religious meaning.

Using Aquinas’ theory to criticise Wittgenstein

  • Similar to the Hare issue – most religious people would not accept that when using religious language they are just expressing participation in a social game.
  • Aquinas didn’t write his cosmological argument just to express participation in a social game. 
  • Aquinas clearly believes that God exists – in a scientific sense.
  • We can say Aquinas is scientifically wrong – but we can’t say he doesn’t really believe in God in a scientific way.
  • So, Aquinas would defend the cognitivism of religious language against Wittgenstein’s theory which claims it is not cognitive.


  • We could defend Wittgenstein by arguing that actually, Aquinas had a religious interpretation of reality.
  • Aquinas thought he was describing reality with his cosmological argument, but arguably it was only the religious view of reality within the religious language game that he was describing.
  • In the scientific language game, they wouldn’t recognise the concepts Aquinas uses like ‘necessary being’.