religious language overview

izzy smith
Note by izzy smith, updated more than 1 year ago
izzy smith
Created by izzy smith about 4 years ago


overview of religious language from a textbook which i no longer have access to, for the edexcel a level spec.

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religious language (from the book)the problem of religious language religious language is language that deals with god and other theological matters, including religious worship, practice, behaviour and doctrine. it includes terms which we ascribe only to god in their primary context (e.g. omnipotent) and words which are about distinctively religious beliefs (e.g. the last judgement). however, even when we speak of religious issues we invariably have to use language which is drawn from our common linguistic and lexical store, and this raises problems of a particular kind. how can we use everyday language to speak of the supreme deity? surely god is above and beyond all human experience and notions, and the language which we use to speak of him should reflect that distinctiveness in some way. the primary problem of religious language is just this: we have very little language which is reserved exclusively for talk of god and religious belief, so we are compelled to find ways of making human language work effectively when applied to god. this is a notoriously difficult task and has led to considerable philosophical and theological disputes. furthermore, that language which we do reserve specially to apply to the deity and to talk distinctively of religious belief or activity is often criticised for its obscurity. can we therefore begin to talk meaningfully about god at all? consider how common language is used to talk of god and his activity in the world and in salvation. there are peculiar problems inherent in speaking of god ‘doing’ something in the world - creating, sustaining or intervening, for example - as well as speaking of how god demonstrates qualities such as mercy, justice or love. religious language - like all language - falls broadly into two categories: cognitive and non-cognitive language. cognitive or realist language makes factual assertions that can be proved true or false - e.g. statements which are believed by those who use them to contain meaningful, objective, factual content : ‘god exists’ ; ‘god loves us’ ; ‘god will execute a final judgement’. these are not ‘crypto-commands, expressions of wishes… concealed ethics, or anything else but assertions’ (flew). cognitive claims assume a correspondence theory of truth between the language used and the concepts or objects to which that language refers. non-cognitive or anti-realist language is used to make claims that can be interpreted in some other way, perhaps as symbols, metaphors, ethical commands or other non-literal modes of expression. it is language that serves some other function than that of expressing factually, objectively true claims ; it expresses the meaning that religious discourse has for an individual and the community to which he or she belongs. such language - which includes the use of symbol and myth - assumes a coherence theory of truth; truth or falsity is related to the other statements with which it is associated - rather than to objectively real situations. truth acquires a relative status. one of the primary debates in this topic is whether religious language is meaningful. some thinkers argue that it is not because it does not deal with factually verifiable assertions. others argue that it is meaningful because it can be verified, at least to the believers satisfaction, if not that of the non-believer , but also because not all religious language is intended to function cognitively. the verification principle in the 1920’s a famous group of philosophers, the logical positivists (also known as the vienna circle), influenced by ludwig wittgenstein’s picture theory of language (a statement is meaningful if it can be defined, or pictured, in the real world) and following in the footsteps of the sceptic david hume, derived a radical new theory of language which was termed the ‘verification principle’. they claimed that only assertions that were, in principle, verifiable by observation or experience could convey factual information (i.e. that the means by which they could be tested were known, even if they could not be tested in practice). assertions that there could be no imaginable way of verifying must either be analytic (self-explanatory) or meaningless. according to their criteria, meaningful assertions fall into one of three categories: analytic statements - which are true by definition (e.g. a circle is round) or tautologous (e.g. all dogs are dogs). an analytic statement cannot be false, and contains the germ of its own verification. such a statement is a logical proposition and is necessarily true; for example, ‘a bachelor is an unmarried man’ is necessarily true. mathematical statements - 2 + 2 = 4 synthetic statements - which can be verified or falsified by subjecting them to testing. statements of this kind are empirical propositions, which can be known only through observation and are contingently true or false. empirical propositions include all facts about the world, since, conceivably, any fact about the world could have been otherwise - there is no logically necessary reason why they should be as they are. hence, the assertion ‘elephants are pink and have green toenails’ is a meaningful statement since, although it is not true, it can be tested by observation. ‘all wicked people will come to a bad end’ is not meaningful since it is impossible to test, so the question of whether it is true, false or a matter of opinion is not even an issue. truth and meaning are therefore considered to be distinct concepts. hence, the verification principle demands that an empirical proposition has meaning only if there is a situation in which observations verify it as true. in this way , the logical positivists applied the principles of science and mathematics to all language statements, declaring that, like knowledge, language has to be based on experience. however, if a statement can theoretically be verified, then it passes the criteria of meaningless as laid down by the logical positivists. for example, ‘there are mountains on the dark side of the moon’ was not verifiable in 1936 when a.j. ayer wrote language, truth and logic, but it was theoretically possible to construct a means of verifying it. implications for religious language since statements about god are neither analytically true nor open to verification by observation, they are therefore rendered meaningless. according to the logical positivists, claims to have experienced god are subjective, not universal, and there are no reliable grounds for testing them. hence they cannot be the basis for empirical propositions about god. the question ‘does a transcendent god exist?’ is rejected, since although it seems to be cognitive (asking a question about an objective reality), our experience of the world does not admit of transcendent things. however, the verification principle has wider implications for language. all statements that express unverifiable opinions or emotions are rendered invalid, as are ethical statements. general laws of science, which are accepted as true, cannot be verified, since there is no way they can be absolutely verified. for example, to say that ‘all water boils at one hundred degrees’ is untestable and, hence, meaningless.

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