Religious Language

Introduction to Religious Language

Below is a list of English phrases:

Keep your hair on; This CD is wicked; How’s about a bit of how’s your father; I’ll give you a knuckle sandwich; She’s a bunny boiler; I got that on a five fingered discount; I worshipped at the porcelain altar last night; He’s anyhow; As garn yam; Yan, tan, tither; I din’t breed a gibber. Put your ganzey on, it’s a bit chilly. Och! She’s an awfi quine she should have been born a loon.           

Some language (that is not religious) is regional (or even familial) in origin and loses a lot of its meaning when spoken to someone who does not have the necessary experience to decode the underlying ideas.

Religious language is the language we use to communicate ideas about faith, belief, religious practice and God. Whenever we use any type of language it is dependant on our understanding of the ideas behind the words.

Below is a list of religious language. The images or qualities the word(s) conjure up can be very different.

God, Church (there are two meanings to this word), Worship, Love your neighbour, Love your wife, Love God, Devil, Prayer, Idol, Blasphemy

However the discussion about religious language goes much further than the meaning of words and impacts on the truth claims of religion.

Religious language causes problems because behind the words used in religion there are underlying concepts. Because of people’s different background and understandings the interpretations they give to religious language. Religious language differs from normal, everyday language in that it can be used to identify a commitment to a particular faith community or to make a claim on behalf of your faith traditions.


Religious language can be seen to fall into two broad categories-

  1. Cognitive or realist
  2. Non-cognitive or anti realist

Cognitive: This is language based on fact. Facts are known to be true through cognitive language. Linked with this is realism where a statement is true or false if it corresponds to something in reality.

Non-cognitive: Language that cannot be proved true or false through knowledge. This would include moral, emotional and ethical language. A non-realist would argue that language is true in relation to other statements that are held to be true. It is true for a certain situation.

Religious language is often used to describe the metaphysical or transcendent and therefore is open to interpretation and misunderstanding.

This shows that religious language can be equivocal, but it can also be univocal only in so far as they are descriptive, e.g. the cross at the front of Lincoln Cathedral is brown. This is true because it is specific and empirical

Univocal: Unvocal language is clear and unambiguous. The statement “Manchester is a city” is univocal. It cannot be misunderstood- the concept of city is established.

Equivocal: Equivocal language is unclear and ambiguous. A particular word or phrase may have more than one meaning and can therefore lead to confusion. For example “Mike is gay” could suggest Mike being homosexual or happy

Analytic statement: is one that is internally verifiable eg. All bachelors are unmarried men, a triangle has three sides.

Synthetic statement: A statement that needs external evidence to assert its truthfulness.



To make religious language meaningful it has been suggested that we need to add an analogical type of language.

Aquinas argued that we have to speak about God using everyday language because it’s all we available to us. There is, however, a recognisable problem in using imperfect language to describe a perfect God. He rejected those writers who argued for a via negative which describes Giod in terms of what he is not. An example of this was Pseudo-Dionysius who said that because language was hopelessly inadequate an attempt should not be made to describe God.

Aquinas continued that there are positive things to say about God but that univocal and equivocal language were inappropriate. Thus, analogical language is the only type that is available to us. He split analogical language into two:

  • Analogy of attribution


This is where we ascribe a quality to one thing because it is caused by anither, eg human wisdom is a reflection of God’s wisdom. Hick extends this by suggesting our qualities are “shadows and remote approximations” to the perfect qualities of God. Our knowledge of what love is is true but a poor version of God’s love.

  • Analogy of proportionality


The attributes that we have are proportional to our nature; similarly God’s qualities are proportional to his nature. Our understanding of wisdom is finite because we are—God’s is infinite because he is infinite.

Symbolic language

Building on the work of analogy Tillich has suggested that religious language is meaningful insofar as it is symbolic. Tillich preferred to use the term sign instead of miracle because the event pointed towards the ultimate reality (God) that was behind it. Hence the event could be a sign for some and not for others. Religious language is the same in that the language points beyond the concrete to the ultimate reality.

Ian Ramsey suggested similar things but also that in religious language we need to use models and qualifiers. A model is the term that helps us understand the thing it represents; for example God is powerful- we understand this because “powerful” is the model which we understand. But we need to qualify it because God is powerful is not the same as James is powerful. The qualifier we use is infinitely- God is infinitely powerful.


Language Games


ludwigwittgensteinWittgenstein similarly recognised the problems of using everyday language in religious contexts. “One cannot guess how a word functions. One has to look at its use and learn from that” summarised as ‘don’t ask for meaning ask for use’ (1968: 109).[1] This discussion is highlighted by Lewis Carroll: “‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all’” (1963: 269).

Language games refers back to the decoding abilities we discussed at the beginning of the chapter. Different uses of language have different rules- it becomes meaningful only as we understand the rules of the game.

There are two examples we can use here. If five people found a ball. One may only be familiar with football, one with rounders, one cricket and so on. Imagine the confusing game if they all played according to their own rules. The game only becomes possible when the rules are understood by each. Similarly with religious language- I could say I believe in God- a Christian would understand a triune nature whilst a Muslim and Hindu view would be different even though they same thing.

A prism may also help. If we suggest a word as the beam of light going into the prism. The prism is our culture, religion and experiences which interpret the word. The refracted light is thus the meaning we ascribe to the word.

Language can thus be meaningless or meaningful depending on our prism or understanding of the rules.


Religious Language is meaningless

The Verification Principle

An early version of the verification principle can be found in Hume’s writings:

If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning containing quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning, concerning matter of fact or existence? No. Commit it to the flames: for it contains nothing but sophistry or illusion.

The Verification Principle was formulated by the Logical Positivists who argued that a statement could only be meaningful insofar as it was verifiable by the sense experiences. They didn’t argue truth or falsity only meaningfulness. In this they drew on the Analytic and Synthetic statements outlined earlier.

The criteria which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements of fact is the criteria of verifiability. We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express- that is, of he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the prposition as being true, or reject it as being false.

Religious language is not analytic nor synthetic and thus is meaningless. But, then again so are historical statements. We cannot verify Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn through direct sense experience or internal logic. Ayer responded to this criticism by formulating the Strong and Weak verification principles.

Strong Verification: there is no doubt because of experimentation or reason.

Weak Verification: verifiable through observations at the time.

Using the weak verification principel we can verify some statements about historical religious figures like Jesus and Muhammad. We could also possibly argue God is creator if we can find evidence of design in the world. However, other statements about God remain unverifiable (an thus meaningless). However, John Hick has argued for an eschatological verification principle where statements can be verified in the future.

Two people are journeying along a road. One believes he is travelling towards a Celestial City. The other believes the road leads nowhere. There is no way to prove the statements made about the Celestial City, and such statements are not analytic. It could therefore be argued that the statements are meaningless. However, the travellers’ statements are meaningful because they can be verified retrospectively.

Also, statements about the verification principle are not verifiable!


The Falsification Principle

Karl-PopperKarl Popper argued that scientists tried to prove hypothesis’ wrong- it was in doing this that scientists could verify a hypothesis. Anthony Flew was influenced by this and developed the Falsification principle for language. He argued that religious people refused the possibility that their beliefs and statements could be falsified (proved false). Because we cannot entertain the possibility that it can be proved false religious language is meaningless. No matter what evidence is presented to contradict a belief the believer qualifies the statement (or moves the goalposts) in what Flew called the “death of a thousand qualifications”. This is shown in Flew’s adaptation of Wisdom’s parable of the Gardener:

Two explorers come across a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing many flowers and weeds are growing. One is convinced that a gardener comes and tends the flowers, while the other disagrees, pointing to the weeds as evidence that no gardener comes. They pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. The believer wonders if there is an invisible gardener, so they patrol with bloodhounds but the bloodhounds never give a cry. Yet the believer remains unconvinced, and insists that the gardener is invisible, has no scent and gives no sound. The sceptic doesn’t agree, and asks how a so-called invisible, intangible, elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener, or even no gardener at all.

Swinburne criticised the falsification principle by suggesting that religious statements are not cognitive and should not be subject to the same rules. For example The statement that a cupboard is full of toys that come to life when everyone is asleep and no-one is looking is meaningful, because we understand what it means to suggest that toys can move, even though we can never gather the evidence required to falsify the statement.

Brathwaite similarly argued that religious language is non-cognitive and not subject to either the verification or falsification principles.

Mitchell used a story to suggest that a religious believers belief is based on an experience that further evidence is not sufficient to shake.

In an occupied country during the second world war, a freedom fighter meets a mysterious stranger and spends a night in deep conversation. The stranger tells the fighter to trust that he is on the side of the resistance, even if at times he might be seen helping the enemy. They never meet alone again. The fighter’s faith in the stranger is constantly tested. Sometimes he helps members of the resistance and they are grateful that he is on their side. Then the stranger is seen with German officers, going into their headquarters and attending parties with them. Sometimes he is seen in police uniform handing over patriots to the occupying forces. However, the freedom fighter still trusts him. Sometimes he asks the stranger for help, and he receives it. Sometimes he asks and no help is given, but he still feels that ‘the stranger knows best’. His friends in the resistance finally say, ‘Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you are wrong and he is not on our side?’ The partisan refuses to condemn the stranger. Sometimes his friends say that if the stranger’s conduct is what he means by ‘being on his side’ then the sooner he switches sides the better. Despite being tempted to lose faith in the stranger, as he sometimes sees him appearing to help the enemy and sometimes not, the fighter always says to himself ‘ The stranger knows best.’

Hare suggests that religious language is subject to different rules. It is non-cognitive and cannot make factual claims. It can, howver, have meaning as it influences the way people view the world. He calls this way of looking at the world a blik.

[1] Hallet (1967) argues that the aforementioned phrase is never found in any of Wittgenstein’s published writings.