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Religous Language

Many philosophers have argued against the verification and the falsification criterion of meaning, and its challenge to religious language. However, the falsification theory in religious language can be considered “meaningless” since true believers exercise faith, but do not allow any evidence to count against their ideas. Criticism of logical positivism came from many philosophers which include; Ayer, Hare, Mitchell, Swinburne and Wittgenstein.

The principle behind the idea of falsification was first suggested by Karl Popper, “Science is more concerned with falsification of a hypothesis than with the verification.”(Tillman, 195)

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Popper recognized that science did not move from observation to theory but rather the other way round.

The falsification theory isn’t without its criticisms. It has been argued in various ways that theory does not rule religious language to be meaningless. Hare was one such philosopher; he argued that religious statements were never intended as assertions, but alternative ways of looking at the world. Hare illustrates this by arguing against Anthony Flew.

He claims that Flew does not realize that different people have very different standards for verification and falsification. What counts as falsifying evidence for one person might not count for another. In Hare’s terms, not everyone has the same blik. A blik is a frame of reference in terms of which data is interpreted. Hare says: “without a blik there can be no explanation; for it is by our blinks that we decide what is and what is not an explanation.”(Stewart, 229) Hare illustrates this with the parable of the paranoid man.

“A certain lunatic is convinced that all dons want to murder him. His friends introduce him to all the mildest and most respectable dons that they can find, and after each of them has retired, they say, “You see, he doesn’t really want to murder you; he spoke to you in a most cordial manner; surely you are convinced now?” But the lunatic replies, “Yes, but that was only is diabolical cunning; he’s really plotting against me the whole time, like the rest of them; I know it, I tell you.” However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is still the same.”(Stewart, 227)

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The paranoid man’s entire frame of reference is paranoid. Any evidence that might count to falsify the claim that dons are all killers simply does not count as evidence in a paranoid’s frame of reference. Many kindly dons would eventually convince a non-paranoid man that not all dogs are killers. But for the paranoid man, the kindly dons only serve to reinforce the paranoid belief.

Therefore this statement can not be labelled true or false; for it has a meaning. The meaning is created by the way in which the statements are used and how they affect people’s lives.

Basil Mitchell also argued against Flews’ ideas. He believes that there is actual evidence that counts against God that religious people recognize. Their faith prevents them from changing their views. (For example, an all-loving God who allows evil to continue.)

“the theologian does recognize the fact of pain…true that he will not allow it… for he is committed by his faith to trust in God. His attitude is not that of the detached observer of the believer.” (Stewart, 230)

Richard Swinburne argued against both the verification and the falsification principles. He suggested that humans are capable of imagining that toys could come to life when no one is watching, however, there is no observation we can make to establish whether this proposition is true or false, yet it is still meaningful. This argument indicates the verification principle as artificial. The proposition also counteracts the falsification principle, as we are able to understand the idea of the proposition. Even though it cannot be disproved, the falsification theory won’t work as well.

Ayer introduces the verification principle insisting that there is no sensory observation relevant to the existence of God. He rejects this based on a combination of empiricism and a definition of symbols. Ayer claims that every principle of logic is independent of every other principle, so they may contradict.

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“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.” (Tillman, 220)

Therefore all statements of religion, such as “God does not exist” are, meaningless, since nobody can know how to verify that which the proposition states. As for statements that are meaningful, Ayer divided them into two groups: true or false arguments.

From this, it is obvious that Ayer becomes a solipsist who cannot understand his own thoughts. It is only in this way that Ayer says moral values are useless and that people “really” never argue about them because they do not “really” exist. If this is true, then all one would see when reading Ayer is “words, words, words” and nothing more.

Wittgenstein had an alternative theory that helps explain the barriers of religious language. Wittgenstein’s theory was that each and every person played a language game, and different words became meaningful depending on which game one was playing. Therefore to understand religious language one must be playing the religious language game, so no non-religious person can begin to talk about religion, as they do not understand the context of the words.

One criticism of Wittgenstein was that religious language games overlapped with non-religious, so how could they be so completely isolated. The other is that if we are all playing different games in regard to language, then if we are to ask the same question, we will inevitably arrive at contradictory answers. This theory completely rules out the ability for anyone to fully understand one another, so theoretically concludes the discussion of meaning to be pointless and without virtue.

After learning about different views to the religious language, it is obvious to conclude that they do not entirely prove that religious talk and spirituality are meaningless. It is unbelievable that proposing a religious statement meaningful deems them to be true. However, they are considered meaningful. As it has been argued, some propositions do have meaning to particular people regardless of whether one can establish how it can be proved false or true. Richard Swinburne said,
“A man can understand the statement “once upon a time before there were men or any other rational creatures, the earth was covered by the sea,” without his having any idea of what could count for or against the proposition.”(Tillman, 245)

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This is a very believable statement that clearly proves the point well.

Wittgenstein’s language games may lead to some contradictory answers, which are approved to some extent. It is obvious that people see the world in extremely different ways, so it seems logical that different words have different meanings depending on one’s view.

Therefore one can suggest that religious language is not meaningless, as it carries meaning for some, to such an extent they base their lives around its principles. Others can consider religious language to be meaningful in some ways to religious people, as with every different view on life. There are aspects that can be identified as similar, so a non-religious person can accept the meaning of some religious language.

The statement “God is love”, for example, cannot be empirically proven. God, according to the Judeo-Christian understanding, is taken to be a transcendent being who exists outside the material world. It could never empirically prove his existence, and God or his loves are not true of themselves. Therefore, the statement “God is love” is meaningless.


David Stewart, Exploring the Philosophy of Religion, 5th Edition, Prentice-Hall, 2001.
Frank A. Tillman, Introductory Philosophy, 2nd Edition, Harper & Row Publishers, 1971

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Religous Language. (2021, Feb 22). Retrieved February 6, 2023, from