"Religious Language is meaningless." Discuss.

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Caroline Field

“Religious Language is meaningless.” Discuss.

Logical positivism was a philosophical theory that was brought about in the 1920s by members of the Vienna Circle. It was developed on the basis of traditional empirical thought and the progress of modern logic. Logical positivism limited knowledge to two categories. The first being Analytic Statements, for example, “triangles have three sides” - statements that are trivial but true by definition and practice, and therefore meaningful. These statements are non cognitive. This means that they give us no new information about reality. The second being Synthetic Statements, for example, “all cows eat grass” - statements that bring together factual nouns and predicates. These statements are cognitive. This means that they are knowledge filled. They can be proven with observation and theory and are therefore also meaningful. Another way of describing this theory is through the Verification Principle. There are strong and weak statements. Strong statements, such as “Mary has red hair” - to prove it, all one would have to do is look at Mary. It is a straightforward verification. Weak statements are harder to verify: “Columbus discovered America”. To verify this, one would have to look at historical documents and such like. However, according to logical positivists, because religious statements do not fit into either category (analytic or synthetic), they cannot be verified and are therefore meaningless.

Anthony Flew developed this and brought about the Principle of Falsification. He was a leading atheist in the 20th century. However, he recently turned to religion. Flew associated falsification with the claim that religious statements cannot be proven by empirical evidence. To explain this theory, he came up with a parable. “In a garden, two men are arguing. There are beautiful flowers, however, there are also weeds. One man believed that there must have been a gardener to tend the flowers. The other man disagrees, as there are also weeds. The two men set up traps to try and prove or disprove the gardener’s existence.” Flew’s conclusion of the parable is that the belief will not change his conviction. He stated that any religious belief or statement is meaningless because they have no evidence against them, and therefore they cannot be falsified.  The believer will always believe (despite any empirical evidence against it or for it).

A number or philosophers and theologians attempted to show that Flew’s attack on religious language was not conclusive. The main argument being that the language of religion, although not verified by experience, is not falsified by experience either. Flew seems to have overlooked this. Most responses to logical positivism are developed by the theologians creating parables to back up their beliefs. However, personal beliefs and language shown in these parables can only be meaningful if they are consistent with the facts about the world, if there is no logical contradiction in holding the belief and if some allowance is made for human trust. The responses to logical positivism have been split into three categories: Capitulation (giving into the challenge), Accommodation (accommodating the challenge but trying to find the evidence against it) and Repudiation.

The two theologians that fit into the category of Capitulation are R.M. Hare and R.B. Braithwaite. R.M. Hare agreed with Flew in that he also believed that religious language was non-cognitive because religious statements cannot be falsified. However, he disagreed that it was meaningless. He believed that we all have beliefs that we insist on holding in spite of contradicting evidence. He called these “Blicks”. He created a parable to try to describe this. It consisted of “a paranoid student who was certain that all his professors were out to murder him. To him, even when they were nice to him, he believed that they were being devious and hypocritical.” This shows the unshakeable nature that religious believers hold. A “Blick” is meaningful even if it cannot be falsified. It affects a person’s attitudes or emotions. However, this response to Flew’s theory has also been criticized. Comparing religious belief to an irrational idea such as a lunatic believing that everyone is out to get him surely is not very flattering to religious believers.

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R.B. Braithwaite believed that religious assertions, while non-cognitive, are meaningful because they indicate a way of life. A statement such as “God is love”, to Braithwaite, expresses the intention to live a loving way of life. Stories from the Gospels can be understood as providing an incentive to do this. Therefore, parables from the Bible such as Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead, is to show to us that we should not give up hope. Braithwaite believes that empirical effects (intentions and actions) rule out any consideration of a spiritual basis for religious language.

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