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Religious language

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K085-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 14, 2024, from

Article Summary

The main philosophical interest in religious language is in the understanding of what purport to be statements about God. Can they really be what they seem to be – claims to say something true about a divine reality? There are several reasons for denying this. The most prominent of these stems from the verifiability criterion of meaning, according to which an utterance can be a statement that is objectively true or false only if it is possible to verify or falsify it empirically. It is claimed that this is not possible for talk about God. However, the verifiability criterion itself has been severely criticized. Moreover, many religious beliefs do have implications that are, in principle, empirically testable, though not conclusively.

If one is moved to reject the idea that statements about God are what they seem to be, they can be taken as expressions of feelings and attitudes, and/or as guides to a life orientation. To be sure, religious utterances can have these functions even if they are also genuine statements of fact.

If one believes there to be genuine true-or-false statements about God, there are still problems as to how to understand them. We can focus on the construal of the predicates of such statements – for example, ‘made the heavens and the earth’ and ‘commissioned Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt’. There is a serious problem here because of two basic features of the situation. First, the terms we apply to God got their meaning from their application to creatures, particularly human beings. Second, God is so radically different from us that it seems that these terms cannot have the same meaning in the two uses. One possibility here is that all these terms are used metaphorically when applied to God, which obviously often happens (‘The Lord is my shepherd’). But are there some terms that can be literally true of God? This may be the case if some abstract aspect of the creaturely meaning of a term can be literally applied to God. For example, if one aspect of the meaning of ‘makes’ when applied to one of us is ‘brings about some state of affairs by an act of will’, the term ‘makes’ with that particular meaning might be truly applied to God.

Citing this article:
Alston, William P.. Religious language, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K085-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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