Religious Language – Philosophy Essay

by Benjamin Hammond


How fair is the claim that religious language is meaningless?

The claim that religious language is meaningless is a claim that has been made by many different people. There have also been those who have have gone against this claim. A.J. Ayer, and Antony Flew are both people who believe that religious language is meaningless, and the theories they support show this. I myself believe that this claim is not fair.

The theory of verificationism is a theory that was supported by A.J. Ayer, and argues that religious language is meaningless, due to it’s lack of empirical evidence. The theory of verificationism states that language is only meaningful if it can be verified by a sense-observation. A sense-observation simply means observation by the human senses. For example, if I say that the colour of my car is red, this can be observed by looking. I can go outside and look at my car, and find out wether it is indeed red or not. The statement, ‘My car is red.’ can be verified by human observation, and is therefore, according to verificationism and Ayer, a meaningful statement. However, a statement such as ‘God loves you.’ would be a meaningless statement according to this theory. This statement cannot be verified by sense-observation, and as a result is left suspended in a grey area. The statement is meaningless according to verificationism.

As a counter argument, I would say that you cannot dismiss something as false or meaningless simply because you cannot understand or observe it. Just because something cannot be observed by the human senses, it does not at all make it meaningless. If we were to take this theory back a couple of thousand of years, the statement ‘An atom exists.’ would be a meaningless statement, because at the time we, as humans, would not have been able to observe wether this was true or not. Yet today, we know that the atom does indeed exist. Many philosophers have also criticised verificationism by saying that the theory in itself is unverifiable. We cannot simply take the theory as the measure of all things if it has nothing to be measured by. In this context, I would not agree that this claim is fair.

Antony Flew put forward an analogy to show how ‘God talk’ was meaningless because it cannot be disproved. His analogy is known as the ‘Parable of the Gardener,’ and is as follows: Two explorers in the jungle found a clearing in which both weeds and flowers grow. Explorer one says that there must be a gardener, as there are flowers there. Explorer two says that there must not be a gardener, because of the weeds. Explorer two puts up an electric fence, and makes sure none can get out or in of the garden, and no one is ever detected. Explorer one, who believes in the gardener now says that the gardener is invisible, elusive, and not affected by electric shocks. Flew said that religious people act in the same way as explorer one. He said that no experience can falsify a believers faith, and therefore, religious language is meaningless.

Here, I find this particular claim that religious language is meaningless fair. Unlike verificationism, this theory looks at different perspectives and explains them rather than arguing for one particular perspective. I believe that understanding perspective is the key to understanding the claim religious language is meaningless, and many religions themselves address the matter of the meaning behind religious language. If you are secular, religious language will be meaningless, and Flew shows that in his theory. He also shows that to the religious person, some secular language will be meaningless. It is a matter of perspective and belief. Some religions, such as some sects Christianity do not encourage strong use of religious language toward secular people, as it is meaningless to them, so Flew is not alone is his thoughts. In short, I believe this claim to be fair because it examines both perspectives.

I conclude that the claim, in itself is not a fully fair claim, as it comes from one main perspective – a secular perspective. If it were, ‘Religious Language is meaningless to secular people’ the claim would be 100% fair, however, this is not the case. The claim assumes an absolute measure of fairness, but in fact the measure of fairness is subjective, and depends on the perspective of any one person. The claim is not fair.

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