Assessing The View That Religious Language Is Meaningless

2910 words - 12 pages

Assessing the View that Religious Language is Meaningless

In recent times one of the most compelling and interesting arguments
against God and religion has come from linguistic philosophy. In very
basic terms the argument points out the fact that religion must
necessarily use language in order to express abstract ideas such as
God, love and so on, and in doing so commits a fallacy because as soon
as such ideas are put into words they become meaningless. However,
this is a rather large generalisation; the specific arguments go into
a lot more detail and most vary in some way from this basic idea.
Before we look at these arguments, though, I feel it is necessary to
emphasise just how important an argument this is for religious
believers, as it shakes the very foundations of religion. Religious
language has until recently been taken as unequivocal, absolute truth,
and to deny that its meaning is not completely true in all senses is a
huge and brave step on the part of philosophy, as without language
much of religion simply would not function. In the course of this
essay I intend to examine and assess logical positivism, put forward
by the Vienna Circle thinkers, which links in with verification. Then
I will examine the criticisms and challenges to this argument,
followed by its complete rejection by Wittgenstein, and then I will go
on to falsification and its criticisms.

The first argument for the idea that religious language is meaningless
is logical positivism, a branch of philosophy that sprouted the idea
of the verification principle. This idea first came about in the early
work of Ludvig Wittgenstein, who put forward a picture theory of
language. This is a simple form of the verification principle that
basically says that the only statements that are meaningful are those
which can be depicted in the minds eye, for example "the cat sat on
the mat." The implication of this is that apart from tautologies
(analytic statements, see below) all other statements are meaningless.
Ethics, aesthetics and most importantly religious statements are all
rendered void as they cannot be depicted, for example "Stealing is
wrong" cannot be mentally depicted in the way that "I stole your
pencil" can. This idea attracted several philosophers, including
Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap, who were working together in Vienna
in the early part of the last century, and who expanded Wittgenstein's
work. Their work involved looking at language to see what type of
statements were meaningful or not, and they based their ideas on
similar work in epistemology. There is a very powerful argument in
this branch of philosophy that knowledge can only be gained through
empirical experience. The logical positivists applied this idea to
language, and came up with the verification principle. This idea, also

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