Is Religious Language Meaningless?

Outline the Reasons Why Logical Positivists Argue
that All Religious Utterances are Meaningless.

Note: One of my duties in the various places where I teach is to show students how to write essays – something most young people are not nowadays taught to do. What I like to do in class is to choose a question at random, discuss possible approaches, and then dictate an answer one paragraph at a time. Some of these answers are very short. Some are just notes. Some amount to small dissertations. In this latter case, the students take turns at looking on-line for the information we decide is needed. It they cannot find it, I show them how to change the structure of what has already been written, or to strike out in a new direction.

It is a “writing masterclass” approach that makes use of my own strengths, and is often a welcome alternative to formal teaching. It fills up a long morning session. Everyone learns something, and the more attentive will improve their final grades by at least one step.

Here is an example of the finished product. Do not take it as a statement of personal opinion. It is an answer produced for a specific question, and it bears in mind what a possibly unknown examiner will appreciate, and what can be written to incorporate the sources found in class. SIG

PS – If anyone wants to engage my services as a teacher of these skills, please click on the image to the left. Though they are my niche subjects, Greek and Latin are not my exclusive focus as a teacher. I do much else besides.

Introduction: At a common sense level, the statements “God exists,” “God is good,” “God is Great,” “God is love,” and so on, are meaningful utterances. Each contains a subject and a predicate. We seem able to define God as a supreme being, and we know the meaning of words like exists and good and great and love. However, various German-speaking philosophers who settled and wrote in the English-speaking world – ie Rudolf Carnap and A.J. Ayer – have argued that religious language of this sort is actually meaningless. These were both much influenced by the radical sceptic and empiricist David Hume, and their arguments can be taken as an extension of his own philosophy. They and other are loosely grouped together as Logical Positivists.

Point 1: Carnap argues that statements about the world can only be verified by making and testing empirical claims. For example, we say that a key is made of iron. We already know that iron is attracted to a magnet. Therefore, we can set up an experiment to verify whether the key is drawn to a magnet. When it comes to metaphysical claims – eg, “The universe is sustained by the love of God” – there are no means of verification. Therefore, the statement is meaningless.

Point 2: A.J. Ayer goes further. He denies that the word “God” has any verifiable content. It is impossible to prove whether a supreme being exists or not. It is therefore meaningless to attach predicates to such an uncertain being. Moreover, the words “good” and “great” and “love” are derived from our observation of human affairs. The words are relative and contextual in their everyday meaning. Once they are attached to a supreme being, they take on different meanings that in fact rob them of meaning. What is absolute good and absolute greatness and absolute love? Are they not inconceivable? Are they not often in contradiction with each other? For this reason, Ayer dismissed all religious language as nonsense.

Point 3: The native British philosopher – also a follower of David Hume – adds to the attack. He says that a statement is only meaningful if there is some agreed means of falsifying it. In the Carnap example of the key, we can agree it is not made of iron if it is not drawn to a magnet. How do we falsify the statement “God is good”? We show a believer things like the Black Death, the Holocaust, or the destruction of Pompeii, and ask if they really show the goodness of God. His answer will always be “Yes.” When there is nothing, however, horrible, that shows the badness of God, claims about his goodness are meaningless.

Conclusion: The demolition of religious language attempted by the Logical Positivists is based on the claim that religious language is not like ordinary language. It makes apparently empirical statements, but these statements can be neither verified nor falsified.