Religious language: twentieth century and perspectives and philosophical comparisons

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  • Religious Language: twentieth century perspectives and philosophical comparisons
    • Wittgenstein and language games
      • Ludwig Wittgenstein was a twentieth century philosopher who aimed to work out the limits of what can be known, conceptualized and expressed in language
      • He explored the ways in which language can have meaning
      • His earlier work inspired the Vienna Circle
      • Wittgenstein thought that we can understand how language can be meaningful if we think of it using the analogy of a game
      • Language is meaningful to people who use I when they re participating in a shared ' language game' such as chess or train driving
      • A 'Lenbensform' or 'form of life' is a context in which language might be used. Language has meaning in context, and people outside that context might not understand it so easily
      • Within the Lebensform, there are rules for language usage and everyone understands them
      • Propositions are not simply ' meaningful or 'meaningless' to everyone, they can be meaningful to some but not to others. Meaning is subjective
    • Cognitive and non-cognitive uses of language
      • Cognitive uses of language involve things that can be known and that could either be either true or false
      • Non- cognitive uses of language are not about things that can be known but instead work in other ways. For example they might express emotions, ask questions, give commands or make associations
      • In the context of religious language, there are questions about whether religious statements should be understood as cognitive or non-cognitive
    • Logical positivism
      • Logical positivism began in the early twentieth century, with discussions amongst the Vienna Circle
      • The Vienna Circle wanted to clarify the kinds of statements that have meaning, and the kinds which only sound meaningful but are in fact 'empty'
      • According to logical positivists, a proposition is only meaningful if it is analytic, or if it is capable of being tested using the five senses (empirical testing). This rule is known as the verification principle
      • Religious language is dismissed as meaningless by logical positivists because claims such as 'God made the world' cannot be tested empirically, and are not analytic
      • Many people reject the verification principle because it fails it own test - it cannot be tested for meaningfulness using the five senses
      • The verification principle classifies as meaningless a lot more than religious language -ethical statements, for example, cannot be verified empirically
      • Weak versions of the verification principle have been suggested
    • Flew and the falsification principle
      • Anthony Flew's ideas were presented in Oxford in a paper called ' theology and Falsification' in 1950. He wanted to take the debate about the meaningfulness of religious language into new territory
      • Flew used a parable by John Wisdom to illustrate his argument. A Sceptic and a Believer have different views about the existence of a gardener who visits a clearing in a jungle, because the gardener cannot be detected using the five senses.
      • Nothing the Sceptic offers as evidence against the existence of the gardener will convince the Believer, who in response to the Sceptic keeps qualifying his statements about the characteristics of the invisible gardener to accommodate each challenge
      • Flew argues that religious believers behave in the same way, refusing to accept any counter-evidence to their claims about God
      • Flew says that religious truth claims end with a 'death by a thousand qualifications'. The assertions are modified until they assert nothing
      • He says that a statement must be in principle falsifiable if it is to be meaningful. We have to know what evidence, if any, would count against our assertions if they are to be meaningful assertions at all.
    • The influence of non-cognitive approaches to religious language on the interpretation of sacred texts
      • Non- cognitive approaches to religious texts became more popular in the twentieth century
      • They suggest that instead of interpreting texts such as the Bible as factual, historical accounts, iy is more helpful to understand them in other ways, as tools for learning and coming to a personal decision about spiritual matters
      • Rudolf Bultmann suggested demythologizing the Bible by which he meant looking past stories with magical or miraculous content and seeing the Bible as calling people to make a personal decision.
      • Other thinkers have suggested seeing the Bible in other non- cognitive ways, emphasizing the decisions and attitudes people might take in their lives
      • Books such as Honest to God and The Myth of God Incarnate caused controversy in their suggestions that idea such as Jesus as God Incarnate need not to be understood as factually true
      • Cognitive approaches to biblical texts have continued to be more popular amongst Christians than non- cognitive approaches


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