Religious Language: Theology and Falsification

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A. J. Ayer considered all religious language to be meaningless. He came to this conclusion through his Verification principle, which argued that a statement which cannot be verified is meaningless. In Ayer’s own words, “A statement is held to be literally meaningful if and only if it is either analytic or empirically verifiable”. He says that a religious utterance may be emotionally significant to the person saying it, but it is not literally significant. An example of this would be the statement “God is everywhere”. The person saying this may feel comforted in the knowledge that God is watching over them and their friends and family, but he has no way of proving that an Omnipresent God exists, so there is no useful empirical information in the statement. Ayer also pointed out that the statement “God exists” has as little meaning as the statement “God does not exist”. There were many challenges to the principle of Verification. John Hick suggested that there is meaning in religious statements as there is truth in them which can be verified. He said that God’s existence can be verified in principle if true, but not falsifiable if false, eschatologically. He explained this with the story of the Celestial City. Two travellers are on a journey down a road. One traveller believes there is a Celestial City at the end of the road, the ruler of which has influence over all good and bad events on their journey, while the other traveller does not believe there is a Celestial City at the end of the road, nor an influential ruler. Whichever one is right at the end of the journey, their views could be verified. In my opinion the damning criticism of the Verification principle is that it cannot be verified. It is not a sound test for meaningfulness if the principle itself cannot be proved meaningful under its own test. Falsification offers a similar approach to religious language, but from a different angle. Developed by Karl Popper, it states that an assertion is meaningless if there is no way in which it can be falsified (proven wrong). Ayer rejected the ideas behind falsification, arguing that there is little difference between it and Verificationism. He said that evidence may suggest a statement is false, but it does not make it logically impossible that the statement is true. A claim such as “statues come to life when you aren’t looking” has no evidence for it, suggesting that my claim is false. But logically there remains the possibility that the statement is true. With verification, the conclusion that the statement is false is only reached if there is no logical possibility of it being true. Essentially, Popper’s falsification only offers a way to demarcate scientific statements from other kinds of statements. This is only useful for us under the flawed assumption that only scientific statements have meaning. Anthony Flew, R. M. Hare and Basil Mitchell discussed falsification further in “Theology and Falsification: A Symposium”. Each put forward their views though the use of a parable. Anthony Flew in his parable of the two explorers in the jungle: Once upon a time two explorers came upon a clearing in the jungle. In the clearing were growing many flowers and many weeds. One explorer says, "Some gardener must tend this plot." The other disagrees, "There is no gardener." So they pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. "But perhaps he is an invisible gardener." So they set up a barbed-wire fence. They electrify it. They patrol with bloodhounds. (For they remember how H. G. Well's The Invisible Man could be both smelt and touched though he could not be seen.) But no shrieks ever suggest that some intruder has received a shock. No movements of the wire ever betray an invisible climber. The bloodhounds never give cry. Yet still the Believer is not convinced. "But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible, to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes...
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