Religious Language refers to statements or claims made about God. It is stated that religious language is non-cognitive and analogical, just as Aquinas asserted that ‘all human language about God is analogical’. Non-cognitive language is language that cannot be empirically verified. For example, “obey God to be sure of heaven.” Firstly the statement requires verification that there is a God and also that there is another place after death. None of this can be totally verified until after death. Religious statements are really moral statements, they express an attitude and so have an emotive meaning, they are designed to shape people’s feelings and behaviour and are meaningful in having such results. An analogy may be defined as a proportional similarity between one or more things that acknowledges also dissimilar features. A famous example of analogy is Paley’s use of the watch, in arguing the fact of the watch having a designer means that there must have been a ‘Designer’ of the entire universe. Non-cognitive statements are statements that can be interpreted in an abstract way, such as symbols, metaphors, and ethical commands.
They are not factually true, but can be understood by an individual and the community to which they belong. The truth or fallacy of the statement depends on the context and beliefs held by the speaker or listener. It could be argued that cognitive language (factual assertions that can be proved true or false) can perform the function of religious language, such as in the statement, ‘Jesus of Nazareth lived and died about 2,000 years ago’. This is because it is clearly important to Christians to know that Jesus existed and that he died. However, religious language is largely non-cognitive. For example, if a Christian says that ‘Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ who came to earth, to die on the cross to save humankind from the sin of Adam’, then they are voicing a non-cognitive statement. This is due to the fact that, no matter what the believer may believe to the contrary, the claim that Jesus is the Son of God, or any other claim about God, cannot be empirically verified. Non-cognitive statements are argued to be meaningless by A.J Ayer. Ayer observed that since the existence of God could not be proven rationally, it was not even probable, since the word ‘god’ is a metaphysical term referring to a transcendent being, and therefore cannot have any factual significance.
Ayer also stated that claims about God’s existence, which are non-cognitive, could neither be contradicted nor proven, so were not ‘significant propositions’. In other words, they were neither true nor false, but could not be valid. However, one could argue that non-cognitive statements are useful as they allow the believer to use statements that can be understood and are meaningful to themselves and the wider community. Analogies are descriptive terms that, when applied to God, mean neither the same, nor something completely different than when they are applied to humanity. They are used in religious language to enable us to express something about God and his relationship with humankind that the use of univocal and equivocal language cannot achieve. Univocal language is where a word has only one meaning.
This doesn’t work when applied to religious language as it anthropomorphises God, as in the example when the word ‘love’ applied to one’s husband or wife means the same thing when applied to God. However, this cannot be, as God is not a part of the created order. Equivocal language, on the other hand, is when we use the same word but with different meanings. The problem with employing equivocal language is that it is very difficult to know exactly what is being said about God as there is no universal meaning, however, statements about him must be meaningful. Peter Cole concluded that analogy is a ‘compromise’ between unvocal language and equivocal language. There are two types of analogy which are proposed. First is analogy of proportion. This proposes that we can imply a relationship between God’s attributes and our understanding of the meaning of these attributes. Brian Davies offered an example of a mirror to further explain this idea. Davies noted that in the presence of light, a mirror reflects whatever it faces, and so the image in the mirror is its own but is caused by something else.
Therefore, when applying this example to God, it suggests that human beings exist because God causes them to exist. The second type of analogy is analogy of attribution. This idea seeks to apply God’s nature to certain human qualities, such as goodness, wisdom, and beauty. In other words, it suggests that human qualities derive from God’s nature. Aquinas used an example of a bull to clarify this concept. Aquinas observed that just as one can tell a bull is healthy by inspecting its urine, one can understand the true nature of God by inspecting human beings. This is because many human characteristics are derived from God, and so one reflects the other. In addition, David Hume sated: “Wisdom, thought, design, knowledge – these we justify ascribe to Him because those words are honourable among men, and we have no other language by which we can express our adoration of him.” In this Hume is proposing that analogies make God accessible and understandable, since to know the nature of God’s love, we only need to know what it means to love humanity.
The main strength of using analogy to convey information about God is that it allows believers to affirm the transcendent nature of God, whilst maintaining the belief that it is possible for human beings to remain in meaningful relationship with them. However, there are some weaknesses, such as the fact that believers want to understand God with language, but at the same time claim that we can’t understand him. Also, since we don’t actually know what God is like, it is not clear if analogies do establish an adequate relationship between the terms we use and God, which appears to be precisely what they are setting out to achieve. In spite of this, it would seem that analogy is an effective means for conveying information about God because it allows us to compare the concept of God and his relationship with human beings, to a concept that we understand. Overall, religious language must be non-cognitive as it cannot be empirically verified as God is not part of the created order, and it must also be analogical as a believer can only truly convey information about God by comparing the concept of Him to a concept tangible to human beings.