Philosophy of Religion

Chapter  3: Science and Religion

Religious Language


At some point in time people created a way to answer their most troubling questions concerning the origins of life, the meaning of life, what there may be beyond death, the value in living and other such very fundamental issues.  Their answers to these questions and solutions to these problems appear in the physical record that we have today.  They appear to be presented in the form of stories that were repeated through the generations.  Participation in the worldview created by, transformed by, transmitted through those stories is now called a religious form of life or language game .  In the for of life known as religion language is used differently than elsewhere in life.  The same words take on different meaning and expressions function in different ways.  In the religious form of life language is conveying VALUE and MEANING without which it is difficult for a human to live.  Many of the most basic beliefs in the religious form of life are not subject to empirical verification from the science form of life.  The claims appear to be empirical claims but they are not.

  • There is an antelope in the field.
  • There is a deity in heaven.
  • There is the Tao in all.

The first claim may be subjected to the techniques of empirical verification/falsification.  It has a potential truth value.

The other two claims are not subject to such empirical examination and verification or falsification.  They are non-falsifiable claims.  They have an immunity to being examined by science.  Why?

The later claims are in the religious form of life and they are AXIOLOGICAL claims.  They are claims about what a person believes and such beliefs are expression of what a person values most in life and what thereby provides for order and meaning in life. 


For more on considering language about a deity and religious language as Axiological rather than as making Ontological claims : READ: Nicholas Rescher, On Faith And Belief


Such an axiological use of language is not to be subject to empirical verification as if it was an ordinary use of language of the type:  There is an X.  It is an expression that appears to be similar but in the religious form of life is not the same as in the everyday or science forms of life.

The religious claim that "There is a god" is not like "there is a zebra"

The claim that "there is a god" is actually a claim about what the person speaking it holds to be important and valuable and it assists the person who is speaking to organize ideas about life that give it some value so that the religious believer can have HOPE for a decent meaningful life that is lived in the face of inevitable death.

The religious stories are not told as if they are historical.  Why not?

When the religious story teller is confronted by the lack of evidence to support the accuracy or veridical nature of the tales the religious story teller goes on telling the stories. An historian would stop telling the story when confronted by counter evidence or the removal of the evidence to support the story of what occurred in the past.  Religion is not science.  Science rests on evidence to support hypotheses and claims.  Religion rests on faith and faith is driven by hope.  So the religious story is NOT A TALE OF TRUTH.   The telling of the tale is a behavior that conveys meaning and value and purpose for the story teller.

But you may want to ask "Doesn't the religious story teller actually think that the religious story is true?" Answer: Yes the religious story teller must believe it is true in order for it to convey meaning and value and purpose for the story teller. This goes on until the religious story teller no longer believes that the story needs to be true in order for it to convey meaning and value and purpose for the story teller. At this point the repeating of the story is done as a "broken myth" such as the Santa story. The tellers of the tale realize that the tale is not literally true but it is both important and valuable and so must be told.

Why must it be told?

Because it is so highly VALUED. It is important in providing the community that shares in the story with meaning and value and purpose.   The tales are told to support a FAITH in a deity in some religions, not all.  But in all religions they are told to support FAITH what is considered as the Absolute, that which is of Ultimate Concern and that which provides and sustains a way of life that offers meaning and value and purpose to support the HOPE that life is not in vain, that all is not for naught, that there is or can be meaning for human life both individually and collectively.  In some cases this involves belief in an afterlife in other cases not and instead a consumption of individual existence into a greater whole that survives or is eternally existent.

So there are other forms of life in which language is used in certain ways following the rules of that form of life.  There are the science form of life and the philosophy form of life and the sports form of life and the business form of life and so on.  Each with its own rules governing the use of language.  It is a major mistake to fail to recognize when the language being used is in a form of life different from those who want to treat it as if it was from another form of life.  It would be a big mistake for people to use the science form of life rules on expressions in the religious form of life that appear to be similar to empirical claims.  How is one to know when the claim is not being used as in everyday form of life or in the science form of life?  It is a nearly certain sign that people are using language within the religious form of life when those who make such claims hold that they are not subject to empirical verification or falsification and when those who make such claims will continue to make them (hold their beliefs) despite an absence of evidence or even when they are presented with counter evidence to what would be an empirical claim in the science or everyday form of life.

We would be foolish to erect a scientific research group to go to the north pole of planet earth to look for Santa Claus, the reindeer that fly and the elves making all the toys as are reported in stories about the famous bringer of gifts to children.  We would fail to realize that such stories are not being used in the ordinary way in which  people make claims or report what has occurred in the everyday of in the science form of life. These stories are being told to convey some message to the children about the value of giving gifts and the importance of proper behavior and so forth.  Likewise we are foolish to use science in an attempt to verify the existence of a supernatural being or deity or the tao.  We can use science to study religion as a cultural, social and psychological phenomena.  We can study the many forms taken on by the religious form of life.  We can learn about how religions change in the course of time how they rise and fall and are reformed and generate variations on themselves.  We make a mistake to look for the TRUTH of religion or to determine which religion is the true religion.

The are reasons that religions or the religious form of life has both many common characteristics and differences in the variety in which it is manifest on the planet through time.  The need for the basic worldview with its values and order is the same for all humans.  We are demonstrably homo religiousous according to the physical record.  Humans wherever and whenever have common basic intellectual needs.  Where these needs are for basic meaning in life so that it can be lived without a sense of futility those needs are termed "spiritual" as they are not based on a physical foundation.  Within each culture the ways in which the needs have been met have varied but there is enough of a resemblance that we identify the satisfaction of those basic needs as some form of religion.  Humans are every where the same in their most basic needs (physical and spiritual) and everywhere somewhat different in how they attempt to satisfy them.  Different cultures have produced and been composed of ,in part, different religions.

What the religious form of life and its mythology and set of fundamental beliefs provides for humans is a set of what are most valued: the absolute found in all religions.  From this sense of the absolute, or what Paul Tillich has termed, the "Ultimate Concern", are generated both a set of what is valued that can serve as the basis for the ethical foundation for the oral rules needed for social life and for the sense of hope need for humans to live and struggle to survive and prosper.  Religious forms of life provide a belief system which is foundational and beyond empirical critique as it is held as essential for the basis of the hope that people need to live.  There must be a HOPE that life has a meaning that it is not all for naught.

So people will believe in the non-falsifiable claims because they sense that they must or else they fear:

  • there will be intellectual chaos
  • a loss of sense of purpose and meaning
  • loss of a basis for morality

and basically a loss of hope that life can be lived and possibly enjoyed and that it is not all for naught.

Does this mean that what they believe in may be anything and not subject to any rules?  No not at all.  In order for the belief system that is part of the religious form of life to function to fulfill its purpose in meeting the most basic needs of the human community the beliefs systems should engage as much of the life of the mind as sis possible and so such belief systems should be subject to rational examination to insure that there is some form of consistency and that there is a coherency.

The intellectual leaders participating in the religious form of life need to insure the rules are followed and that to the degree possible the use of language within the religious form of life does follow rules of consistency and coherency in order to preserve intelligibility and to protect the beliefs from doubt.  Such leaders (e.g., theologians amongst those who are believers in a deity) will provide for continuing interpretations and reinterpretations of the sacred scriptures, mythologies and commentaries that are part of the religious tradition in an effort to make them as meaningful and as "believable" or as acceptable as is possible.

In this regard Faith is subject to Reason!  Not to be challenged but to be improved upon.  Improved how?  Well the belief set or the collection of beliefs are not to be made true where they have not been true and are either non-verifiable or inconsistent with one another if any of them were true and not where they are used in an AXIOLOGICAL manner expressing what the believer values and not making empirically verifiable claims.   The belief set can be improved by making the beliefs adhere internally to the criteria of reasoning:  consistency and coherency.  The belief set can be recognized formally as a symbolic system that functions as a broken myth.

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Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

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