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Neutrality and subjectivity in religion

The logical positivist movement originated in the 1920s with the Vienna Circle. Although mainly concerned with the philosophy of science, it posed by implication a major challenge to the logical meaningfulness of religious language. The positivist position, in its developed form, was that a statement has factual meaning only if it is capable in principle of being verified or falsified, or at least in some degree confirmed or disconfirmed, within human experience; otherwise it is meaningless, or cognitively vacuous. In the years immediately after World War II this account of factual meaning was applied (e.g., by Antony Flew) to theological statements, raising such questions as: What observable difference does it make whether it is true or false that “God loves us”? Whatever tragedies occur, do not the faithful still maintain their belief, adding perhaps that the divine love is beyond human comprehension?
In the late 20th century, under the stimulus of Wittgenstein’s posthumously published works, attention was directed to the multiple legitimate uses of language in the various language games developed within different human activities and forms of life; and it was suggested that religious belief has its own autonomous validity, not subject to verificationist or scientific or other extraneous criteria. Statements about God and eternal life do not make true-or-false factual claims but express, in religious language, a distinctive attitude to life and way of engaging in it. This suggestion formed part of the broader non-realist interpretation of religion, which held that religious beliefs do not refer to putative transcendent realities but are instead expressive of human ideals, desires, hopes, attitudes, and intentions. Such thinking goes back to the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (The Essence of Christianity, 1841) in the 19th century. It was promoted in the early 20th century by George SantayanaJohn Dewey, and J.H. Randall, Jr., and later by Christian writers such as D.Z. Phillips and Don Cupitt. According to them, true Christianity consists in the inner purity of an unself-centred attitude to life and does not involve belief in the objective reality of God or of a life after death. This view, however, was criticized on the grounds that to deny the transcendent reference of religious language empties it of any substantial meaning.