“How can one meaningfully say that God listens to our prayers, loves us, speaks to us, answers (or does not answer our supplications, etcetera, if God is also assumed to be an incorporeal being? For the stipulation that God is an incorporeal being annuls the very conditions for meaningfully applying psychological expressions to another entity, to wit, that this entity is able in principle to display forms of bodily behaviour which resemble patterns of human behaviour. In other words, the very attempt to give a meaning and a possible referent to the word ‘God’ as used in theism must fail, because this attempt is incoherent. . .
. . . If this is so, one might object, how are we to explain the fact that the word ‘God’ and sentences such as ‘God loves me’, appear to be used meaningfully in monotheistic language? But explaining this is not difficult. The religious uses of the putative proper name ‘God’ are parasitic upon, and resemble to a large extent, the ordinary uses of proper names and psychological expressions for human beings. What religious believers fail to notice is that by substituting ‘God’ for an ordinary proper name in sentences such as ‘John loves me’, or ‘Paul will condemn him’, they cancel the conditions for using meaningfully the words ‘loves’ and ‘condemns’.
Monotheistic believers often are vaguely aware that the meaning of words eludes them when they utter sentences containing the word ‘God’. But they misinterpret this fact as symptomatic of the spiritual depth of religious discourse. They think that the profoundly mysterious nature of monotheistic language points to a transcendent reality, which cannot be grasped by us, limited human beings. In this case, however, the impression of profoundness is caused by a mere misuse of language. As Wittgenstein aptly remarked, ‘the problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth.”
Herman Philipse is a professor of philosophy at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. From 1986 until 2003, he taught at Leiden University, where he obtained his doctorate in 1983.