The Language of Religion

Introduction: a scientist and a priest

Religious and scientific literature have in common a particular feature: namely, language. Both religion and science rely on language to convey their messages; indeed, one can analyze the syntax of a bible like one can analyze the syntax of a physics journal. And, language, relying on a brain, reveals yet another shared attribute; that the writer and reader of either a religious or scientific text use language with the same brain structures; therefore, have the same or immensely similar language capacities. These shared features mean that scientific discoveries about language and cognition can also be applied to religious language and cognition, for both are members of the same category.

Thus, it is my intent to analyze religious thought through the lens of cognitive linguistics; to apply the research and theories of that academic discipline to the language and ideas of religion. In particular, we shall consider how image schemas and conceptual metaphors contribute to our understanding of a specific religious idea; that being, the idea that God is everything, an omnipotent mind which is spread throughout all of existence.

What is an image schema?

The word schema is a lot like the word “cognitive” or “psychological”; that is, academics, the general public, and cockatoo birds have used the word in so many different ways that it has developed more meanings than one can account for. When in the field of developmental psychology, Jean Piaget’s use of the word is predominant;  when in the field of cognitive psychology, Allport, Neisser, and Barlett all have nuanced uses of the word, and even Kant himself dedicated a few pages of his “Critique of Pure Reason” to discuss schemas. Needless to say, there is a whole web of technical meanings associated with the word schema.

To point out each nuanced meaning associated with the word will be done anywhere but here, as that is a monumental task which would require a discussion of book-length. Instead, we will use the word how cognitive linguists use the word. So, if you have never heard the word before, great; however, for those who have heard the word before, be cautious about accidentally conflating your understanding with the one we will discuss below.

An image schema is a blueprint for an experience (Hampel, 2008). There are primitive schemas and complex schemas, and these schemas can organize not only our experiences but also our thoughts. The primitive schemas are the ones we acquire early on in development, and the complex schemas are combinations of these primitive schemas. Let us consider the primitive schemas first.

When we witness a cup be placed into a cupboard and disappear, we rely on a containment schema to organize that experience; the containment schema tells us that the cup still exists and that the cupboard contains the cup. This allows infants to structure their experiences and understand that the cupboard contains the object which is no longer visible. Another instance of a containment schema would be when an apple falls into a bowl. The infant will rely on the containment schema to realize that the apple is contained within the bowl. This schema allows infants to infer where objects are located when placed inside something, especially if that something makes an object of interest disappear; for example, when a parent pretends to have an infant’s nose in their hand, the infant is often surprised when the hand opens and nothing is there. The containment schemas are understood as bounded regions in space (Lakoff, 1987).

Another primitive schema is the goal-path schema (Woodward, 1998). Children begin to understand that when adults reach for objects, they are taking a path to a goal. For instance, when an adult begins to reach for a toy, the infant understands that the current path taken leads to a goal: namely, the toy. That is, the infant monitors the hand as it follows a particular path towards the object (goal). This same schema would be used when a mother or father spoon feeds an infant; more specifically, the path from the food to the goal, which is the infant’s mouth, will be schematized by the infant’s goal-path schema. Moreover, the more developed, though still primitive, version of this schema is the source-goal-path schema (Mandler & Pagan, 2014). Here, the main difference is that we now pay attention to the source associated with each particular instance. The source-goal-path schema allows us to understand the kind of experience encoded within sentences like, “the quarterback threw the ball for another 7 points”. Here, the source is the quarterback, the path is the trajectory of the ball towards a receiver in the other teams end-zone, and the goal is the receiver. So, the goal-path and source-goal-path schemas are incredibly similar, with the caveat of an additional feature within the more developed source-goal-path schema.

The containment, goal-path, and source-goal-path schemas are only a few of many primitive schemas, but that is all we will need for now.

To build even furthermore upon the notion of schemas, these basic schemas can then be combined to create more complex understandings about an experience. Consider the sentence, “James practiced 12 hours a day to get into NBA.” Here, the source is James, who took the path of deliberate practice, to gain access to the NBA, which is a container for highly skilled basketball players. We can view James’ life as a source-path-goal schema and the NBA as a containment-schema because we think about it as a bounded region in space: I.e., “get into the NBA, or enter the NBA”.  Basic schemas interplay with one another to shape the way we think about the world.

In essence, schemas are a means to organize experience. We develop blueprints from one experience, such as objects falling into bowls, and then rely on that blueprint to infer something about a new experience, like throwing our clothes into a hamper. Similar to how a journeyman creates a map for unmarked territories through exploration, so to do humans create implicit understandings about experience. In more empirical language, schemas are networks of neurons that wire together in relation to something in the environment and then make predictions about various environmental information (Feldman, 2008; Gruyter et. al., 2005). For example, people with damage to areas of the brain that receive sensory and motor input, an area called the sensorimotor cortex, have an inability to process the meaning bodily action verbs and sentences (Hampe et. al., 2005). This means that an inability to receive input from one modality of sensory experience impairs our ability to understand sensory and bodily information within sentences like, “he’s pushing the limits”. So, sensory neurons schematize our experiences.

Now, to see how schemas apply to the language of religion, we must first consider conceptual metaphor.

What is a Conceptual Metaphor?

A conceptual metaphor is the idea that we experience and understand one thing in terms of another thing (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980); that is, the way we understand love can be influenced by our understanding of journeys, for instance; consider some of these phrases:

Our relationship is at a dead-end

Our relationship is on bumpy roads

This relationship isn’t going anywhere

  I think its time we go separate ways

These phrases are discussing a relationship with the language one would use to discuss a journey. This reflects a difference in the ontologies associated with each conceptual domain; put more simply, the physical environment one experiences when on a journey has salient stimuli and features, and we use those salient stimuli and features to map our understanding of love. This conceptual mapping is not merely linguistic.  And so, we get the conceptual metaphor: love is a journey. As to why this conceptual metaphor came about, one can only speculate. Thus, as we can see, we have taken the conceptual domain of “journey” and blended it with the conceptual domain of “love”.

Another instance of a conceptual metaphor would be the “argument is war” conceptual metaphor. In this metaphor we understand debates and arguments through the conceptual domain of war; consider the following phrases:

He’s attacking my position

Your claims are indefensible

He shot down all of my arguments

The “argument is war” metaphor allows us to understand one domain of experience, debates, in terms of another domain of experience, war. Again, the ontological mappings of a war are used to inform the semantics for phrases like, “he has a well-defended position”.

These conceptual metaphors are also able to cross into non-linguistics and non-conceptual domains; for example, “she warms my heart,” is an instance of the conceptual metaphor “warmth is love”. Here, we are using states of physiological arousal to inform our understandings about love. Or consider the phrase, “she has poor taste”. This phrase relies on our chemical senses to understand some other domain of thought related to style.

Conceptual metaphors are instances of mapping the ontology of one experiential domain onto the ontology of another experiential domain; we have a source domain and a target domain. In the “argument is war” conceptual metaphor, we rely on the conceptual domain of war as the source, and the conceptual domain of argument becomes the target; thus, resulting in a blend that creates a conceptual metaphor.

There are plenty more conceptual metaphors, like “time is money,” but we have enough to understand the gist. Now, let us consider some religious language and ideas.

God, Image Schemas, and Conceptual Metaphors.

As said earlier, the idea that we are interested in here is: “God is everything, an omnipotent mind spread throughout the universe”. This is the rough approximation of the idea of Brahman, God-Mind, or all powerful. Of course, these are all slightly nuanced ideas; however, the general notion of absolute is rooted within them all. At any rate, I will show how this thought can be explained through the conceptual metaphor “THE MIND IS AN ENTITY” and a few image schemas that are part of a radial network: namely, the reflexive and covering schemas (Lakoff, 1987).

We rely on our spatial capacities to reason about things like happiness and money; for instance, “she is feeling down,” or, “his pay went up.” We take, as a source domain, spatial-orientation and map it onto other domains within life: I.e., money. However, this is by no means the only use of our spatial abilities.

Another important use of our visuospatial abilities is the ability to recognize objects, even when these objects are far from being anything like an object; consider that a group of humans can be viewed as an object named “society,” and that a car accident can also be viewed as an object. This reflects our propensity to treat things as objects. In doing so, we are taking the ontology of objects, those being bounded regions in space, and applying them to another phenomenon that we wish to treat as an object: societies, car accidents, sports events. Example phrases:

Society has taken a turn for the worse

The accident is beginning to calm down

The game is being unfair

The economy has lost its marbles

These are all instances where we take something that has clearly defined boundaries, like normal everyday objects, and apply it to something that has less clearly defined boundaries; and thus, we create an ontological metaphor. “Society is a driver,”, “accidents are bounded events,”, “the game is a person,”, “the economy as a mind,”. Notice, we do not necessarily need an object in the target domain to create an ontological metaphor either; for example, “inflation keeps rising”.

Thus,  when we speak of God, we are speaking of God as though he or she were a person; that is, we treat of something we cannot see, God, as a bounded region in space. Instead of the mind being an entity in the ontological metaphor “MIND IS AN ENTITY,” we have God: “GOD IS AN ENTITY”. There is no need to witness something as a bounded region in space to speak and think of it as though it were a bounded region in space, and this allows us to create the conceptual metaphor “GOD IS AN ENTITY”.

And now that we understand that conceptual metaphor allows us to speak of God as an object, we can begin to see how image schemas interact with this metaphor. Consider some phrases:

God watches over us (a)

God is spread out through the entire universe (b)

God is the universe (c)

With phrase (a), the image schema that informs the meaning to “over” is a covering schema. When we interpret the phrase, “the board is over the hole,” we have the image of a board sitting above a hole. The same goes for the phrase, “the helicopter sat over the canyon”. This covering schema is motionless, at least 2-Dimensional, and can have a potentially infinite amount of space between the object and the landmark which it covers. Consider that the meaning for “over” in both previously mentioned phrases does not vary; because it is the same schema which structures the experience associated with something being above something else while not moving, the meaning remains the same. So, even though the helicopter could be 10x higher above the canyon than the board is above the hole, it matters very little.  Thus, phrase (a) relies upon a covering schema to be coherent; the same covering schema we use in our everyday conversations: I.e., put a lid over the pot, hold that over your head, put that over the food.

With phrase (b), the image schema that informs the meaning to “over” is a reflexive schema. A reflexive schema refers to the idea that something has begun to take a trajectory away from its self or its starting landmark. For example, “he ran out of the room,”, “the syrup spread out,”, “we rolled out the carpet”. This schema informs how it is we think about God being spread throughout. In the same way that syrup spreads away from its center point, so too does God spread away from him or her self. The same reflexive schema that organizes our understanding of the phrase, “the wax has melted and begun to spread in all directions,” informs what we mean by, “God is spread out through the entire universe”. The universe becomes a bounded region which God spreads through.

With phrase (c), we have a blend of conceptual metaphors; that is, “THE UNIVERSE IS AN ENTITY,” and, “GOD IS AN ENTITY”. Here, we have made the universe an entity and that entity is God. Consider the phrase, “the storm is an indication of God’s wrath.” This phrase attributes intentionality to some aspect of the universe, that being the weather; in addition to that, the weather reflects the psychological state of God, which in turn means that the universe has a psychological state. Thus, phrase (c) is a reflection of those above-mentioned conceptual metaphors.

Concluding Remarks

The primary argument, then, is that God stems from our cognitive abilities to create conceptual metaphors and use image schemas to think about those conceptual metaphors. When we say, “God is the universe,” we are being metaphorical; as evident by the fact that the same types of conceptual metaphors explain vastly different parts of our language, like “Love is Journey”. Along with these conceptual metaphors, to make sense of phrases like, “God watches over us,” we rely on the schematization of experiences like “throw the lid over the pot,” where “over” means hover above rather than being literally thrown over the top. We have created an entity from nothing and relied upon the ontological mappings from various experiences to speak of this entity. Therefore, our neurology allowed us to create God.


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Hampe, B. (2008). From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics. (From perception to meaning.) Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

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Lakoff, George. (1987). Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2011). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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Woodward, A. L. (1998). Infants selectively encode the goal object of an actor’s reach.
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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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