Game of Definitions

The single most frustrating thing I’ve encountered recently in discussions of religion is the confusion that arises when one word has multiple (and sometimes a spectrum of) definitions. Just to illustrate an obviously nonsensical case:

Him: You believe that nature exists, don’t you?
Me: Yeah, of course.
Him: And might you consider God as the laws of nature?
Me: Umm, sure, that kinda makes sense [metaphorically].
Him: Ah, good then, I see that you’ve just accepted Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.

As an example of the fallacy called equivocation, clearly the naturalistic “God” in the third line is much different from the specific theistic God implied in the fifth. The vast number of differences between the laws of nature and the Judeo-Christian God prevent you from simply saying, “Nature is awesome, therefore Christianity is true!”

“God”

While this kind of argument is typically not used as directly as stated above, it’s abused so much in discussions of God’s existence. Even though I introduced the argument as an “obviously nonsensical” one, I’ve had that discussion in person at least once.

God_Nature_Demotivational_Poster

After the “You can’t prove God doesn’t exist” argument (which is like saying “You can’t prove that Fairies don’t exist” as proof of the existence of Fairies), definition-twisting seems to be the next go-to defense of God’s existence.

  • God is Nature, and Nature exists, therefore God must exist.
  • God is Love, and you’d be a cold, heartless person to not believe in Love, therefore you think God exists.
  • God is the Unknown, and you can’t possibly know everything, therefore God exists.
  • God is Wonder, and we wonder about things, therefore God exists.
  • God is a Higher Power.
  • God is Fate
  • God is Chance.
  • Etc.

Logically, these are all empty statements. If God literally meant “Nature” and everyone in the world who considers themselves religious actually just appreciates nature very enthusiastically, then of course God (by definition) exists, and I wouldn’t be calling myself an atheist or wasting my time talking about this on the internet.

  • (The Flying Spaghetti Monster is Nature, and Nature exists, therefore the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists.)

Unfortunately for the world, God as the target of mass worship is not Nature, or Love, or the Unknown, or Wonder. In America, it primarily refers to the Christian God which behaves as prescribed in the Bible. This difference is of crucial importance. When a more religious Christian refers to God, they are referring to a completely different concept than that of a Deist or naturalist.

As interpreted by a vast number of Americans, God has done particular things in the past and has particular views on many social issues, and for an apologist to claim that God equals Nature is utterly wrong and misleading. Nature doesn’t tell a father to sacrifice his son on the altar and then call it off as a test at the last moment. Love doesn’t wipe out cities or command mass murder. The Unknown does not forbid homosexuality as a sin. Wonder does not set a death penalty on people who work Sundays. Redefining God as something good does not make the entity of the original definition worthy of worship.

“Religious,” “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Muslim”

There is no similarity between the “God” of Albert Einstein’s “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” and that of John McTernan’s “The timing of Hurricane Isaac with Southern Decadence is a sign that God’s patience with America’s sin is coming to an end.”

Einstein has said, “I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be understood as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.” And also: “The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive.”

Though hurricanes hitting New Orleans are in the realm of nature, McTernan’s “God” is obviously not Nature, but a being with a purpose or goal, acting in a highly anthropomorphic fashion. Here’s a link to the original article:

The fact the events are seven years apart is very significant as this number is biblically important. It is the number of completion: God created the universe in seven days. The church, city and nation have not repented and the homosexual agenda is far worse than it was in 2005. New Orleans is still hosting Southern Decadence with open homosexuality manifesting in the streets of the city. It could be that God is putting an end to this city and its wickedness. The timing of Hurricane Isaac with Southern Decadence is a sign that God’s patience with America’s sin is coming to an end.

Now hold on a second, says the liberal Christian. How can a true Christian say such demeaning things about homosexuals? A true Christian would be open and nice and caring and all those good things!

Of course, the conservative Christian would say the same thing back: a true Christian follows the Word of God! Are you denying that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a sin?

This is the No True Christian fallacy, where both sides claim to be Christian and condemn the other side for not being Christian. It means so little when someone says, “I’m a Christian” (unless your name is Christian!). Proclaiming Christianity gives virtually no information regarding one’s religious beliefs.

According to a Pew Research study on Jewish Americans, 62% of American Jews stated that being Jewish is mainly a matter of “ancestry/culture” while 15% stated it was mainly a matter of “religion,” the other 23% saying both. Adopting the terms (though clearly not the stats) for Christianity, we can roughly divide Christians into two groups: cultural Christians and religious (or biblical) Christians. It should be obvious for most Christians which group is closer to them.

Most Christians I know are cultural Christians, and even many non-Christians would identify with being culturally Christian. This only magnifies how vague the term “Christian” is.

The term “Muslim” makes the definition gap even wider, given how much more extreme the religious side is. Is a true Muslim the one who carries out a suicide bombing or “fights” for Islam, or the one who “sits at home”? Interestingly, the Quran itself contains an answer (hint: it’s not the peaceful option), though of course apologists will take the most positively propagandized interpretation of that and present such statements in the Quran as evidence that Islam as a religion of peace. I have no doubt that most Muslims are actual peace-seeking, friendly people; however, when a cultural Muslim says, “I am a Muslim,” that means an entirely different thing than when a religious Muslim says, “I am a Muslim.”

It would be so much easier to discuss this if there were different words for, say, cultural Muslim and religious Muslim, as saying two words gets tedious and these particular phrases still emphasize that the term Muslim is shared in common, though it is only an incidental similarity.

For example, in Nazi Germany (at the risk of upsetting Godwin’s law), obviously not all Germans were Nazis; in fact, many Germans held views against the Nazis and were actually persecuted by Nazis. But let us suppose that the exact same word were used for both “German” and “Nazi,” say the word “Gerzi.” Then when a British intellectual writes an anti-totalitarian criticism of Gerzism, which looks like a criticism of Gerzis, the Gerzis get upset, saying they don’t support totalitarianism and that the Gerzis being criticized are not true Gerzis. Thus the intellectual is forced to retract their statement for offending the Gerzis, all criticism of Gerzis is henceforth frowned upon (and is labeled Gerziphobia), and in the end, the uncontested Gerzis attain totalitarian power and start a world war. Fortunately, the Gerzis don’t have nuclear weapons.

“Cameron Diaz”

This is an illustrative passage from Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell:

Suppose instead that I was convinced that I did have a secret helper but that it wasn’t you—it was Cameron Diaz. As I penned my thank-you notes to her, and thought lovingly about her, and marveled at her generosity to me, it would surely be misleading to say that you were the object of my gratitude, even though you were in fact the one who did the deeds that I am so grateful for. And then suppose I gradually began to suspect that I had been ignorant and mistaken, and eventually came to the correct realization that you were indeed the proper recipient of my gratitude. Wouldn’t it be strange for me to put it this way: “Now I understand: you are Cameron Diaz!” It would indeed be strange; it would be false—unless something else had happened in the interim. Suppose my acquaintances had become so used to my singing the praises of Cameron Diaz and her bountiful works that the term had come, to them and to me, to stand for whoever it was who was responsible for my joy. In that case, those syllables would no longer have their original use or meaning. The syllables “Cameron Diaz,” purportedly a proper name of a real individual, would have been turned—gradually and imperceptibly—into a sort of wild-card referring expression, the “name” of whoever (or whatever) is responsible for… whatever it is I am grateful for.

It’s pretty clear what this is a reference to. (But hey, at least Cameron Diaz exists.)

“Faith”

Yet another definition-game word is faith. Faith in its usual sense is belief lacking absolute proof, which is very different from belief absolutely lacking in proof, its extended definition as a religious term. As written before on this blog:

It is perfectly rational to have faith in the conventional sense, but it is almost always irrational to have faith of the religious variety. I am okay with believing something with no proof if I still consider it a reasonable decision. Do I have absolute proof that the Sun will come up tomorrow? No, but I’ll bet anyone 10,000 to 1 odds that it will (if it doesn’t, I’ll give you $10,000; if it does, you owe me $1). For me to make this bet, that means I have to believe the probability of the Sun coming up tomorrow is >99.99%, given certain risk aversion preferences. If a billionaire whom I was best friends with and a homeless beggar both asked me for $100 as investment money and promised to give me a $50 a year for the next 10 years, given that I trust the billionaire sufficiently (and that inflation/interest rates are as they are now), I would give it to the billionaire (i.e. I would have faith in this billionaire), but would obviously not give any money to the beggar. Rationally, anything with a high enough probability of happening and with a low enough max cost, is reasonable to believe.

Religious faith corrupts the usual concept of faith. Instead of having strong evidence (the Sun has come up every single day since recorded history and according to science there is nothing to suggest a high probability of the Sun not coming up tomorrow; or this person is a self-made billionaire and so must know how to invest money, and is also a good friend) and therefore believing something, I am given ZERO evidence and expected to believe something. Not even a speck of evidence.

In this case, normal faith is associated with lending to the billionaire. You obviously don’t have proof that the billionaire will return the investment, but you are reasonably sure. More hardcore faith is needed with the beggar: maybe you know some additional information or are a good friend of the beggar and know of his future job opportunities; point is, there is some conceivable scenario where you might give $100 to the beggar (at worst, some person now has some means of living for a while). However, religious faith in this analogy would be like taking your favorite box, emptying it, putting your $100 in there, burning the money, sealing the box, and then opening the box every year for the next ten years expecting to find $50 magically appear every time. No thinking person would ever do that.

“Atheist”

Of course, what it means to be “someone who doesn’t believe the existence of a god” will depend on the definition of “God” or “gods.”

There is a slight difference between not believing “…that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree” (summary taken from internet meme), and not having “a sense of wonder about the natural world.”

A couple of months ago, for instance, when swimmer Diana Nyad was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on her show, Nyad considered herself an atheist but Oprah responded by telling her she was not. From Hemant Mehta:

The part that struck a chord with me — and many other atheists — was Winfrey’s dismissal of Nyad’s non-religious label. Nyad explained that she called herself an atheist but that didn’t take anything away from the awe she felt about the world and all of its inhabitants. To her, “God” was humanity.

Winfrey clearly didn’t understand that, responding, “Well, I don’t call you an atheist then! I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, that that is what God is!”

First of all, Winfrey’s definition of God is fairly meaningless, applying to everything and nothing all at once.

More importantly, however, was the (unintentional) implication that those of us who find beauty in plants and animals and the universe itself can’t possibly be godless. That’s a common stereotype atheists face and it’s an incredibly pernicious one, made even worse because it was repeated by a celebrity of Winfrey’s stature.

I doubt Oprah would ever tell a self-described lesbian that she was really a bisexual, or a moderate Republican that he was really an Independent. Most of us who choose a label for ourselves like that do so only after a great deal of thought. That’s why Winfrey had no business telling Nyad she wasn’t really an atheist. Nyad politely explained her case, but you can understand her hesitation to push back too hard. It’s Oprah, after all.

If you define God in a way such that everyone believes in God, now you’ve shown that everyone believes in the new definition of God, but that doesn’t change what the original concept of God was, and it doesn’t make the older version any more likely to be true.

“Conclusion”

Talking about definitions these days is a banal task. Thanks to postmodern relativism (or whatever you call the phenomenon), we are used to questioning definitions of everything that can possibly be questioned—which is usually a good thing!—a bit too far. What is truth? Is all truth subjective? Is there nothing objective to be said? Is everything just a matter of biased perception, flavored by the individual? While these are great cognitive exercises, this thought process is unfortunately being applied to things that are not simply a matter of personal taste. “Is Islam justified in carrying out terror because it’s their cultural right to do so? Is it allowed to force women to wear veils because that’s what it means to be a woman in their culture? What makes you think your (Christian) interpretation of God better than theirs?” And so on. You cannot just define God to be whatever you want it to be and then immediately conclude that all the rest of the baggage of religion follows.

2 thoughts on “Game of Definitions

    1. Yeah. And these are just strict definitions. I could write an entire post on the connotations of these words, which are probably more significant in how people view them (though I felt that getting it logically correct is important too).

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