Reclaiming My Words

Posted by on November 24, 2010 in Thoughts | 3 comments

A key thing when in debate is to use the right words. I am slowly learning the tricks of this tactic, and have found that a poor choice of words can lead a detractor down a path from which there is no returning. Here are some classic examples of words which used to have secular meanings, but which now have been hijacked by the religious for their own purposes.

Belief/I believe: Each of us has beliefs, but the way I use the word, it is to put forward what I have figured out for myself as truth, or what I am digging up from the back of my brains as a recalled truth. This sense of “belief/believe” has no element of faith in it, other than the faith I have in my own self. It is certainly not a religious term. Even so, it is a word that I try to avoid, unless there is no other word to use in a given situation. Alternatives: “think/I think”, “if I recall correctly”, “all evidence points at” etc.

Faith/faithful: This one is primarily used as a religious term, meaning a vague insistence that God is looking after a person/people. “Faith” in my book should only be described to have some confidence in a person or a situation that is completely within human control. Anything outside human control can not have this term applied to it. Alternatives: “confidence/confidence in my fellow man”, “all things being equal”, “I hope that”, etc.

Hope/pray: This word has been stolen, and from a basic principle of being human has been re-worked to mean the same as “faith”, but in a much more passive way. “I hope” does not mean I am asking God to do something for me. It simply means that for me to have a happy outcome, it would be desirable for things to go my way. Of course everyone has hopes and aspirations, but we don’t need to always ascribe them to gods when we hope for something. We all hope for desirable outcomes, those who do not are either mentally ill or have a plan they wish to fulfill. “I pray” is the same as “I hope” only it is the passive voice, where all personal liability is renounced, and the matter is put into the hands of gods. Alternatives: “I want”, “desire”, etc.

Miracle: I blame the media for this one. If a thousand people die in a building collapse, and one child is pulled from the wreckage 5 days later, it is termed “a miracle”. God must have really loved that once child to allow for the deaths of a thousand others. That is beside the point, because the word “miracle” was once used to describe anything we didn’t understand. Fire was a miracle until we discovered what caused it. Birth was a miracle until we could describe in detail the way life is formed inside a woman. A solar eclipse was a miracle until we discovered that the moon circles Earth, and we circle the sun, and sometimes the moon gets in between Earth and the sun. Miracle now is used primarily by Catholics to describe immaculate healing by saints for three reasons; they already believe in the healing power of Saints; they want to believe in the healing power of Saints; and they do not wish to question this, so stop looking for real answers. Aside from this, I want to be able to use the word “miracle” to describe something we already understand, and my use of this word is more akin to “lucky” or “fortunate” (yes I know, I don’t really believe in either). Sometimes it is the only word we can use. Alternatives: “chance happening”, “linear series of events”, “cause and effect”, etc.

The other thing that a particularly pedantic person might pick up on is using anthropic or anthropomorphic words to describe how something may come to be. Far from the shamanistic idea that rocks and the sky have spirits, it’s more in the way we describe inanimate objects. Professor Lawrence Krauss once said, in a highly publicised (at least in my world) “A Universe from Nothing”, this:

“You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded. Because the elements, the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars. And the only way they could get into your body is if the stars were kind enough to explode.”

I highlighted the part that a contemporary of mine picked up on. He said that the above statement implied that stars could either be deterministic, or that they make their own decisions. While I don’t understand this to be the case, and I forgive Professor Krauss for his poetic descriptions (he put the point across so beautifully), the wrong choice of words to the wrong person can weaken a statement so that it no longer wields any sway.

I want to reclaim the words that have been usurped from us by the religious (and the media, who are sometimes worse peddlers of language misuse), and I want to be able to feel free to use the words. I want to be able to be poetic, without being told that I am implying something I am not. People who hide behind the clever use of words, without adding anything to a conversation, while they may be quick-witted, are falling back on the absolute lowest defence for any standpoint.

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  1. Nice post.

    Yes the meaning of each of those terms can be easily understood when used colloquially, yet within the context of a religious debate each of those terms communicates their ‘technical’ (significantly more narrow, religious) definition.

    Insisting on the common-usage definition is a form of strawmanning. That is retreating from the nub of the immediate religious issue being debated, though perhaps unintentionally; particularly if these aren’t theologians with whom you’re debating.

    Reasonable Doubts podcasted an interesting debate last month between episodes 75 and 76 that’s well worth a listen:

    Also last month was this online debate with Sam Harris which is worth reading through:

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  2. Effective communication is hostage to schematics and fluid definitions. Unfortunately, it is rare for two random individuals to maintain the same nuanced definitions employed in discussion. This problem is compounded when discussing difficult to understand concepts and esoteric philosophies. I have wasted many hours attempting to explain (what I consider) basic concepts to the opposition – often with disastrous results.

    Case in point: Faith/Hope. To me these are very different things, but the religious equivocate the two almost unconsciously.

    To some a sentence such as “consciousness is an emergent property of the brain” means mere chemicals are conscious, or some other ridiculous notion.

    I fully support your efforts to clarify the language we use. Perhaps I should devote sometime to developing a glossary of terms and definitions to aid visitors?

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  3. How true!
    I call myself a naturalist or rationalist rather than an atheist as I’m against all superstitions. I’m a gnu atheist who means business as Googling skeptic griggsy, skepticgriggsy, naturalist griggsy and rationalist griggsy shows.
    I use the terms the Ground of Being for those who are more metaphysical and Sky Pappy for the rest. I use the term Buy-bull [Bye-bull] to express my view of that hideuos anthology.

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