Atheists and Ambiguous Wording

This post is by Jesse Galef, who works for the Secular Coalition for America. He also blogs at Rant & Reason

When Bruce Ledewitz (author of “Hallowed Secularism”) found out who I work for, he said with a grin that soon we would soon consider people like him, not the religious right, to be our worst enemy.  He and I might be intellectual opponents at the worst, for Bruce is far too nice of a person to consider a true ‘enemy.’

Of course, it would be easier to be an intellectual opponent if I better knew what idea I was opposing.  The strawmen arguments and strange non sequiturs leave me wondering quite who he’s attacking – atheists? secularists? nihilists? moral relativists?  As I complained last post, none of the terms used are well-defined or explained.  A quarter of the way through his book, I still don’t have a good sense of what he means by “religious” or “meaningful” – vital to an understanding of his argument.

Which brings me to one of his recent posts on his blog, HallowedSecularism.  Bruce writes:

8/21/2009—I have run into a problem I did not expect: secularists accepting religious fundamentalism’s definition of God.

My constitutional law proposal is that government may use certain religious images, such as the word God in the Pledge of Allegiance, when that religious image has nonreligious and broad meaning. For example, “One Nation, Under God” can mean we recognize that there are objective and enduring standards of right and wrong that are binding on this country.

To this proposal, in addition to other criticisms, Frederick Clarkson responded in the Pittsburgh City Paper, “It’s preposterous, God means God. It doesn’t mean ‘universal values’”.

This objection is now being repeated in blog postings discussing the netroots nation panel, for example the Friendly Atheist : “God is a deity”.

Words are tools used to point to ideas.  Their meaning comes from a shared convention and understanding that a particular word points to a certain idea.  Overwhelmingly, the word “God” points to a supernatural entity – even more so when it’s capitalized.  When a person uses the word to refer to other concepts it’s typically an attempt to absorb the power and authority of the existing institutions and associations.

The majority of Americans to tell pollsters that they believe in God when they don’t actually share the same beliefs on any level – they just all refer to something as “God”.  Because of that confusion, the real disagreements are glossed over.  Heck, we atheists could refer to my delicious waffles as “God” and say that we believe in God too!  (I wonder how many google hits I would get for Trans-fat-substantiation…)

Yes, there are words that can point to more than one idea.  That’s why we look at context and intent – to know which common meaning the speaker is using.  What could possibly imply that the 1950s congress was thinking “One Nation Under Objective and Enduring Standards of Right and Wrong” any more than a student is telling his teacher to suck a rooster?

It’s extremely frustrating when the constructive ambiguity of words creates the illusion of agreementFrom wikipedia:

[Constructive ambiguity] refers to the deliberate use of ambiguous language on a sensitive issue in order to advance some political purpose. Constructive ambiguity is often disparaged as fudging. It might be employed in a negotiation, both to disguise an inability to resolve a contentious issue on which the parties remain far apart, and to do so in a manner that enables each to claim obtaining some concession on it. It warrants further hopes that the ensuing postponement of resolution on this particular point, in a way that causes neither side excessive discomfort, will enable them to make real progress on other matters. If this progress takes place, the unresolved question might be revisited at a later date, if not voided altogether by the passage of time. On the other hand, since ambiguity in agreements can generate subsequent controversy, the likelihood of its employment proving constructive in comparison to further attempts to negotiate the point in question in clear terms, is a question best left for historians.

Given this context, I think the use of fuzzy words and constructive ambiguity just prolong the confusion.

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • mikespeir

    It’s hard to argue against an idea–or accept it, for that matter–if you don’t know what the idea is.

  • JulietEcho

    I find this sort of thing immensely frustrating as well. If you use an uncommon definition for a word, you should at least acknowledge that and make your own definition clear. Instead, this guy (and others like him) deliberately obfuscate, presumably into tricking people into falling into line behind their ideas (or, at best, because they have very poor communication skills).

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com/ Deen

    I have run into a problem I did not expect: secularists accepting religious fundamentalism’s definition of God.

    Well, they did invent the word, didn’t they?

  • Sarah TX.

    I think if we gave a survey to every person in the US with the question, “What is God?” and the two choices were A) “A deity, the Supreme Being, a Higher Power”, and B) “objective and enduring standards of right and wrong”…

    …well, I won’t predict which answer would get more votes.

  • http://bakiwop.com bakiwop

    perhaps, instead of “One Nation, Under God” we should just say “One Nation, Under Objective And Enduring Standards Of Right And Wrong That Are Binding On This Country”

    it doesn’t roll off the tongue, i grant you.

  • Jasen777

    If you put it in quotes, 4.

  • Ron in Houston

    Geez, shades of Bill Clinton, “well, it depends on what the meaning of ‘God’ is.”

    It’s a lame attempt at accommodation of the historical and cultural reasons those words were ever inserted in the first place.

    It might be a great political principle but as a legal principle it’s highly lacking.

  • http://www.secular.org Jesse Galef

    Haha, thanks Jasen777. I was confused about your comment until I reread what I had written.

    I guess it’s not as common an expression as I thought!

  • http://backaccessward.blogspot.com/ beetle

    For example, “One Nation, Under God” can mean we recognize that there are objective and enduring standards of right and wrong that are binding on this country.

    In my son’s kindergarten class, there is a poster paraphrasing each line of the pledge. (Before last week’s open house, I had not appreciated how opaque The Pledge is.) The version above I could live with. The one in his room translates this as “Our country believes in a higher power.” I am trying to think what I can, or should, do about it. Religious overtones have not been a problem at the school so far, at least not with my daughter who is three years older than my son. This teacher is new to me.

  • DreamDevil

    Oh great, another appeaser. I’m so sick of them. All they do is waste time.

  • Richard P

    See you guys, this is why we can never agree with the religious. Were all saying the same thing. DUhhhh!!!

  • beijingrrl

    Everyone knows the only God-like waffles are made with real butter. No trans-fat-substantiation allowed.

  • Peregrine

    Is that with the safe search on?

  • justanotherjones

    My constitutional law proposal is that government may use certain religious images, such as the word God in the Pledge of Allegiance, when that religious image has nonreligious and broad meaning. For example, “One Nation, Under God” can mean we recognize that there are objective and enduring standards of right and wrong that are binding on this country.

    He should go suggest that in This-Is-A-Christian-Nation-stan and see how it goes over.

  • Epistaxis

    “God is a deity”

    Hemant, you slanderer!

    Actually, I have to wonder whether it’s even true that Americans agree on “objective and enduring standards of right and wrong.” Some Americans think it’s all right to murder an abortion doctor in his church but unspeakably evil to desecrate a stale breadlike wafer. Some disagree on one or both counts.

  • Dan W

    I refer to “God” as an imaginary, nonexistent deity because that’s the more widely accepted definition if the word. It’s just foolish to redefine it to be more accomodating to the more religious folks.

  • Richard Wade

    Ledewitz is practicing word woo.

    This reminds me of the silly nonsense that some post-modernist fans spew. Language noodle soup. For them, any word can have any meaning at any given moment, according to the whim of the speaker. That is a Tower of Babel inside a head.

    Words may change gradually over time, or obtain new meanings through slang or fads. Words may have slightly different meanings from one region to another, or even one person to another. As you say, Jesse:

    Yes, there are words that can point to more than one idea.

    So the various meanings of a word might spread out in a narrow cone like the pellets from a shotgun or the light from a flashlight, but they still go in generally the same direction.

    It sounds like Ledewitz would have us think that the meanings of words radiate spherically, in all directions like shrapnel from a hand grenade or light from a star.

    I will now repeat second paragraph of my comment, while whimsically substituting any word I choose with any other word that randomly pops up in my head, because that’s what such word woo is all about:

    This reminds plinth of the silly gravelsense that uvula post-modernist rhododendron quietude. Language noodle Bush-is-an-asshole. For them, meteorite word can have drawerpull vapors at any wikiup excelsior, according to the hoarfrost swimmingly ago. Grub is a nouveau riche of Babel filament a head.

    Objective and Enduring Standards of Right and Wrong, we beseech you to protect us from such lunacy!

  • ChameleonDave

    Ack. This article was a waste of bandwidth. God means God.

  • keddaw

    objective and enduring standards of right and wrong

    Has this guy read the Bible?

    Let’s replace the word God with Leprechaun and define Leprechaun as “a system of government that provides freedom and liberty for all”

    Let’s try that: One Nation under “a system of government that provides freedom and liberty for all”

    That works better for me.

  • gribblethemunchkin

    This guys word-fu is weak.

    We use the fundamentalist definition of god because that is what we are talking about.

    Fundies (and theists in general) believe in an actual being when they refer to god. We do not believe in this being. We do not believe in gods. Thats the definition of an atheist.

    We don’t even need the word god except to refer to what we do not believe in. Why would we use it to mean something else?

    This guy seems to be trying to hold onto a word for which he has no use, so he is giving it new purposes and is suddenly surprised that the rest of the world hasn’t done so also.

    As for “objective and enduring standards of right and wrong that are binding on this country”, he needs to a) realise that this just ain’t so, and b) needs a new word. I suggest Nfangelfoon. It rolls off the tongue and as far as i know doesn’t have any current meaning.

    But back to the “objective and enduring standards of right and wrong that are binding on this country”. Exactly what standards are they? No torture? No spying on innocent citizens? No healthcare for the poor? No starting wars of choice? No detention without charge? Need I go on? These are all measures put in by President Bush (or not changed by him) that were broadly supported by the right wing of the country. Clearly at least the 30%ers think these are fine, whereas i know there are many liberals in the states who find these as wicked and vile as I do.

    The USA has NO objective standards of right or wrong otherwise these issues would be settled.

    Don’t even get me started on gay marriage or abortion.

    Objective standards my arse.

  • benjdm

    I know of one poll that gets some data on the question:

    http://www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=707

    “Do you think of God as being…?”

    9% – Like a human being with a face, body, arms, legs, eyes, etc.
    41% – A spirit or power that can take on human form but is not inherently human
    27% – A spirit or power that does not take on human form
    8% – Other
    15% – Do not believe in God/Not sure

    Do you think God…?”

    29% – Controls what happens on Earth
    44% – Observes but does not control what happens on Earth
    8% – Neither observes nor controls what happens on Earth
    18% – Do not believe in God/Not Sure

  • http://rolandhulme.blogspot.com Roland Hulme

    Brilliant post!

    The founding fathers often referred to ‘providence’ rather than God – of fate, or destiny, rather than a specific deity. Christians kind of gloss over that. It’s one of those pesky facts that gets in the way of the point they’re trying to ram down our throats.

  • Nathan

    I often get accused of being “too literal” when debating any topic. I only do it to prevent any misunderstanding by using the common definition of words and not re-defining things to fit my argument. I hate that crap.

    @beetle – you may only have to send a clearly written letter of disapproval to the superintendent or principal. A mother of 3 in my local CFI chapter recently did something similar (regarding reading the Jesus story at Christmas time). All it took was a letter. If they give you the run around, just mention the ACLU. ;)

  • Mathew Wilder

    Ah, the old Humpty Dumpty arguement!

  • Notagod

    I think I’ve had God-idea waffles before, it was like eating icky hot air, I’ll bet your waffles are much better.

  • Heidi

    Well, if it’s just a concept, then I propose we make it lowercase and add an s. One nation, under gods. That should be more inclusive while it conveys the same meaning, right? … right?

  • Pingback: Worshiping Christian Koans | Unreasonable Faith

  • Spydre

    Wasn’t it originally, “One nation, indivisible…”?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X