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 agreement. From 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.