If you could only take 10 words to a desert island to talk about religon….

…which ones would you pick?

This is not a hypothetical question.  I got into a conversation with religion with my ASL tutor (she’s running a Christian ministry for the Deaf in DC) and I had to do a lot of fingerspelling to explain why I don’t believe in any gods.  My teacher suggested that I make a list of words I really need, and she’ll teach them to me next week and we’ll continue the conversation.

What words/concepts would you suggest I put on the list?  Some of the ones I picked up this week: evidence, hypothesis, believe, god, faith, explain, tweak.  Still looking for ‘contingent,’ ‘morality,’ and some others that my teacher is already planning to track down.

Having to work within my limited ASL vocabulary was a pretty good exercise in trying to explain my atheism simply and briefly.  Here’s the best distillation I managed to sign:

A hypothesis can’t just name the thing I don’t understand.  It has to teach me something new and true.  So when I don’t know something, I just say I don’t know.

I also managed to sign “Beliefs need to pay rent” but that came at the end of summarizing that Yudkowsky essay, which was hard.  What words do I need to put on my religious argument cheat guide?


P.S. In case anyone is interested, the ASL word for ‘Christian’ is a compound of the sign for ‘Jesus‘ followed by the ‘agent affix.’  She doesn’t know a sign for ‘atheist’ and I didn’t find one in ASLpro’s religious dictionary, either.

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  • The Vicar

    To speak on the subject concisely, you could do worse than to go look through the Ebon Musings atheism pages. Lots of arguments condensed into well-phrased single essays. (I’m a fan, in particular, of “A Ghost in the Machine”, but there are lots of other goodies.)

    In fact, you could really do worse than to just learn “go read the webpage at [spell out URL] and then we’ll talk”. 🙂

  • The Vicar

    Although come to think of it, URLs wouldn’t be much help on a desert island. 😛

  • Rhialto Marrvellouss

    I got into a mild argument with a CHRISTIAN recently. What finally seemed to quell the boy was the following argument. From the CHRISTIAN: ” I really believe that accepting Christ as the savior is necessary. After all, there is a 2000 year history behind CHRISTIANITY.” From me:” I have no objection to you believing whatever you like. I am appalled by the paucity of evidence which can be
    presented in favor. You seem to think that the ancient hebrews and greeks had some kind of pipeline to the truth. I think they were just raving loons. Would you quit your job to go hunting for Blackbeard’s treasure just on the basis of hearing from someone who claims to have heard from a member of Blackbeard’s
    crew about where the treasure is? That is roughly analogous to citing the ancient hebrews and greeks as authorities for what one should think and believe today. ” I do not know if there is anything there to help you in your search for the ten essential words, but, I hope you find it, at least, amusing.
    Happy trails to you.

  • Brief comment (but on blindness and religion, not deafness). I once knew a blind man who found God quite easy to believe in. After all, if the entire material world was invisible to him because he lacked one sense, it made sense that God could be invisible to everyone yet still exist just because we all lacked the right sense for it.

  • Some words you in particular would seem to need:
    Character, metaphysical backsliding, objective (as in morality), purpose/telos, probability.
    Some I would add from my side:
    Sin, redemption, consistent, dignity, nature/substance.

    • Hibernia86

      I’m pretty sure the terms “metaphysical backsliding” and “telos” would not be understood by 99% of the population. If we only have ten words, we can’t use words that most people don’t understand.

      • You have a point there, but by that standard “hypothesis” and “contingent” would also be clearly out and “evidence” has a different meaning.

        Obviously, if we were to make this list for all of mankind it would have to use much smaller words and that is a very different question.

        But I understood the question as relating to words needed to support our discourse on religion, where “our” refers to the kind of people who hang out here, i.e. bourgeois nerds with an amateur interest in philosophy and an aspiration to the ability to pass an ideological Turing test with similar people on the other side. In that case “telos” is clearly back in, though “metaphysical backsliding” might be too specifically Leahesque.

  • Also:
    Love, autonomy, virtue, communion (as in with someone not the sacrament), relationship, isolation, pride, humility, sacrifice.

  • Joe

    Truth-seeker, bravery, hope, ancient wisdom, love, democracy of the dead, courage, evidence of all kinds, peace, love

  • Rhialto Marrvellouss

    The key concepts of religion, which may, or may not, be possible to discuss in a
    rational, dispassionate manner, are quite simple and require only 5 bits of vocabulary. The 5 bits: reality, delusion, authority, control, submission.
    Many people get hung up in trying to justify and/or explain religion as some kind
    of relationship among humankind and “The Invisible Pink Unicorn.” This is well off the point. First, there is no unicorn. Second, the relationship involved in religion is not one which requires outside intervention. Religion is a relationship
    involving power and control, not a deep understanding of the thoughts of the “Invisible Pink Unicorn.” In short, as with most other human concerns, religion
    boils down to politics.
    If one understands the basis of politics, Namely that it is about the getting, keeping, and expanding of power, one also understands religion.

  • Christina

    “Evidence says Jesus rose from the dead, thus I believe.”

    • Rhialto Marrvellouss

      Which evidence?

  • @b

    I think you’ll need the word MIRACLE.

    For religious teachings to continue accurately describing the intersection between life and the Divine, whilst those similiar schism and fade, must surely be the result of divine intervention or sheer dumb luck.

  • Richard

    I get to meet religion quite a lot, living in a religious family. A problem is that from inside it all seems to make sense and be complete. The story I heard in the last sermon I attended had a people (a chosen people) turning from god and bad things happening and a god trying to help them turn back and good things happening. When it went wrong it was the humans’ fault, but God didn’t just put it right as that would be against Free Will. The priest also took time to take pot shots implicitly at Hinduism (graven images) and explicitly at Buddhism with the old “It’s escapism” line.

    So if you’re a Christian chances are this is your world. I have to remind myself that if you’re a Hindu or a Buddhist then that is your world, and to you it is as complete as the Christian world is to the Christian.

    So I take the multiplicity of religions and that each one is compelling to its owner as at least evidence that I cannot just accept one as True based on its claims. At best I can say they’re partially true for some definition of partial. I think Christians have ways around this, whether they’re liberal “other ways to God” or “Bits of God leaking through” or somewhat less liberal “They’ve been fooled by demons in disguise”. The person who told me the latter had a habit of placing holy bread outside temples “in order to ward off the demons within”.

    So maybe my choice of words would include things about the multiplicity of religions, each one convincing and complete to its owner.