Meaningless Deepities

by Jesse Galef

When I was a kid, I was something of a smart-alec.  To be honest, I still am.  I can definitely relate to the wise-ass kid in today’s SMBC:

That kind of misleading statement always upsets me.  I want expressions to have meaning, and I feel cheated when the meaning disappears upon close examination.

Far too many sayings *cough theology cough* try to appear meaningful without actually asserting anything.  At the 2009 Atheist Alliance International Convention, I got to see Dan Dennett give a wonderful talk on the subject, described by Jerry Coyne thusly:

a hilarious attack on theologians like Karen Armstrong, who mouth pious nonsense like, “God is the God behind God.” Dennett calls this kind of language a “deepity”: a statement that has two meanings, one of which is true but superficial, the other which sounds profound but is meaningless. His exemplar of a deepity is the statement “Love is just a word.” True, it’s a word like “cheeseburger,” but the supposed deeper sense is wrong: love is an emotion, a feeling, a condition, and not just a word in the dictionary. He gave several examples of other deepities from academic theologians; when you see these things laid out — ripped from their texts — in a Powerpoint slide, they make you realize how truly fatuous are the lucubrations of people like Armstrong, Eagleton, and Haught. Sarcasm will be the best weapon against this stuff.

You can watch the whole hour-long speech on the RDF website if you like; I certainly enjoyed it.

About Jesse Galef

Jesse is a career atheist, and is currently Communications Director for the Secular Student Alliance. Before that, he worked for the Secular Coalition for America and the American Humanist Association. He also blogs about science, philosophy, and rationality at Measure of Doubt with his sister Julia.
(The views expressed are not representing the Secular Student Alliance or any other organization.)

  • Personal Failure

    This was my reaction to many things I learned in theology class – and philosophy class.

  • J. Allen

    the thing that annoys me about deepities is that they are insincere. Donny Dog does have a point…it’s more fun to play in a group than by yourself…but he doesn’t say that, he hides his real message in abstract mumbo-jumbo. Deepities are about hiding messages and prodding people towards a goal, when the speaker is afraid that being direct will fail.

    • Jesse Galef

      Exactly! Well put. I wrote this post at 3AM and couldn’t marshal my thoughts very well.

    • DCtouristsANDlocals

      Isn’t that also called being passive-aggressive?

  • jtradke

    I was similarly peeved when I heard Armstrong on NPR a week or two ago saying that “religion is poetry”. My immediate thought was, “What does that even mean?” I mean, poetry is poetry. Nobody goes to a “religion reading” – they go to church, but that’s not the same thing. I can write poetry, but I can’t write religion. Blank verse, limerick, haiku, those are poetry. You could argue that religious texts or music or sermons are poetic, but religion itself?

    • J. Allen

      they should have asked for the rhyme and meter of the various religions

  • Siberia

    And people buy the one-liners and never think any deeper.

    • Felix

      And then they get really pitiful when they throw those one-liners out in a discussion as a trump-card that they think dismantles the whole five paragraphs someone took care to compose to explain a concept to them. As their resistance to learning makes them oblivious to the difference between deepities and information, so they are become equally oblivious to the difference between a slogan and a refutation.

  • Jerdog

    Don’t confuse these with Deep Thought by Jack Handy from early 90′s SNL:
    “If you ever fall off the Sears Tower, just go real limp, because maybe you’ll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy.”
    This is advice which is meant to sound sincere but isn’t actually helpful. Ok maybe they are more similar than I thought.

  • Anthony D Jacques

    It scares the hell out of me that you can be called a doctor of theology, which is essentially meaningless and IMO discredits real doctors everywhere. They earned degrees in something that actually works, that is testable and useful for survival.

    We may as well hand out doctorates to big Lord of the Rings fans if that can prove they really, really KNOW the ins and outs of Middle Earth.

    • rA

      We may as well hand out doctorates to big Lord of the Rings fans if that can prove they really, really KNOW the ins and outs of Middle Earth.

      Actually, I consider that legitimate: it’s study of the text, analogous to studying a work of Shakespeare or even the Bible. Theology approaches study of the Bible as if it is true, though… a degree in the equivalent of communion with Gandalf. It’s less than expertise on fiction, it’s expertise on a falsehood.

  • Siamang

    A deepity that qualifies is certainly Julia Sweeney’s discussion about how religion was “Psychologically true.” As portrayed in her play ‘Letting Go of God.”

    That phrase placates her for awhile on her spiritual odyssey until she realizes that it means nothing. “The Little Engine Who Could is PSYCHOLOGICALLY TRUE.”

  • Michael

    I watched the whole speech; it’s pretty interesting. Dan Dennet isn’t the greatest speaker ever, but the subject on which he is speaking is fascinating.

  • Hal in Howell MI

    A quotation by Nietzche that may be relevant to the discussion:

    “Mystical explanations are thought to be deep; the truth is that they are not even shallow.”

  • Craig Duckett

    Now if Dennet would have said that “God is just a word” that would’ve been another discussion entirely, since “God” and His/Her/Its so-called “attributes” exist only by way of definition.

  • Nicole

    I just thought of another deepity: PETA’s statement to the effect that “animals are not ours to wear, eat, use for entertainment,” blah blah blah.

    Sure, it’s technically true, just like rocks and trees technically aren’t ours to build with, air technically isn’t ours to breath, and diamonds technically aren’t ours to mine and make into jewelry and tools.

    The false meaning is the implication that something has to have been specifically decreed as belonging to you and set aside for a special purpose by a higher power in order for you to have any right to do something with it.

    • Ty

      Stop using those electrons! Those aren’t yours!