Thursday, 29 November 2007

Watch your language.

I've been following with interest and increasing horror recent developments on the Think Too Much blog. I've had a soft spot for it ever since the author declared himself a secular humanist, at least partly due to an earlier post of mine on this very blog.

Hugo's recent post inviting "those that think they are atheists" to "drop all axioms that make you conclude 'God does not exist' " crosses a line for me. It is a line that other apologists for religion occasionally cross too, when they can't make their point another way. As a linguist, I regard language as a form of human social behaviour, and the line is crossed when people try to impose definitions or usages on language in direct opposition to the way language is actually used.

We have made “God” a label. We think “God is the creator of the universe”. By that definition, I understand why you call yourselves atheists. I did too.

Yes, "God" is a label. Yes, it is created by “us”, if by “us” you mean the worldwide community of English speakers through history. Like all other words in all human languages, it is a label created by people trying to communicate ideas. Its meaning is derived from its usage - words mean what the community uses them to mean. And in this case, the vast majority of speakers of English, historically and currently, use the word "God" to mean the supernatural creator of the universe.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), drawing on over a thousand years of English literature, gives a multitude of related senses in which the word "god" is used (sometimes capitalized, sometimes not). The only senses that do not refer to a supernatural being are metaphorical uses that clearly depend on the supernatural meaning.

Hugo says,

God is meaning in life.
God is our morality.
God is compassion.
God is love.
God is inquisitiveness.
God is mystery, the mystery of the universe.
God is everything we cannot pen down with modernistic rationalistic terms and words.
God is our very irrationality.

This is poetic and beautiful, and I am willing to enjoy the poetry and beauty of it - as I enjoy the poetic use of God in Einstein's "God does not play dice." But just as Einstein's quote becomes bad science if someone begins to take it out of its metaphorical context, so Hugo's poetic passage becomes bad linguistics when he says

[The evangelicals] don’t know what God is. The dictionary? The dictionary does not know what God is. The important thing to note: God exists by definition.

No. The community, not the individual, is the arbiter of what "God" means. Language is a human behaviour, like a playground game that children play. Tag doesn't change because one kid comes along and declares the rules to be changed. It only becomes a different game if everyone starts playing by different rules. Language works the same way.

Hugo tells us "You believe in love, compassion, inquisitiveness, communication, exploration? Please call that God." No thanks. I have perfectly adequate words for those things. Words like "love”, “compassion”, “inquisitiveness”, “communication”, “exploration”.

And the thing that the rest of us mean when we say "god" still needs a label. Not just because people like Christopher Hitchens want to mock it (it's hard to mock something you cannot name). But also because most religious believers in the world need a word to refer to the entity that they worship. God can still be thought of as mysterious and unknowable, but most worshippers still think of a conscious, supernatural (and often male) being when they use the word "God". That's where the meaning comes from. It's the picture we share in our minds when we speak the word to each other.

I understand Hugo's frustration. There are a lot of good things that have traditionally been bundled together with ideas of gods. It is natural for someone coming out of belief in the supernatural being to hope that he could keep the name “god” attached to the good things and jettison just the supernatural part of the definition.

But those things have had, and continue to have, definitions and labels of their own. What is distinctive about the label “god” is that it refers to a conscious supernatural being – in the West these days, it tends to refer to an exclusive, unitary, creator-of-the-universe conscious supernatural being.

Okay, now here's the good news for Hugo. Meanings change. The word “queer” wasn't about sex until the 1920s, according to the OED (nor was “gay” until the 1930s). Words change. As a speaker of Afrikaans and English, he has more direct experience of the long-term effects of that change than many of us. So it is possible that the English word “god” may come to lose its supernatural definition, and come to refer to all those things that Hugo wants it to mean.

It won't happen because he declares it so, but he and others like him may be able to influence the community at large, to participate in some conscious language change.

Queerer things have happened.


  1. Hi Tim!

    Good point here -

    [quote:]Hugo tells us "You believe in love, compassion, inquisitiveness, communication, exploration? Please call that God." No thanks. I have perfectly adequate words for those things. Words like "love”, “compassion”, “inquisitiveness”, “communication”, “exploration”.[endquote]

    (Don't really agree with your atheism obviously but we can at least get the linguistics right :) )

  2. Sorry Tim. It's been an interesting time. I understand. And not to worry... things look different now. Particularly.

    What a ride this has been.

    Feel free to ignore. Poetry belongs in poetry. Let God rest. God has done enough.

  3. I'm making an update to the post, so that the boulder is not dislodged again. Let it rest. God is simply too powerful.

  4. And another, as I am the king of afterthoughts.

    God is such a multi-cultural term. The meaning in America and the meaning in South Africa, and especially, the meaning in Europe, is dramatically different.

    That is what makes the internet so incredibly dangerous. And what made that post so incredibly misguided. I must be careful. How do I know who will read it, and be inspired to become the next Hitler?

    Let God Rest. It is the seventh day.

    Poetry. May we just sit back and admire the wonder of poetry until the end of our days.

    In certain circles, God will indeed change. God is changing already. In those circles. But those circles understand, that God is only to be shared within the context of close relationships. For without close relationships, God kills.

    Poetry. It's all I have left. It's everything. It's nothing. It flows. And it is better that way. Don't crop it up. Don't suppress poetry, that... that, is dangerous. But the poet? The poet must be responsible. Extremely responsible. For faith like a mustard seed can indeed move mountains.

    Sorry Tim. Rest easy. And thank you for your help. I just ran into God for a moment. God is awesome, terrible, fearsome... and yet, God is love.

    Let God Rest.

    Eish. I hope ya understand.

  5. ...Let God go to the Grey Havens. For a much deserved trip over the sea.

    We have caused God so much grief, killed God over and over. It is indeed time we rest and move on.

  6. I shall attempt to demonstrate the power of the poet's quill.
    I just hope no-one calls me a Vogon. ;)

  7. Amen, brother!

    Let there be peace!
    Among us!

    Be free!

  8. I didn't know psychiatric wards in South Africa allow patients to connect to the internet!

  9. Let's try to keep this on-topic, please.

    Post-modernists, please try to keep your contributions comprehensible to us ordinary folk. A little more consideration of your audience would earn you much less confused/angry reactions.

    Others, please try to remain polite. The point of this blog is to promote understanding between humans - surely a key value, not just for humanists but for just about everybody. I don't understand Hugo much of the time, but I manage to respond to him politely (without compromising my values).

    And besides, despite the confusion, Hugo has managed to reference both Tolkein and Adams in these comments - surely that earns him some leeway. :)

  10. Cath, love the blog, by the way. (The previous post was not addressed to you - you were very polite. Thankyou.)

    Perhaps I should let my linguistic inclinations seep through into my writing a bit more.

  11. Oh, the shock and horror when I take another look at the things I let rip across teh interwebs on that fateful weekend. This really brings a smile to my face, by the way:

    "I didn't know psychiatric wards in South Africa allow patients to connect to the internet!"

    No offence taken here. That weekend? I might as well have been assigned to a psychiatric ward. I wish I could share more of what transpired, but it's difficult.

    Excuse my verbosity here, but I'd like to write about it every now and then. (Usually I talk about it to close friends.) Writing about it on my blog is tricky, I care more about what my audience there thinks of me, while here I only really care what Tim thinks, and I hope he knows me well enough already.

    The post Tim responds to, was prompted by a complete twilight experience. I have taken way too long to finish my Master's, as I was too busy figuring out some way to deal with our local pentecostal church. It is a university town, a secular university with a good reputation, that has a huge pentecostal church with far-reaching fingers shaping a part of the landscape.

    Realising I would not reach my deadline, I went to talk to our post-graduate co-ordinator, to hear how bad it is if I slip a few days. The conversation touched on religion. The twilight zone experience was hearing he is in the pentecostal church, and listens to two things: someone talking to him out of experience, and someone that is able to say "God told me..." *boom*. The circle is complete, the scene is set for a nihilistic experience... witnessing the singularity.

    (Oh, and "God told me you should try your best to get me my degree as soon as possible, as God has bigger plans for me."... This is why I came to the conclusion that God is way too dangerous to be left in the hands of a few charismatic individuals.)

    High stress, high frustration, little sleep, too much caffeine, and a number of other ingredients I don't feel I can share, quite literally drove me nuts that Saturday, 1 December. Things only really started settling down on 3 December. The experience was truly remarkable, I'm really glad I had it, as scary as it was, and as much embarrassment the things I wrote (during that time when I should indeed not have had an internet connection) causes me.

    Well, as much as I am embarrassed about what I wrote (and my comments here are far from the worst, btw), it is very good for me to have to make peace with my own imperfections... Some abuse was directed at me (elsewhere, roger's comment doesn't classify as abuse), and being at peace with that, accepting that, is also great.

    I have finally destroyed my perfectionist-tendencies. Liberating!

    ... OK, that was a broad overview. The interesting details will have to come out in due time. My mind worked overtime, and lost touch with what was reality and what was fiction, constructing remarkable conspiracy theories. Tolkien, Douglas Adams, The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, Ender's Game, everything I can recall, fiction, the Bible, comments from friends, all got included in one huge, beautiful picture, completely coherent (surprisingly!), where everyone was a genius, even if they didn't know it consciously.

    This will have to do for now, this comment is way too long already, sorry about that. And despite its length, it hasn't even touched on the most important stuff.


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