The fog of religious language

When one discusses the science-religion conflict with sophisticated religious apologists, one has to be alert to two things in order to avoid finding yourself in a fog where unsure of what you are talking about.

One fog generator is that sophisticated apologists tend to shift without warning between metaphor and the concrete, something that I have written about before. In order to stay on firm ground, it is good to keep clear what the discussion is about.

The first thing is to ask believers whether the god they believe in exists as a separate material entity, just like a photon or electron. If the answer is yes, then the question of god’s existence becomes an empirical question, like the existence of a photon or electron, and they are obliged to provide evidence for why we should believe in its existence. If the answer is no, and their god is some kind of metaphor, then we can stop the discussion right there. The usefulness of metaphors is not something that the methods of science are designed to investigate.

What usually happens though is that they refuse to be pinned down. They assert that god is not material and exists outside of space and time but then proceed to ascribe properties and actions to god that can only be true if god is a material entity existing within our space and time. You should press them as to how they can possibly know that their conception of god exists at all, let alone its properties, if it ‘exists outside of space and time’, since the speaker obviously lives within our space and time.

What one should be alert for is the sleight of hand that speaks of god as a metaphor in order to avoid having to provide evidence when it is requested and then, when the discussion has moved on, to make assertions (‘God wants us to do this’ and ‘God is like this’) that treats god as if it has a material existence.

As an example of the kind of woolly thinking that permeates religion-speak, consider this disappointing interview that Jon Stewart of The Daily Show had with religious apologist Marilynne Robinson. The problem with the interview was not that Stewart made some trivial errors like confusing dark matter with anti-matter. It is that the whole conversation was highly vacuous, reducing Stewart to making absurd statements that science is like faith.

While watching the interview, I felt there was something familiar about Robinson’s name and then I remembered. She had written a review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion for Harpers magazine back in November 2006. She did not like the book but that is fair enough. Reviewers are not obliged to give positive reviews. What was bad about the review was that it gave the reader little idea of what the main argument of Dawkins’ book was, because of the fog of religion-speak that she generates.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins on clarity

He makes a good point in that what religious people object to about the new atheists is that we are shunning complicated theological/philosophical circumlocutions about god and stating clearly why there is no reason to believe in him/her/it. Clarity is the enemy of religious apologetics.


  1. Steve LaBonne says

    I believe that you have hit on precisely the reason why someone as mild-mannered and stereotypically donnish as Richard Dawkins can frequently and ludicrously be accused of being “extreme”, “militant” and the like. The calm refusal to be blinded by “sophisticated” religious squid ink is correctly recognized by those who are emotionally dependent on belief as a deadly threat to religion. It is by far the line of attack which is most likely to stimulate doubt in those who are beginning to waver in their beliefs.

  2. says

    I think many people just use “faith” as an excuse to remain ignorant and continue to wear their blinders. Truth and fact are sometimes a harsh light and weight to bare.

  3. says

    Shalom Mano,

    In the Jewish tradition one of our greatest thinkers was Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, called Maimonides by Christians and known by the acronym RAMBAM to Jewish scholars. He was a 12th century philosopher of the Aristotelian school and is still seen simultaneously as brilliant and dangerously close to blasphemous.

    One small discussion from his writings relevant to this exchange is that in RAMBAM’s view it is impossible to assert anything about god because to do so requires comparison and, in the Jewish tradition, god is singular and therefore incapable of comparison.

    RAMBAM’s conclusion was that silence is the only response to god.

    If only more people could adopt that principle.



  4. says

    “Clarity is the enemy of religious apologetics”. An excellent statement. In the end “faith” is nothing bad but people like these apologetics have made it a means for defending what they think is the best for the world society.

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