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What is really going on here?
Posted: 11 March 2011 12:09 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I have had numerous discussions on this forum and elsewhere about the aversion among my fellow non-theists to words like spirituality, faith and religion. Among the most common objections is the argument that these words are ambiguous and that they mean something to the general public that they may not mean to us. I have argued that it is in our best interests to challenge prevailing assumptions and to point out that there are other ways of looking at these things – because after all, if we are going to argue for a non-theistic world view, it is important that we try to change or at least open some minds. My approach is thoroughly historical because in fact there are non-theistic religions and conceptions of faith that have nothing to do with a creator-god.

The discussion on the difference between theism and religion (http://www.centerforinquiry.net/forums/viewthread/10169/P0/) has verified something that I have suspected for a long time. In that discussion, I have argued that the word “religion” was misplaced and that the proper word to use in the context at issue was “theism.” Lo and behold, I get essentially the same objections from the same people who have argued with me that we shouldn’t use the word “religion” – even though that is exactly what I was arguing in that context. Context didn’t matter, even though it should have. Time after time, many of my fellow secularists gravitate toward theistic assumptions, which is the last thing reason would suggest.

I am convinced that something else is going on here: something that has absolutely nothing to do with reason but on the contrary, represents emotion crowding out reason. And because we spend so much time discussing it, so vehemently, it is obvious to me that the emotional component predominates.

I write as someone who used to react in just that way. Of course, my emotional life isn’t the same as anyone else’s. Even so, I remember not being able to see my way past the red flag that certain words set to waving. I don’t see any other way to look at this. Can someone present another explanation that takes the explanation from A to Z, using reason from beginning to end?

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Posted: 11 March 2011 06:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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It seems to me that the problem may not be with what words we should be using but rather that we define the words under discussion differently. 

A very pleasant Unitarian minister, when I objected mildly to her frequent use of god and spiritual in her sermons, said that I should substitute the meaning “love” when she said god, and “positive emotions” when she said spiritual.  I responded that since half of the congregation was theist and half non-theist, perhaps she should use “love” and “positive emotions” every other time she would have said god or spiritual.  She said that would be too confusing, but I asked, “shouldn’t the theists and non-theists be equally confused, rather than just the non-theists having to translate as you go along?”  I enjoyed the conversation, but it accomplished nothing because we were defining the words the same, but rather than change her sermons, she suggested we define the words differently.

I think this may be the reverse of what is being suggested here.  To use a mathematical view, Visualize the set of definitions, ideas and behaviors that religion encompasses.  Then visualize the set of definitions, ideas and behaviors that theism encompasses.  I believe the two sets overlap significantly.  Most of us use religion in terms of the overlap area.  I think PlaClair would prefer that we use religion (and theism) as defined by the two exclusive areas.

I agree that people tend to get emotional, but that’s because they don’t realize we are using the same words but talking about somewhat different constellations of ideas.

I doubt that any of us are willing to redefine the words we use, so the best we may be able to do is spell out our meaning when we use those words.

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Posted: 12 March 2011 04:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Occam. - 11 March 2011 06:12 PM

It seems to me that the problem may not be with what words we should be using but rather that we define the words under discussion differently. 

A very pleasant Unitarian minister, when I objected mildly to her frequent use of god and spiritual in her sermons, said that I should substitute the meaning “love” when she said god, and “positive emotions” when she said spiritual.  I responded that since half of the congregation was theist and half non-theist, perhaps she should use “love” and “positive emotions” every other time she would have said god or spiritual.  She said that would be too confusing, but I asked, “shouldn’t the theists and non-theists be equally confused, rather than just the non-theists having to translate as you go along?”  I enjoyed the conversation, but it accomplished nothing because we were defining the words the same, but rather than change her sermons, she suggested we define the words differently.

I think this may be the reverse of what is being suggested here.  To use a mathematical view, Visualize the set of definitions, ideas and behaviors that religion encompasses.  Then visualize the set of definitions, ideas and behaviors that theism encompasses.  I believe the two sets overlap significantly.  Most of us use religion in terms of the overlap area.  I think PlaClair would prefer that we use religion (and theism) as defined by the two exclusive areas.

I agree that people tend to get emotional, but that’s because they don’t realize we are using the same words but talking about somewhat different constellations of ideas.

I doubt that any of us are willing to redefine the words we use, so the best we may be able to do is spell out our meaning when we use those words.

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I agree that is an apparent problem when someone proposes a discussion of religion, broadly defined in keeping with its history. In a discussion like that, some people might not appreciate that the word is being used to reference more than theistic religions.

In this case the subject matter was theism. (see http://www.centerforinquiry.net/forums/viewthread/10132/#120978, et.seq.) You asked a question that stunned me: “Could you clarify for me what religion would consist of if there were no theistic basis for it?” (http://www.centerforinquiry.net/forums/viewthread/10132/#121007) That question suggests an unawareness of the history of religions and of current non-theistic religions, members of which populate CFI and other secular organizations. UU is one I haven’t mentioned until now.

Your analysis above is accurate in my view except that I am not at all arguing that religion and theism are separate categories. Theism is a subset of religion, just as you suggest. That is not to say there is no difference. There is a difference, and it matters to our critiques because (I hope) we don’t criticize everything about religion (communal singing, for example). That is precisely the problem I have with conflating the two: we muddy our message to such an extent that we marginalize and trivialize ourselves.

So in this case, I do not think the problem is the ambiguity of a word. In this case, I pointed out that the word “theism” is clearer and more accurate - and I still drew opposition and emotional reactions!

I cannot say for sure what is going on inside other people’s heads but I can say what it looks like, especially since I once reacted the same way I am now seeing from others. I think many secularists just don’t like these words because they associate them with maddeningly unfounded beliefs. Looking back on my own experience, that seems to have been why I reacted to them. So if people don’t like the word religion, why would they insist on using it when theism is the better word: it’s less “their word” than religion and you would think it would carry less baggage for a secularist than religion. But I still got all the same objections, vehemently stated. It’s as though you can’t be happy unless everything associated with religion is put into a garbage bag and neatly tied up for disposal. Don’t get me wrong: we can do that. But if we do, we damage the intellectual integrity of our argument (because then we are reacting instead of thinking) and make adversaries out of people who agree with us. As if we didn’t have enough adversaries already. I wish CFI would take this issue to some PR professionals because I don’t think this is a close question. A destructive dynamic is damaging our causes from within, and has been at work since long before I became a secularist and a Humanist.

[ Edited: 12 March 2011 04:25 AM by PLaClair ]
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Posted: 12 March 2011 06:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Quoting PlaClair:

That question suggests an unawareness of the history of religions and of current non-theistic religions, members of which populate CFI and other secular organizations.  UU is one I haven’t mentioned until now.

  Rather than acknowledge unawareness, I have to admit to sloppy thinking.  I certainly should have recognized that there are religions without theism.

Quoting PlaClair:

Theism is a subset of religion, just as you suggest.

  To be precise, I didn’t say theism is a subset of religion, rather that they are separate sets with quite an area of overlap.

Quoting PlaClair:

So in this case, I do not think the problem is the ambiguity of a word.  In this case, I pointed out that the word “theism” is clearer and more accurate - and I still drew opposition and emotional reactions!

  As an old fud with both a failing memory and an obsession for succinctness, I don’t recall this reference and can’t stand the thought of reading though the various posts in at least two threads to find it.  However, from the context considering the overlapping (imagine two circles) sets, I’d guess that your use of “theism” was not meaning exclusive of religion, and that may have been the source of the opposition. 

Quoting PlaClair:

So if people don’t like the word religion, why would they insist on using it when theism is the better word:

  Again, it depends on whether we are being precise and using the two words as each exclusive of the other or are generalizing and using one of those words for the overlap area.  If it’s the latter, one or both of us has to specify whether our “religion” subsumes theism, or our “theism” subsumes religion.

Quoting PlaClair:

It’s as though you can’t be happy unless everything associated with religion is put into a garbage bag and neatly tied up for disposal.

  No, to continue the analogy, I would have been quite happy to take my apples out of the bag and put them in a bowl, but I found that some of them were rotten.  I have to decide whether I want to spend the time and effort to separate and wash the fungus spores off those that don’t look bad yet.  Or, since I’m not wild about apples, just throw the whole bag in the garbage. 

Quoting PlaClair:

Don’t get me wrong: we can do that.  But if we do, we damage the intellectual integrity of our argument (because then we are reacting instead of thinking) and make adversaries out of people who agree with us.  As if we didn’t have enough adversaries already.

  I apparently missed the point because I’m not sure who those people who agree with me are, what they agree with me about, and how my discarding theism (and/or possibly religion) turns them into adversaries.

Occam

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Posted: 12 March 2011 11:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Occam. - 11 March 2011 06:12 PM

It seems to me that the problem may not be with what words we should be using but rather that we define the words under discussion differently. 

A very pleasant Unitarian minister, when I objected mildly to her frequent use of god and spiritual in her sermons, said that I should substitute the meaning “love” when she said god, and “positive emotions” when she said spiritual.  I responded that since half of the congregation was theist and half non-theist, perhaps she should use “love” and “positive emotions” every other time she would have said god or spiritual.  She said that would be too confusing, but I asked, “shouldn’t the theists and non-theists be equally confused, rather than just the non-theists having to translate as you go along?”  I enjoyed the conversation, but it accomplished nothing because we were defining the words the same, but rather than change her sermons, she suggested we define the words differently.

I think this may be the reverse of what is being suggested here.  To use a mathematical view, Visualize the set of definitions, ideas and behaviors that religion encompasses.  Then visualize the set of definitions, ideas and behaviors that theism encompasses.  I believe the two sets overlap significantly.  Most of us use religion in terms of the overlap area.  I think PlaClair would prefer that we use religion (and theism) as defined by the two exclusive areas.

I agree that people tend to get emotional, but that’s because they don’t realize we are using the same words but talking about somewhat different constellations of ideas.

I doubt that any of us are willing to redefine the words we use, so the best we may be able to do is spell out our meaning when we use those words.


`
Great points there Occam.  In fact, I’m convinced that there’s a lot of overlap between a great many theists and atheists, for reasons similar to those you described above…...

How many times have any of us had conversations with theists in which they make a point of saying something like “God isn’t some ‘man in the sky’, that’s so simplistic”  ?    Recently, I got into an online conversation with a theist who eventually said that the ‘essence’ of ‘God’, to him, is “metaphorical” (unfortunately, he didn’t respond to my question “a metaphor FOR what?”) ~ I’ve had enough encounters like this to come to believe that many theists simply see ‘God’ as some kind of grand metaphor for a BUNCH of things:  love, goodness, integrity, compassion, etc with no connection to anything supernatural.

Imagine if those theists used those words instead of ‘God’........there’d be far less of an ‘us/them’ dynamic.

What I don’t get are the people who seem to need some ‘outside authority’ (like a god) to endorse things like love/integrity/compassion in order for them to see those things as worthy of reverance…...all the atheists i know see those things as important/valuable in and of themselves.  It’s fascinating that that seems to be a differentiating factor between many atheists and theists.


`

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Posted: 13 March 2011 08:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Occam,

On most of your points: fair enough. Just a few responses to your latest.

Theism is a subset of religion, unless some theisms are not religions. I don’t see how that can be.

I also don’t see how theism can subsume religion. Religion is the broader term and is theism’s ancestor.

If we throw the whole bag in the garbage, we would throw out Ethical Culture, UU, Humanistic Judaism, Confucianism and those factions of Buddhism and Hinduism that are non-theistic. We’re not talking about fruits but about human beings, whose support is valuable to our efforts. We are not required to explain ourselves when we discard someone else’s religion but if we do it arbitrarily, we will pay a price. If you’re making the point that it doesn’t seem worth the effort to make the distinction, then I get that point but argue that the strategy is ill-advised. It feeds the perception that we are angry old cranks who can’t get along with and have nothing good to say about anyone.

Finally, yes, I think you did miss the point: I have no quarrel with discarding theism. My quarrel is with discarding the whole of religion, which is a broader category that includes scientific naturalists, skeptics, freethinkers and the like. I come out of an Ethical Culture Society, whose philosophy is entirely in keeping with all of CFI’s stated goals; that is an example of people who agree with you. Explicitly, EC is a religion but no one who endorses CFI’s mission statement has any reasoned basis for rejecting it as being philosophically anathema.

Paul

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Posted: 14 March 2011 07:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Theism is a subset of religion, unless some theisms are not religions. I don’t see how that can be.

Isn’t “theism” simply a belief in a god/gods?  Someone can have a belief in gods without belonging to a religion, at least as I understand the term.

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Posted: 14 March 2011 08:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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EricP - 14 March 2011 07:42 AM

Theism is a subset of religion, unless some theisms are not religions. I don’t see how that can be.

Isn’t “theism” simply a belief in a god/gods?  Someone can have a belief in gods without belonging to a religion, at least as I understand the term.

This discussion arose from the following question: “Could you clarify for me what religion would consist of if there were no theistic basis for it?” The word “basis” implies that the reference is to religion as a belief system; and of course theism is a belief system.

Understood that way, all theism is a subset of religion, as far as I can tell. Eric, you are referring to religion as an organization versus theism the belief system - it’s not necessarily mixing apples and oranges but I was referring to theism and religion as belief systems. (Religion has additional components.)

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Posted: 14 March 2011 09:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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In terms of philosophical systematics (which are somehow even more convoluted than biological systematics), theism is generally regarded as subordinate to religion. However, I do not know what that would mean in the face of an example of a non-religious theology. I know that lately there is an emerging trend among evangelicals to claim that they are “not religious”, but that always just strikes me as advertising rhetoric and kind of silly. If you like laughing, click here.

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Posted: 14 March 2011 09:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Understood that way, all theism is a subset of religion, as far as I can tell. Eric, you are referring to religion as an organization versus theism the belief system - it’s not necessarily mixing apples and oranges but I was referring to theism and religion as belief systems. (Religion has additional components.)

Are you saying religion is properly understood as a belief system?  Or are you just granting that for the sake of discussion?

The only way that I’m familiar with the use of the word “religion” is to describe the _organization_ of specific belief systems.

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Posted: 14 March 2011 09:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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EricP - 14 March 2011 09:45 AM

The only way that I’m familiar with the use of the word “religion” is to describe the _organization_ of specific belief systems.

Organization, but not necessarily at the social level. Possibly applicable to simply a personal organization of beliefs. Religion is a big word…almost too big to carry any real meaning without significant qualification.

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Posted: 15 March 2011 03:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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EricP - 14 March 2011 09:45 AM

Understood that way, all theism is a subset of religion, as far as I can tell. Eric, you are referring to religion as an organization versus theism the belief system - it’s not necessarily mixing apples and oranges but I was referring to theism and religion as belief systems. (Religion has additional components.)

Are you saying religion is properly understood as a belief system?  Or are you just granting that for the sake of discussion?

The only way that I’m familiar with the use of the word “religion” is to describe the _organization_ of specific belief systems.

There are several planes of analysis for religion. One of them is as a belief system. Others include systems of practice and organizational forms. As The_Au_Mean points out, a religion can be individual. Whatever provides a framework for one’s central concerns is that person’s religion, even if that individual is the only one doing it that way.

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Posted: 15 March 2011 05:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Isn’t “theism” simply a belief in a god/gods?  Someone can have a belief in gods without belonging to a religion, at least as I understand the term.

For whatever it may be worth, it seemed to work for some of the Founding Fathers of the United States as well as people like Martin Gardner. It wasn’t any god or gods they ever had issues with.

It was the organized versions with clergy which caused offence!

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Posted: 16 March 2011 04:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Equal Opportunity Curmudgeon - 15 March 2011 05:35 PM

Isn’t “theism” simply a belief in a god/gods?  Someone can have a belief in gods without belonging to a religion, at least as I understand the term.

For whatever it may be worth, it seemed to work for some of the Founding Fathers of the United States as well as people like Martin Gardner. It wasn’t any god or gods they ever had issues with.

It was the organized versions with clergy which caused offence!

That’s only part of it. The Framers were also interested in religious freedom, which is an individual right. That is as much a part of the Constitution and of our jurisprudence as protection from overbearing religion. In fact, of the two, the individual right to practice one’s religion has been better honored than the principle of protecting people from overbearing religious organizations.

And do we secularists really want to take the position that the Framers didn’t have a problem with religious beliefs? Think about where that leads if belief in a god isn’t subject to scrutiny under the First Amendment. If that was true, public school teachers could proselytize at will and there would be no reason not to require a religious test for public office. We know that’s done in fact but at least we have the veneer of the Constitution to fight against extreme abuses. EOC, the argument you’re making is the same one the radical religious right is making. It plays directly into their hands and ignores the power of shared belief, whether that power is channeled through a religious organization or not.

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Posted: 16 March 2011 05:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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After reading this thread I found myself even more confused than usual about what constitutes a religion.  I went the 1961 reprint of the Oxford English Dictionary hoping for a concise definition.  Now, while still confused, I understand why.

The first definition of religion is: A state of life bound by monastic views; the condition of one who is a member of a religious order, esp. in the Roman Catholic Church.

So I had to look up the definition of religious: 1.  Imbued with religion; exhibiting the spiritual or practical effects of religion; pious, godly, god fearing, devout.

There’s the better part of a page of definitions for religion,  definitions 1-5 of religion seem to indicate that it involves a practice of faith, worship, belief in the divine, recognition of a controlling higher power, most of them using the term “religious”, in what I’d assume to be its primary definition.  But definition 6 gets better:  Devotion to some principle ; strict fidelity or faithfulness ; conscientiousness ; pious attention or attachment.  obs.

So, while I like the idea that the term religion can be used in the sense of the sixth definition, and that theism, or belief in supernatural phenomenon is a subgroup under that definition, you do have to go all the way to the sixth definition to make it work, in my opinion.  My point is that if we’re talking about religion in the sense of a fairly obscure definition, we’re going to confuse a lot of people who intuitively use the more common definitions.  If in a conversation with a believer in the supernatural I wanted to use the term religion in this way, I think there would be a burden on me to define my meaning carefully.  Not doing so is at best going to be confusing, at worst misleading, in that you could be intentionally allowing someone to misunderstand the differences between you.  Doing so may be conciliatory, and may enable the discussion to continue on a less confrontational basis, but it may not be entirely honest.

Sorry about being pedantic.  Still, there’s that thing Confucius said about first getting the language right.

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Posted: 16 March 2011 07:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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And do we secularists really want to take the position that the Framers didn’t have a problem with religious beliefs?

I never said that they didn’t as an all encompassing statement. Only someof them, and note the overall context.

Clearly these people did have issues with organized religion and whatever baggage went with it.

You might find http://candst.tripod.com/tnppage/quoteidx.htm to be of some interest on this matter. Like people today, they were all over the place on what they believed or what they said they believed in public and actually practiced when nobody was looking.

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