Secular double entendre

(Note to my religious readers: The following is not intended as an attack on religious belief, but I can foresee some sensitivities being nettled nevertheless. If you’d rather avoid being offended, feel free to stop reading now.)

I was just watching a video at the Friendly Atheist, promoting the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). It’s the American version of our National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) – a nationwide organization aimed at building communities of secular students (atheists, agnostics, etc) at universities, colleges, and schools. Here’s the video:

Now, I know this will reveal my linguistic geekiness in its fullest degree, but the line that stuck out most to me was this:

[We believe] that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than faith.

Why, you ask? Syntacticians in the audience will already see where I’m going. There are, in fact, two high-probability, grammatical ways to parse this sentence in English.

The one that was intended could be paraphrased as so:

We believe that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than faith does.

Here’s the alternative reading:

We believe that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than to faith.

Okay, so the second reading doesn’t works quite so well. But, both readings are consistent with the general outlook of atheists and humanists. We trust science and reason above faith* as paths to reliable knowledge, and we think that science and reason lead us to knowledge rather than leading us to faith.

Oh, and hooray for SSA and AHS – go check them out if you’re a student!

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* It is worth noting that this all uses the meaning of “faith” used by most humanists, which could most succinctly be expressed as “belief that does not rely on evidence”. Many religious people use different definitions. I think I may need to add another post to my series on definitions.

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