Archive for the ‘definition’ Category

What deserves to be called “god”?


You know what I hate? I hate when I start preparing an argument, and my research tells me that my own favoured position is the unsupportable one.

I recently listened to an interview on Tapestry with Nancy Ellen Abrams, an atheist who has written a book called A God that Could be Real.


Essentially, Abrams was an atheist in a twelve-step program. Many of the steps refer to a higher power. She wanted to work through the steps honestly, without compromising her integrity by pretending to have a belief she didn’t have.

In encourage you to listen to the interview – it’s just short of a half-hour long, and contains much more than what I’ll summarize here in my response to it. Go ahead – this post isn’t going anywhere.

Okay, now that you’re back, what do you think?

In a nutshell, Abrams sat down and tried to think of what could actually exist that might deserve to be called “God”, and she came out with something that, to me, does not sound supernatural or theistic in any conventional sense. An emergent “aggregate of human aspirations” thing.

Now, I would be inclined to say that this is not a god. It checks none of the boxes I have for what makes something a god. All-powerful? Nope. All-knowing? Nope. Perfectly good? A person? Nope and nope. So why would Abrams call it “God”?

Well, remember that this non-theistic god she envisioned allowed her to pursue the recovery she sought. It filled the role that a more conventional god fills for many others following a twelve-step program. So, at least for herself, Abrams has a good reason to treat this concept she arrived at as “god”, for the purposes of her recovery. Fine.

But should anyone else take on her definition?

This is an instance of a theme we come across perennially in atheist circles. Someone proposes “why don’t we call X ‘God’ – then could you get on board?” And X may be humanity, or a Platonic good, or love, or the “idea” of a god, or any number of things. Most people I know who identify as atheist reject the move because we already have a meaning for the word “god” – one that enables us to communicate all sorts of important ideas. If we accept the revisions people offer, we begin to lose the convenience of this label for our discussions. We are supported in this by conservative religious types, who don’t want their idea of the “true God” to be diluted by liberal religious ideas.

Abrams’ presentation highlights a side of the argument that I think gets less traction than it should in atheist circles: the idea of what “deserves” to be called “god”. As a linguist, I would say this points to the connotation of the word “god”, as opposed to the denotation. (See here for a primer on the connotation/denotation distinction, if you aren’t familiar with it.) The atheists (myself included) lean on what we see as the denotation of the word “god”, while the liberal religous types (I think Abrams now identifies in this group) focus on its connotation.

There is a temptation to say that denotation is the “true” meaning of the word, and connotation is just those emotional and cultural accretions that gather around it. But, as I teach in my Linguistics 101 class, that doesn’t capture how language really works.

Consider the words “dad” and “father”. They share a denotation – they both point to a male parent. But the connotations are worlds apart: the aphorism “Any man can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad” is not contradictory, but hinges on the distinction many people have between the connotations of the two words. That difference is personally important. In fact, you could imagine a person becoming attached to a male parental figure who is not, in fact, technically their father, and coming to call him “Dad”. Would that be wrong? Of course not.

So, not only is connotation important, but it can sometimes be more important than denotation in deciding whether a word is appropriate to use in a particular situation.

Coming back to the word “God” and Abrams’ redefinition, where does that leave us? Well, when I listen to how she came to the definition, it seems that connotation was important – she needed a meaning that served the emotional and spiritual needs of the twelve steps – while denotation was negotiable – anything in the meaning that wasn’t believable was expendable. She was in an analagous situation to the person who calls “Dad” someone who is not their father.

Should Abrams have less freedom to redefine “God” than other people have to redefine “dad”? Of course not. There is nothing special about the word “god” that puts it above other words, outside the rules for how we use and modify words.

Of course, that’s not the whole story.

What about those of us who want to use “God” in the more conventional sense – the sense we share with conservative religious people?

I’d say we’re still entitled to use it as we will. But, if our goal is communication and understanding, we should remember how other people use it. (This is true of any word we use – particularly those on which a discussion hinges.) Words mean what people use them to mean.

When I had listened to the interview with Abrams, my first thought was that it’s fine for her, but she shouldn’t expect anyone else to pick up the new meaning.

But what does that position mean? It means that I’ll grant more rhetorical points to conservative religious people – who are generally very far from me in terms of values and beliefs – than to liberal religious people such as Abrams – who are often right next door, sometimes in the same house as me (just speaking a slightly different language).

Yes, it still bugs me that they use language differently from me. Just like it bugs me that people use “affect” and “effect” differently from me, or they (to my mind) confuse “climatic” and “climactic”. So I have a choice. I can take my stand on the aesthetics of language use, or I can focus on the content and the meaning behind our different uses of words.

When I look at it that way, getting upset because not everyone speaks the way I want them to seems rather petty and self-defeating. The fact is, liberal religious people are natural and obvious allies of mine – and of yours, I suspect.

Sure, I’ll keep getting upset when people use language “wrong”. But I know that my irritation is entirely about me. They are doing the same thing people have done since the dawn of language. They are adapting and recruiting existing words and concepts to describe new ideas and new ways of dealing with old ideas. Nobody – not all the English teachers in the world, not the Académie Française – has ever managed or will ever manage to halt the fertile evolution of language. Trying to do so is a fool’s errand.

On the other hand, we live in an age where secularism is widespread, and growing. We live in a more rationally-governed, hopeful time than ever before. And if we can identify our many allies – people who share our secular values but not, perhaps, all of our beliefs or language – then we have a chance to spread secularism even more widely and deeply.

That is a mission worth working for. That is a mission worth swallowing a bit of linguistic irritation for.

Okay, that got a little more grandiose and ranty than I intended. But I think you get the idea. I would really like to know what you think. Do you agree with me? Am I missing some important fact about language or reasoning? Please let me know in the comments.



The linguistic war on terror


Okay, that title may be a little grandiose.

But I’ve just read this amazing article about Daesh – a name being used in various places to refer to the organization that would like you to call them the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”, or “ISIS” for short.

For those who are wondering, the correct Arabic pronunciation of “daesh” is something like [daʕʃ]*. It is difficult for me to be more precise or certain, because (a) I do not know Arabic and (b) Arabic acronyms are exceedingly rare, so there may not be clear conventions on how to pronounce them. Language Log comes through with corpus-based observations of [dæʃ] (“dash”) from Barack Obama, or [dɐ.ɛʃ] (“duh-esh”) or / [dɐ.ɛʃ] (“dush”) from the French press. So it’s not hard to pronounce, though it may be a little while before we settle on a standard English-world pronunciation.

What is wrong with just calling them “ISIS”? Several things.

First up, that’s what they want you to call them. Calling them “ISIS” affirms three lies they would like us all to swallow: that they are legitimately Islamic, that they are a state and deserve to be treated as such, and that they have some claim on Iraq and Syria. (The “ISIL” alternative just uses a different English translation – “Levant” – for the Arabic word otherwise translated as “Syria”).

Now, I am no religious scholar, but when you have legitimate Islamic spokespeople from around the world declaring that you are violating the dictates of Islam, it’s pretty safe to say you don’t represent Islam. [References here, here, here, and all over if you look for them.]

As for being a legitimate “state”, Daesh are really just a bunch of thugs terrorizing people, displacing millions of people from their homes. This is not what a state does.

Anyway, back to the linguistic side of things. This new name for them, Daesh, seems to have been produced by Arabic-speaking opponents to strip them of any dignity that using their self-selected title would give.

Not only does it deny the legitimacy of the several claims embodied in the other name; it also, apparently, carries various pejorative connotations. Daesh is, in fact, just an Arabic acronym for the same words that we translate to “ISIS” or “ISIL”. But it sounds like it comes from the pre-Islamic period of Arabic history – a time that is associated with demons and ignorance in the minds of Arabic speakers. Also, as I said, acronyms are very rare in Arabic, so apparently the use of an acronym itself makes the group seem less legitimate.

Alice Guthrie, author of the article, tells us,

As al-Haj Salih [the Syrian activist who coined the term] very gently and firmly expresses to me by phone when I interview him for this piece, ‘If an organisation wants to call itself ‘the light’, but in fact they are ‘the darkness’, would you comply and call them ‘the light’?’ The second, and equally important, point that al-Haj Salih stresses to me is another take on why a neologism is insulting: it’s an obviously fictitious name, for an obviously fictional concept.

I doubt Guthrie or anyone else believes that calling them something else will solve all the problems with Daesh. They are still killing, still displacing, still terrorizing. But the points made in that passage are important. Let’s use language consciously – not just to label, but to describe and express reality.

It reminds me of how Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and shared their secret rituals through the Superman radio show during the 1940s – dramatically undercutting their recruitment. [Source here and here.] Some people might want to join an organization people hate and fear. Nobody wants to join an organization that others are busy laughing at.

So let’s keep fighting Daesh. Let’s support the military fight against them; let’s help their victims; and let’s poke fun at them by using a name that undermines their claims to legitimacy. The following graphic, which I reproduce from Guthrie’s article, references a play on words from Daesh – making the terrorists into donkeys:


‘Da’ish’ becomes ‘Ja’hish’ – “The state of donkeys in Iraq and Syria”.

Thanks to a Facebook friend for pointing me to Guthrie’s article.


* I suppose I should apologize to the non-linguists out there for the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. As a phonetician, it is the obvious place to go for representing unknown pronunciations, especially those that include sounds not found in English. If you need help working out this pronunciation, check out this chart. This is one of the things I teach in my day job.


Actually, Innigo, it means *exactly* what he thinks it means


Okay, today I’m going to contradict a foundational cultural meme in order to make a subtle point about the philosophical discussion of religion. I think this is going to go well. 🙂

Everyone everywhere has seen The Princess Bride, and so everyone everywhere is aware of the “Inconceivable” line. Here it is nicely packaged up on YouTube (one of at least a dozen such montages):

The gist: one character (Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn) repeatedly describes events that surprise him as “inconceivable”. Eventually, one of his henchmen (Innigo, played by Mandy Patinkin) replies,

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Classic. You can find riffs on the “Inconceivable” line all over the Interwebs (eg, 1, 2, 3). And Innigo’s reply gets at least as much play (eg, 1, 2, 3).

I am here to suggest that, in fact, that word means exactly what Vizzini thinks it means.

You see, Vizzini uses it to respond to things that he had thought were impossible. He was unable to conceive of them. They were inconceivable. His lines were, in fact, a comment on himself, not on the physical possibilities. And (spoiler alert) it is this shortcoming of his own imagination that leads to his demise. He fails to imagine that the Man in Black can be as devious as a Sicilian when death is on the line.

What Innigo seems to think it means is “impossible” – as in, something that cannot happen, independent of what people think.

Innigo’s confusion is comparable to that of certain people when discussing philosophical concepts. Consider this delightful dice example from Tracy Harris:

The difference Tracy addresses in the video between what is actually possible and what seems possible based on our limited knowledge – in other words, what is conceivable.

So, based on what seems to me to be the common-sense meanings of the words “inconceivable” and “impossible”, I think that Vizzini actually uses “inconceivable” in the right way, and it is Innigo who is slightly confused.

For all the Princess Bride fans out there, please don’t mistake me. I am not criticizing Innigo or praising Vizzini. Even as a linguist, I do not see linguistic perspicacity as a crucial virtue for distinguishing protagonists from villains.

What do you think? Does that word mean what I think it means? Do you agree that the distinction between “conceivable” and “possible” is worth attending to in our discussions (for example, over the existence of the supernatural)?



So many things need to be said here.

Fortunately, others have said the most important things already. There’s Emma Watson’s UN speech on the He For She initiative:

Then there’s Laci Green’s whole YouTube output. Especially videos like this one:

There’s the Skepchick network, and feminist movements in various places and worldviews (there are feminists in India, Africa, China, even Canada; there are Christian feminists, Muslim feminists, Atheist feminists, Republican feminists).

So what can I offer? Well, first and most importantly, I can declare my support for real legal and social equality for men, women, and people of other gender identities. I do this by calling myself a feminist.

The very least someone like me can do is to voice support for gender equality. I claim the right for my wife, my daughter, and all women to be assertive, to have their work valued and their ideas respected, to retain autonomy over their bodies. I claim the right for myself, my son, and all men to be emotionally vulnerable, to be nurturing, and to find pride in lifting others up. I claim the right for all people to be who they are, without deference to cultural or religious expectations. I am a feminist.

Second, as a linguist, perhaps I can address the issue that many people have with using the word “feminism” to point to gender equality:

Words mean what people use them to mean.* And it seems to me that most people who call themselves feminists use the word to mean they support gender equality. In Canada and around the world, the most numerous and drastic victims of gender inequality (of most sorts of inequality, really) are women.

This tells me that highlighting women in the term is justified.

And if you pay attention to the mainstream, sensible feminists (such as in He For She, or Laci Green’s stuff linked above), you’ll see that modern feminists specifically identify harms done to men as part of the endemic sexism in our culture – and they work against that too. And the same people, in my experience, also support real help for transgender and other marginalized gender identities. So there is no credible argument that feminism excludes anyone.

Still hung up on the fact that “feminine” is in the name? Really? So, do you object to the term “Caucasian” for “white person”, whenever that white person doesn’t trace their ancestry from Caucasia? Do you avoid calling this language “English” because most people who use it are not in or from England, and most English words come from other places originally? I’m gonna guess not.

Call yourself what you will. If you are in favour of equality, including acting to remove systematic privilege that men still enjoy (as well as the odd point where men are “oppressed”), then you are a feminist, in the sense that it seems to be used most often and productively. Welcome to the fold!


* I say this with the authority of a trained and practicing linguist – a scientist of language.


Rant of a *real* fiscal conservative


Greta Christina has managed to do one of the most annoying things someone can do on the Internet.

She has taken a position that I thought was rather sensible, a bridge between supposedly irreconcilable camps, and exposed it as a sham. A farce. An illusion.

Dammit, Greta, is nothing sacred to you? Oh, right. Anyway, the position in  question is that of the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative”. I had begun to identify tentatively with the label myself.

Her thorough and well-referenced take-down points out that most of the fiscally conservative positions defended by those who like this label are inherently antagonistic to social liberalism. Cutting taxes, shrinking government, deregulating business – all of these have the effect of marginalizing the marginalized, of deepening the social fissures in society (almost all of which have a huge economic angle).

I can’t think of anything to refute the substance of her message.

And yet … there is a linguistic mis-step that irks me. I don’t know if this is a quibble worth clinging to, or if I should just let it go, adapt my vocabulary. Let me know what you think.

You see, what I think when I hear the words “fiscal conservative” is that the government aims to conserve spending – to find the most economically efficient way to achieve a particular goal.

Let’s take health care as an example. The fiscally conservative position would be to use whatever system results in spending the least per procedure, so that more could be achieved with less. Now, the analyses I’ve seen [1,2,3] show that socialized health care is actually more financially efficient than private health care. The first of those points out that per-capita spending on health in Canada in 2009 was about 55% what it was in the US that year.* The most obvious difference between these systems is that we have a health care system in Canada that is more publicly funded than the American system. I can hear the right-wingers crying out that this is obviously false – there must be some mistake. But I don’t hear them offering actually actual evidence-based rebuttal. Instead, they are relying on their ideological commitments.

So, for health care, the fiscally conservative solution is also (happy coincidence) the socially liberal solution. Cool.

Now, I confess that I haven’t worked through all of the issues out there. I suspect that some issues, such as same-sex marriage, have little to no fiscal angle at all. Okay, legalizing it avoids costly human rights trials, and opens up economic niches that are otherwise unavailable. But really, it’s largely an economic non-issue. And other issues, such as tax regimes designed to reduce income inequalities, are not transparently fiscally conservative. So it’s at least plausible that social liberalism and fiscal conservatism occasionally come into conflict.

I guess my big issue with the approach Greta Christina takes is that it grants the self-proclaimed conservatives too much. A government that chooses expensive wars, or criminalizes so many behaviours that it can’t keep up with the self-imposed demand for incarceration space, should not be allowed to label itself “conservative” without eyebrows being raised. The Republican Party in the US is not fiscally conservative. The Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta is not fiscally conservative. At least, not in the ways that are important to the lives of average citizens.

I suspect that, on substance, Greta Christina and I would not disagree about much here. What I’m not sure of is whether we could agree on the appropriate use of the language. I feel the same way about this as I do about religious folks trying to “own” the language of morality and family values: they don’t have the corner on that market, and often the people they oppose are doing the real thing even better than they are.

What do you think?


* Yes, I know there are many potential confounds in that data. Maybe Americans are less healthy. Maybe things are more expensive there. But for the cost to be almost double what our Canadian system is, you would expect there to be profound and obvious evidence of such things. And I don’t see it.

Scientism: bad word, useful idea?



I really hate that word.

I first read it from someone who seemed to be looking for excuses not to accept scientific results. Rather than argue against them using science, he simply labelled the approach “scientism”. He wanted to denigrate his opponents’ reliance on evidence and reason to answer important questions. I really despise this sort of anti-intellectualism.* Some people would rather hold onto their own beliefs than find out what is true.

That was my first experience. But that is not the only context where people use the word. I’ve recently heard it used in the context of legitimate criticism (in an old episode of the apologetics podcast “Please Convince Me”). There, host J. Warner Wallace was describing and critiquing a real trend among some people.**

He describes the idea like so: “If it can’t be told to us by science then we ought not even be paying attention to it.”

The trend is the idea that “Any important truth can be addressed by science,” and its corollary that “Anything that can’t be addressed by science is unimportant.” It’s a real trend – not only among lay commentators, but among prominent scientists and philosophers. It deserves to be countered.

Why is it a problem? It’s a problem because betrays an irrational ignorance. (Ironically, the people who follow this trend pride themselves on a rational, evidence-based worldview, and would be mortified if they were seen to demonstrate irrationality or ignorance.)

For one thing, the validity of science itself (as Wallace points out) cannot be demonstrated by science. That would be circular. Rather, the methods of science derive from a particular philosophical perspective on epistemology – how we come to believe things. Now, the epistemological underpinnings of science are quite sound. One cannot reject them without rejecting most of everyday common sense. But they are not derived from science.

For another thing, much of the world of human values is separate from science. It’s true that values such as honesty, curiosity, humility, and submission to reality are deeply embedded in the philosophy and practice of science. But other human values, such as compassion, respect, and loyalty are not part of science, nor can they be validated by science. Surely these values are proper and important topics to discuss in any society.

Beyond this, a survey of prominent online dictionaries and encyclopediae indicates that the word is here to stay. Wikipedia,, Oxford English Dictionaries, and Merriam-Webster all have entries describing scientism. Of course it has multiple definitions, but they all agree that one use is (to use Merriam-Webster’s formulation) “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)”.

There are also scientists and other advocates of rationality that have weighed in on the value of identifying and criticizing scientism. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has an article identifying scientism and contrasting it with appropriate science – even calling out beloved scientists Carl Sagan, Stephen Weinberg, and E.O. Wilson for stepping over that line. Massimo Pigliucci has weighed in here and here – in the first one he’s criticizing Steven Pinker’s wander into scientism here. I don’t wholly agree with Pigliucci’s characterization, but he has some valid points. A more prominent example of scientism may be Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape, where he seems to want to define morality so that it falls under the purview of science. See this article by him outlining the position.

So, with all of this, why would anyone embrace this idea that the only important claims are scientific claims? It’s not entirely unfounded. For one thing, science does seem to be our best way of identifying true claims. If I can provide physical, repeatable, objectively-recognizable evidence supporting a claim, then everyone has good reason to accept the claim. If I can provide similarly concrete evidence contradicting a claim, then everyone has good reason to reject the claim. That’s the basis of science. To reject a truly scientific claim is equivalent to rejecting the evidence of the senses.

No other approach to knowing things is so powerful. Intuition is useful, but intuitive ideas are sometimes wrong. (How do we know this? Because we can test them. Scientifically.) Unaided reason is fun, and can point us in useful directions, but outside of abstract math and logic, unaided reason is limp without evidence to support it. (Look at how many ingenious, enjoyable, and ultimately wrong ideas the ancient Greeks had about the structure of the cosmos. And those ideas of theirs that were shown to be right? They were shown by – you guessed it – science!) Feelings, traditions, ancient writings … all of these things that people have leaned on and continue to lean on to provide insight, all of them are fallible, and all of them can be validated or invalidated by science.

In philosophy, there are ideas that cannot be tested scientifically. What is the nature of morality? What is the ultimate nature of existence? What does it mean to be conscious? Here are some questions which science cannot, even in principle, answer (although it can provide interesting and relevant clues). Philosophers can answer these questions.*** But their answers are never as robust or as compelling as the answers to scientific questions. Why should I adopt the desire-utilitarian perspective on morality? Why should I buy into the materialist metaphysical model? What’s to keep me from accepting the Cartesian dualist view of consciousness?

So I sympathize with those who conclude that science is the only way to know important things. It is certainly the way we get our most certain, unassailable beliefs. But it’s not enough, on its own, to populate a complete worldview.

If the term “scientism” is to have any legitimacy as a meaningful word (and not just a bogeyman for anti-intellectuals to sneer at), I think it must be used to identify this narrow perspective that dismisses any idea not grounded in science.

As a linguist, though, I still don’t think it’s a great term. For one thing, it carries the derogatory, anti-intellectual connotation I first identified above. It’s a word that at once denigrates another and identifies the speaker with a particular community. And for another, I just don’t think it’s a useful term to try to use more broadly. For example, what do we call someone who engages or embraces scientism? A “scientist”? Sorry, that term already has a very different meaning from what we’re discussing here. A “scientismist”? Too awkard. “Scientism-er”? Uh-uh. “Advocate of scientism”? Perhaps, but that’s not terribly felicitous.

I would love to propose my own term – perhaps explicitly formed as an antonym of “philosophy”: “misosophy” (by analogy with “philanthrope/misanthrope”). “Sam Harris is a misosophist.” “Thoughtful skeptics need to beware of falling into misosophy.”

misosophy [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fi] - the position that the only claims one should accept as true are scientific claims
misosophist [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fɪst] / misosopher [mɪ.'zɑ.sə.,fɹ] - one who asserts or accepts misosophy

I rather doubt that my coinage will catch on. It’s a bit phonotactically awkward. On the other hand, I don’t know if “scientism” can catch on either, in the useful-rather-than-simply-pejorative sense that I have suggested here.

What do you think?



* This is a very emotional reaction, so I want to make it clear: I despise the anti-intellectual thought process, I do not despise the people who engage in it.

** I want to be clear, for those who listen to that podcast, that I do not agree with most of what J. Warner Wallace says. He rejects evolution. He thinks there is a strong evidential case for Christianity. He believes that historical claims are outside the purview of science. In other podcasts, he suggests that atheists have no way to ground their morality. I disagree with him about all of these things. But I agree that scientism as he defines it near the start of that podcast is a real thing, and it needs to be refuted.

*** I know many would say that theologians can also answer these questions. I agree that they can, but only insofar as they are acting philosophically. In fact, anyone can answer these questions, and many do. And when they do, they are doing philosophy.

Labels that define me


This post was originally inspired by a very animated discussion with Jamie Ian Swiss in the this 2012 episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.

Long-time readers of this blog have learned something of my political views, my personal life, and various other things. But one thing I may never have explicitly done is lay out how I think these things interconnect.

For example, I am an atheist and a humanist. Some people think that “humanist” is just a euphemism for “atheist”, since most people who label themselves humanists are also atheists. But there is an important difference. In this article, I will briefly trace out some of the connections.

First, at the root, I consider myself a humanist. Though I consciously took on the label only a short time before beginning this blog, I think it has basically formed the basis of my approach to life since I was very young. As Bertrand Russell said, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” That captures my two core values: compassion and the pursuit of understanding. To me, that is what humanism boils down to. (Notice that this definition doesn’t imply atheism.)

Now, I think the best way to pursue understanding is through scientific skepticism – I am a skeptic. I once quoted Steve Novella (of the above-mentioned podcast, Skeptics Guide to the Universe) defining skepticism: “Skepticism, as an intellectual endeavor, is the study of these mental pitfalls, for a thorough understanding of them is the best way to avoid them.” It’s not hard to form a belief; the trick is to filter good beliefs from bad ones. Skepticism is the toolkit for successful filtering.

One of the least important of my labels is atheism. This label simply means that nobody has yet convinced me that any god exists. It is one of many results of applying skepticism to claims that come at me. (Others of more consequence include accepting evolution, rejecting homeopathy, avoiding health fads, and a current push to learn more about Bayesian reasoning.) Though it has little importance in my epistemology, I would say that it is socially important. Atheists in some countries live under threat of violence and death. Even here in Canada, we are sometimes the targets of bigotry and hostility. So it is important for those who can safely do so to visibly identify as atheists (at least), so that others become aware of our existence and our normal humanness.

Another label that I like to hold is that of scientist. I am still very junior in this pursuit, and claim no particular prowess in it, but it is (in my mind) one of the most noble applications of skepticism, and I hope someday to contribute something significant to human knowledge through my scientific work.

I also have far more personal, less philosophical labels. I am a Mills by descent, and I have close ties with my family through shared traditions, history, and simple familial love. I am a daddy – a label whose meaning evolves as my children (now 4 and 6) develop into ever more amazing and surprising people. In no particular order, I am also a husband, a writer, a homeowner, a teacher, a son, and many other things. I try to exercise these parts of my identity in a way that aligns with my core values – values that come from my personal background and are defined, to some extent, by the main labels “humanist”, “skeptic”, and “scientist”.

There is much more to say about identity and labels, but I think this will suffice for now.

Definition: secular


Much of the disagreement between people – in areas of religion and elsewhere – centres around unacknowledged differences of definition. It is important to know what someone means when they use a word, and it is often pretty easy, if you’re paying attention, to notice that a difference of definition is serving as a barrier to communication. Please read this in the light of my recent comments on What words mean. I hope that people who disagree with me will continue to lay out their reasons in the comments, and everyone with me will tell me how well I am conveying my ideas.

Today’s definition: “secular”.

It is variously used to refer to “everyday life” (as opposed to consideration of religious ideas of the transcendent), or as a pejorative for the increasingly non-religious way many people approach life these days. What is common is that it tends to be associated with a lack of religion.

What seems to be disputed is whether “secular” approaches to life – particularly public life and politics – are actively anti-religious, or simply non-religious.

This distinction has come up before on this blog. Long-time readers will, I hope, already anticipate my preferred definition here.

When I promote secularization, or a secular public sphere, I mean one that does not privilege one religious perspective over another. That is, a secular government is one that does not take a side in questions of faith. It doesn’t promote prayer; it doesn’t prohibit prayer. It doesn’t encourage religious observance; it doesn’t discourage religious observance.

For the most part, I would say that is what secular governments aim for in the real world. (I’m quite pleased with this trend, so far as I have observed it in the countries I’ve lived in.)

So why might some people associate the word with anti-religious sentiments and actions?

Well, there are several reasons. One is that some of the vocal cheerleaders for secular government these days are atheists. The National Secular Society in the UK is a prominent example – they actively lobby against religious privilege in that country, and advocate for the equal treatment of atheists. And of course, many of the most vocal atheists these days are vocal in their criticism of religious beliefs. So it is natural for people to connect in their minds the word “secular” with “anti-religious”. Similarly, people like me who identify as secular humanists are all (so far as I know) atheists. From my perspective, this is because approaching the world from a secular perspective – one that begins as neutral toward religious claims – will tend to lead one to atheism. From another perspective, it may seem that secular has some built-in anti-religious bias.

Another reason is that, historically, pretty much every culture has privileged one or another religious belief in its laws and customs. So, when we move towards a secular society, those privileges tend to be lost. The groups who once enjoyed those privileges naturally feel like they are under attack. They lose their special voice in government (removal of laws that are exclusively motivated by religious dogma). They lose their special voice in education (removal of teaching materials that are informed by religious dogma, and/or that are in contradiction of scientific evidence). They are no longer able to impose their rituals on public events, to the exclusion of others (removal of sectarian prayers in council meetings, or the inclusion of other religious and non-religious voices).

To someone like me, who identifies with a group (atheists) that never enjoyed those privileges, it is laughable to hear religious people moan about intolerance when they learn that they will finally have to follow the same laws as everyone else.

But I certainly can understand how humbling and, perhaps, frightening, it must be to see one’s tribe fall from a position of accustomed privilege to become an equal among many competing voices.

And, of course, there are people who would like religion to disappear from the world entirely. There are dogmatic anti-theists who blame much human evil on religion, and then advocate that we would be better without this blight on our culture. There are ideologues who see religion – or at least, undomesticated religion – as a threat to their ideology (such as Stalinist or Maoist communism).

I am not one of those people. And, though some would call them “secularists”, I would not. They are not neutral to religion. A secular state is neutral toward religion.

So being an atheist doesn’t automatically make one a secularist. Nor does being a secularist automatically make one an atheist. For example, one of the main reasons the US constitution was formed in explicitly secular terms was because many of the religious groups in the fledgling country had fled from persecution in Europe. They recognized that a secular state – one that did not give state power to religious institutions – was the best protection for their religious freedom. Quakers, Unitarians, Deists … even, at different times, Protestants and Catholics, have experienced the tyranny of an ascendant religious power over those weaker in numbers or force. A secular state provides protection for everyone against the majority.

Current demographic trends show non-belief outstripping belief to varying degrees in many developed countries. If this continues, it may be that within a few decades atheists will be the majority. It will then be even more clearly in the best interests of the religious minority to have strong secular protections in place so that their religious freedoms are protected from possible attacks from this new majority.

Other people’s definitions and discussions:

Oxford dictionary online main definition: “Not connected with religious or spiritual matters”

Google search definition: “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis” main definition: “of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal”

Merriam Webster definition 1b: “not overtly or specifically religious”

Free Dictionary definition 2: “Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body”

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance glossary entry for secularism: “A term created in 1846 by a British freethinker George Holyoake:

  • The belief that government decisions should be made independently of religious considerations.
  • The promotion of ideas and values not based on religious criteria.”

Wikipedia article on secularity

Other commentators: No Forbidden Questions, and here’s a debate at Camels with Hammers that revolves (in part) around competing definitions. It is clear to me that not everyone sees “secular” as I do. I’ll try to use the word carefully.

What words mean


I’ve offered a few definitions on this blog. For those who know I am a linguist by profession, but who don’t know many linguists themselves, I fear this may come across as an attempt to impose definitions by authority of my expertise.

So I thought I’d offer some thoughts on how linguists actually approach language.

I thought I’d spend a thousand or so words giving a brief introduction to terms like “prescriptive” and “descriptive“. Maybe talk about the inexorability of language change. Perhaps I could indulge in some side-notes on how most of the cherished rules of modern grammarians are violated not only by the common speakers and writers of English, but also by the authors the grammarians admire, and also (far too often) by the grammarians themselves, when they’re not paying attention.

I’d indulge in a rant or two here and there, and generally weary everyone into either agreeing with me or walking away.

Then I realized, if people want to be bored by all this stuff, they can bloody well come and take Linguistics 101, pay tuition and help keep me gainfully employed. And anyway, you don’t need all that to see the main point anyway.

It all boils down to this:

  • Linguists are scientists. We want to know how language actually works.
  • Behind everything else, language is about being understood – conveying an idea from one mind to another.
  • Words mean what people use them to mean.

Oh, there’s more. Syntax, morphology, phonetics (oh, sweet phonetics!), semantics … but each of them boils down to that one point.

Words mean what people use them to mean.

That’s what my definitions are about. I want to be clear how I’m using words, so we can communicate as clearly as possible.

Definition: free will


I was listening to a skeptical podcast – the Legion of Reason, out of Calgary – and the topic of free will reared itself. It’s a fascinating topic, because (as in this case) many people who agree with me about atheism, humanism, and loads of related social positions disagree very firmly about the appropriate attitude to free will.

I would like to clarify and expand on what I have said recently on this blog about free will. First, though, I thought I would start by exploring the definition.

Like my previous definition posts, I will present how I see it free will, and point out some of the ways that people differ.

First, note that the term “free will” is made of two words. So let’s start with a simple definition:

Free will is the unconstrained (free) exercise of one’s intention to act (will).

No problem so far. But what counts as a constraint?*

This is where people differ. For me, unconstrained means that, when I have a desire to act (whatever the reason for or source of that desire), I am able to follow through.

When I want to stand up, I can. I am not tied down; I am not too weak.

When I want to go bungee-jumping, I can. I do not have a subconscious aversion preventing me from taking that last step; I do not have overly-protective parents hiding my keys to keep me from driving to the jump site.

Constraints can take the form of physical bonds, financial shortfalls, or even irresistable psychological compulsions (addiction is an interesting area for examining edge-cases in free will).

Other people – the “libertarian free will” crowd – consider that any reliable causal predictor of a decision is an intolerable constraint, undermining freedom of will. The most popular expression of this is the claim that determinism undermines free will. That is, if the universe really does operate according to immutable, universal laws of cause-and-effect that completely determine the behaviour of everything in the universe, then everything we do is physically “constrained” to a single possibility (whether or not we can ever know that possibility in advance).

I find this position odd for two reasons: the “chain-link” and the “character”.

First, even if my actions are determined in advance, it may still be the case that my intentions (part of the physical universe) are the proximate cause of my actions: I stood up because I wanted to stand up. Sure, I may have wanted to stand up because my bladder was full, which was because of all the tomato juice I had consumed earlier, which was because of that unfortunate incident with the skunk, and so on and so on to the beginning of our clockwork universe. But the immediate reason I stood up was because I chose to. It was an exercise of my will. My will is a crucial link in the great causal chain that led to the event. To me, the idea of freedom is how that link that is my intention relates to the link that is the outcome, not how it relates to all the other links.

Second, it baffles me that mere predictability is considered a defeater for free will. Just because someone can guess what I’m going to do does not make me less free. If my child cries out in pain, I run to help them. That behaviour is predictable. In fact, part of being a good parent is letting my children know deep down that I will react that way. Does that mean I am not exercising my free will when I choose to help them? Of course not. Is my obedience to traffic laws a subjugation of my free will? No, it’s an expression of it. I try to cultivate a character that leads me to behave well. This entails being predictable in a wide range of situations.

I know that there is some psychological monitor inside all of us that doesn’t like the idea of any constraint – real, practical, or metaphysical – on our behaviour. When I hear libertarian free-will advocates declaiming, I often have to step back before I see again why their arguments fall flat. But it bugs me that so few people seem to see that the aspects of freedom which are important to them in daily life do not depend on libertarian free will. It bugs me that they never seem to see the conflict between virtue – the development of a character that consistently chooses to follow predictable patterns of virtuous behaviour – and this idea of completely acausal decision-making. I think my approach above not only captures my own aesthetic preferences regarding the definitions of free will, but also the way we tend to apply the concept to our real lives. We are not worried about whether some unknowable causal chain irrevocably caused us to want to do what we did, but rather whether we were able to do what we intended.

I think the above works, regardless of whether one sees the “will” as part of the physical world (materialism) or existing in some separate realm (dualism). I also think it is essentially independent of the question of whether a god exists or not.

Though I’ve looked at free will in this way for several years, I don’t know if I’ve ever articulated this particular position. So I would like to know if you can see any obvious holes in the compatibilist position I am promoting here. Do you? If so, please let me know!

On the other hand, are there any other compatibilists out there who agree with my position? Or libertarians who find the above arguments thought-provoking?

Any theists or folks familiar with theological approaches to free will? What do you think? My impression is that most theists are libertarians, but I have heard that Calvinists and perhaps some others are determinists, and so may have some sort of compatibilist approach to free will. Or they may just deny that we have free will.


* I may address what is meant by “intention to act” at a later date, or in the comments if people want to bring it up. For now, I’ll just assume it’s fairly obvious.