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.