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Playing the Labelling Game

Denis Solomon • 1,224 words

A-tonal means lacking pitch. A-phonic means lacking speech. A-phasic means lacking language. A-theist means lacking God.

But the last of these terms is different in value from the others. In fact it has no communicative value at all. Because the quality or thing postulated as lacking in the first three is independently defined. You may dispute whether someone is aphonic or aphasic, but you know what evidence will prove you wrong. There is no disagreement as to what speech or language is. As to “God”, however, no such definition exists, and the word is consistently used without one, or with one unilaterally ascribed by the user. Once it is used, therefore, communication, in the sense of exchange of information, stops.

The word “atheist”, therefore, has no denotative meaning either. It is used with a purely pragmatic function, as a derogatory label applied by one group of people to another. Once you get in first with a derogatory term, the ignorance of the majority of people about how language works enables you to throw a non-existent burden of proof on your opponent. “Atheists” would be more logically justified in calling “religious” people superstitious, since the word “superstitious” has a perfectly clear and checkable definition. But since fear has always played a far greater part in human behaviour than reason, the “religious” have had the upper hand in the game of labels.

The word “atheist” therefore says more about those who apply it than about those to whom it is applied. For the same reason, there is no word to designate the attitude of the person who refuses to continue to play the game of communication when the reality is already at an end. “Rationalist”, perhaps, might do. But the trouble with “rationalist” is that everyone is a rationalist in some things, and to apply it exclusively would implicitly deny that fact, something which no honest person would want to do.

I refuse to be called ‘atheist”, because I refuse to have the burden of proving the unprovable illicitly shoved on to me. I will not be party to a fundamental misuse of language. If there is no word to describe my metaphysical condition, so be it. I feel no need for a label to function in the universe.

“Agnostic” will not do either. While the term “atheist” is most often applied by one person to another, “agnostic” is a term people apply to themselves, as an apology for being what others call “atheist”. It is also as denotatively valueless as “agnostic”. It means “not knowing”. Not knowing what? If you let yourself be called “not knowing” you implicitly admit there is something to be known. You also subscribe to a definition of “know” that is fallacious. “Know” cannot be applied to religious matters because religion is not a matter of knowledge but of hope.

And here we run into a slew of religion-related terms that, like “atheist”, are devoid of denotative meaning and used for purely connotative effect, in this case ameliorative rather than pejorative. Two examples are “faith” and “belief”. “Faith” and “belief” are good. “Doubt” is bad. In fact, the only meaning “faith” can have is being firm in an allegiance, whether the allegiance is to something good or bad. Its existence is confirmed by certain behaviour. It is connotatively neutral. “Belief” can only have usable meaning if it is defined as conviction arising out of demonstration, either ostensive or logical. I believe (or “know”) the Loch Ness monster to exist because I have seen it. If someone shows me that it was made of rubber, I cease to believe. I believe that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides because Pythagoras’ reasoning has convinced me and because I have seen a lot of right-angled triangles, but never one where this was not true. But no one can “believe” in Christianity, Islam or Buddhism in any meaningful sense. All they can do is demonstrate the behaviour appropriate to Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, in the hope that they or the world will be the better for it. In other words, out of fear.

Knowledge and belief are fundamentally related to teaching. When you teach, you impart knowledge and alter or confirm belief. The only honest teaching is that which enables the learner to judge, to supersede, to question and perhaps even to refute the material imparted. A teacher who fails to equip his pupils to refute his teaching is not a teacher. A student who looks for certainty is not a student.

Herein lies the difference between teaching religion and religious education. Religion exists. Like history or law it can be taught, and from many points of view. But it can only be taught honestly if the teaching includes an examination of the meaning of such terms as “faith”, “belief”, “knowledge”, “reality” and a host of others. No teacher should dare to use the word “God” without examining the attempts that have been made to give it workable definition, from the animism of the Vedas, to the early Judaic notion of an all-powerful anthropomorphic being intervening actively in history, to a shorthand expression, in Spinoza, for natural law or the totality of the universe, to the concept of Brahman and Atman propounded in the Upanishads, to Kant’s claim that it cannot be defined at all.

No one should contemplate teaching Christianity, or Buddhism, or Islam, or Rastafarianism without teaching all the others too, and against the background I have described above. Anything else is not teaching religion. It is religious education, which is an abuse of the term “education” and an abuse of the learner. Particularly if the learner is a child, with all the mental malleability and psychological vulnerability of childhood. “Belief” in the religious sense is not an honest goal of education. It can only be inculcated by the manipulation of guilt and terror, by the imposition of intellectually illegitimate authority. It induces a dangerous schizophrenia, an enforced compartmentalisation of approach to the world that in the worst cases rebounds on the rest of the curriculum, numbing the spirit of scepticism and doubt that is the motive force of intellectual progress.

A type of belief that I may be challenged to define is that derived from the reports of others. Do I “believe” in the existence of the Loch Ness monster if a trustworthy person says he has seen it? And what reasons might I have for considering him, or not considering him, trustworthy?

In religious matters, this obviously relates to the question of the veracity of mystical experience. Why should I not believe St. Anthony when he says he saw naked ladies in the desert, or Bernadette Soubirous when she says she saw the Virgin Mary at Lourdes? The answer is that I do not doubt them. But if I believe them I am believing something about St. Anthony or Bernadette Soubirous, not about the universe, except in so far as the universe contains people who have such experiences. In any case, mystical insight must be disciplined by thought. To paraphrase the semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco, you can have all the visions you want, but you still have to think.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top