January 2013; updated November 2013
Do you ever have trouble understanding what people really mean when they use certain words, especially in a religious context – words like “God” or “truth” or “spiritual”? I do. The topic of a platform at the Washington Ethical Society (WES) a couple of years ago was, “The God I Don’t Believe In.” The speaker discussed the various versions of “God” that have held sway at various times with various peoples. At the end of the talk, she advised us to “listen for what the mystics tell us: that beneath the language, before the metaphysical concepts, behind the pan- and panen- and plain old theists, there’s a deeper truth. We are one.” I chewed on that for a few minutes. “What do you mean, ‘We are one’?” I thought to myself. “Do you mean we’re all part of some ‘cosmic stuff’? Do you mean we’re all somehow ‘spiritually linked’, whatever that means?” I finally decided that “we are one” must be shorthand for “We’re all human beings and thus share certain human traits – we all need the same basic things, have the same basic needs, etc., so we should try to see beyond the differences to these basic and important human characteristics we all share.” Why, then, didn’t she just say that? “We are one” is shorter, but more ambiguous. It could mean all sorts of things.
One of the nice things about WES platforms is that after the platform address, there’s a period in which people can offer their comments. After this address, someone stood up and said that for her God was what enabled Desmond Tutu to do the amazing things he’s done. Hmmm. I thought about that. What exactly did she mean?
Sometimes saying something in a poetic way packs a greater punch. Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” He didn’t mean “having new eyes” literally, of course. He meant that it’s the way we look at things, the way we interpret what we see, that makes things interesting, rather than the things themselves. He could have expressed this prosaically, the way I did, but the poetic way he put it got the idea across in a much more interesting way.
But not all poetic expressions can readily be translated into an obvious and clear prosaic equivalent.
It could be that people use these expressions as shorthand for much more longwinded statements. After all, it’s much easier to just say, “We are one” than to say, “We’re all human beings and thus share certain human traits – we all need the same basic things, and so on and so forth.”
But it could be that it’s not shorthand as much as a kind of “gauzy” vagueness. Expressions like “spiritual truth” sound nice; they sound, on first hearing, as if there’s some deep meaning there. “Spiritual truth,” one thinks, must be somehow deeper than “plain old” truth. Until one thinks about it, which brings me back to “What exactly does that mean?”
These “gauzy” expressions – “spiritual truth” or “spiritual meaning” – are like mirages in the desert; as we get closer and try to get a better look, they melt away, as if the only way we can keep the image in our sight is by squinting from a distance.
In a post titled, “Definitions Don’t Prove Anything,” on the blog Rationally Speaking, Julia Galef discusses how people often “redefine” words in what amounts to a verbal “sleight of hand” (full disclosure: Julia is my daughter):
First, the basics: A definition is simply the act of setting some symbol equal to some concept, so that you have an easy way of referring to that concept. A definition itself can’t be correct or incorrect, because the symbol has no inherent meaning of its own.
But you have to be careful when you establish that definition, the SYMBOL = CONCEPT relationship, that you’re not implicitly thinking of the symbol as having another, hidden concept inside it already. Because if you are, then what you’re doing is actually equating one concept with another, different concept. That’s not a definition, that’s a claim, and it can be incorrect.
Here’s a case study that may ring a bell. Some people are fond of saying that they define “God” to be the unknown, or to be a symbol of perfection, or to be whatever caused our universe to exist. At first glance, this seems puzzlingly pointless. Why assign the word “God” to something like the unknown? We already have a word for the unknown — it’s “the unknown.”
But clearly, this doesn’t feel pointless to them. There is some reason they want to be able to say “God exists” instead of “The unknown exists,” even though those two statements should theoretically mean the exact same thing according to their own definition. And that’s because the symbol “God” still has concepts hidden inside it. They haven’t scrubbed the word entirely clean of its original meaning before redefining it. With both meanings of “God” conflated into one word, they feel like the fact that the word is now pointing to something that exists allows them to believe in the existence of what the word used to be pointing to.
I’ve encountered similar phenomena in other WES platforms – one time when the speaker referred to having faith in the inherent goodness of people. This is actually a basic precept of Ethical Culture – we say we put our faith in human goodness. But what does it mean to “have faith in human goodness”? Is it like having faith in God? Here again, the word “faith” has meaning already attached to it – when people say they have faith in God, they generally mean they believe in God and they believe that God has a purpose and is doing good things; and they believe this apart from any empirical evidence. When we refer to “taking something on faith” we mean we believe it even in the absence of actual evidence to support it. Similarly, “taking a leap of faith” is (according to Wikipedia) “the act of believing in or accepting something intangible or unprovable, or without empirical evidence.” So there is a sense that faith is belief in the absence of supporting evidence.
When the speaker at WES said she had faith in the inherent goodness of people, she clarified that she didn’t think people were always good, but she had faith that they are capable of goodness. But there’s lots of evidence to support the notion that people are capable of goodness. You don’t really need faith to believe that; we are surrounded by empirical evidence of the capacity for human goodness – there are many, many examples of it (just as there are examples of the human capacity for evil). If there were absolutely no evidence that people have the capacity for goodness, then it would be appropriate to say “I have faith in human goodness,” meaning “even in the absence of any empirical evidence, I believe human beings are capable of goodness.” As I listened to the speaker at WES, I “translated” in my mind; I decided she must mean, “I am often reminded that people are capable of great goodness, and this is what I choose to focus on.”
So why did she instead use the word “faith”? Well, the talk was titled, “I’m a Believer,” and it was given to the WES congregation; I would guess at least half of WES members are atheists. These are people who don’t have faith in God. The speaker at that platform may not have faith in God either. But WES considers Ethical Culture a religion. We don’t (necessarily) have faith in God; instead we put our “faith” in human goodness. There’s an implied – but false – equivalence. Our “faith” is actually based on empirical evidence. Faith in God is not. But by using the word “faith,” the concept of religion, as it is typically thought of, was “smuggled in” to the talk. It “feels” more religious to say, “I have faith in human goodness” than to say, “I am often reminded that people are capable of great goodness, and this is what I choose to focus on.”
In another WES platform, titled “Ain’t It the Truth?”, the speaker delved into the concept of truth, first speaking about the scientific concept of truth and then talking about religious “truth” and experiential “truth.” I put quotations around the word “truth” when combining it with the words “religious” and “experiential” because it is not the same thing as what scientists mean when they talk about truth. For scientists, a claim can be regarded as true if there is sufficient evidence to support it, and especially if it has predictive power. Scientists regard evolution as true, for example, because there is a vast amount of evidence to support it. Similarly, virtually all climate scientists regard the claim that climate change is real and human-caused as true because there is an enormous amount of evidence to support that claim as well. If evidence were to become available that contradicted a scientific claim, scientists would start to reevaluate the truth of the claim. Because a claim is true only if there is sufficient evidence to support it, this implies that two contradicting claims cannot both be true.
In the religious context it is common to talk about religious “truths.” Similarly, when people speak about “spirituality,” they may refer to one person’s “truth” and another person’s (different) “truth.” The speaker at WES talked about “my truth” and “their truth” about the same thing, implying that there can be more than one truth about something. And once again, I “translated” in my mind – she really meant “my experience” and “their experience” of the same situation, or “my belief” and “their belief” about something. And once again, a word – this time, the word “truth” – was being used in a vague sort of way, and meaning was being “smuggled in.” Scientists adhere to a very high level of rigor to make truth claims, so that when they declare something to be true, we can have a high level of confidence that it is indeed true. Talking of “my truth” and “their (different) truth” about the same thing is a way of (subconsciously, I would guess) trying to “smuggle in” that sense of confidence about people’s different experiences of a situation or people’s different beliefs. It’s a way of trying to give validation to individuals’ religious experiences and beliefs, even if one person’s experiences and beliefs contradict those of another person. But really, two individuals’ different experiences of a situation aren’t two “truths”; they’re just two different experiences or perceptions. And similarly with beliefs.
I suspect that much of the lack of clarity in how we use words is motivated, probably subconsciously, by emotional needs. Although hearing other people talk about their “spirituality” makes me wince, it probably feels good to them – and stopping to clarify exactly what they mean by that word would only dim the glow of that good feeling, especially if it turns out to be difficult to do. And, although I don’t toss around the words “spiritual” or “spirituality,” I undoubtedly toss around other words unthinkingly, without really being clear (perhaps even in my own mind) about exactly what I mean by them. Stopping to really think through exactly what we mean by the words we choose to use could indeed be overly burdensome. If we all did that all the time, there might be a whole lot less talk – and certainly a whole lot less of the “gauzy” variety.
I am reminded of the wonderful contemporary dance company, Pilobolus, known for the “strong element of physical interaction between the bodies of the performers and exaggerations or contortions of the human form …, often verging on gymnastics.” I first saw them perform in New York City many years ago. I was sitting way up in an upper balcony. From there, their movements looked completely fluid and effortless. They were a beautiful sight to behold. Several years later, when I was a graduate student, I happened to catch another Pilobolus performance. This time, we were sitting right up front, only a few rows from the stage. From that close vantage point I could see the sweat and straining muscles of the performers. What had seemed so easy and fluid and beautiful from a distance was less so up close. The distance – and the inability to really see clearly – had given their performance a lovely smoothness that was lost when I could actually clearly discern their movements and what went into them.
And so too for what we say and what we hear. Not “getting too close” to certain words – for the speaker, not being too clear, and for the listener, not thinking too hard about exactly what is meant –preserves a certain “glow” about those words. But what is being conveyed (and perceived) is the glow, not any underlying meaning. Glow is nice, of course, but it would be even nicer to understand just what it is emanating from – what is actually meant.
Perhaps I’m just a stickler for clarity, but I think there may be real consequences to the vagueness and “smuggling in” of meaning in words used in a religious context. When people refer to “your truth” and “my truth” and seem to actually think that there can indeed be different truths about something, I worry that it makes it harder for them to really understand that truth is not like that. Experience and belief are like that, but not truth. And similarly with expressions like “God is love” or “God is the unknown.” I suspect that these are not just poetic expressions but are intended to be something more, to mean something – but on closer inspection it really isn’t clear what they mean.
The human mind has apparently evolved to be not entirely rational, so it happily accepts “feel good” expressions without too much thought. My strong impression is that religious contexts encourage that lack of thought in an effort to promote that “feel good” atmosphere. And I wonder, can’t we promote good feeling without sacrificing the clarity we need to think rationally?
 In his book, “Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics” (http://www.amazon.com/Good-Real–Paradoxes-Bradford/dp/0262042339), Gary Drescher describes this “smuggling”: “Whenever something substantive seems to depend on a choice of definition… we should suspect that a tacit definition is being smuggled in, and a sleight of hand substitution of the tacit definition for the explicit one is occurring.”
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pilobolus_%28dance_company%29. Accessed January 26, 2013.
 Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is a wonderful compendium of research on human irrationality, with many examples of how the human brain uses heuristics and has built-in biases that make it more difficult for us to be completely rational without a fair amount of effort.