Monday, April 23, 2007

Appropriated Vocabulary

One day, I will actually go to an atheist/humanist event; for now all I can do is read the recaps. The latest I-wish-I-had-gone event was the New Humanism conference at Harvard. I especially would have liked to have seen Salman Rushdie and Steven Pinker, and perhaps get a chance to say hi to Hemant Mehta. Hemant does have a recap on his site -- and links to another one by Rebecca over at Skepchick. This is the recap I want to discuss. Rebecca brings up a topic I feel very strongly about.

The only conference lowlight I’ll mention is one that may apply overall to the humanist movement, though I’m not sure: it was a disturbing trend of kowtowing to religion. As an example, there was a teleconference with a Southern Baptist convention, during which time Greg, the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard, referred to the planet Earth as “the Creation.” This was repeated in the conference pamphlet. The Creation? This came mere hours after one speaker criticized the way some people redefine “god” to mean “love” or “nature” — why use that language?
That's strike two for Greg Epstein in this regard, by my count. In a recent Associated Press article he was also quoted as using the term "atheist fundamentalists." Others -- albeit mostly in jest -- have referred to Darwin as our messiah, "On the Origin of Species" as our bible, Dawkins as a prophet, evolution as our doctrine, etc. Well, I don't find it very funny.

In many debates, using language that the opposing side is familiar with can be a good way to convey a point. Using their terminology can help relate similar concepts from your own point of view. But when the concepts are in direct opposition, appropriating the wrong vocabulary risks confusing the message. This is especially true with terms we have used to criticize our opponents, such as "fundamentalism."

One of my biggest gripes on this topic is the phrase "belief in evolution," as in, "Chuck doesn't believe in evolution!" There is a perfectly good definition for the word belief that is suitable here: "an opinion or conviction." But it should not be used here. The term "belief in evolution" is too often brought up as contrast to "belief in God," which uses 'belief' in a different way: "a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith."

Yes, there are plenty of theists that are also convinced by evolution. But the theist / atheist conflict is too vocal, with too much misunderstanding and debate about scientific fact vs. theory, the validity of some evidence and the debunking of others, etc. Look at how theism and intelligent design have already tainted the understanding of such basic concepts, like what the word 'theory' means in science. We must avoid vocabularly that can be twisted and used against us.


Ebonmuse said...

I second your comment about "strike two" - Greg Epstein has not done a great deal to endear himself to me. Let's hope he gets the message and starts doing a better job of upholding the humanist principles he advocates.

contactos madrid said...

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