Muffled Metaphors
In Time Magazine, November 13, 2006, Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said religion answers the why questions, the meaning of life questions.

This is how Collins finds the meaning of life. First he says, “God could have activated evolution...” So far he sounds like a 19th century deist, content to leave it at that. But then he goes on, “with full knowledge of how it would turn out”. When asked, about belief in the virgin birth and the resurrection, he answered, “if you believe in a God that is outside of nature, why couldn't that God invade the natural world with miracles?” And, “I don't think it's God's purpose to make everything absolutely obvious to us. It would not have been sensible for Him to use the mechanism of evolution without posting obvious road signs to reveal His role in creation.”

Let me see if I have this right. Collins believes there is a God that created the universe, a belief for which there is no reliable evidence, and he knows that his God thinks, what his God thinks and that his God would not do something that wasn't sensible. Oh yes, it's all based on reason. It seems to me he reasons that if he were this God of his, this is what he would think and do. I guess once you take that leap of faith anything goes. Sounds more like making meaning than it does like finding meaning to me.

Michael Shermer, author of “Why People Believe Weird Things” says, and I agree, we're asking the wrong questions. “What meaning does the universe have? None.” He goes on, “A star is just a blob of plasma. Of course it has no meaning; it's just atoms doing what they do under heat and pressure. So the meaning comes from what we put into life, what we make of it.”

Many smart and foolish people spend all their years on earth searching for the meaning of life, assuming there is one. Others understand and accept that we make our own meanings; we collectively adjudicate social reality, cultures, and religions.

We use language to make meaning, individually and collectively. We use words in an effort to understand and be understood, to deceive, to predict, and to control. Language is a living system created and recreated by people. We are both constrained and freed by our language.

There is no meaning other than that which
we attribute to events and perceptions.

We're born into a culture with a language that shapes our reality. It's been said that we cannot have an experience for which we don't have words. The language we're taught shapes the meaning we attribute to our experience. At the same time we continuously change our language to fit our experience.

The difference between the dictionary and the Bible is that the dictionary is a living work in process; it reflects the constantly changing meanings we attribute to the words we create. The Bible, on the other hand, is the final word. But then, God did not write the dictionary.

A student of mine once said to a fellow classmate, “The Bible speaks dead language, as dead as it can be. First it killed the infidels and now it's killing thee.”

Sometimes words appear to take on a life of their own, and let me tell you, we have a bully on the block. The word 'faith' is shoving the word 'trust' out of the neighborhood. There are no shots fired, and there are no broken bones. The bullying is subtle, coercive, political, subversive, and insidious.

Faith and trust used to share equal status in our language. Older dictionaries clearly differentiate between these words. The word faith was used to describe how a belief is accepted without evidence, and the word trust was used to describe how a belief is accepted based on probabilities and evidence. Newer dictionaries blur these distinctions and today's thesaurus suggests that the words mean essentially the same thing.

The word "faith" is a powerful bully.
Theists use it to discredit atheists and scientists.

In the current political climate it is forbidden to criticize the bully faith. Recent polls indicate that atheists are the most hated minority in our country. Why? Because we don't have faith and we don't accept faith's baggage, religion. Faith good. Doubt bad. Trust, a useless word, rendered impotent by faith and with it respect for atheists has been kicked out of the realm of probabilities.

As faith gained status as a good buzzword used by politicians, mainstream Americans began rolling it off their tongues as automatically as they say under god in the pledge. Unfortunately, the faith and trust words are used interchangeably by nearly everyone, even by atheists.

Recently I heard a friend of mine, an atheist, say, “I have faith in my son. He is a good person.” I have no doubt that this friend trusts his son based on evidence and probabilities, but the word faith rolled off his tongue quite casually.

'Faith' is a powerful bully that theists use to discredit atheists. A seemingly harmless little word is used to deceive and control. School board members accuse scientists of having faith in evolution. In one step, with one little word, they position evolution and creationism/intelligent design in the same science classroom, each having equal status.

I cringe whenever I hear someone say, “I have no faith in our current administration.” We have plenty of evidence upon which to base our lack of trust, and the probabilities indicate they will continue to operate in the corrupt manner to which they have become accustomed. Faith has nothing to do with it.

There are atheists who would like to clean up our image as the most hated minority in the country. They say, “Look, we're not so different from you good people of faith. We believe in some of the same things you do”. Saying stuff like that has theists jumping up down, pointing fingers, and saying gocha. “See you do have faith, and atheism is just a different religion.” In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, “We don't get no respect.”

Of course atheists have beliefs. What atheists don't have is faith.

How do we hold some beliefs without knowing? First we must carefully separate the Siamese twin words named believing and knowing.

I know and I believe the cars have stopped at the red light and allowed me to cross the street safely only after I have reached the other side of the street unharmed. I believe without knowing the cars will stop and allow me to cross safely based on probabilities. It's trust, not faith that gets me from one side of the street to the other. Faith requires neither probabilities nor evidence.

I trust certain people based on their track record or on their reputation. I don't know that my husband will never cheat on me. I believe that he won't because experience tells me he is a person who honors his commitments, a person who understands the risks of STD's, and he has a 30-year track record for being true to his marriage vows. I do not have faith in my husband, I trust him.

For an atheist, belief is the acceptance that a statement is probably true. We cannot know that a statement is actually true without concrete evidence or until after the event.

While the word "faith" has become the bully on the block,
agnostic is the disingenuous wimp.

While the word faith has become the bully on the block, agnostic is the disingenuous wimp. Thomas Huxley did us no favors when he coined the word agnostic because a useless concept has been given status and power it doesn't deserve. Gnostic means knowing. Agnostic means not knowing, plain and simple. The Gnostics claimed they had secret knowledge about the supernatural. Huxley claimed to have no such knowledge. The Gnostics claimed to have knowledge and hinted at evidence to support their claim, but nobody has ever produced such evidence. That is unless Dan Brown's fiction about Mary Magdalene being the pregnant wife of Jesus turns out to be true. Still there is no evidence that Jesus was god in the first place. Knowledge of a supernatural can only be claimed through belief without evidence, faith.

When asked, “Do you 'believe' in God?” in my opinion, those who answer, “I'm agnostic,” wimp out. They are disingenuous; they don't answer the question as asked, or perhaps they are simply ignorant about the formal meaning of the word and its concept.

The question is; do you believe in God? Not, do you know God? They are being asked if they have faith; do they believe something for which there is no evidence.

When asked, “Do you believe in Thor?” most people, theists and atheists, answer, “No”. We don't have a word for not knowing Thor because, nobody knows Thor, and nobody claims to know Thor. There is no evidence, and the probabilities of Thor's existence are nil. The same is true for God. Who knows God? Nobody knows God. There is no evidence to date. In that sense, everybody is agnostic regardless of what they claim to know. The word is useless.

Nobody knows god... everybody is agnostic,
if they're honest. The word is useless.

Theists honestly say it like it is. Belief in God requires faith. A word that clearly differentiates between believers in God and those who do not believe in God is atheist. The preface a means not. For example, an atheist is not a theist. Theists believe there is a God, without evidence. Atheists do not believe without evidence. Contrary to what some claim, atheists are not against theism. If and when there is evidence to support the claim that there is a god, atheists will trust the evidence and believe there is a supernatural.

There's a difference between believing something exists and believing something is valuable, something to be achieved. Of course we good atheists believe in all the good moral stuff good people of faith believe in, freedom, love, loyalty, justice, charity, etc. These are values we embrace, something positive to be achieved. We do not believe in God, gods, fairies, ghosts, heaven, hell, or being coerced into good behavior out of fear.

I like to think an atheist is a person who believes in telling the truth and taking responsibility for our deeds, both the good and the bad.

Sometimes we make mistakes by believing something because we reason there will be a positive outcome based on evidence and probabilities. Sometimes we call the shots wrong and we lose. Cars sometimes hit people, even when they cross with the light. However, acting on faith (without evidence) is always a mistake even when we get lucky and the outcome is the one we were seeking.

Reason is a sticky wicket of a word. Richard Dawkins and other scientists use the word reason as a noun meaning the antithesis, the opposite or the antonym of superstition, delusion and religion, eg., unfounded conclusions based on faulty evidence. I've checked dictionaries and thesauruses and to date, I can't find an antonym for superstition or religion listed. Perhaps if the word is used frequently, and in prominent places, as a noun and the meaning attributed is the antithesis of religion and superstition, it might find a home in the company of antonyms in future versions of those reference sources.

In the mean time, however reason, or reasoning, the verb, is commonly used to represent thinking, problem solving, and making meaning. In the verb sense, many religious people reason as well as the most knowledgeable atheist. Nobody could fault Collins for his inability to reason. The problem is that his reasoning begins with faulty premises. Once you accept the premise that life has meaning, you reason that you can find the meaning. Once you accept the groundless premise that God created the universe, once you take that leap of faith, anything goes. “Why couldn't He have worked miracles? Why couldn't He have given us a road map?”

Reasoning can take us down a slippery slope. Alister McGrath states in “The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World”, “The belief that there is no God is just as much a matter of faith as the belief that there is a God.” McGrath reasons, “If “faith” is defined as “belief lying beyond proof”, both Christianity and atheism are faiths.” Therefore atheism is a religion.

Yes, and atheists have faith in evolution. Boggles the mind, doesn't it? I guess some folks reason that you can have it both ways.

Atheists would do well to take a lesson
from scientists and engineers.

Atheists would do well to take a lesson from scientists and engineers who would not think of communicating with each other about a theory or a bridge without coming as close as possible to a precise definition of terms that is agreed upon by all who participate in the conversation.

Trust and faith are legitimate words.
We should learn to differentiate between them.

Trust is a good word. We should use it. Agnostic is a useless word. We should dump it. Knowing and believing are not Siamese twins. Believing something exists or something is true is different from believing in something valuable, something to be achieved. Reasoning, the verb, should begin with premises that are probably true based on evidence.

However muffled, muted and mocking they are, words are still the best tools we posses if we want to understand and be understood, to live and let live in some measure of harmony with other human beings. Let's hope we can come close enough for all practical purposes.

 —M. LaCourt    
Secular Nation      
A publication of Atheist Alliance International      
Volume 11, Number 4      

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Marilyn LaCourt

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