Sunday, June 01, 2008

In One's Own Words

Anyone who reads this blog regularly is aware of my frequent commenters, all of whom I’d like to think are friends — not just of mine, but, for the most part, of one another’s. Yet, we argue about ideas all the time. We do it in our blog posts, in our comments, in our emails to one another. Some of us do it weekly on Another Goddamned Podcast (shameless plug), or even on the telephone. In fact, I can’t think of any two atheists I know, in the Atheosphere or in real life, who haven’t disagreed with each other about philosophy at least once.

Interestingly, though, we all employ the same simple skill when arguing for our particular views: We state our positions in our own words.

Now, this should not be a remarkable situation. Every state in the union has educational standards for its public school students requiring that kids as young as 3rd-graders be able to paraphrase and/or summarize written and heard material in their own words. Being able to restate concepts, facts, and details in your own words shows that you actually understand what you’re talking about. On the other hand, not being able to put someone else’s thought into your own words shows that you really don’t get it.

An interesting phenomenon that comes up again and again, over and over, on the Web and in the world, is the incapability of many Christians to say, plainly, clearly, and in their own words exactly what they believe about this or that. To be absolutely fair, I’ll assert right here that I’m not talking about all Christians. I’m not even comfortable saying that my observation applies to most Christians, although I think it does. But it certainly fits many Christians that I’ve come across. When pinned down, they just can’t articulate their beliefs.

Their inability is indicative of an intellectual emptiness in the religious world view. The thin ice upon which religious beliefs are built will crack when put under the weight of any extra words needed to clarify them. So theists, unable or unwilling to add to the load (of whatever you choose to call it) retreat into using those words that are already available to them, i.e., quotations from the bible and citations of religious “thinkers” throughout history.

Most believers have never been challenged to explain in their own words how their faith works and what it means. I’m not talking about meaning in the emotional sense, as in “what it means to me.” I’m talking about meaning in the pure dictionary sense: Explain this idea, define it, describe it in your own words.

By and large, they can’t do it. Take away their ability to parrot phrases from the bible and other “authorities,” and they’re left speechless. They retreat hastily from a conversation or debate whenever they’re put on the spot to dig into their store of language and find their own words to elucidate what they “know.”

It’s not unreasonable to infer that those who can’t explain what they claim to know, actually know nothing.


Sarge said...


In my exoerience with such people I have often come away thinking that they simply cannot explain such things with articulation because this isn't they way they "experience" it. If they do, it's something that's been pre chewed by someone else who has "intellectualised" it and put out for dissemination. Never their own words.

From my upbringing (Southern Baptist, but I remained unconvinced since age five)) I've heard people try to discribe their "experience" who hadn't the vocabulary in the first place, and others who simply don't have a way that is relateable.

Frankly, though, the more understandable comments remind me of how I try to explain a temporal lobe seizure and it's sensations when I'm asked.

I wonder if that's where their "god" actually lives...

The Exterminator said...

Well, I'll be damned if it isn't Sarge! Hey, it's good to have you back up and around.

I agree that their god lives only in their own misfiring brains. Check that. Make it "minds" because "brains" has too strong a connotation.

Frank DN said...

Salvation being the big emphasis of christianity that it supposedly is, you would think your average christian could tell you everything you need to know about getting saved. Not so. Leading someone down the path of salvation usually means get them to come to church so the pastor can explain it to them. While this is mainly laziness of most christians (that theological stuff is just so darn hard!) a lot of it is because the bible is so vague. There's nothing clear about how to get saved.

the chaplain said...

Really, Ex! Why should Christians be expected to articulate theological ideas in their own words when YHWH (or was it Elohim?) Himself perfectly inspired the original scriptures? Attempts to go beyond what God himself, or His direct spokesperson, says or implies or obfuscates frequently verge on, and even cross over into, heresy. I'm shocked, shocked, that you don't understand this!

Besides, some daring writers and scholars (Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Tillich, et al) tried to clarify and explain the scriptures - in their own words - and the strangest thing happened: they couldn't agree on what God had said! If they couldn't get it right (or at least all but one of them - but they certainly can't all be right) what do you think would happen if ordinary Christian folks, who lack the intellects of Augustine, et al, began diddling with God's own words? Mass confusion would abound! Then you'd have all sorts of competing sects rising up and breaking away from the doctrinal and liturgical mainstream. No one would know who was right, but everyone would be sure that everyone else but him or her was wrong. That would be chaos, chaos, I say! You wouldn't want that, would you?

The Exterminator said...

There's nothing clear about how to get saved.
So you're saying that it's impossible for Christians to put their religion's ideas in their own words because the ideas, themselves, are incomprehensible? I agree with that.

Did you write that comment yourself, or are you just quoting that et al. person again?

Frank DN said...

There was a pastor I knew who had been in the business for 51 years (I would have been 2 years old when he got started) who was fond of saying that he believed in the trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and all that sort of thing but don't ask him to explain it. He freely admitted that he didn't understand it but that he believed it because the bible said so. I never understood how you could make something your life's work for 51 years and still not understand how it worked. So, yeah, incomprehensible is the right word.

ozatheist said...

I never understood how you could make something your life's work for 51 years and still not understand how it worked
I've worked in electronics for 30 years and I still don't understand the half of it. When I was learning valve theory my instructor said "don't try and understand it, just know that it works"
Then again electronics has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, unlike religion.

A very good point, I have heard a few religious people try and explain it, but they still use common phrases that the other religious people use.

a truer word in jest has never been said

C. L. Hanson said...

The podcast sounds like fun. I would listen to it, but I'm not really set up for podcasts, neither on the recording or listening end. I agree that you and your commenters are fun to argue with. ;^)

In unrelated plug news, are you planning on doing Stermies this month? Not that I'm thinking I'll win one, just wondering if I should wait for that before posting my carnival roundup for this week...

The Exterminator said...

I can't imagine living in a self-imposed fog for 51 years. Talk about incomprehensible.

I've worked in electronics for 30 years and I still don't understand the half of it.
But I'll bet that if I asked you to explain the half of it you do understand, you'd be able to phrase your answer in your own words.

Well, thanks for thinking of me before doing your roundup, but, actually, the Stermies are on indefinite hiatus. You never know, though. They might return with a super-gala installment at any time.

iambilly said...

Sarge: Good to here from you again.

Ex: I tend to fall back on the same couple two-t'ree explanations for Christian behaviour and debating. My explanation for the inability to articulate an argument in their own words is fear of believing the wrong thing.

As I have said before, Christianity is based on the idea that you must believe exactly the right thing about exactly the right things or you go to hell. All these instructions for what you are supposed to believe are in the Bible (and the explanations provided by authority figures explaining what it actually meant to mean). Independent thinking is frowned upon, and the recieved wisdom is good for all arguments for all eternity.

Thus, many Christians, when faced with questions that, to any rational person, would bring up questions that God doesn't want asked, fall back on either their version of scripture (and there are many, many versions) or the recieved wisdom of authority figures such as Dobson, Falwell or Dobbie the House Elf. If they use the argument provided through recieved wisdom, the believer is in no danger of offending God through the sin of free-thought and going to hell.

I have no idea if this is right or not, but it makes sense to me. Either that, or they're just a bunch of ignorant gits.

PhillyChief said...

I think they look at it like "cool". If you try to define cool, or try to be cool, you ain't cool. It's also the old Apple Jacks argument...
Parent: What's up with you kids and your Apple Jacks? They don't even taste like apples!
Kids: You don't get it

The Exterminator said...

You could make your parent-kid argument about communion wafers, too.

Non-Christian: What's up with you Christians and your "body of Christ"? It doesn't even taste like meat.
Christian: You don't get it.
Non-Christian: Then explain it to me. In your own words.
Christian: You don't get it.
Non-Christian: Well, I already said I don't get it. Teach me sumpin'.
Christian: You don't get it. AND you're being abusive. So I'm leaving this conversation.

PhillyChief said...

"How can I explain it to you when you're obviously too dumb to get it"
"Why should I bother trying to explain it to you when you're clearly unwilling to get it"
or my favorite:
"You're not worth the trouble"

John Evo said...

Welcome back, Sarge. Hope you are feeling better. Hang in there!

Ex, that last dialog sounds awfully familiar....

Sarge said...

Thanks, everyone, for the welcome back, glad to be here.

Got to looking through my music library, old hymns and Sunday school songs, very interesting lyrics to some of them. Really makes one wonder about the mental state of the author.

I remember an old song from bible school: "I'm inside, outside, upside, downright happy all the time..."

Even as a kid that sounded quite bizzare

John Evo said...

Sarge said:
I remember an old song from bible school: "I'm inside, outside, upside, downright happy all the time..."

Even as a kid that sounded quite bizzare.

Sounds fine. If written by a hippy in the 60s while high on acid!

Hey Ex - maybe Christians need a room of their own?

cl said...

Not a bad post at all, although I think that the particular empty-headedness of any particular believer is indicative of intellectual deficiencies related to that person and not necessarily their belief system. That some atheists are also blatantly anti-intellectual indicates this point. Take, for example, the striking differences between the eloquent and gently persuasive musings of Russell against the utterly anti-intellectual rants of David Mills, who uses the words 'creationist' and 'atheist' ad nauseum. I don't judge atheism by folks like the latter, just as I don't judge religion on its handling by non-intellectuals.

PhillyChief said...

Yes, but the religion doesn't encourage intellectual inquiry. It in fact has a poor record on that, especially when that inquiry challenges dogma. Be that as it may, yes, if someone can't explain what the heck they believe or why they believe it, the ultimate responsibility for that failure lies with the person.

The Exterminator said...

I think that the particular empty-headedness of any particular believer is indicative of intellectual deficiencies related to that person and not necessarily their belief system.
Well, I'd say that anyone who buys into the Christian belief system is intellectually deficient. Granted, some are stupider than others. But religious faith requires ignorance, by definition. To have such faith, one must trust in things that one doesn't know and can't know. The intellect is concerned with knowing; faith is concerned with unknowing.

Ubi Dubium said...

And even if you were never able to explain electronics in your own words, you'd still be able to produce a circuit that works. That you could test. Even if valve theory is hard, at least we never have to take it on faith whether a valve is working!

When I was a teen I used to volunteer to help teach bible school music (sorry). I have tried really hard to forget every one of those stupid songs. But somehow I remember that one. Ugh. I think there were hand motions with it too. They'd use anything to reinforce the lesson of empty-headedness on the children. I will NEVER teach that song to my kids.

the chaplain said...

Ubi Dubium said: I have tried really hard to forget every one of those stupid songs. But somehow I remember that one. Ugh. I think there were hand motions with it too.

There were: pointing inward toward one's chest, pointing outward, pointing up and pointing down - very creative, I know. :)

yunshui said...

Idly re-reading this post got me thinking (and the key word in that sentence was "idly", so don't expect a well thought out or even coherent argument here...). Sometimes, in trying to answer a theological question, I do find myself reverting to the words (or at least a paraphrase) of other atheists. Richard Carrier, Ebonmuse, Greta Christina, Richard Dawkins, The Chaplain, Spanish Inquisitor, Christopher Hitchens, hell, even the author of this very blog, and more besides - all have phrased various arguments in ways that I do not think I can improve upon, and so I use their words (correctly referenced, of course...) Granted, their arguments are ones I can understand, and could perhaps concoct myself if one of the philosophers mentioned above hadn't got there first, but I'm still not technically using my own thought processes to create my position.

I suppose my question is this. Given that I'm not in these instances arguing in my own words, does this make me a Christian? Or just a naughty atheist?

Footnote: apologies to the above-mentioned for the lack of links, I plead tiredness and lack of time.

PhillyChief said...

Important words are "Granted, their arguments are ones I can understand, and could perhaps concoct myself if one of the philosophers mentioned above hadn't got there first"

No worries. The problem really lies in having to defend what you cite, which requires understanding of what you cite, and being capable of expressing that citation in your own words requires understanding of the citation, assuming of course that you correctly put it in your own words. I could say that the theory of relativity means we're all related. That's using my own words, but sadly not showing understanding of what the theory of relativity is.

This lack of actual understanding of what you argue for is one of many frustrating affronts to the standards for proper discussion and debate. Throwing out links and quotes alone is not holding up your side of the discussion.

yunshui said...


Can I quote you on that?

The Exterminator said...

Philly's right about quoting; it's OK if you can defend, in your own words, what you cite.

Look, we all love to take interesting phrases that we've encountered and then try them out on our own tongues or under our own fingers. That's not the point. The point is that quoting from Greta Christina, Richard Carrier, SI, or Ebonmuse, gives the quoter no imagined authority -- as quoting from the bible does within the Christian world. If, in a heated conversation, you trot out something chappy, or PhillyChief, or the Exterminator said, the person against whom you're debating would probably ask, "Who the fuck is that idiot? And what are you talking about?" Clearly, you'd be challenged to explain and defend the ideas you'd cited. And you could, in your own words.

But Christians are under the impression that intoning nonsense from the bible automatically dresses their words and ideas in some kind of invincibility cloak. They don't have to think, because they're trotting out language that has gotten the imprimatur either directly or indirectly from on high: I'm god, and I approved this message. They don't expect to be challenged, so they respond either smugly or woundedly if someone does dare to question the authority of their citations.

So go ahead and quote me and any of those other heathens all you want. But don't act surprised if someone asks you to paraphrase and summarize. And be prepared to do so.

bullet said...

Nigflot blorny quando floon.

(((Billy))) said...

Ex: For a perfect example of this, check out (shamelss plug division of (((Billy))) The Atheist). I think he is incapable of writing a complete paragraph on his own.