Friday, January 07, 2005

Religious language

Just some thoughts on the role of religious language in politics. (Taken from a comment I posted on DailyKOS.)

I am very strongly in favor of separating church and state. When it comes to the 'supernatural', I'm not sure how to describe what I believe. However, I have always found the language of Christianity, or at least the parts of Christianity I was brought up with, to be an excellent means of describing what I believe with regard to morals, my responsibilities and how a person should act. We Democrats have been too unwilling to even tolerate religious language in political discussions and that is a mistake. For many people, religious language is just the natural language of moral and ethical discourse. It is primarily used as metaphor for understanding ethical issues. The religious language is not used to require that you believe exactly as they do to discuss the issue or even to accept their conclusions. To put it another way, for many people the use of religious language is not unlike the way you might use Tolkein's LOTR to illustrate some issue of morals or ethics. In that example you do not expect the other person to 'believe' in Middle Earth. It is true that in the case of people using religious language the person doing so most likely 'believes' in the religion in a way you don't with regard to Middle Earth. Nonetheless, it is often the case that person using the religious language is primarily trying to get across some moral or ethical concept, wether or not you believe in the underlying religion and it is sufficient for you to respect the metaphor and respond to the metaphor.

Another very important point comes in regard to religion and how it relates to the 'reality based' and 'fantasy based' communities. In my opinion the major debate going on today is between these two concepts. For those of us based in reality, evidence comes first then conclusions, for the fantasy based folks it's the other way around. The reality based version has brought us science and prosperity and longevity and the fantasy based method has been uniformly disastrous throughout history. There is also a division between the religious and the non-religious. It is however a huge mistake to think that the two divisions overlap exactly. There are plenty of religious people who are reality based and also a goodly number of secularists who are fantasy based. For a long time many secular folks have made the enormous mistake of talking as if all religious folks must be irrational and fantasy based. This is wrong and has been a major help in getting far too many of the religious folks support people like Bush. We need to stop making this mistake.

One last thing, as this is already quite long, about the use of religious language. There is another reason to make greater use of it that has nothing directly to do with religion. People often expect to here things using certain terms or metaphors and give greater regard to any statement made in the 'correct' form over one made in another way. I came across an example of this in a forum that had nothing to do with religion when I once met Walter Alvarez (he of 'asteroid impact killed the dinosaurs' fame). The importance of using some particular phrasing came up in his efforts to convince physicists in the validity of his theory. Now you need to understand that, for whatever reason, we physicists do not say that one thing is ten times greater than another, we say that it is "an order of magnitude" greater. I'm not sure why we do this, but we do. Walter stated that "physic sits did not start taking my theory seriously, until I stopped saying factors of ten, and started saying orders of magnitude." Now, I think it's clear that this is not a religious thing, but simply an idea sounds more serious to a physicist if you use the phrase "orders of magnitude". Likewise, to many people claims about the nature of ethics or morals sound more serious if you use the correct religious terminology and metaphors.

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