Sunday, November 12, 2006

A few words on the word

What do the views of Richard Dawkins and Elton John have in common? In my view, they are both confused about the meanings of some common words. In Mr. Dawkins' case, the word is God (pun intended) and in Mr John's case, the word is religion.

Last night after reading to my son and putting him to bed I clicked on the TV and surfed around until I came across Richard Dawkins on C-SPAN polemicizing about God, to be accurate he was polemicizing about his understanding thereof. God, according to Mr. Dawkins' book The God Delusion, almost certainly does not exist.

This morning, via the Drudge Report I see that Elton John thinks that all religions should be banned because they promote hatred of gays.

If I agreed with the currently accepted in the mass media definitions of the words, God and religion, I would agree with the two views, but I do not.

Vaclev Havel, former President of Czechoslovakia, offers some insight into the problem in an essay, A Word about Words:

Words can have histories too.

There was a time, for instance, when, for whole generations of the downtrodden and oppressed, the word "socialism" was a mesmerizing synonym for a just world, a time when, for the ideal expressed in that word, people were capable of sacrificing years and years of their lives, and even those very lives. I don't know about your country, but in mine, that particular word-"socialism"-was transformed long ago into an ordinary truncheon used by certain cynical, monied bureaucrats to bludgeon their liberal-minded fellow citizens from morning until night, labeling them "enemies of socialism" and "antisocialist forces." It's a fact: in my country, for ages now, that word has been no more than an incantation to be avoided if one does not wish to appear suspect.

Indeed, words have histories and the two words I'm opining on today have long histories. One can easily substitute the word "God" or "religion", or in my country, "conservativism" into the paragraph above in place of "socialism" and see how the understood meaning of a word can change over time, although as Plato might remind, the true meaning remains, waiting to be discovered by those willing to leave the cave of consensus.

Mr. Dawkins is not a theologist. His education was in the field of evolutionary biology. Had Hitler managed to conquer the world, I suspect the effects of his eugenics program would likely have imbued the word "evolution" with fairly nasty connotations. Yet this, in my view, would not change the meaning of Darwin's work, the shift would have been in the general understanding of "evolution".

To cite a less charged example, consider the word, glamorous. Most modern western women would love to be called glamorous. Yet the meaning of the word, as listed in a dictionary is: An air of compelling charm, romance, and excitement, especially when delusively alluring; Archaic A magic spell; enchantment.

In other words, a glamorous woman is a woman who looks nice with makeup but looks much worse without. This recalls jokes from my frat boy days of taking a woman to bed and then waking up with an entirely different woman. How did it happen? She wore a glamour or spell which faded.

If one explained the above meaning to a woman and then called her glamorous she would likely not respond nearly as well as she would have if she was only aware of the conventional meaning and connotation.

It is at the conventional meaning of the words, "God" and "religion" that Mr. Dawkins and Mr. John rail. But instead of arguing that the conventional wisdom is wrong, they try to attack the words themselves, which creates some delicious irony.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John 1:1

Both Bible passages quoted above speak to the notion of God as the word, in its abstract sense.

Words like "light" and "dark" allow awakened humans minds to mentally separate the two conditions, and to speak of them with other similarly awakened minds. Words like "earth" and "sea" allow those minds to further distinguish the phenomena of experience.

Words are the basis of all human conception, without them it seems to me that human reason would be of relatively little avail. It is through the word that man can access the collective wisdom (and folly) of the experience of billions over millennia.

Yet, in order to work properly, man needs to hold words in high regard. He must, for instance believe that the pen truly is mightier than the sword. Taking words for granted, abusing them, confusing them and distorting their meanings can have cataclysmic effects. The difference between modern man and savages is world view- a world view based on words. Dark Ages are one of the most significant prices man pays for a fall out with the word.

Considered that way, Mr. Dawkins written polemic on God seems quite ironic. Here is a man using words, in most cases, quite skillfully, in my view, to argue, admittedly unknowingly, against the very principle that gives them meaning. If Mr. Dawkins doesn't believe in God, he should stop talking and writing. Get it?

But he does believe in God. There he stood at a podium hoping to use words to persuade people to his view. Is he not giving a sermon? Does he not assume when he puts symbols on a page or makes sounds with his mouth that those symbols or sounds will evoke complex ideas in the minds of readers and listeners? That is faith in the word- in God. I think he could retitle his book The God Confusion.

Elton John, following in the footsteps of, inter alios, Ayn Rand, thinks religion is bad. Yet, what is religion but an organized set of beliefs, values and practices. How, I wonder, would one go about banning religions, without imposing a set of beliefs, values and practices? Prohibitions, whether persuasively or coercively enforced, flow from beliefs and values. Thus Elton John, like Ayn Rand, didn't want to ban religion per se, they simply wanted one more to their liking.

In Ms. Rand's case, she succeeded with Objectivism. No doubt she would have protested if one referred to Objectivism as a religion, but that is because that word had come to acquire a pejorative sense in her mind. Yet, Objectivism was a way to think about about and act within the universe, i.e. a religion. In the event, the organized belief structure of Objectivism suffered through the same problems other organized faiths have evidenced.

Man will always be man, doomed to be like a child wandering into the middle of a movie desperately trying to figure out what is going on. The key which unlocks those secrets is the word working in the minds of men.

p.s. A littel further into the Book Of Genesis, there is a famous little story about the dangers of eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Here's an interpretation (note I did not write THE interpretation).

Once one starts reacting to the positive or negative connotations of words instead of their true meaning, one dies spiritually, i.e. you stop thinking.

Food for thought