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Meditation 115
Is Religious Discourse Possible?

by JT

After all, when you come right down to it, how many people speak the same language even when they speak the same language? Russell Hoban

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Since I started this effort nearly eight years ago, I have had innumerable messages from people wanting to convince me I am wrong. I have replied to nearly all of them, the exceptions being the occasional false address. And, some individuals have chosen to continue the correspondence over a few weeks.

In general, I find that in this correspondence we are not exchanging ideas. Rather we are just talking past each other. The underlying reason is that we are not using the same definitions. We give words different meanings. This means we may think we are communicating, but we are not.

Consider Talk Back 29 from Nicky. She "knows" God exists. And how does she know? Through faith.

Her understanding of knowledge is clearly different from mine. My view of knowledge is that it has to be based on objective evidence. And faith is subjective, not objective. I differentiate knowledge and belief. Nicky combines the two concepts. If we used words the same way, then perhaps she would not be taking issue with me.

As another example, consider what Mark Richardson has to say in Talk Back 28, in which he states it is possible to be both an agnostic and an atheist. Now I do understand it is possible to be both an agnostic and atheist, provided you accept the concept of "weak atheism." I don't happen to like that expansion of the definition of atheism, but it's something I can live with. So usually when someone claims they are both agnostic and atheist, I can understand where they are coming from.

But Mark is different. He defines atheism not in terms of (dis)belief, but in terms of practice. He claims that being an atheist means he does not worship gods. His whole argument depends on using a definition of atheism which I have never heard before, and appears in no dictionary I am aware of.

Using his definition, it would be possible to demonstrate that a non-practicing, yet believing, Christian (or follower of any other religion) could also be an atheist.

Arbitrarily redefining words does not facilitate communication.

And then there is the all too frequent correspondent who misunderstands the way I use the term apathetic in the context of this web site. That is, I am apathetic about precisely the same thing I am agnostic about; the existence of a deity. And they persist in insisting I must be apathetic about something wider than that simple issue. The latest example is Mike Sechler in Ask the Patriarch 26. And in spite of the fact I explained to him just how I was using apathetic, he wrote back expanding it beyond the limited sense.

These are just three examples from the past month. All three wrote addressing issues raised on this site, but, in addressing them, they all used words differently from the way I used them. I'm sure they all did so innocently, not deliberately trying to obfuscate the issue at hand. But, by doing so, they made their arguments irrelevant to the issue they wished to address.

Can individuals of different religious views exchange meaningful opinions on religion.?

I'm beginning to doubt it.