Category Archives: Semantics

I am a Christian

“I am a Christian,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Benjamin Rush.

To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.

Was Jefferson a Christian? Discuss.

You may say, “It depends on what you mean by ‘Christian’,” but it doesn’t. Was Jefferson a Christian? The truth depends on historical facts about Jefferson and what he believed, not on contemporary facts about me and what I had in mind when I asked the question.

The meaning of a word depends on the conventions that govern its use.

I can use the word ‘Christian’ in an unconventional sense. But if I do, then until and unless my non-standard use of the word catches on and itself becomes part of the norm, there is a mismatch between what I say and what I mean. To take a different example, when Ayn Rand said that selfishness is a virtue, she did not mean what she said. (She said that selfishness is a virtue. But it’s not.) She did, however, say what she meant. (She meant that self-interest is a virtue. And it is.)

The conventions which govern our use of the word ‘Christian’ allow for more than one distinct sense of the word. For example, there are nominal Christians, cultural Christians, liberal Christians, fundamentalist Christians, practising Christians, denominational Christians, non-denominational Christians, and so on. But the conventions which govern our use of the word ‘Christian’ also determine a primary sense of the word.

Was Jefferson a real Christian? Discuss.

See that bird?

An excerpt from Richard Feynman’s What is Science?

Regarding this business about names and words, I would tell you another story. We used to go up to the Catskill Mountains for vacations. In New York, you go the Catskill Mountains for vacations. The poor husbands had to go to work during the week, but they would come rushing out for weekends and stay with their families. On the weekends, my father would take me for walks in the woods. He often took me for walks, and we learned all about nature, and so on, in the process. But the other children, friends of mine also wanted to go, and tried to get my father to take them. He didn’t want to, because he said I was more advanced. I’m not trying to tell you how to teach, because what my father was doing was with a class of just one student; if he had a class of more than one, he was incapable of doing it.

So we went alone for our walk in the woods. But mothers were very powerful in those day’s as they are now, and they convinced the other fathers that they had to take their own sons out for walks in the woods. So all fathers took all sons out for walks in the woods one Sunday afternoon. The next day, Monday, we were playing in the fields and this boy said to me, “See that bird standing on the stump there? What’s the name of it?”

I said, “I haven’t got the slightest idea.”

He said, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you much about science.”

I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn’t tell me anything about the bird. He taught me “See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird—you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way,” and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

Meditation in the Catskill Mountains

What is Science? was presented at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, in New York City (1966).

Atheism in the public square

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams wrote

Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!”

Positive Atheism tells us

This was not his reasoned opinion. Although John Adams often felt an urge to advocate atheism as a popular world view (because of the sheer abuses perpetrated by religious charlatans), he was of the firm and reasoned opinion (basically undisputed in his day) that religion is essential to the goal of keeping the masses in line.

Clearly, as Adams used the term, ‘atheism’ means “no religion”.

Jefferson famously said that

religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God

What of those who have no God? They have no religion. Jefferson also said

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual.

Atheism is the belief that there is no God. It implies non-belief that there is a God. Atheism, as understood by Jefferson, is not a religious belief.

John Lennon wrote a song in which he famously asks us to

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

By religion, Lennon means belief systems which include beliefs in the supernatural—God, Heaven, Hell, etc. His view is that we’d be better off in a world in which there was no God, i.e., one in which atheism was true. In such a world there would be “no religion” and “all the people living life in peace.”

Atheism, as understood by Lennon, is not a religion.

Once every 5 years, New Zealand citizens are required to participate in a census. One of the questions seeks to elicit the respondent’s “religious affiliation”. According to Wikipedia,

In the 2006 Census, 55.6 percent of the population identified themselves as Christians, while another 34.7 percent indicated that they had no religion

That’s right, there is a box to tick labeled ‘No religion’. There are no boxes to tick labeled ‘Atheist’ or ‘Humanist’ or ‘Objectivist’. There’s not even a box labeled ‘Jedi’.

Atheism, as understood by Statistics New Zealand, is not a religion.

Wikipedia’s has an entry titled Irreligion in New Zealand.

Irreligion —the absence of religious belief or affiliation— is an increasing trend in New Zealand. Although New Zealand has no established religion, Christianity has been the majority religious affiliation since European settlement in the 19th century. The trend toward irreligion may indicate increasing secularisation as well as a rise in non-institutional spiritual belief.

Atheism, as understood by (some) Wikipedia authors, is not a religion. It’s an irreligion!

The meaning (or meanings) of a word is determined by the conventions governing its use. What those conventions are is determined by the facts of usage. (See examples above.)

It is not conventional to call atheism a religion.

It is conventional to rebuke those who do. 😉

Lies, damned lies, and ‘religion’

To lie is to bear false witness. It is to make an untruthful statement intended to deceive.

Jesus says, “Do not bear false witness.” (KJV) Lying is wrong. But why? Jesus explains,

Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! (NIV)

Centuries later, the philosopher Immanuel Kant came up with a secular account of why it is wrong to lie which, it seems, Jesus had prefigured. In his essay On a Supposed Right to Lie from Philanthropy, Kant went so far as to claim that it would be wrong to lie to a would-be murderer even to save an innocent life.

Truthfulness in statements that one cannot avoid is a human being’s duty to everyone, however great the disadvantage to him or to another that may result from it… [I]f I falsify… I… do wrong in the most essential part of duty in general by such falsification… that is, I bring it about, as far as I can, that statements (declarations) in general are not believed, and so too that all rights which are based on contracts come to nothing and lose their force; and this is a wrong inflicted upon humanity generally… For [a lie] always harms another, even if not another individual, nevertheless humanity generally, inasmuch as it makes the source of right unusable.

Kant based his moral philosophy on a maxim he called the Categorical Imperative.

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.

You cannot will that the maxim, “Bear false witness,” become a universal law! If we all lied, all the time, then soon no one would believe a word that anyone said. After a while, no one would even hear what anyone said.

Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.

Talk would be ignored, like a background noise tuned out. Ultimately, we’d be struck dumb. No one would bother to say anything at all, even the truth, since no one would believe him.

Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!

To lie is not merely to commit a crime against he to whom the lie is told. It is to commit a crime against language itself. St. Augustine said

But every liar says the opposite of what he thinks in his heart, with purpose to deceive. Now it is evident that speech was given to man, not that men might therewith deceive one another, but that one man might make known his thoughts to another. To use speech, then, for the purpose of deception, and not for its appointed end, is a sin. Nor are we to suppose that there is any lie that is not a sin, because it is sometimes possible, by telling a lie, to do service to another.

Which brings me to my final point. Lying is an abuse of language. But it’s not the only one. The Biblical injunction, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” has its corollary in M. Hare’s maxim, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.” Words have meanings. To say what you mean, you must find the words that mean what you mean to say, and say them. Mean what you say, and say what you mean. Surreptitious redefinition is a species of pernicious redefinition. It, too, is an abuse of language.

Words and phrases have meanings. For example, Christianity is a belief system, a worldview, a way of life, an institution … and a religion. Secular humanism is a belief system, a worldview, a way of life, an institution … but not a religion. The word ‘religion’ is used to distinguish between creeds whose central doctrines include the reality of a god or gods, and those whose central doctrines do not, or which are explicitly atheistic.

Lie and, ultimately, language ceases to function. Use the term ‘religion’ to encompass secular creeds, customs and ideologies and, ultimately, ‘religion’ ceases to function. Pernicious redefinition is tantamount to lying. Dare I say it’s also akin to theft?! I used to be a “liberal”, until today’s liberals took the term ‘liberal’ unto themselves. Now I’m a libertarian. But for how much longer? How much time do I have before I morph into a traitorous idiot?

Ayn Rand was a libertarian and atheism is not a religion.

Copying is not theft

Copying is not theft and copyright is not a property right.

Here are some other things which aren’t theft.

  • Rape
  • Murder
  • Adultery
  • Perjury

And here are some other rights which aren’t property rights.

  • The right to life
  • The right to liberty
  • The right to the pursuit of happiness
  • The right to a fair trial

Copying is not theft and copyright is not a property right. It baffles me that so many libertarians (Objectivists, especially) don’t seem to get this. Perhaps it’s because anarchists release viral videos like this one which confound two distinct claims, viz., copying isn’t theft and copying is fun.

Copying isn’t theft, but neither is rape. And rape isn’t fun. So perhaps copying isn’t good, clean fun, either, even though it’s not theft.