Faithful to Science

blog on science and religion

Changing the meaning of words

[image: text from 1984 by George Orwell]

The most effective way to gag an opponent is to refuse to listen to him/her, and then, within your own community, to redefine the words he/she uses. George Orwell illustrated this with great perception and power in his book, 1984, shown above.

No one is currently trying to say things like “freedom is slavery”, but a contemporary example of an attempt to change the meaning of an important word is the attempt to redefine the word “faith” to mean “belief without reasonable evidential basis”. In other words to define it as delusion or wishful thinking. I mention this here because I have now seen that nasty redefinition taken for granted not just in populist rhetoric but even in some academic philosophy. This is a clear example of a word with a perfectly good etymological basis in trust and loyalty, and which certainly does not and never did mean assent without a reasonable case based in evidence, now being forced into a very different meaning. I say very different, because it makes the difference between sense and nonsense.

I have presented reflections on what faith is in several previous posts:

  1. faithful to science talk
  2. letter to new scientist (Humpty Dumpty)
  3. faith and reason

Faith, like trust, is not and never has been about belief without evidence. It is, though, a form of belief in which the moral attractiveness of the thing believed is a large part of the reason to buy into it. That is not wishful thinking but the recognition of the good, and the wish to ally oneself with the good. Abstract analysis of physical evidence is not absent, and metaphysical coherence is not absent. But I will admit that abstract analysis does not do most of the work for most people. And of course, the case for Christian discipleship is not proven beyond doubt. It is reasonable to believe it, that’s all.

When I say ‘Christian discipleship’ here I don’t mean all of the modern forms of belief that claim to be ‘Christian’; I just mean those of them that do a fair job of reacting with good sense and a humble, generous spirit to what we learn from the origins of the movement and the better parts of it that have grown up since then.

The fact that faith in Christ is not about belief without evidence is clearly indicated both by past practice and by contemporary behaviour. For those who take the trouble to follow it through, there is a reasonable case based in evidence that the larger reality that supports us all is essentially trustworthy. There is a reasonable case that that larger reality is like someone who goes about encouraging and teasing out the best aspects of people, helping with their painful difficulties, objecting to their wilfully bad aspects, and receiving the effects of our ill-will without returning it. That is what Christ said and acted out; that is what faith in him is largely about. There is, admittedly, a horrible component of Christian (and other) history in which “faith” is turned into something other than this, something more like membership of a club. However there is also a central and well-attested tradition of Christian efforts to offer reasons to believe the sketch I have just given. In fact just about every follower of Christ that was capable with words has tried to articulate his or her reasons for faith. The four accounts called gospels in the Bible are largely exactly that.

So the fact that faith is not about absence of reason and evidence is demonstrable and well-attested.

So why the modern attempt to redefine the word? Is this coming from an interest in clear speech and fair appraisal? No. It is a tactic in a political agenda. It is an attempt to make it possible for people to dismiss large parts of what others care about, by muddying the waters, by making people not understand what others say. Worse, the insistent abuse of language can create a situation where “our” people don’t just remain ignorant of what those “others” are saying, but do so unawares. Members of a community can thus become in fact ignorant while being also confident that they are well-informed.  In their ignorance, they may take up a political or even a violent struggle to suppress the thing that they are ignorantly ignorant about.

This is why it matters to object to the redefinition of valuable words.

I think that I am not here making unjustified accusations. I judge that the example I have given is fair. One ought not to let attempts to silence reasonable people go unchallenged—especially attempts that stoop to the nasty tactic of taking away their very language.

Postscript

I once attended a Joan Baez concert in Oxford. She sang a variety of songs, mostly using the standard aids such as instrumental accompaniment and a microphone and amplifiers. But for one song she simply stood at the front of the stage and sang, unaccompanied, with no microphone. Just the unsupported human voice. It was unforgettable:

Oh freedom, oh freedom,
Oh freedom over me

freedom-550x358

2 Comments

  1. Excellent exposition, thank you. I find myself in complete agreement – after all words are not just vehicles of meaning but power tools – tools that can be used to inform and guide but also to oppress and control. In an society where many sincerely believe they have created themselves and are their own gods it is rather convenient. Some of supposedly serious ‘literature’ on the subject displaying breathtaking ignorance, as for example mentioned in this discussion between Taylor and Sachs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RV2fDNVb1sc

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