Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Misuse of Terms by Moderate and Liberal Supernatural Believers

Looking over the articles on my blogs to date, I think it is safe to say that I have focused my articles on the ideas of what some would call "Conservative Christianity".  I would admit doing so has been unfair.  Certainly, those who would contemporarily be described as "Moderate" or "Liberal" Christians/theists/supernaturalists make their own erroneous claims and conclusions.

Perhaps the most common mistake I see moderate/liberal supernaturalists make is their manipulation and misuse of terms.  As I have been an Atheist for a long time, I am beginning to see these kind of believers do these things in an attempt to hold onto, modify, or "fit" an old belief structure into a new one, which typically seem to come from greater education or the realization of old beliefs contradicting new beliefs which are more accurate.  I also see this as a common step some theists go through on their way to Atheism.

For example, I have heard more than one person say that since "god is love" and since they believe in love, they therefore believe in god.  This attempt at Aristotelian syllogistic logic is quite flawed.  The person is equating god with love, however people understand "god" to be much more than "love" and I would bet the person who makes such statements does as well.  I have little doubt this person thinks of god as possessing some kind of sentience, even if they hold a deistic view of god.  They may also see god as the "cause" for the universe.  This is much more than just love.  Anyway, we already have a word for love.  That word is "love" and we do not need a second which would in no way be different than the first.

Another statement I have heard people say is that "I'm spiritual, not religious".  This statement is quite vague, to say the least.  While this statement clearly means many different things to many different people, I know for some people, this statement means that the person holds onto some supernatural beliefs while not being a formal follower of a particular religion, religious denomination, or religious sect.  In other words, the person seems to be asserting that they hold supernatural beliefs that are individualistic.  I think it is fair to say that this person may not be the type of person who likes the idea of having an authority figure tell them what to believe.

Despite this, the word "spirituality" derives from the word "spirit".  To date, there is no evidence whatsoever that people have a "spirit" or "soul".  These are ancient concepts used by primative people to explain animation.  There is as much evidence for "souls" as there is for Atlantis. Yet the description of people as being "spiritual" often means moral or good.  I have been called a "spiritual" person by people who didn't know I was an Atheist.  I'm curious what they would say if I told them I was an Atheist, but I have never said this to a person who has called me spiritual.  The bottom line is that the word "spiritual" is very vague; so much so that it is almost nonsensical.  I think other words could be put in its place which would be much clearer.

Terms from contemporary physics and other fields of science have been hijacked by New Age pseudoscientists like Deepak Chopra.  So called "quantum healing" and "energy healing" are used by people who are nothing more than modern day snake oil salesmen.  It is clear that these people either are not being intellectually honest or they do not understand basic scientific concepts, such as falsifiability and operational definitions.

We hear the term "energy" being thrown around a lot today, referring to what is called "qi" or "ch'i" in ancient and modern day Chinese culture.  Throughout history there have been different definitions of qi.  The definition I will focus on in this part of the article is "life energy" or "life force".  I think it is true that if people assert things frequently, people will come to believe the assertions are true, even without proof.  People may be surprised to hear this, but there is presently no evidence or proof whatsoever that such "energy" exists.  People have tried to prove that such energy exists, but all have failed.  The assertion that such "life energy" exists is as equally true as the assertion that two headed, cigar smoking unicorns exist.

The term "quantum" from the scientific field of physics is probably the most misused scientific term today.  The word "quantum" refers to quantum mechanics, which is "a set of scientific principles describing the known behavior of energy and matter that predominate at the atomic scale" (wikipedia).  It has nothing to do with healing.  As the definition says, it describes the behaivor of microparticles.  Yet charlatans like Chopra use this and other scientific words in ways never intended to spin a web of gibberish, which sounds interesting, but makes no valid sense.

In conclusion, there really is no difference between the reasonable and logical mistakes that "conservative Christians" make and those that more "liberal" and "moderate" supernaturalists/Christians make.  Both make assertions without offering any proof of what they are talking about.  Each group might as well be talking about and discussing mermaids living on Neptune.


  1. "... I think it is fair to say that this person may not be the type of person who likes the idea of having an authority figure tell them what to believe..."

    I'd agree with this statement. My mother doesn't go to church or read the bible and says that it's a person's 'relationship' with Jesus that matters, not their belonging to any particular denomination, she gets offended and upset at being called religious, and most of her talk about her faith is about the holy spirit and about people's spirits (pure or impure, etc). She calls herself spiritual.

    I really think that the reason she doesn't go to church is because she doesn't like being challenged on her beliefs and behaviour, doesn't like being subject to anyone's authority (pastor/husband/even her boss at work). Certainly when I've tried to talk to her about faith issues (which she's always bringing up despite my having let her know I'm not interested), when I've pointed out where she's being inconsistent in her thinking or disregarding Christian scripture her response/defense has always been to burst into tears and tell me I'll never understand because I'm hard-herated and arrogant. There's just no talking to her.

  2. LiminalD:

    Isn't it interesting how people deny being "religious", yet hold religious beliefs? I find that sort of fascinating.

    I was also interested in your description of your mother's reaction to your responses. Religious people have been taught that it is absolutely appropriate to play the "hurt feelings card". I'm so proud of Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens pointing out what kind of nonsense this is and that if Atheism is ever going to grow, we have to directly challenge that response from Christians.

    Now please understand, I'm not telling you to push your mother. She's your mother after all. But for others, I think it is perfectly acceptable to do a kind of meta-observation of the process which occurs when you talk to a theist, by pointing out the absurdity of playing the hurt feelings card.

    Of course you aren't being hard hearted or arrogant by what you are saying. She is just playing that card because you've effectively and validly boxed her in with her own belief system. Another card that gets played by theists at this point is anger. In my experience, discussions like these often end with the theists either becoming angry or sad and then shutting down and/or walking away.

    I understand you're saying your mother starts these things. You know her better than me, so it would be foolish of me to make a recommendation. As a rule of thumb though, she is your mom so be nice. Anyone else, flay them alive when they assert nonsense. :) (That last bit was humourous exaggeration, theists.)

  3. My mother uses the anger card when I challenge her religious beliefs. Of course, she gets all offended and says that "Christianity is not a religion. It's a personal relationship with God and Jesus." I got into it with her in July last year. Because she automatically turns to angry Christian fundamentalist, I have to keep my distance from her. I live about 300 miles away, and I only call once every few months. She is also homophobic, and has used her religion to perpetuate her homophobia towards my younger brother, who is gay. All while proclaiming to be spiritual.

  4. The great two headed, cigar smoking unicorn is very upset with you now. If you manipulate the quantum probability wave function you can effectively cleanse your chakras and remove the offending post before you actually post it.
    Makes sense right?

  5. ThatAtheistChick:

    I'm sorry to hear of your strained relationship with your mother. You may be interested in reading the article I wrote titled "Homosexuality and the Bible". Usually I'd recommend thinking about not bringing up the topic of religion with such a family member, however, depending on how she treats your younger brother, I could see how remaining quiet on your end could be difficult.

    I wish you the best.

  6. Gambler's Anonymous (GA) includes in their literature a definition of spirituality as being "those characteristics of the human mind that represent the highest and finest qualities such as kindness, generosity, honesty and humility". Like the peak of Maslow's hierarchy, these are the things that make us human, and guide us to be better people, for ourselves and for society as a whole.

    I don't think this definition has anything to do with religion, although people frequently use religion as a path to spirituality, and many people, perhaps yourself included, conflate the two quite a bit.

    I would argue that the "spirit" is a natural part of who we are as humans, and that religions were invented as way to explain it using supernatural agents and devices, like the "soul".