Sunday, April 11, 2010

Apparently I Can't Say It. You'll Have To Read It To Understand.

I came across this article today discussing a professor's monograph on the subject of "language fraud" perpetrated by atheists. The gist of the article is summed up in the following two paragraphs from it:

"USM Professor Emeritus Clayton Sullivan levels two arguments at atheism.

First, it is impossible for the human mind to think about that which does not exist (the non-existent). Atheists deny God’s existence and then curiously launch into extensive discussions about God.

Second, Sullivan states that atheists reveal their ignorance of grammar.

“They don’t understand what a noun is,” Sullivan said. “To be meaningful a noun must have a referent (a denotation) to a person, place or thing. On the lips of an atheist the term God has no referent. No denotation. Thus, the word is meaningless. A language fraud.”

He does also throw in the tired argument that it's impossible to disprove the existence of anything, but that's an aside. Honestly, if that's what it's come to for the apologist crowd, it's time to come up with some new beliefs. Any fair discussion of the existence of gods cannot include such a deceptive argument. But on to the other two points...

I've come across several versions of this argument in my brief career as a heathen. My friend Maria loves to call me out when I utter exclamations like "oh my god" or "lord help us". Her point being that I can't profess to not believe in something then invoke that same something in my language. To do so is to admit belief in it.

I've also had several people try the argument that I can't argue that I don't believe something if I invoke that something in my argument for disbelief. That's a lot like what the learned professor is arguing in his second point above.

At the risk of sounding like a novice in this area, let me give you my thoughts on these two points.

First, as to the notion that "it is impossible for the human mind to think about that which does not exist", I don't understand how anyone could make that argument in good conscience. Perhaps we can't think accurately about that which does not exist, but clearly we have a remarkable capacity for dwelling expansively on things which don't exist. What about Zeus and the whole panel of gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome. What about dragons and elves and Santa Claus. Maybe I'm missing something here, but it seems to me that our IMAGINATION makes it exactly possible for the human mind to think about that which does not exist. Perhaps I need to read his paper to understand the nuances of this argument.

Let's continue to the second challenge he offers. Bear in mind that terms like noun and grammar are just sounds we create to express certain ideas. They are not natural laws or physical laws that prove or disprove an argument. It's fine to argue that the use of certain words or ideas violate our rules for those words, but it says nothing about the argument we are invoking the words for. In other words, even if he is accurate saying we misuse the term "god" in arguing against his existence, it says nothing about whether god exists. Right here, it's time for the apologist to set this whole argument aside as a proof for god.

One other point I would raise to counter his thesis. We are all born into this world of people, places and ideas. We didn't create them but we do have to live with them. One of the ideas that exists in our world is that there is a god outside our sensory capacity who runs things. What that looks like is different for each god posited. Again, that idea existed before we got here. We have no choice but to interact in a world with that notion. Our cultures and societies are saturated with the various expressions and nuances of that belief system. When someone decides to reject an idea or belief in the world they live in, they have no other way to express that rejection than to invoke it in their argument. If that violates some language specialist's idea of the proper use of a noun,'s just irrelevant to the important question of whether that "noun" exists.

When we "launch into extensive discussions about god", it's because that's the only way we can, in this world, in this structure, debate the salient issue of his existence. What other way is their to challenge the idea of something existing without invoking the name and attributes attached to that something?

Further, when I say things like "oh my god", it's ridiculous to suggest that this figure of speech, while it may have found it's origin in the belief in a god, has anything to do or say about whether I believe in him. To sing a song about Santa doesn't require a belief in Santa. Perhaps for the longer term, it is a good idea for me to eliminate such phrases from my language, but again it says nada, zip, zilch, about whether that thing exists.

I'll tell you what Professor, as soon as you can bring some empirical evidence to the table for the existence of (that which cannot be named), I'll apologize for violating the technical definition of the term "noun".

I'm sorry, but I think his entire argument amounts to a weak, water-muddying, effort to provide the intellectually lazy, faithful, with ammunition. In fact, it all ultimately acts as proof against his first argument. Apparently we (he) can indeed think about something which doesn't exist. In this case, a decent argument.