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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

More and more, I find people trying to use linguistics to prove arguments. They don't care about the meaning of words, or their history. Only the face value of them, ignoring everything else. Failing to understand that language is not science. It changes according to our whims, while science is steadfast. One can't prove they are correct simply because their opponent misspoke. That's... insane.

April 12, 2010 at 4:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across your website after watching the documentary about your family and doing some research. As an Atheist who is passionate about science and very troubled with the damage that religion can and does do in the world, I am so heartened to read your blog. It is thoughtful and well written. Keep writing.

April 13, 2010 at 6:11 PM  
Anonymous william said...

Hello Nate,

Both of the professor's statements are nonarguments. They're active attempts to avoid argument, appealing to the notion of 'you aren't qualified to discuss this so I don't have to answer you.' While this is a valid appeal to make (I don't take the arguments of a racist about geopolitics seriously), she is of course using it improperly.

So don't worry, there are others who disagree with this kind of idiocy as much as you do. As a student in English and Philosophy, I can say with assurance that her arguments wouldn't hold up in Logic 101, let alone any major arena of rational discourse. Their day is passing.


April 14, 2010 at 9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This professor is just being way too cute. One obvious flaw in his reasoning is that words have multiple meanings: 'god' can mean his own idea of god, or 'god' can mean your idea of his god. To clarify: in his mind, the word 'god' may mean the immortal, omniscient, omnipotent being whom he worships. In your mind, the word 'god' may mean the fantasy which other men have created in their own image, etc. But when he accuses you of using a word that is meaningless unless it references his own definition, he's missing the point: you are using the word to reference not his definition, but your own.

But even my explanation is tiresome; his argument irritates me.


April 17, 2010 at 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my mind, Logic and Reason are the biggest obstacles faced by most organized religions which is why they must steer away from these intellectual tools (or use them incorrectly).

Thanks for providing another really interesting example of this, Nate.

Keep writing.

Calgary, AB.

April 21, 2010 at 9:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My goodness is this tired game of semantics still taking place?

They might as well chuck "faith" into the ring as well if they are looking for an old argument to hie behind.

April 21, 2010 at 10:27 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

So, we can't think of anything that doesn't exist?! I'm going to have to call the library and tell them to get rid of all that pesky "fiction!"

April 26, 2010 at 7:35 PM  
Anonymous Ivy Gooch said...

I have had people try to tell me that saying 'oh my god' means I believe in god as well, and it is seriously the most bogus argument that anyone could make. I am glad to see someone else reject this thought.

April 28, 2010 at 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


As an openly gay male who has followed the Westboro antics since I first saw a news story about them protesting Heath Ledger's funeral for "promoting the filthy sin of sodomy" in Brokeback Mountain, I have to say what a fresh breath of air it has been to see that some of the Phelps children were able to break free from the life of misery imposed by a disturbed Fred Sr. I used to watch videos and reports about the protests and get so angry at the poison they sputter off, and the mean nature in which they do it (especially Margie and Shirley). After reading the accounts of what growing up in that family is really like, however, I actually feel extremely sympathetic for you and your siblings for the years of physical and mental abuse you endured. Know that while you may be estranged from most of your immediate family, you have the support from millions of outraged Americans who are fed up with Westboro's nonsense. You are an inspiration and I thank you so much for sharing your side of this heartbreaking story.

May 4, 2010 at 7:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Nate,

I just came across your website today. Great stuff!



May 5, 2010 at 1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nate, I was wondering if you would respond/explain how you feel about the stories CNN prints concerning the church and your family. It must be difficult for you, but I was just curious how you handle it all. Thanks. -Anna

May 7, 2010 at 3:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a language arts teacher, I would correct that definition of a noun. A noun is a person, place, thing, QUALITY or IDEA. So, we can indeed think about things that do not yet exist as persons or places, and are simply a non-physical kind of thing.

Theists create many of their own problems. If they want to convince the world that their god is the SUPREME god and is completely GOOD, they should ALL be able to agree that he can't make anything that isn't good. Therefore, he can't fail to love it and therefore he cannot hate one and love another. I would think that if there is a sumpreme god, then only man can reject him, like we turn off a light, and not this god reject man.

But, that does leave the question of why a good god lets us suffer. It could only be good if it's good for us in some way.

It would also leave the question of how a supremely good god could create something that isn't good, or if we are good, why we do what isn't good, i.e., "turn off the light."

That would be something to think on.

May 8, 2010 at 11:25 AM  
Blogger karl said...

The idea that you are talking goes back to the arbitrary as understood by Objectivisim. There is no way to prove a negative and there are an infinite number of arbitrary positions that don't have any positive testable evidence.

Thus there is no reason to waste time debating arbitrary claims - life is to short to go after an infinity of anything.

May 22, 2010 at 8:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"There is no way to prove a negative and there are an infinite number of arbitrary positions that don't have any positive testable evidence."

That's exactly what atheism is: a negative! As you said, you cannot prove there is no God and life is to short to live in infinity without him.

Reason suggests an intellect.

May 26, 2010 at 4:54 PM  
Blogger Frimmy said...

Hey Nate =) "Oh my god" is not used to invoke the divine being by most believers, either. It's simply an idiom or it has become so. Letting the cat out of the bag has nothing to do with bagged cats. There. Now I'm using linguistics to argue my point too.


May 31, 2010 at 5:17 PM  
Anonymous Random Lurker said...

Just my two cents. Profanity is an excellent indicator of the culture you grew up in. It is a useless indicator of your current beliefs.

Also, I read "that which does not exist" to mean thinking about the absence of something, not thinking about something fictional. Not that his statement makes any more sense that way. Humans are just as good at imagining what the world might be like without something as with it.

June 1, 2010 at 4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I need to address the noun piece of the article. Just because one person stops believing in a certain person, place or thing does not mean that the word assigned to that person, place or thing ceases to be a noun. A noun is a function of our language system. If I decide today that Paris doesn't exist, my belief doesn't remove the word Paris from my knowledge nor does it change the state of the word. To communicate, we use words that are understood by the majority of people. If an atheist talks about god , he/she is doing so in order to allow other people to understand what he/she is saying. There is a collective understanding of what god means-there may be many interpretations of god but overall one can immediately understand the context of the discussion. That's all.

June 12, 2010 at 1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you had to suffer.
I hope that you can achieve your dream, and wake up each day without fear.

July 10, 2010 at 7:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try "Oh my dog!" It works well if you are a pooch owner. For me, I have more faith in my dog than any god man has created.

July 19, 2010 at 8:30 PM  
Blogger Cinefreak said...

Nate, you are a very talented writer and I hope you do more of it. I really enjoy your blog. Keep it up and congrats on the appointment.

July 31, 2010 at 6:35 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...


I heard your interview on Rosie Radio and I drove around for the rest of the interview so I could hear it all. It was very inspirational, to say the least. I am amazed that you were able to survive such horrible verbal and physical abuse, since so many people become so emotionally crippled afterwards. I was raised in an very rigid evangelical home and my mother was very mentally ill. Mental illness and extreme religion is such a horrible, horrible combo, especially for children growing up around that. Thank god we don't stay children forever. Or, thank dog. ;)

Anyway, I wish you the absolute best and hope that you keep speaking and keep writing!


August 28, 2010 at 12:06 PM  
Blogger joe said...

Nate, I was raised in an atheist family, so your background is quite mysterious to me, but you are obviously very intelligent and thoughtful, which makes me suspect that your father is probably also intelligent. He must be an abuse victim himself, he has to be...

August 29, 2010 at 10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first time was 'introduced' to your father, was on a television special regarding the WBC. Apparently my mom knew him from Columba, MD. I wanted to express my condolences on the death of your grandmother. Apparently the two were very close.

October 1, 2010 at 8:06 PM  
Blogger dpoe said...

hi, nate!
i got a lot out of this, but i have to say i enjoyed the comments and responses to your writing(s) as much. you do topeka proud, in my opinion. thanks.

October 6, 2010 at 8:50 PM  
Blogger PzkwVIb said...

Isn't this just a rehashing of the Saint Anselm's "Ontological Proof of God"? A basic philosophy course clearly shows the error in that.

December 9, 2010 at 2:51 PM  
Blogger ratm911 said...

This always seems to be the case when apologists argue their case against Atheists. When backed into a corner they try different tactics, albeit not very effective ones, but the do try & I mean try, because all of them (nt just limiting that to apologists)resort to the very same counterpoints.

1. Scare Tactics/Pascal's Wager - Just throw in with god/heaven, what's to lose? Childish way of arguing for your POV, in any kind of argument. The slimiest in my opinion.

2. By stating or claiming facts or polls that have been conducted. But when researched can easily be seen as politically or religiously biased. - This is very sneaky. It's so easy to throw a statistic out there without having to say Who, Where, When & How many ppl took the poll. The so called facts they claim usually come about from the very small percentage of scientists who refute evolution & identify themselves as Christians or creationists. The % is about 3% to 5% of these scientists.

3. The 'god did it' circle argument - Usually last resort & comes about in different forms. They refute science claims, then we ask a question like How do you know then? 'Because the bible is the truth.' Or 'If god exists who made god?'...'god has always been'. Very simplistic & easily picked up on.

For examples on these listen or watch any of Dinesh d'Souza debates with Atheists.

Anyway I also wanted to comment, what does correcting someones grammar have to do with a religious debate? I hope this trend don't catch on as a legit argument for apologists, lol. Are we talking about belief & unbelief or are we in 6th period advanced English again?

Another thing I thought it, while ignorant but also king of funny for him to say "We can't think of things which don't exist". Really? How? What evidence is shown for this? If this is the case, how has man throughout its history ever written stories, novels, or written on cave walls. How have we ever made movies, or plays. Painted pictures or done anything else creative? Alot of movies, stories, etc dont really exist. So really I am in awe of this comment.

January 24, 2011 at 1:55 AM  
Blogger uzza said...

Just wow. I'm a trained linguist, and I can't make any sense of Sullivan at all. It's just stupid.

Nate, OTOH, FTW. That last sentence is a classic.

January 26, 2011 at 10:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, for real?! So if I talk about unicorns, they suddenly have to be real? If I call myself the Queen of England, I will be? Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!

Thank you, sir, for bringing the smack down where it is so richly deserved.

March 2, 2011 at 3:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Besides, when you hit your thumb with an eight-pound hammer it's nice to be able to blaspheme. It takes a very special and strong-minded kind of atheist to jump up and down with their hand clasped under their other armpit and shout, 'Oh, random-fluctuations-in-the-space-time-continuum!' or 'Aaargh, primitive-and-out-moded-concept on a crutch!'"

-- "Men at Arms", Terry Pratchett (Discworld series)

also, I found this when I was looking for the Pratchett quote -- when you say Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, are you professing belief in the Norse gods Woden, Thor or Freya?


March 3, 2011 at 11:00 AM  
Blogger Little Green Penguin said...

Wow, even I can tear those arguments apart.

He's making the same mistake that people who think an ontological argument is valid make: confusing existence with an object's attributes. The idea of an object is not the object (and it if were, your head would explode the first time you thought of anything substantially larger than an apple. Since an idea is a thing, we can speak of it. When we say "Yahweh doesn't exist," we mean "There is no instance in the world outside your ideas of the being that corresponds to the concept you call Yahweh."

Is he really this dense?

March 12, 2011 at 8:18 PM  
Anonymous Em said...

I guess he's never heard of such thing as the imagination because by that logic, Unicorns and Leprechauns and other mythical creatures MUST exist, simply because we have words about them and can talk about them. And also by that logic, the Gods or higher powers of other religions MUST exist simply because discuss them and are supposedly incapable of thinking about things that do not exist. And also by that logic, all fictional movies (animation included) must actually be documentaries, because nobody could think up stories about aliens and monsters if they didn't actually exist. That's probably one of the poorest arguments for God existing that I've EVER heard.

March 22, 2011 at 2:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Nate. Just found your blog. I had no idea there were members of the Phelps family who actually escaped, let alone have come to the side of freedom and reason like you. Congratulations, I'm very happy for you!

I like your writing. You appear to really listen to your correspondents and try to understand their argument, and then give a clear, comprehensive and eloquent response. Very good, and all too rare unfortunately.

About the strange arguments of this "professor" and your friend, they're as easy to refute as to say that that would mean you could not have a discussion about the Easter Bunny, and if he could, then that would show that he must believe in its existence!

May 16, 2011 at 1:43 PM  
Anonymous Rikki Hughes said...

Re: Anonymous who wrote: "That's exactly what atheism is: a negative! As you said, you cannot prove there is no God and life is to short to live in infinity without him."

I'm tired of hearing people claim their belief in God mostly because "I'm afraid of what might happen if I'm wrong". If there's a god, I hope he's not holding a gun to our heads.

ps: If there's a Heaven, it's not where I would want to be if the Phelps' are there...for an eternity. That would be Hell.

June 4, 2011 at 9:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this article! I say 'Holy Shit' all the time yet as a Christian I don't really think of shit as holy...I'm also confused as to why we need to argue about whether or not my God, or anyone else's exist.To me, it's the same as loving the color pink. I love it, I wear it and have some in my house because it pleases me. I don't go around telling people that they should love pink too and I would not appreciate it if they told me I should hate it. My hope is by wearing a little pink sometimes, someone will see it and think, 'hmm, that is a nice color' and maybe try it themselves someday or at the very least not have bad feelings for all shades of pink. Having said that, I must confess that I am an ELCA Lutheran and no one listens to us anymore :)

September 25, 2012 at 9:19 AM  
Blogger App said...

In grammar school I learned that a noun is a person, place, thing, or IDEA. An idea doesn't have to be true to exist.

March 19, 2013 at 7:03 AM  

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