That’s Just Your Interpretation!

“That’s just your interpretation!”  This objection to arguments either for or against religious assertions is bandied about by both religious skeptics and religious adherents who disagree on certain ideas — as if it actually means anything.  This objection carries some widely held presumptions.  Presumptions are not bad, per se, everyone’s worldview carries presumptions.  But when the presumptions themselves are invalid, the conclusions will also be invalid.

One of the most widely held presumptions held about religious texts is that there is an array of correct interpretations of a particular text.  It seems to be understood that because people honestly disagree about certain passages, that it somehow follows that no-one’s understanding is any more correct or incorrect.  It also implies that multiple conflicting interpretations have the same chance of being correct.  But what a passage means — in any written work really, even this one — is determined by the author, not the reader.  Just because people disagree, doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and say, ‘oh well’.  There are methods of determining the meaning of texts.

But because a text requires interpretation, that doesn’t mean it’s difficult to understand in the first place.  Case in point, I think the vast majority of people who may read this will have no trouble understanding the message I am trying to convey, but it is being interpreted.  This brings me to my second point.  I don’t think the vast majority of the Bible, for instance, is all too complicated to understand.  By this I’m not suggesting that I’m some brilliant scholar.  I mean, for the most part the Bible is written in plain language.  More often than not, the plain reading of the text is the correct one.  There are very few passages in the Bible which are truly difficult to determine the author’s intended understanding.  In these cases there may be more than one possible understanding, but ultimately, only one is correct.

When this is offered by religious adherents (even inter-faith discussions) towards one another, as misguided as it is, they are usually trying to reach a consensus.  But when skeptics offer it, it’s more often than not intended to shut down the discussion.  I try to not let it go unchallenged.  Ask the skeptic how they interpret the passage in question and how they know your interpretation is wrong.

There really is no substance to this objection.  It doesn’t refute anything, and it doesn’t prove anything.  They might as well note the weather outside.

Comments

  1. People have different interpretations of Plato’s Republic and the Poe’s short stories. There are right and wrong answers, but not to any great precision.
    It’s good that you support interpretation of scripture. Some people wave the Bible about as if everything is patently obvious and universally accepted by all adherents. There are wide diversions in practice and theory.
    It is good to emphasize the importance of interpreting scripture. I think the methodology of reading scripture with literary, historical, and cultural context compared to the reviews of others is a good system.
    The flaw comes in using the Bible alone and without question as literal or divine word. That’s what the skeptics have a problem with. Your ‘method’ reference, Matt Slick at CARM, talks about considering the author of Matt 24:40. Slick starts off all wrong, identifying the author of Matt 24:40 as Matt and the speaker as Jesus. The author was an unnamed writer in the late 1st century who never heard or even knew Jesus. At best, this is historical fiction with a general theme consistent with early Christian ideology.
    I’m sure you’ll disagree asserting instead that Matt was written contemporary to Jesus by Matt, but that’s not the point. I just want you to be accurate about a skeptic’s concerns. It doesn’t matter how diligently you interpret the Bible, you’re setting yourself up for failure by putting so much weight on a cobbled-together collection 1st and 2nd century writings all of which were written well after Jesus (assuming Jesus was a real person) had died. It’s an old piece of literature with only a tenuous relevance to modern ethics.
    It’s Christians that go on and on about how other Christians “interpret” things incorrectly. This article should be directed at other Christians, not at non-Christians and atheists.
    And I will say that the greatest danger here is for Biblical lessons of genocide, slavery, ignorance, misogyny, and general aversion to progress will be embraced by Christians. That would be to the detriment of modern global society, science, medicine, ethics, and civilization. Hopefully the Bible interpretations can lead to a loving, scientific, and progressive Christianity.

    • First, I’m not going to get into a discussion of Biblical authorship here, it’s not the place. I will be writing on Ehrman’s Forged in the near future and it can be picked up there. But I will say that just because the text of matthew does not reference the author’s name does not in any way mean the disciple Matthew did not write it. Scrolls often had an author identification tag affixed to the end of the scroll for easy identification on a shelf. You cannot just assert that the author of Matthew didn’t know or ever heard of Jesus, to do so is to argue from speculation and silence. There is no positive evidence for that claim. it can only be made by presuming late anonymous authorship.

      Your last paragraph is a good example of not taking into account historical and covenantal context when understanding the Bible and the distinctions between the Old and New Testaments.

      Surely, you can see that: “Hopefully the Bible interpretations can lead to a loving, scientific, and progressive Christianity” presumes the Bible’s message is not actually true, but only a story. As though the mere passage of time renders something false.

    • Additionally, this is relevantly addressed to skeptics. There is the “just your interpretation’ argument used when Christians rightfully point out the textual call to violence for Muslims in the Qu’ran, and the textual condemnation of it in the Bible. And every time a skeptic tries to apply the OT commands (given to Israel) to Christianity, they are publicly declaring they are ignorant of the distinctions between OT theocratic Israel as a Nation, and the NT Christian Church. And it is a willful intentional ignorance. As many times as it has been explained, it is still offered, because they know if there is a distinction, half of their complaints against Christianity are rendered irrelevant.

  2. As an atheist, I too dislike the “that’s just your opinion” argument and the argument that since many conflicting interpretations of a text exist then aspiring to understand a text is a waste of time. Good points.

    BTW, I did a diagram to help folks understand from when the various Bible translations we have today come from. You may enjoy it. Corrections welcome. I did it while I was trying to understand why different translations have different angles. This diagram does, however, illustrate the problem the significant challenge of coming up with a “true” understanding of the texts we have today.

    Interestingly, I am having similar discussions on Buddhist sites — their textual analysis scholar ship is still blossoming relative to Christian scholarship.

    Lastly, the links you supply which say, “There are methods of determining the meaning of texts.” Point at very simple methods which don’t acknowledge the difficulties of the source translation issues in my diagrams and of textual criticism techniques developed to analyze Christian, Greek, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and many other ancient text using the same rigor. I am sure you are very aware of them but the links seemed superficial and ignored the complexity of this issue — but then, you probably have covered that in a another post.

    • There is a difference between hermeneutics and textual criticism. TC determines what the original words of a document were using incomplete or conflicting sources. Hermeneutics determines what those words mean. So it is a much simpler discipline than textual criticism.

      • Hey, John, thanx for the note. Indeed, the distinction between TC and hermeneutics/exegesis is important. Another of my posts: http://triangulations.wordpress.com/2010/05/02/translations-from-the-ancients-to-us/ has a picture illustrating the process of putting ancient writings in lay hands and includes both TC and Hermeneutics. Feel free to stop in and tell me if you think I have made any errors. Notice that, as an buddhish [intentional ‘h’] atheist, I am quick to admit that EVERYONE has an agenda when translating or gathering texts — atheists and theists alike. As I said, I am kind of interested in the same process which occurs in Buddhist texts.

  3. People interprete such religiously “loaded” text as the Bible through many filters. What is typical to a person that holds a personal faith about the book is to claim they have the absolute truth about it. However, it is not a reliable interpretation when a person has allready decided what the scripture should say before he/she begins to study it. The problem here is that if one holds a particular faith about the text, that is what they will find from the text, even if they are honest to themselves. Hence, all religious interpretations of religious script are biased. Sorry, that is just how it goes.

    As we have no other contact from god, finding god from the old fairy tale requires preassumed faith or cultural indoctrination to the possibility of finding a god from the given book. Or very ambient imagination combined to very limited knowledge of the surrounding world. Of course, fear of death might also help.

    From outsider perspective (as I am an atheist in third generation) any religious interpretation of scripture holds just as much plausibility. They all seem as eclective. Though I must confess, the ones that do not promote violence or accept it, are more compelling.

    • @ Rautakyy

      “Hence, all religious interpretations of religious script are biased.”

      I think you will agree that everyone of us has biases — religious or otherwise. So all translations are loaded with bias. It is the nature of the beast. I think the key is to not lock down a text with the “Sanctity Stamp” (as you alude) which says we [the Church] know the truth — no more questioning — no more doubting our bias and filters.

      But certainly a non-religious persons translations will be peppered with their biases and ignorance also.

      • I think I notice a bit of a hinderence here. I think the terms “translation” and “interpretation” are being used interchangably, and they shouldn’t be. A translation is like turning the Spanish word “rojo” into the English word “red”. Interpretation is what we use to determine what “red” is and what the author means when they use the word “red”.

        Second, just because someone is biased does not mean they are incapable of performing a task without corruption. For example, Rautakyy, you are biased against the supernatural. You will never find acceptable a supernatural explanation for anything. In that sense you are extremely biased. Should I then not trust any explanation of an event you give me because are biased?

        On the other hand, I as a theist have at my disposal natural and supernatural explanations. I can go where the evidence leads, and not rule out any explanation before even looking. And if you think there is nothing wrong with that, please read what I have written HERE

        @Sabio — the last comment you posted, the link was incomplete. copy and repost it and I will delete the old one, or email me the full link and I will fix it.

        • @ John
          I essentially agree with you.
          As medicine progresses, we are continually revamping methods for weighing, gathering and calculating evidence. It is a tricky business. But recognizing bias (who pays for a study, political affiliations etc) is now required as revealed up front in studies published in quality journals. That is because, sure, as you say, a biased person can still produce reliable information but we need to check it from all angles because that bias increases the probability that they may not. The history of weighing evidence shows us that “probability” needs always be respected.

        • BTW, John, in all your writings, have you ever wrestled with the word “supernatural” — it is a tough concept which is used all too flippantly by both atheists and theists. It is a little slipperier than I first imagined years ago.

          Interestingly, I recently read a NYT (sorry, liberal rag) article questioning “naturalism” which you may enjoy.

          For if we can’t pin down “naturalism”, “supernaturalism” is also a problem.

        • you have to interpret before you translate

          and it’s more difficult to translate concepts and abstractions than names for objects

          language is a reflection of the time period it’s used in – so translating texts centuries later, becomes challenging

  4. Yes, Sabio Lantz, you are absolutely right. I also hold bias. But there is bias and there is faith. I have no faith in supernatural (the meaning of the word as used by John Barron Jr… I think). However, faith is bias in the extreme. As it assumes somethin exists regardless of evidence. I have actually said before in one of these comments to the “Truth in Religion and Politics” (a very good change of blog name, by the way John) I have no way of determining if supernatural actually exists, but it seems highly unlikely to me. Therefore I could just as well be called a pagan as an atheist.

    The tricky thing about holy scriptures is that the supernatural entities in them evade leaving any evidence of themselves. We can verify some of the historical stories in them, but the fancifull parts hang only on faith. But if someone holds faith that this scripture is meant to mean this or that, it is a question of faith. The truth is not about counting noses, as our gracious host John Barron Jr once pointed out, but if a religion is to be examined as an ideology, should it not hold any weight how most people who think they are following that religion percieve it? What have they achieved during the centuries the said religion has existed and what has been their interpretation of it along the centuries? Could their interpretation simply be dismissed as wrong? Most adherents of religions can not evaluate their religion or the teachings of it. Most people simply have no time to evaluate religions or compare them. They can only be asked to evaluate their actions according to the common ethics, not by morals of any particular religion or culture. However, many religions are ready accept all these people into eternal pain and suffering in the alledged afterlife.

  5. certainly a challenge in understanding what any given text means is made more difficult when the text is written in ancient languages and the cultural context of the text is absent.

    What people read in their bibles now are someone else’s translations – and there are many many many different versions of the bible.

    so you have original individual texts from various early sects

    which where then selected, edited and compiled into a larger work

    which was then translated, edited with a new cultural context added in at the translation stage

    to modern readings of texts that have gone through multiple translations and different time period’s cultural context and agendas

    being read as infallable by people with not a lot of understanding or awareness of the history of the text, how many hands it went through between it’s original writing and their present day reading.

    the reality is, that everything that any of us says is our opinion and interpretation – even this response

    so I agree with you in that any person saying “That’s your interpretation” isn’t a valid comment, since anything any of us says is that – so stating the obvious is nothing more than stating the obvious – it’s not a rebuttal, it’s not an argument and it’s not at all relevant.

    After all, “That’s your interpretation” is an equally valid comment to reply to “That’s you’re interpretation” – so saying that, is worse than saying nothing, it’s a non-starter and it’s non-productive and hardly insightful.

    • There is zero evidence of editing and progressive translation as you suggest. The Dan Brown line of reasoning is fiction. When they translated the KJV for example, They translated from greek manuscripts. And when they translated the NIV, NASB, they didn’t use the KJV to do it. They use the manuscripts. So I don’t even know where skeptics like you get your information from.

  6. Indeed, as my diagram illustrates, NIV used Alexandrian Text types while the KJV used Erasmus’ collation of certain Byzantine Text-types. Those differences in text-types is important.

    John, I notice you haven’t really commented much on anything I have written in the comments. Is there a reason? Are you only looking for certain types of atheists or certain types of discussions?

    • If I am ignoring someone I’ll always say why. While at work I am limited in how indepth I can respond (from my phone). And I have a habit of forgeting to respond to a specific point I wanted to once I get home and settled.

      But when obstreperous skeptics make the charge that the texts were edited and translated over time, they arent speaking about Byzantine, Alexandrian, etc. They are talking about versions, either not understanding that all different versions are, are differently worded translations of usually the same manuscript family. As opposed to starting with the KJV, and then retranslating the NIV from the KJV. The average atheist believes the Dan Brown version of the compilation of the Biblical texts and church history. But unfortunately, they wont hear of any correction.

      I dont think there is much controversy in defining naturalism. And I’m not so skeptical to believe that certainty on one definition prohibits working within a general framework but specific enough to form opinions and convictions. So even if I felt I had trouble pinning down naturalism, I could still operate with an understanding of supernatural.

      What I think I find the most amusing is how Rautakyy chides religious bias, but brags about being 3rd generation atheist. Wouldnt he call someone making the same statement, but in the religious way, indoctrination and bias? Talk about double standards! I think one of the biggest hurdles between atheists and theists, is atheists (generally) do not in any sense believe they are biased. They believe their view is correct by default, requires no investigation or defense. They just know the truth and everything must compute within the atheistic worldview or its just not true. But in fact, a theist can accept where ever the evidence leads. Either natural or supernatural. And that doesnt mean events are supernatural until proven to be natural, which is what a lot of atheists think is how theists operate.

  7. The average atheist believes the Dan Brown version of the compilation of the Biblical texts

    I can agree with much of what you criticize on this blog. But when you generalize about skeptics or atheists, you lower yourself to demagoguery and loose credibility to me (not as if it matters). The above is such an example. Why not just say “some atheists”. I try not to generalize about theists on my site — it is tough, but worth the effort, I feel.

    But you are right, many atheist want to argue the bible but they really don’t know it so they run away scared calling names or just saying “Theism is Stupid”. Likewise, many creationists theists want to argue science until the going gets tough and run away name calling too.

    It is like we all, for the simple sake of winning an argument rather than seeking understanding, overextend ourselves and then sacrifice both reason and dignity in pathetic attempts to save face which no one cares for anyway. It is pathetic.

    Concerning the supernatural. I recently had a debate with a very bright theist about miracles. I said that I think most theists think about miracles as breaking the laws of nature. He disagreed. What do you think. Is a miracle a disruption of the laws of nature?

    • You’re right, I should have said “some”. Unfortunately, my own experience is that more atheists have repeated Danbrownery than have not. And that colors some of my comments. However, had this been a post and not a comment, I can assure you I would have added the qualifier “some” or “in my own experience”. I am a little more careful when it is a post.

      About miracles? I dont know if I would classify them as a breaking. The laws of nature are not prescriptive. Gravity, for example loosely would dictate a feather dropped from say 6 feet from the ground will fall to the ground…unless it is acted upon from an outside agent or event, such as a person blowing underneath it to keep it afloat. Obviously, that doesnt “break the laws of nature” and I would say neither do miracles. They do not break, its more of a disruption. I’m not opposed to a miracle “breaking” the laws of nature, per se, I just don’t happen to think that’s the case. However, miracles by definition are extremely rare, and are of supernatural origin. I also think by definition, miracles are unmistakably of supernatural origin. For example, me being almost hit by a car in an intersection, but I dropped my keys just before crossing and so I didnt get hit, may be divine providence, but it is not a miracle. I think the description “miracle” is over used in Christianity, and other religions.

      • Yes, sounds like you disagree with my Calvinist friend — he would count “disrupt” in with “break” as similar enough — as do I. Interesting conversation. But again, we’d have to talk about particulars to be useful. But thanks for playing along.

  8. What I think I find the most amusing is how Rautakyy chides religious bias, but brags about being 3rd generation atheist. Wouldnt he call someone making the same statement, but in the religious way, indoctrination and bias?

    Yeah, I found that sort of odd too. I am an ex-Christian. Many atheists actually pride themselves in never having had any “stupid, silly, religious beliefs”. I write against these folks. In my experience, they have their own unique set of blinders — self-righteous blinders, ironically.

    I am not sure of what the last part of your comment meant. I think I’d have to see a concrete discussion about some purported event.

    • Ok, I’ll give you an exaggerated silly example of what I mean, then a serious one.

      Say I am walking down the street and right before my eyes, as well as a group of hundreds of onlookers, a man in the middle of the sidewalk strips naked, “unzips” his skin, and out comes a full size horse which dozens of the witnesses ride, feed and groom the horse. Then the horse stands up on its hind legs, unzips its fur and out comes a school bus, and a dozen or so people get on the bus and drive into town. I have access to a natural explanation for this event, or a supernatural explanation. Atheists (naturalists) are required to have a natural explanation. So they will be required to somehow figure out a way that the event never took place, because outside of a divine miracle, no such thing can happen. Even though the evidence, i.e., witnesses, video perhaps are available, they must not be credible, the witnesses have to be lying, mistaken, or hallucinating. The video must be a fake. because this event cannot happen in a naturalistic world.

      More seriously, the universe began to exist. the atheists own ‘god’ science says so. it began a finite time ago, and before it, there was nothing. Now we all know there is nothing which can bring itself into existence, and we know the universe is not eternal. Many theories have been developed to try to avoid an ultimate begining because of the very implication of a Beginner. Steady State models have been abandoned due to refutation. Oscelating, and multi-verse theories use theoretical numbers (invented calculations) in order to make the models work. But the values for the constants and other equasions are admittedly not the true values that actually exist in the universe. They are based on no evidence, but rather speculation and “possibility” (because there is nothing that dictates that the values for the equasions must be what they are. Some theoretical physicists have gone so far as to actually say, the universe brought itself into existence, which is laughable. In this case, we know philosophically and scientifically that things do not bring themselves into existence, but the bias dictates such an absurdity to “avoid allowing a divine foot in the door”.

  9. So they will be required to somehow figure out a way that the event never took place, because outside of a divine miracle, no such thing can happen.

    I think many theists would be committed to a naturualistic methodology too — that is, looking for natural explanations too. But to deny it ever happened is again exaggeration on your part for rhetorical effect.

    Instead, saying this happened, a skeptic would just say, “Darn, I can’t figure it out. Best damn trick I have ever seen. Or, they may become a belief in shift-changers without believing in gods and admit that there is more to the natural than they imagined.” Did you read the NYT articles (or look at my translations diagrams — to things you did not respond to)? You see, it is important for naturalists to understand that the what is considered “natural” has always been expanding to include things unimagined at one time. Likewise, what was considered supernatural, a theist must admit, keeps shrinking.

    Concerning your second paragraph, some universe models have time as a much odder character than you try to paint her. But I agree, all models fumble. Our math and science are still growing. Fumbling is the nature of science. It is not shame, Truth is a clumsy matter to try and approximate for silly creatures like us. Good physicists recognize the degree of their speculations and assumptions. They can still do that (as in the first example) while using a naturalistic methodology. Giving up and just stopping by saying “it must be magic” or “it must be supernatural because I can’t yet explain it” would be silly since that was done over and over in the history of humans without answers to be found later. So as of yet, we have no clear evidence as to why we should give up that method.

    • I would argue a Beginner is an inference to the best explanation, not a retreat to ignorance. I and ID proponents dont say, “we dont have a natural explanation therefore…”, rather we see all the elements of design, intentionality, and agency and conclude therefore…

      But I think we are getting a bit off topic here.

  10. You are right, we are off topic. But I should let you know, that a Deist model of a Beginner is not a concern of mine, for like String Theory, there is no way to test the fantasy. All remains the same with or without such theories until the time comes that there is some measure. Perhaps you mark the the ultimate measure as death but those who believe in a deist model. If so, it remains unknown.

    But if we discuss particulars, with real outcomes, we can wrestle together to slowly approximate truth — very slowly.

  11. John Barron Jr, your example of the horse & schoolbus is actually very good in demonstrating how I see the thing. If I heard about such an event, I would be “biased” to think it is more propable that all this did not happen. That the wittnesses have actually not wittnessed such an eventuality. That is because, in my experience and all the examples of such events I have ever heard of, tell me it is by far more likelier that there is a nother reason why these people claim such things happened. If someone told you Santa Claus rode into town whith a flying sleigh, would you come to the conclusion that it is evidence of the supernatural? Or if your neighbour claimed his house is haunted, would it not be more likely to you that there is some other reason why people claim to have wittnessed something as such? But for some reason you decided to present an example of a miracle that has not happened and has not been witnessed by anyone. Why?

    Sabio Lantz and Random Ntrygg maybe you have not followed the discussion in one of Johns previous articles “The Prudence of Islamophobia” and as to why I actually took up this point about the “your version”. One commenter was defining islam to be inherently violent religion and catholic christians to be not christians at all. As a reply to that I wanted him to understand that it is possible he does not hold the absolute truth about these religions. Hence, I brough into the discussion that claim. It was a discussional mistake, as it gave John Barron Jr, the opportunity not to answer to my questions about the subject, but to instead jump into a conclusion that I was trying to end the discussion. It is propably my bad english (or the fact that I am “not the sharpest pencil in the box” ;), why I can not understand the connection of ending a discussion and asking the other commenter to recognize the possibility his “truth” is not necessarily the one and only objective and absolute truth.

    As for me, I am quite capable to accept, that my view is not the objective truth, but my interpretation of reality around me by the means I have. Further more, in my opinion, if god existed and especially if it was a benevolent entity, we should not need to have this discussion. The existance of such a god should be as obvious to us all regardless of our backround. Why does this god remain hidden? Why are there no plausible miracles? Why is “the word of god” cryptic? It is not clear and plain, otherwise there would not be so many interpretations as to what it is supposed to mean. Logically, if only one god had contacted humanity whith all its divine power, so many religions let alone sects should not exist. Why is this divine creator of all so lacking in communication skills, if it really wants to save everybody from the eternal pain and torment?

    • Rautakyy, you need to work on your recognition of American idioms. When I say you are trying to shut down the discussion, it means you offer an objection that is impossible to answer to your satisfaction, thus haulting the discussion where it is. In my experience, it is probably unintentional, and I certainly think it was unintentional on your part. When you say “thats just your interpretation” as you did in the other post, how is someone supposed to respond in order to continue the discussion about Islam and the Qu’ranic call to violence? You don’t see a difference between the call to violence in accord to their holy book, and the Christians who perpetrate violence in opposition to their holy book.

      So when someone tries to explain the difference to you, rather than look it up yourself, you just trotted out “thats just your interpretation”. This is exactly why I asked you to cite and interpret the Qu’ranic verses that you thought Glenn was mishandling. Of course you didnt, you just went on about how complex the Bible is and how you can’t understand it. This was the point of this commentary. You, and other skeptics in order to lump all religions together as inherently violence prone, claim that it all boils down to [mis]interpretation. So I’m not going to let that slide any longer. If you are going to claim someone is incorrect when they claim Islam is violent by nature (even though not all Muslims are violent, instead they ignore the calls to violence) but Christianity is peaceful (even though individuals may be violent because they are ignoring commands to abstain from violence) with “that’s just your interpretation, I am going to demand you cite and correctly interpret for us. Otherwise, figure out a different line argumentation.

      • OK thanks for clearing that out for me. Now, it seems I have not made a very good case of my point as you have missed it totally. My exact point is that it is your interpretation of christianity and islam that the first does not demand violence but the latter does. My interpretation of both is that they are used for violence and both are used for segregation. Both of them are also used for the message of peace. Both are also complete fable. My respect belongs to people who are the “peacemakers” regardless of their individual faith like Martin Luther King or Abdul Ghaffar Khan. At present world situation joining whith the neo-nazies, taliban or other terrorists and their antisemitism, xenophobia and analysis of the Koran is contrary to that. By speaking of interpretations I do not mean translations. I mean interpretations in “praxis”. The Roman catholics who engaged in crusades found solemn justification to that from the Bible and that was their interpretation of it. Just as the muslim terrorists find solemn justification to their actions from the Koran, that is their interpretation of it. However most muslims do not engage in violence nor find justification to it from the Koran and that is their interpretation of it. You demanding that we must accept islam in particular as a faith of violence is actually violence.

        From where I stand the other conversant engaged in the “shutting down the discussion” before me by claiming he had the objective truth and by claiming most christians in the world are not even christians. In my opinion that is rather bold statement and it would require evidence to back it up, not just general statement that they do not follow the teachigs of the Bible. They do hold the longest christian cultural tradition and I bet they are pretty sure their interpretation of the Bible is the correct one. It is not like they are out there to delude people into believing something they thought is not christian. To my claim that it is only his personal interpretation he could have answered honestly that so it is, but that was not enough for him. One may poses facts and the facts usually lead us to this or that interpretation of reality, but none among us can claim they have the sole objective truth.

        All religions evolve. Just like any cultural phenomenon. They carry the load of previous cultural interpretations. As society around them evolves religions follow. As ethics of the society evolve so do religions. Of course there is allways religious leadership who find it extremely difficult to let go of the dogmas, that preserve their political power, but it is the face of fundamentalism, that exactly like conservatism, it is allways engaged in a lost combat. What is conservative dogma today, used to be the standard of values yesterday and a radical idea the day before.

        In general religions and supernatural claims do not hold the same accountability as scientific claims. That time has passed. Hence, they are not on the same “level” as interpretations of reality any more. Religions are systems founded around beliefs, not facts. Most religions describe deities that could and ethically should defend their own case and existance, but none ever appear.

        • The essence of your reply here is perfect, Rautakyy.

          Instead of complaining that the declaration of interpretation is a conversation stopper, I would prefer to hear a defense of the interpretation. It seems quite arrogant to assert that their sect’s interpretation is the right one even within their own religion. To casually dismiss Catholics, Mormons and other denominations as not being true Christians is just as annoying to the rest of us. Ultimately, what makes anyone so sure they have the right interpretation?

          In the end, it just comes down to faith. Faith is just something you choose to believe without evidence. It is laughable to hear a theist try to declare that they seek the truth based on evidence when they’ve already reached their conclusion and they’re only willing to entertain evidence that supports their conclusion. If you choose to believe a story about a flying elephant, for example, that’s your choice and you have every right to do so. Just don’t start telling the rest of us that we’re wrong because we aren’t willing to accept a supernatural event and that keeps us from believing it. What makes you think that your supernatural claims are true and other supernatural claims are not?

          • That’s part of your problem. You complete lack of investigation. You still (wrongly) assume it is a “casual dismissal” of others claims, when in fact it is only after investigation into the claims of Mormons and others that their claims are rejected. You,Z, are exactly the kind of Atheist I write about. You fill nearly every criticism I have with Atheists.

            No credible person would just tell you to “simply believe” in a flying elephant. But if scores of people saw the elephant fly, fed it, touched it, and interacted with it, then it cannot be simply dismissed out of hand.

        • But your interpretation of either carries no weight with me because you have repeatedly admitted the bible is too complex for you to understand. How then can you say with a straight face that you have any viable interpretation of Christianity? Would you respect my opinion that your country’s government is a totalitarian reforms, but your country’s constitution and laws are too difficult for me to understand? How could I legitimately criticize your government if I don’t even get it? How can you criticize christianity if you admit you can’t even understand it?

  12. Let’s take this step by step, shall we?

    First off, by your very definition of atheist, don’t call me one – call me a non-believer. I assert nothing. I just don’t believe that the stories of the bible or any other religious text (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_text) to be factual. The evidence just doesn’t support it.

    If all it takes for you to believe a “supernatural event” is the testimony of “scores of people” to witness it then you’re more gullible than I thought. Yes, I would be able to dismiss it without verifiable evidence.

    I never said that I don’t understand the bible. What I don’t understand is that if there is a god and he had anything to do with the bible, why is he such a poor communicator? There is so much different interpretation and that is clearly why we have so many denominations. You cannot dispute this. What I ask of you is to explain why you believe your interpretation is correct and all the others are wrong.

    What bothers me is that you constantly insist that anyone who concludes anything from the bible contrary to your belief is simply misunderstood and not reading it correctly. What bothers me is that you constantly defend your god by claiming that non-believers are just attacking his character and not disproving his existence. What bothers me is that you’ve already reached your conclusions about your interpretations and then read the book with the same bias you accuse others of.

    Again, you rarely defend your beliefs in any of your commentaries or responses, John – you just like to be argumentative.

  13. Thanks ZQTX.

    I think John Barron Jr, meant that bit about the bible to be too complex for me. It feels kind of silly to repeat myself here, but what I have said is, that the bible is too complex for me to understand the way religious guys think they understand it. Now, there is a difference to totally lacking any understanding and not finding a specific supernatural meaning from a book. The purpose of ever even mentioning that here, is to make the simple point that if it is too complex (yes, for me, I matter, don’t I) to find any one single minded truth from it, it tells us (yes, all of us should get something from one guy not understanding it) about the character of the authorship. On those grounds, if I try to evaluate wether the book is the one and only means of communication between an alledged creator diety and humanity, or if it is just a compilation of ancient fairytales and national history, the latter is quite an obvious resolution. There are a number of such books in the world, why is this one special? As within my understanding an omnipotent and benevolent diety, (as claimend by the book) could and infact should have producced a better means of communication and source of informatiion to all people, not just a small minority that has the capability and time to read this book and in addition who take it all granted. (Especially as there seems to be some eternal punishment attached, if you do not join the minority.) Let alone people like me who have read it and still can not find any plausible explanation to the universe from it. What is found is a very typical set of regulations to a nomad culture and supporting fairy tales. Not of all which give a very good picture of the alledged god either, more like a petty, jealous and cruel deity. That is my interpretation of it, and it is not meant whith any evil intent, that is simply how it appears to me. Is that my fault? Has the god moral rights to punish me for my understanding or interpretation of it?

    It is also fascinating how the book obviously tells how a religion evolves from a sheepherder cult into a theocracy. From pantheism to monotheism. But for some reason it seems you John Barron Jr, no matter how much you read it, can not find those quite plain points about it. Or can you? This is exactly how all supernatural explanations in the world work. There are loads of them and all of them are there simply to fill in the gaps we actually do not know or understand about the world. But culture evolves, in previous centuries we did not have many things, like combustion engines, antibiotics, nuclear power, space ships or the internet. Now we have them, but we also have an understanding of sience which by far superceeds the one of the bronze age cultures of the Levant. I do not say we do not have anything to learn from them and especially from their mistakes. What we should learn from the Bible is for example that there is no such authority in existance that can excuse genoside, apart from the totally imaginary ones.

    Who are the scores of people who have actually witnessed the “the flying elephant”? It is allways just hearsay, because no other evidence for the supernatural exists. And even if we actually could verify there exists something we could name supernatural, it is quite a leap of faith to claim any particular religious explanation of it is the “objective truth” about it.

    ernatural stories that are just as accountable as they allways are.

  14. A few thoughts:

    (1) Comment Heirarchy
    John I suggest you turn these off. They disrupt the flow of dialogue and makes things confusing. See my short post on it.

    (2) Atheist Bible Literacy & Atheist Witnessing Rants
    There are several ways to argue with a person about their faith. A few of these are:
    (a) Debate general principles that all religions are potentially vulnerable to.
    (b) Debate the the empirical claims of a believer
    (c) Debate the particular claims of the believer’s religious text
    (d) Debate the consequences of a person’s faith.

    I think it is important to stay focused and keep one’s purposes as clear as possible. It is important to realize that your debate partner probably has heard most of your arguments.

    When discussing their scriptures, if you disagree, the important point is to understand “Why” you disagree and try to get agreement on your perception. If you don’t understand their scriptures or possible theological explanations or stances, you should admit it and seek understanding.

    Coming to understand each other is important. Trying to win the argument will rarely work. We all hear selectively and if you set a mood of contention, our ability to see through our own biases often evaporates.

    I hate when believers come to my site and just start a huge witnessing rant. I just deleted the comments of a Muslim chap who did that. Ranting in broad strokes about one’s disgust with a religion (or worse yet religion in general) is equally unproductive and annoying.

    Take it slow, learn, establish relationships. People change slowly — both you and the other guy.

    (3) The “I-can’t-imagine-you-believe-that” Argument
    Look, when you can’t begin to understand why someone believes something, all it shows is either your lack of experience, lack of deep understanding of the phenomena (the benefits a person gets from believing) and lack of a temperament (Engineers rarely understand the passion of Artists).

    (4) Criticize Each Other
    Take a chance, criticize those with whom you largely agree. Show that the facts, logic and reflection are more important than winning an argument.

    (5) Translations
    Finally, staying with the theme of this post. Working slowly on an agreed text and agreeing on hermeneutics, weight of the texts, and such is a difficult task. If you jump into someone’s game, you must , to some extent, play by their rules. We should keep clear discussion inside and outside the game (meta-discussions).

    • @Sabio

      1) I thought they were, I don’t like them either, but since I rarely view my site from the readers POV I only see it from the dashboard. But they are off now, and I had read your post on it and agree, of course.

      2) ZQTX cannot help himself. He is one of those condescending Atheists who looks down upon Theists, though he says he doesn’t. He thinks he is smarter, he thinks he has no view to defend, he thinks his view (go figure) is correct by default. He just makes noise. He is very convinced he understands the BIble, but continually offers complaints based on his “understanding” that just dont even comport to what the Bible even says in the issue he is complaining about. I had banned him before due to the low level of discourse, but had decided to loosen up on that. His favorite complaint about me is that I dont write about the things he wants me to write about. However, I also dont write about blueberry muffin recipes, but that doesn’t seem to bother him that much.

      Rautakyy persistently admits he doesnt understand the bible, and that he has not read all of it. But somehow feels qualified to argue against its contents. He is notorious for essay responses, and though I had given him the tip that shorter responses will garner the discussion, he likes to rant about how silly belief in God is. He does it on every post. Usually his first comment or two is on topic, but inevitably, as you said he becomes an evangelist for atheism. I do tolerate him more that I do others because he was my first regular reader and commenter.

      3) This goes with Z’s arrogance, and more often than not this is the typical “internet Atheist” by my experience. I have found 3 reasonable and engaging Atheists since beginning this site, you among them. They are so smart, and theists are so dumb, they dont care why I or any theist believes anything. Read these for why I believe that is: Prove it!, Never Quite Enough, The Impossibility of Miracles, Not a Shred of Evidence which can be found under the
      Atheist tab. With them, no amount of eveidence is ever sufficient. Which often leads me to ask, “who is the closed minded dogmatic one in this discussion?”

      4) I have no problem with this. Most of my posts specifically about Christians and Christianity, is some form of criticism about it. I am harder on Christians than non-believers, because I think they should know better.

      5) This post was driven largely byRautakyy’s comment in the last post, where he so predictably offered it to Glenn. He still has yet to explain his interpretation, or offer a citation in either the Bible or Qu’ran showing why he thought Glenn’s interpretations of Islam and Christianity were false. But going back to 1), he fully admits holy writ is too complex for him to understand, so I am certain, his interpretation is not forthcoming. This too is common for both commenters here, Z and Rautakyy. They swoop in drop some unsubstantiated complaints. But again, this is all because of what I lay out in those four commentaries, and their belief that all things theism is so silly they dont need to research anything (thought they will claim to have, but their “arguments” belie that assertion).

  15. @Sabio

    I appreciate your interjection to explain the virtues of civil discourse. While I agree with your assessment of effective communication, there are a few things you must understand about this particular blog. In order to have a rational discussion with anyone, definitions must clearly be agreed upon. Why bother wasting so much time having the conversation when you find that you’re not even talking about the same thing?

    These are my experiences with this blogger:

    1. He has a very narrow definition of the word “atheist”. Instead of just being a non-believer, he sees that position as someone who asserts that god doesn’t exist in order to shift the burden of proof away from him.

    2. He presupposes the existence of god and the validity of the bible.

    3. Any criticism of god’s character can be easily rationalized and (as a non sequitur) doesn’t disprove the existence of god.

    4. Any criticism of the Old Testament means a clear misunderstanding of the text and its erroneous application to the world outside Israel.

    5. Any criticism of any specific passage in the bible is because it’s taken out of context of it’s just not being interpreted correctly.

    6. Any criticism of the bible in general is just a sweeping generalization and is made just to make noise.

    7. Supernatural events occur and skeptics just can’t see this because of their unwillingness to accept that they can happen.

    8. Any request to have him actually defend his beliefs usually results in a statement of going off-topic.
    You have to realize that John bristles when you boil down his argument to a simple statement that he may have to defend.

    I have stated many times in the past that I am genuinely interested in discovering why people believe what they believe. It is unfortunate that each of my posts has been read with the same bias that was previously mentioned, hindering progress towards this understanding.

    @John

    It’s a shame that you view my posts with such hostility. I apologize if my statements cause such misunderstanding because they cannot be interpreted correctly. I guess that’s the weakness of the written word.

    Let’s get back to the actual topic of this post – interpretation.

    You obviously don’t like the objection of interpretation. I think the reason you don’t like the objection in general is that it forces you to actually defend your interpretation. For the sake of this argument, let’s say I’m a Christian, but not Baptist. Please explain to me how I’ve reached the wrong conclusions from reading the same book?

  16. Sorry about the long responses John Barron Jr. I am a fast writer and it comes naturally to me. It is perhaps the long comments I write why you John Barron Jr, frequently manage to ignore the points I try to make. Or at least fail to answer almost all of my questions. Bible is easier to read I admit, as it is written in short verses. And I have read it. All of it exept the apochryptic texts. Are those important in finding the “objective truth”? These are matters that I find difficult to address in short lakonian comments. My apologies, if it has been hard for you to read my comments from your phone, or to understand what I say.

    Sorry, but religions are not about what it actually says in the book. I understand this may come as a bit of shock to you, but religions are cultural behaviour models, that often claim to have the basic form in a single book. However, that is not by far the reality. Most older religions have numerous sects that have interpreted the book quite differently. They have all read their books and found different meanings to different phrases. Most people have not ever read any of these books, yet the religions often claim the salvation (from eternal pain) of all people hangs on the choise of the correct interpretation. Religious behaviour and interpretation of the books are result of cultural evolution and the books usually only go about as an excuse for what ever is seen necessary within those cultures. Jesus says turn the other cheek, but there is a passage somewhere in the Bible that excuses a pre-emptive strike, is there not? Hence, what Jesus said does not restrict the adherent of christianity in any way. Never mind, if any gods exist.

    It is actually rather ironic that you decided to write this blog to rant about the way how I defended other christians and your fellow theist muslims and their right to their faith and identity. Funny how we percieve our selves differently. I think that I am one of your commentors who actually tries to stay on topic. Maybe my answers grow long as I am trying to both stay on topic and at the same time follow the flow of the conversation.

    You have the right to complain about the way ZQTX presents his case, but seem to lack any arguments to prove ZQTX wrong.

  17. @ZQTX

    Definitions
    I agree, definitions are extremely helpful in making any sort of progress between conflicting perspectives. But words are human contrivances — they are not Platonic ideal forms that need to be discovered. They are arbitrary. This is critical to understand. So, when two people talk argue word definitions I see a few choice:
    (1) You argue and convince them that you use a word correct and they don’t. Or vica versa. This rarely happens and is a huge waste of time. It invites nothing but defensive blindness and shows the naive view of language help by both people arguing.
    (2) Supplement words with modifiers
    (3) Create new words
    (4) Agree to avoid a word and use others.

    See my post on the Myth of Definitions.

    Presuppositions
    I have not read much of John yet — but I enjoy his writing style though I may not agree with some content and occasional tone. So I am not sure of what he believes. But if it is true that he presupposes (without evidence) the existence of a god and the validity of the bible, then you have two choices:
    (a) discuss the presuppositions
    (b) let it go and discuss something else. We all have presuppositions. One artful discussion technique is to find out what your own are and how they differ from your opponent and see if progress is possible or if it is important to move on.
    But I doubt John presupposes these things based on “no evidence” and just faith. But I am sure he trust these based on evidence you would not weigh as heavily as he does. Understanding this is important. (1) There are different kinds of evidence. (2) Evidence comes at various levels. (3) We all believe things that have very little evidence (4) We all weigh evidence differently.
    The trick is understanding first in yourself and then your partner.

    OT criticism
    If you don’t agree with John’s theology, you may not be able to agree on the interpretation of how he sees his god acting. Sometimes you just have to disagree. But when discussing with Christians, it is important to understand what variety of Christianity and which theologies they employ. If you are not interested, don’t have those conversations. See my post on “My Favorite Kind of Christian“, it links to the various issues that Christians take different stances on.

    Supernatural Events
    Sorry, I’d have to see these conversations. Past events are hard to discuss. Modern ones may be easier.

    Going off Topic
    Hmmm, I will have to see him do this to see if I agree. If it is true, that would be a conversation stopper.

  18. @ Rautakyy
    If people are not answering your questions, I find that if I make my whole comment into just a one-sentence question I get better results. Burying questions in long diatribes full of many ideas and many attacks is rarely productive.

    Just a thought.

  19. @ John
    I can often be irrational, discourteous and go against my own advice. It is tough discussing things. Though I may disagree with people, it is rarely because I think they are fools. I am the fool (see my avatar) and no one will wrestle that title away from me — I worked hard for it. :-)
    Humor, modesty, openness, vulnerability, and complimenting others where possible <– These are goals, but sometimes the devil drives me to do otherwise. (joking, of course)
    So forgive me for my stupidity if or when it occurs.
    On my site I post with less candor — but then I love when folks disagree with me. I learn much. Christians visiting my site have taught me much.

    I do have to say, I have had a sense that you may ignore certain questions or statements — but I haven't been here long enough to see if it is true.

    • Sabio, let me see if I can do some interpreting of Z’s comment for you.

      1) I assert the definition of Atheist to be “the belief that no god or gods exist”. He likes to use a definition more accurate to agnosticism. He likes to use the “lack belief” or “have no believ” but those are inaccurate, as I have written about elsewhere.

      2) I do not presuppose either Gods existence, or the veracity of the BIble. Before becoming a believer I had no belief either way. After spending time in textual criticism (of more than one holy writ), philosophy of religion, and philosophy in general, I came to believe a God does exist, and that God is the God of the Judeo-Christian view. What I dont do is start from scratch and “prove God’s existence and Christianity to be true at the start of every post. So for brevity’s sake, I do “presume” his existence and its truth, just as he presumes religion is nonsense and God does not exist. He doesnt put any effort into demonstrating his view before commenting, and I dont expect him to.

      3) For some reason he has a difficult time grasping that God’s character is irrelevant to whether or not He exists. My point (in the post to which he is referring) is that even if God were some moral monster, it in no way proves God doesn’t exist. So I’m not sure what his objection with that is.

      4) and 5) are true in some people’s case. I guess he believes that he does not misunderstand the theological differences between the old and new covenant systems. He tries to hold Christians to the standard of OT mosaic law, then cries foul when I try to correct the misunderstanding. Nothing I can do about that.

      6) he proves every time he discusses the Bible, so one day maybe he will discuss the Bible in a way that is not a general oversweeping complaint.

      7) naturalism by its very definition does not allow for supernatural events. Do you see why he has problems defining terms? He likes to use labels but does not like their actual definitions so he changes them, then gets upset. But he and other atheists have begun with the idea that miracles do not happen, then begin a process of explaining them away. He has done it here a few times.

      8) What he doesnt like is the main focus of my blog is primarily taking an argument or position that I have encountered that I disagree with, and explain why I think the view is false. He thinks I need to blog about my specific beliefs. I am not opposed to that, I’m just not the autobiographical type. He comments on threads demanding I defend a belief I hold that is not part of the post. For example, If I post about the flaws of a certain argument atheists make (God is a monster, for example) he demands that I defend my belief that the Bible is true and God exists. So that is why I mention blueberry muffin recipes. If my blog is not primarily about my particular beliefs, then either comment on the content of the post, or take it to the discussion page, which is exactly what it is there for. But instead, he litters other posts with his irrelevant demands and blames me because I do not capitulate to him.

      Now look at this last statement:

      You obviously don’t like the objection of interpretation. I think the reason you don’t like the objection in general is that it forces you to actually defend your interpretation. For the sake of this argument, let’s say I’m a Christian, but not Baptist. Please explain to me how I’ve reached the wrong conclusions from reading the same book?”

      Where the hell am I supposed to even begin with such a vague demand? But I’m sure I am just dodging if I don’t somehow come up with an answer.

      @Rautakyy

      I have told you before, when you post essays instead of comments, I merely skim them. If there is something that piques my interest enough, I respond. But I can just make post long responses back and forth. That is why many of your questions and objections are not addressed. They are simply too long. Shorten them up and make them more specific.

      @Everyone. This is the last of comments like this I am allowing. The topic is about the objection that “that’s just your interpretation” is a bad non-argument. When comparing different religions, it is not enough to say thats just your interpretation as though it really means anything.

  20. John
    (1) Concerning “Atheist”: I don’t care about whose definition of “Atheist” is correct. You must not have understood my point. Read the post I linked and perhaps your will understand what I was trying to say. You both waste your time having that level of discussion. I can’t emphasize that enough.

    (3) Concerning “God the Monster”: I agree. Marcion would agree too.

    (4 & 5) Concerning “The New Covenant”: I agree. Many Atheists don’t understand this. You know, many people who critisize Buddhism often do it for the wrong reasons too — they just don’t get it. But usually that is because they only read summaries of Buddhism written by Christian apologists. Not that Christianity, Buddhism or even Evolution can not be challenged. It is just frustrating when they are done by folks who haven’t done their homework and they come in with arrogant self-righteousness: Atheist or Theist. Democrats or Republicans.

    (7) Concerning Miracles: I think most atheists actually come from the angle that they have never seen anything they would call a miracle and thus they jump to, “Thus, miracles can’t happen.” And, as you suggest, it is strengthened by the decision that they just can’t happen. But discussing any particular suspected miracle, would demand though about natural explanations. And if none can be had, jumping to “can’t be miracle” is wrong, but far less wrong than, “Must be a miracle.”

    (8) Concerning “Beliefs”: Because of the huge variety of Christians out there, declaring oneself a Christian does not help in understanding your beliefs. So I think sharing your beliefs can be very helpful to readers. Likewise with Atheists. There are a variety of Atheists out there and if they share their beliefs on their site, it can help.

    To that end, I made tables to help share beliefs and here are two:
    My Christian Beliefs
    My Atheist Stannces

    Yes, if someone can’t see how people can come to different conclusions reading the Bible, the Qu’ran, The Buddhist Sutra, the Constitution or Books on JFK’s assasination, I think they need to stop and think a bit more carefully.

    • Arguing definitions is not a particular hobby of mine. However, my experience tells me that many atheists hide behind definitions. They are hesitent to say God does not exist, because that is a claim to knowledge which must be defended if asserted. Of course, proving a negative like that is nearly impossible, so rather than say that, they will say something like “they have no belief in god” or they “lack belief”. but those are only implored because they think it puts them in a privelaged position of playing the skeptic and having nothing to defend. Its intellectual dishonesty. If someone comes here and claims they hold no position, they have no position to defend, and are correct by default, you can be sure I am going to demand proper definitions be used. I think atheists such as Z, like the term atheist because it sounds intellectual. Hpwever, most atheists describe their beliefs in a way that more closely comports to agnosticism.

      Why I think accurate definitions are important is it makes the use of labels more convenient. It means you or I or Z dont have to come in and give our philosophical biographies before we begin.

  21. See, John, there’s your problem. The skeptic need not defend anything but his skepticism. Your desire for them to defend the negative is the dishonest part. You’re just simply trying to deflect the burden of proof. There is a difference between saying “no belief in god” and “belief in no god” – you just simply refuse to acknowledge the former as a legitimate position.

    As for your blog – You say you take an argument you encounter and write about how you disagree with it and that’s fine. I guess what you don’t understand is the manner in which I ask you questions to flesh out the underlying root of how you to reach your conclusions and then you get uncomfortable about it.

  22. @ John Barron
    You said:

    Why I think accurate definitions are important is it makes the use of labels more convenient. It means you or I or Z dont have to come in and give our philosophical biographies before we begin.

    I agree, definitions are VERY important. Please go up and read again what I wrote to ZQTX on this issue. I don’t think you are understanding me. I don’t want to get into the classic “What is an Atheist” boring discussion. The point is, you guys need to decide WHY you want a definition and agree on something or make up a new word. All this silly argument over what a definition SHOULD be is a royal waste of time. I can not emphasize this enough. All it does is get you guys arguing for argument sake. And if you are doing that, best stop talking.

  23. John, did you look at the links I supplied for “Sharing Your Beliefs”?

    • I did, maybe this was posted after I commented. But I will use it and write something up. But here’s the rub, I have offered multiple times a discussion on my beliefs on the duscussion page. For whatever reason, he has not taken me up on that offer. Which suggests to me he is not genuinely seeking to know and discuss my particular beliefs.

  24. Definitions: I agree, “faith” is such a word that Christian use in multiple senses and jump between them in conversation. Thus, for example, I did this post on “Definitions of Faith“. As I said, definitions are important, but so is the way we try to resolve arguments about them.

    For other posts on this you may like:

    a) Obstacles to Defining Atheism

    b) Atheist or other Labels

  25. (1) Generalizing
    You are generalizing again:

    The problem is atheists want the term, but not the definition, they desire a “nuanced” definition.

    Take care to use the powerful word “some” – it stops something from being inflammatory and wrong.
    I know, it is hard to remember, but worth the effort. Christians helped me to get better at that. :-)

    (2) Definition Myth
    So, you still don’t seem to really deeply understand the Myth of Definition — maybe read the post again. Or maybe I will write it out a bit for you here:

    You see, a word does not HAVE a definition. There is no official “Definition Committee”. Sure different companies get together and write dictionaries, but words are used in lots of different ways. If enough use it in a certain way, that usage becomes one of the many definitions a word is listed as having. Language is flexible.

    (3) Your Favorite Definition
    But, here John. Let’s give you the stump. Tell us what you want the fixed definition of Atheist to be. And tell us the weasel definition you see ALL those atheists using. Here, I will give you a template.
    Atheist -(John’s favorite version:
    Atheist-(sneaky Atheists’ version):

    Hopefully my tone and set up for #3 illustrates #2 and #3 and yet gives you a voice in spite of it. :-)

    • If the words themselves dont have definitions, no one could reliably communicate. I really do understand the point you are trying to make about language and fluidity. But slight variations, such as colloqualisms within a community is vastly different than an abrupt significant change in definition.

      John’s (and the majority of the speaking and philosophizing world up until a decade or two ago) definition: Atheism is the belief that no god or gods exist.
      Sneaky atheist’s definition: 1) lack of belief in any God or gods, or 2) holding no belief in any God or gods, or 3) holding a non-belief in any God or gods.

  26. If the words themselves dont have definitions, no one could reliably communicate.

    Words are a flimsy unwritten contract between two people trying to communicate. They are banking that the flavors, implications, consequences and all that good stuff are close enough that the desired effect occurs when using them on each other.

    Words have use — they don’t *have* a meaning until someone can convince you of it.
    But yes, at University if you don’t use them the way those in power desire, you are out on the street. On the street, if you don’t use them “correctly”, you are just out.

    But I think, perhaps, we understand each other. It is an important pragmatic point.

    It sounds like you resent that usages are changing with the word “atheist”. That has happened with many words – “Nigger”, for instance. I am sure you are familiar with the book by that title.

    Very often a minority will grab words out of the hands in those in power. Those in power then take the “Words have Meaning” position for decades while history proves them wrong.

    I get the differences between the definitions you are offering.

    For example to help communication, you and your fellow “Damn-it,-I-am-going-to-win-this-argument” partner could agree to these terms and see if further progress could be made thereafter:
    Johns’ phrase: “Belief-of Atheist”
    Sneaky’s phrase: “Lack-of-Belief Atheist”

    Yawn, this argument is so old and really never seems to get anywhere useful. Hope that helped somehow, though.

    More important than taking stances, sometimes, is making the effort to understand the other.

    • Sabio, I appreciate the effort you’ve put in to help employ diplomacy, But I find serious flaws with the “lack belief” definition. Not just because I dont like it, see HERE and HERE. And because Z takes these positions, he believes he has nothing to ever defend. He believes he holds no position, and is in the unique spot of being correct by default, and he believes he never holds a burden of proof. You cant hold rational discussions with someone who is always trying to scam on definitions. This is why definitions are so important to me.

      The reason it is so yawn enducing is because Atheists know the consequence of accepting the proper definition, so we never get to the rest of the discussion. The rest of the discussion entails having two people defend positions. That is what is being avoided. All I ask is identify with a label that actually fits your beliefs. Don’t take one, rearrange it and make it your own, then insist on others accepting it.

  27. Right. So here is a possible application of my point. Instead of arguing over what the definition of “Atheism” means, ask the person:

    Which do you hold:
    (a) I assert there is no god(s)
    (b) I don’t have a belief in god(s)

    Then explore what you feel the implications of those positions are.

    After all this discussion, that you would say:

    because Atheists know the consequence of accepting the proper definition

    Makes me feel like I am not getting through at all. Please tell me you understand the application above and how it may be more productive than arguing definitions. Please! :-)

  28. OK, I get it. You have a hard time discussing with *an* atheist. But does this illustrate?
    (a) some of your dialogue skills weaknesses
    (b) some of Z’s dialogue skills weaknesses
    (c) the frustrating interaction of Z’s & John’s deficient skills
    (d) deficits in Theists in general
    (d) deficits in Atheists in general
    (e) The *real* meaning of Atheism

    Which of these do you think are true?

  29. I think many Christians and many Atheists base much of their thinking on certain assumptions about “beliefs”. Yet beliefs are complicated, controversial things. So stepping back from discussing *what* beliefs we hold, I think it is important to understand what a belief is and who holds it.

    Here is my short post with picture of a belief model.

    You will see, that my model unfortunately undercuts normal debates about beliefs — both from the atheist and the theists side.

  30. Thanks Sabio and John for good advice how to comment. I fear my comments would have been less polite due to shorter senteces, but I guess that is more the fault of the media than any of us.

    Oh, John Barron Jr, now I get it. You have not read my comments. I hope someone has. No real conversation will come from only one party following the discussion.

    (3) There is a point about alledged gods plausibility and hence existance in the nature of the said god, if the set of beliefs and religious dogma (the result of interpretation of scriptures) defies the nature to be other than what is witnessed in the moral demands said god presents. For example, if said and alledgedly both benevolent and allmighty god does not intervene from most ordinary people ending up in eternal pain, who is responsible for their agony?

    The meaning of words changes. Therefore, it is very hard to know exactly what people in the antiquity meant. We may make educated guesses, but objective truth of the matter is, we can never be absolutely sure. Hence, we only have interpretations of their meaning.

    Miracles or not, gods may exist, (so, you may call me a pagan, if it pleases you), but we have no certainty of such entities. It takes a great leap of faith to believe certain people of antiquity had some objective truth of the birth of the universe within their knowledge, does it not? They hardly understood this single solar system let alone the entire universe.

  31. @ Rautakyy,
    I have to agree with John, when someones comments are long and ranty, I tend to ignore them. Short and focused is a sure bet. Long is OK but it should b written carefully so as to actually keep the attention of those who disagree — this is very hard and takes emotional skills that many lack.

    @ John,
    Due to scant number of document and changes over time, Christian scholars (very smart ones) differ widely on what ancient documents mean. This leads to different sects in Christianity. So I think almost every Christian scholar I have talked with would strongly disagree with you when you said,

    Its not really all that difficult to know what ancient people meant, we know the definitions of words used then.

    Of course, though ancient documents are a difficult challenge, it does not mean we can’t limit down the possibilities of what they mean. We certain don’t need to dispair — as some atheists might want us to believe. The truth is somewhere in between the fundamentalist view that “God’s Word is clear” and the Post-Modernist view that “A text means what we want it to mean — we make the meaning with our reading”.

  32. BTW, John, your WordPress template does a very poor job of illustrating BLOCKQUOTE tags. They are not marked with quotes or inset. They just are light-grey italics which are harder to read and unclear. You might want to look at modifying the CSS if you know how.

  33. Without laboring through all of the comments here, forgive me if it was said in the previous comments.

    There may be different interpretations but they can’t all be right. They can all be wrong. But just because there are more than one interpretations does not require that they all be wrong. It is intellectual laziness to refuse the inquiry simply because there are different interpretations. My guess is that those who reject the beliefe that there can be a “correct” interpretation more often than not are afraid of the answer they might get.

  34. @DT
    I think you’re right. There are some people who need this objection for one reason or another. Whether it is a professing Christian who needs to justify a pet sin, or it is a skeptic who needs it to continue to dismiss the Bible in order to further their skepticism.

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