The Power to Define


So many of the discussions I encounter about religion centre on the power to define and so many of the disagreements revolve around assumed understanding. Let’s take for example the statement “The Bible is the true Word of God”. On the face of it this is a disputable but fairly straight forward claim, which implies a true or false answer. Either the Bible is the true word of God or it isn’t. We should avoid the immediate temptation to engage with a claim on its own terms and take a moment to think about the implied knowledge that is seeking tacit acceptance. This example refers to “the Bible”, but which Bible? There is an assumed understanding that there is only one Bible but this a mental abstraction of all Bibles, which obscures the many variations between versions and translations. The example also refers to “Word of God”, but which god? We might assume Christian but what does that mean? Many groups identify as Christian, include Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and each have a different Bible. Of course Jewish and Islamic holy texts are based on the same sort of source material as well. The embedding of assumed understanding in linguistically simple claims can be used as a means of setting the parameters of a discussion but I think in most cases it happens unintentionally. I think that someone making such a claim may do so from an ingrained perspective that they have difficulty transcending. Clarifying the detail of a simple claim is a useful way to raise consciousness.

I’ve noticed, as I’m sure many will have, a lot of discursive struggle around the word “atheist”. This has particularly to do with how it’s defined, who has the power to define it and the consequences of definitions. It is interesting to note that dictionaries differ in their definitions, ranging from “do not believe in God” to “lack beliefs in gods”. This is interesting because it reflects the embeddedness of certain assumptions in cultures. It can amount to the defining of atheism through monotheism and raises questions over who ought to be defining atheism? Many arguing from a religious perspective represent a view that atheists deny their god(s). Conversely, many atheists represent atheism as a state of having no beliefs that gods exist. I have encountered quite a few posts that either implicitly or explicitly frame atheism as a belief system that claims a Christian god doesn’t exist. Having thus defined atheism the argument will proceed with a declaration of how it is impossible to disprove their god and so atheism is illogical. So you see, the power to define is extremely significant in discussion. If person A is allowed to define person B then they can in essence silence discussion from the outset. I’m sure many will have seen this video clip of an interviewer asking for views about atheists from people in Turkey. Some of the words used to describe atheists are: animals; not human; ignorant; infidel; liars. We should approach any clip with scepticism, especially if it shows a consistent and extreme view from a small sample. The point to take away though is how easily a component of a person’s outlook can be redefined and swollen to be the entirety of their personhood.

“New Atheism” is a phrase I keep seeing and to which any number of beliefs and behaviours seem to be attributed. It’s often used to refer collectively to the works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Never mind that these authors offer quite different perspectives, they are lumped together and associated with charges of racism, hate, fear-mongering and intolerance. Writing in The Guardian, Jeff Sparrow portrayed New Atheism as:

“…a movement too often exemplified by privileged know-it-alls telling the poor that they’re idiots. But that’s only part of it. For, of course, the privileged know-it-alls are usually white and those they lampoon the most are invariably Muslim”.

Notice how Sparrow made New Atheism a socioeconomic issue or the way he introduced race then invited readers to regard “Muslim” as a race. Unfortunately, an accusation of bigotry doesn’t have to be qualified or evidenced for it to do damage to reputations. Consider the course of events following Ben Affleck characterising Sam Harris as racist on the Bill Maher show. All it takes is for a popular celebrity to get the wrong end of the stick and it provides an excuse for people to no longer engage with Sam Harris’ arguments. I wonder if “New Atheist” is just a conveniently ill-defined phrase that facilitates the grouping and dismissal of heterogeneous views that some just don’t want to engage with. In other words, a way to deny people a voice and silence debate. In my view it’s probably more useful and honest to discuss specific behaviours and beliefs than it is to refer to analytically dubious categories of people.

I’m big on discussion and enjoy talking through and challenging people’s ideas. I think critically engaging with each other in an honest way is a useful means by which we can broaden our view of the world. Part of that is appreciating the implications of the power to define and the presence of assumed understanding or knowledge in claims about the world. Being aware of these helps us prevent discussion becoming too narrow and can help us avoid misunderstandings arising from assumption.


One comment

  1. KIA · June 4, 2016

    Of course an atheist is anyone who doesn’t believe and follow my god.because all other gods are just made up. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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