Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Do Atheists Use the Word God?

11/9/2011—Chris Lund raised a very good point during the Establishment Clause Symposium at Duquesne last week. He was objecting to my suggestions that God is a word of rich meaning that nonbelievers can understand and relate to on nonreligious terms—that one Nation under God, for example, can mean a nation subject to standards of right and wrong (might does not make right). Chris said, “I don’t know any atheists who use the word God”.

I responded as I usually do, with examples. Readers of this blog have seen numerous examples, perhaps most recently—August 28, 2011, below—a blog post about the American Geologist Kinsley Fletcher Mather, who could represent an entire generation of religious naturalists. For such persons, the word God had a rich resonance suggesting regularity and benignity in reality.

Einstein is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon, since he was utterly rational, not at all religious, and meant something natural when he said, or was translated as saying, “God does not play dice with the universe.” I believe in German he said, Die Alte, “the old one” but apparently that is a term for God in German.

This is a crucial point to me because it points to the possibility of shared meaning, shared vocabulary, and thus common ground between believers and nonbelievers.

But I wonder if Chris might be right on another level. Just as in religious naturalism, there are today nonbelievers like me who do not shy away from the word God, while there are other nonbelievers (perhaps like Chris, but I don’t know if he is a nonbeliever) who would never use the term. And their underlying commitments and understandings of reality might, or might not, differ.

This difference needs to be explored. The question is, what do we mean when we refuse to use the word God? But the exploration has to take place in a secular context so there can be no misunderstanding. I need a metaphorical room of only nonbelievers who can then explore the limits of religious vocabulary—this shows the need for a secular caucus in law and beyond.

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