The Word Games Believers Play

I had a long Facebook conversation recently with a friend-of-a-friend that I’ve been meaning to cut apart and discuss here in various topical segments.  (The conversation, not the acquaintance.)  My first visit to that conversation is here.

This friend-of-a-friend calls himself both libertarian and Catholic (a bizarre combination on many levels) and derives a great deal of his thinking on ethics and social issues from papal encyclicals and other Catholic writings.  He has provided many opportunities to examine the fundamental absurdity of faith-based thinking, but today, I’m using him as an example of a much simpler peeve.  And also that.

During our conversation, I referred to Catholic thinking about abortion as based in magical/supernatural notions, in particular the notion of an immaterial soul.  Like anything without empirical support, such notions have no place in the practice of medicine, much as we don’t generally regard it as a good thing when doctors are eschewed in favor of wishing really really hard for the problem to go away.  To that, he offered this gem.

It is not a magical notion of the soul, it is faith. You don’t have to agree with me, but you certainly have to accept that it is okay for me to believe it.

It seemed I would have to define some terms for him.

For the record: “Magic” refers to a process that does not obey natural laws, in particular the laws of physics. “Faith” is belief in something one does not have a good reason to think is true—i.e., belief that’s not based on evidence.  As we can all see, the notion of the soul is both.

And isn’t it always something how quickly they reach for the “but it’s OKAY for me to think this!” whine?  It’s like they truly and honestly think that someone telling them “I think you’re wrong” is the same as jackbooted thugs confiscating their crucifixes.  But that’s always it with believers, isn’t it?  The very idea that there are people out there who don’t think belief is in and of itself a good thing drives them up a wall.

For the record: It’s “okay” for you to think souls are real the same way it’s okay for a five-year-old to think Santa Claus is real.  People you trusted to give you true information have led you astray, and tricked you into building your understanding of how things work around something that doesn’t hold up to real scrutiny, and now you’re angry that someone else is tearing that foundation out from under you instead of learning from the experience.  But you had to grow up sometime, and it’s just WEIRD when someone makes it out of high school still thinking a portly Dutch cardinal visits their chimneys once a year and doesn’t even bring his pet torture-demon along.

Naturally, he takes great issue with my definitions.

Nice definitions of magic and faith. Whatever you say. You have faith in your g/f on a day to day basis because you trust that she will not cheat on you. You don’t know where she is every hour of the day. She could be banging your neighbor. But you have faith in her and your relationship. You have no good reason to think its true as your definition states. Yet you do anyway. Guess you should just be a cold-hearted douche and drop her because you don’t KNOW that she hasn’t or won’t cheat on you.

Greta Christina said it best, but I’ll say it again.  Watch believers when they use words like “faith,” “belief,” “spirituality,” and even “god.”  They’ll change definitions mid-sentence if they think it’ll score them a rhetorical point, and they might not even realize they’re doing it.  It’s absolutely routine for believers to imagine that their “belief” in a god is the same as my “believing in” (regarding as a fundamental value) empiricism, for example, as though I were regularly cutting up goats in obeisance to the Magnificent Lord Empiros and his prophet David Hume.  Or even more commonly, that their faith in this or that unevidenced assertion, especially one abundantly CONTRADICTED by evidence, is exactly the same as the trust one has in their significant other to not be constantly going back on their word.

My Catholic Libertarian zealot acquaintance, however, very much knows what he’s saying.  He does not trust his romantic partner to not spend all of her free time having sex with his neighbors unless he has her bugged.  Rather, he has faith that, in the apparent absence of any evidence that his significant other is faithful to him (such as demonstrations of love, honesty, and emotional intimacy), and possibly in SPITE of evidence otherwise (such as catching her in the act), she’s really “faithful to him in her own way.”  Or maybe his idea of faithfulness is kind of like his idea of morality, and thus not actually contingent on whether she’s cheating on him.

What a world he inhabits!  If he doesn’t accept, a priori and apropos of nothing, that his lover restricts to him her sexual adventures, then he has no way to know, or reason to believe, that she is not in a CONSTANT state of cheating on him.  The very idea of trusting her based on their emotional bond and on her actions is ridiculous.  Ridiculous, he says!  If he can’t have something as a foundational axiom of his universe, instead of as a conclusion based on evidence, then he won’t have it at all.

Of course, he probably isn’t actually that disturbed.  On some level, he knows that these two uses of the word “faith” are not the same.  This is simply a word game believers play.  The vast majority of them can’t comprehend how non-believers think, and must dissemble, misrepresent, and outright lie in order to warp what we say into a shape they can recognize, so they can argue with THAT instead.  This is part of how believers, threatened by probing questions about how their world works, use the power of semantics to convince themselves that their faith is more like trust or confidence or any of various more sensible sentiments than the enforced, delusional gullibility it actually is.  It’s to the point where I avoid common words like “belief,” “faith,” and “spirituality” and substitute either definitions or words that the religious haven’t managed to mutate into vague, everything-at-once uselessness in the name of trying to make nonbelievers look bad.

It’s a shame they’re so predictable, or they might succeed.
The Word Games Believers Play

4 thoughts on “The Word Games Believers Play

  1. 4

    The technical term for the use of two different definitions of a word, while pretending they’re the same, is “equivocation”. It’s on the standard list of logcial/rhetorical fallacies.

    It’s extremely popular among Christian churches, probably because their “beliefs” are logically inconsistent, so the only way to get anyone to hold the contradictory beliefs simultaneously after they start asking questions is to use rhetorical tricks on them.

    You’ll find equivocation is used less often with religions which are internally consistent (even ones which are sharply contrary to evidence — they just say “don’t believe your eyes”, mostly).

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