Sunday, November 4, 2012

Playing with words

One tactic that many apologists love to use is playing with words. Fallacy of equivocation is one of the most common ways.

For example Ray Comfort just loves to do this (although he's by far not the only one.) For example, if you ever get into a discussion with him about faith, he will always use the stock argument "do you have faith in your wife?"

He's trying to argue that everybody has faith in something. Of course this is a classical example of a fallacy of equivocation: Using a word with multiple meanings with the wrong meaning. Believing in the existence of God requires faith, which means that you believe without evidence. However, having confidence that your wife doesn't cheat on you is a completely different thing, even though the word "faith" is also used here. Just because the same word is used for two completely different meanings doesn't mean that you can mix them up.

Another wonderful example is his use of the word "religion". When an atheist says that he opposes religion, Comfort will say that "I oppose religion too." He will vehemently deny being "religious." However, he's using a different meaning of the word "religion" here, and is deliberately mixing them up. (When the atheist uses the word, he is talking about the set of dogmas, beliefs and customs around a widespread form of theism. When Comfort uses the word he is not talking about theism and dogmas, but about so-called organized religion, ie. the physical organizations and churches with all their bureaucracy, legislation and the like.) This is actually a pretty common argument among many Christians.

This kind of deliberate fallacy of equivocation is actually quite dishonest. Rather than understand and acknowledge what the other person is trying to communicate, he (and many people like him) try to muddle the issue by playing with words and their multiple (often contradictory) meanings.

There are many other examples of playing with words. For example Comfort is quite fond of claiming that he knows where the Universe came from and that he knows that God exists. What he really means is that he's completely convinced of those things (at a personal level), not that he absolutely knows, but he will never admit to the that. For some reason he's strangely obsessed with gnosticism and knowing things. He just loves it when someone says that they don't know, or use alleviating words like "maybe" and "perhaps", as if that helped his position and his arguments.

Speaking of which, an odd argument sometimes used by many theists against an atheist is "you are not an atheist, at most you are an agnostic." It can be difficult to understand why they are making such an argument, as if it was somehow a great comeback and a blow to the atheist's position. However, I believe that it's the result of a twisted logic that starts with the notion that "nobody's really an atheist; they know in their hearts that God exists, but deny it." They somehow think that if they can show that somebody is not really an atheist, they have half-won the argument already (regardless of what it is.)

It's quite sad how widespread the misconception about theism vs. atheism is. Most people think that they are the two extremes, and that there's a third category, agnosticism, that lies right in the middle of that scale. If you are not a theist nor an atheist, then you are an agnostic.

No, that's not the meaning of those words at all. Theism vs. atheism is a binary position; it's a true dichotomy: You are either one or the other. There's no in-between. If you are not a theist, you are an atheist. By definition.

Thinking that "agnosticism" lies in between the two is a category error. Gnosticism vs. agnosticism deals with a completely different philosophical matter, related to knowing (or the ability to know) something. Those two terms are in no way mutually exclusive with theism and atheism. All four combinations are perfectly possible (yes, even agnostic theist.)

Sadly, even many atheists say things like "I'm not an atheist, I'm an agnostic" (while denying belief in gods.) This is basically an oxymoron. It's like saying "I'm not a human, I'm a man" or "I'm not European, I'm German."

The reason why they try this kind of cop-out is because of the social stigma that the word "atheist" carries in some countries. (Sometimes there might be a confusion, which is rather typical, that an atheist is someone who asserts that there are no gods. However, even many who know that's not the case still want to avoid the stigma and use the "agnostic" cop-out.)

Other typical examples of misusing words is confusing the word "theory" in its scientific and colloquial meanings (the latter of which really means "conjecture" or "hypothesis") or using the word "proof (of something)" when in fact what is meant is "argument (for something)" or "evidence".

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