The Varieties of Religious Language

Kantian Naturalist and I have been hopscotching from thread to thread, discussing the nature of religious language. The main point of contention is the assertoric/disclosive distinction:  When is religious language assertoric — that is, when does it make claims about reality — and when is it merely disclosive, revealing attitude and affect without making actual claims?

I’ve created this thread as a permanent home for this otherwise nomadic discussion.

It may also be a good place for an ongoing discussion of another form of religious language — scripture.  For believers who take scripture to be divinely inspired, the question is when it should be taken literally, when it should be taken figuratively or metaphorically, and whether there are consistent and justifiable criteria for drawing that distinction.

2,384 thoughts on “The Varieties of Religious Language

  1. Alan Fox: No. Religion is not the issue. Obscuring the face in a public or general social situation is unacceptable social behaviour. Social interaction relies on visual clues and visual expression is essential to proper communication and understanding. I think people who fail to see this problem are being obtuse and people who fail to acknowledge this problem are being overly politically correct.

    OK, I think I see why we differ.

    I believe that tolerance requires we accept that people’s religious beliefs, assuming they are legal, take priority over what one might consider proper social behavior.
    My understanding is that you do not accept this.

  2. BruceS: My understanding is that you do not accept this.

    I don’t see this at all. If I think a behavior is unacceptable (not just rude) I would support laws or regulations opposing it.

    In this particular case I see no reason for an all encompassing ban on face covering, but I would not allow it on driver’s licence photos of at airport check ins, or any other place where identification is needed.

    But the same principle applies, regardless of the issue. Religion does not get an automatic pass. Behavior is behavior, and is acceptable or unacceptable regardless of tradition or religion.

  3. petrushka: I don’t see this at all. If I think a behavior is unacceptable (not just rude) I would support laws or regulations opposing it.

    In this particular case I see no reason for an all encompassing ban on face covering, but I would not allow it on driver’s licence photos of at airport check ins, or any other place where identification is needed.

    But the same principle applies, regardless of the issue. Religion does not get an automatic pass. Behavior is behavior, and is acceptable or unacceptable regardless of tradition or religion.

    In fact, we had just such a controversy in Quebec a couple of years of go when the government of the day attempted to introduce a law banning wearing of prominent religious symbols by public servants.
    secularization in Quebec

    That government fell and was defeated at the next election so the law was never passed.

    FWIW, I think that law was based on one in France, where you-know-who lives…. (humor indicator goes here)

  4. Many corporations ban office displays of religious symbols.

    Schools in my town ban any clothing other than solid colors, and the list is short, and does not include any potential gang colors.

    These things are best decided pragmatically, and may differ from place to place.

    At some times and places, religious symbols may be fighting words.

  5. Alan Fox:
    What religious doctrine commands women to completely cover the face in public and in general social situations?

    I don’t feel it is up to me to tell me how other people should understand their religious obligations, assuming of course they are legal.

    Also, as hinted above, when these obligations are claimed to apply to children, I do agree society may have an overriding interest to protect children in some cases.

  6. Alan Fox:
    BruceS,

    But which religious doctrine commands women to hide their face completely in public?

    I don’t know. But my knowledge has nothing to do with what other people believe is a religious obligation.

  7. Alan Fox:

    O/T slightly, but you may be interested in Gary Gutting’s What philosophy can do. It is a popularization and summary of philosophical arguments about issues that often come up at TSZ:
    – how to conduct a debate
    – relation of philosophy and science
    – responses to Dawkins-style arguments for atheism
    – difficulties those responses create for some theists
    – problems with capitalism (not really discussed at TSZ but KN does bring up sporadically)
    – the abortion debate

    It is a popularization; the level of philosophy is roughly that of the NYT blog The Stone (where Gutting has posted). I am finding it entertaining and informative.

  8. BruceS: I don’t know.But my knowledge has nothing to do with what other people believe is a religious obligation.

    Women in Iran — many — wore wesrern dress until it was outlawed. There is no coercion in Islam, except when it is the governing law.

  9. BruceS: I don’t know.But my knowledge has nothing to do with what other people believe is a religious obligation.

    Women in Iran — many — wore western dress until it was outlawed. There is no coercion in Islam, except when it is the governing law.

  10. petrushka: But the same principle applies, regardless of the issue. Religion does not get an automatic pass. Behavior is behavior, and is acceptable or unacceptable regardless of tradition or religion.

    Right.

    Religion should never get an automatic pass.

    It might be that we choose to accommodate some religious beliefs – or not others – based on their being essentially neutral in a secular society.

    But we should never say to one person “you can have a cab driver’s license (which is a public “utility” and a legal monopoly in most cities) and you can refuse to carry your passenger’s dog because of religion” while telling another person in the exact same business “you can’t refuse to carry your passenger’s dog because your baby sister was bitten by a dog once upon a time”.

    The same for both, or neither.

  11. petrushka: Women in Iran — many — wore wesrern dress until it was outlawed. There is no coercion in Islam, exceptwhen it is the governing law.

    Government intolerance is to be abhorred, of course.

    Just to be clear, I think many of the practices of fundamentalist religion are immoral. And I would certainly argue that case with any fundamentalist who was interested in such a discussion.

    But I believe in tolerance for religious practices that do not violate secular laws, so I do not consider people who practice their religion in pubic to be acting rudely.

  12. BruceS: I don’t know.But my knowledge has nothing to do with what other people believe is a religious obligation.

    I’m also unaware that Islam specifically demands that women hide their face completely when in public. So there is no such religious tenet to consider. It’s merely (heh) a cultural overlay in a few societies. It’s the effect on others I’m objecting to, the intimidatory effect of being masked in a social situation. And the point Petrushka makes about women in Iran potesting against the (then) new laws on dress after ayatollah Homeini gained power is most pertinent, here.

  13. Alan Fox: I’m also unaware that Islam specifically demands that women hide their face completely when in public. So there is no such religious tenet to consider. It’s merely (heh) a cultural overlay in a few societies. It’s the effect on others I’m objecting to, the intimidatory effect of being masked in a social situation. And the point Petrushka makes about women in Iran potesting against the (then) new laws on dress after ayatollah Homeini gained power is most pertinent, here.

    I disagree that there is no religious belief.

    I understand that you do not see one, and I do not know of why/how that belief has become religious, but that is not the same thing as saying there is no religious belief. My point has always been that your opinion and my opinion about what is a religious belief and whether it is a moral belief are irrelevant in the matter of judging rude behavior, because a person’s religious convictions take priority over social conventions of politeness.

    There is an interesting question of when we should respect a belief as a religious belief.

    Legally, in the US, I think there is up to the courts and often the tax people are involved as it comes down to the write-off of tax donations to the religion. Probably the same in Canada but I don’t know.

    Morally it is an interesting question. But I don’t think there is an issue with either Islam, which is the religion I’m assuming for women masking their faces, or Judaism, which was the religion for the dietary laws. Probably it is an issue with the flying spaghetti monster. Maybe with Scientology. But that is a topic for another thread.

    As per my reply to Petrushka, I of course agree that the behavior of the Iranian government is abhorrent. I don’t think anyone is accusing the women who now mask themselves as acting rudely, however, and that is the only issue I am addressing.

  14. BruceS: I disagree that there is no religious belief.

    Well what is that religious belief that requires a woman’s face to be masked in public?

  15. BruceS:..a person’s religious convictions take priority over social conventions of politeness

    Well I value politeness highly. I therefore question whether religious conviction (or cultural bias) should take precedence over social conventions. That it shouldn’t is a main tenet of my brand of secularism and I demand it take precedence!!!

    ETA: Politeness and hospitality, especially to strangers, is a a tenet of Islam and Christianity, no? (The good Samaritan etc). My daughter is an inveterate worldwide traveller and benefits hugely from this concept.

  16. Alan Fox: Well what is that religious belief that requires a woman’s face to be masked in public?

    Alan, we’re going in circles here. Whether I know or you know why it is a religious does not matter.

    Probably time to say “peace”* and call it a day.
    —————
    *H/T – FMM

  17. Alan Fox: Well I value politeness highly. I therefore question whether religious conviction (or cultural bias) should take precedence over social conventions. That it shouldn’t is a main tenet of my brand of secularism and I demand it take precedence!!!

    Fair enough. I’ve given my arguments why it is not rude.

    But I don’t consider you rude for rejecting my arguments. Just wrong!

  18. BruceS,

    I’m sorry. This still itches for me probably due to a previous aborted discussion at ATBC and is one reason I don’t comment much there these days.

  19. Alan Fox:
    BruceS,

    I’m sorry. This still itches for me probably due to a previous aborted discussion at ATBC and is one reason I don’t comment much there these days.

    Are you Canadian?

    No reason to say you are sorry since you have not acted rudely. (Automatic “I am sorry” ‘s are common here in Canada. Sorry if you already knew that).

    And of course, just because I think you are wrong, does not mean that it is so.

  20. Patrick:
    BruceS,

    Jerry Coyne discusses that on his site.He’s not impressed.

    I only skimmed Coyne’s essay, but I don’t think Jerry is talking about the article in the Smithsonian that I linked to.

    The article I linked only claims to have found archaeological evidence to help understand of the nature of worship and the various sects of Judaism that existed in the times and area where Jesus is said to have lived.

  21. BruceS: But I believe in tolerance for religious practices that do not violate secular laws, so I do not consider people who practice their religion in pubic to be acting rudely.

    But the simple fact is that we – USA at least, if not all western democracies – give religion undeserved respect. We do not pass laws against things that only religious people do, even if we would collectively pass laws against that exact same behavior if it weren’t protected by the mantle of “religion”.

    Hijab/niqab is a good example here. It would be completely impossible to pass a law banning niqab in the US. Even racist anti-Muslim right wing christians would be up in arms about the attempt to “interfere with religion”.

    Does the Muslim cultural custom of forcing women to cover their faces suddenly change from rude and something you would tolerate in US because it can never be made illegal, to rude and something you would not tolerate in France, because they had the political courage to make it illegal?

    Therefore, it’s not sound thinking to use “not violate secular law” as your guideline for what (you believe) you should have “tolerance” for.

    No one should tolerate the practice of wearing niqab. No matter what reason the practitioners give, and no matter whether it’s against the law, or not.

  22. I think there is plenty of evidence that Islamic women, by and large, will not wear these garments unless forced to.

    So I think the issue of tolerance is moot. These women are abused, and many of them have Stockholm Syndrome.

  23. BruceS: because a person’s religious convictions take priority over social conventions of politeness.

    No, they don’t.

    See how easy that is?

    SImply refuse to let the religious people claim an undeserved priority.

    Religion should never be respected over any other social convention.

    Why should it? Because we have been collectively indoctrinated for two millennia that it should? I reject that indoctrination!

  24. petrushka: I think there is plenty of evidence that Islamic women, by and large, will not wear these garments unless forced to.

    So I think the issue of tolerance is moot. These women are abused, and many of them have Stockholm Syndrome.

    Right.

  25. It is a bit ironic that the countries that are most tolerant of religious minorities are the same ones where religion has the least influence in public and political life.

    It is really the attempt to exercise power that breeds contempt.

    Thinking about what I just wrote brings to mind something from my childhood.

    When I was a kid, black people did not arose anger in the white community. I grew up within a couple blocks of a black neighborhood and was so naive, I didn’t even notice. Public roads conveniently ended wherever they might have connected black and white neighborhoods.

    I’ve never seen this mentioned anywhere, but there are fossil remains of the connections, even on Google maps. The maps show roads where there are trees or missing bridges. I know of at least three such fossils.

    Getting back to my point, I think that animosity arises when formerly powerless people suddenly try to assert their rights. In my lifetime this happened with blacks, women, gays and is beginning to happen with atheists.

    Next on the list might be Muslims, but who represents them, and exactly what rights are they striving for?

    I don’t think the right to oppress women is going to fly.

  26. I think if a religious belief is demonstrably false, there is little point in talking about whether it should be taken literally or not. Take it literally if it falsifies the religion and the religion is sent to the ash heap of failed beliefs. Case in point (rather heartbreaking), the Ghost Shirt:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ghost_Shirt

    The Ghost Shirt is a relic believed to have been worn by a Sioux warrior killed in the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. The shirt is plain cotton, has raven, owl, and eagle feathers hanging from the neck, and is pierced in several places with bullet holes. There are slight brown stains of blood, but it cannot be confirmed that the shirt originated from the massacre. Ghost Dance shirts are said to be objects of power to the wearer, and sacred to American Indians. The Lakota Sioux were the only tribe to believe that the ghost shirt clothing would protect them from the bullets of the white man.

    In 1891 the shirt was brought to Glasgow, and sold to Kelvingrove Museum by George C. Crager, a member of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Traveling Show. The shirt was displayed at the museum from 1892 until 1999.

    A four year campaign led by Marcella Le Beau, secretary of The Wounded Knee Association and great-granddaughter of one of the survivors of Wounded Knee, sought the shirt’s return to the Lakota people. In November 1998 Glasgow City Council voted to return it after the city residents supported the move. In a gesture of good will, the Ghost Dance Shirt was replaced by another made in 1998 by Marcella Le Beau herself. She said, “This will bring about a sense of closure to a sad and horrible event. Now healing can begin.” The Lakota leaders said that the shirt will be displayed at one of the Reservations once a new museum is built.[2][3][4][5][6][7] (photos)[8][9]

    The Ghost shirts were no match for gatling guns at the massacre of Wounded Knee:

    http://www.manataka.org/page1080.html

    A gray, frigid morning came and the Indians found themselves surrounded by soldiers and Gatling guns.
    ….
    The soldiers opened fire on mostly unarmed elderly Indians, and women and children. When the firing halted, approximately 300 defenseless Sioux had been butchered.

    Sad and disgraceful.

    It’s why I think some of this discussion is really moot. If there is no God or if there is only one true religion, then at least 99.99% of this discussion is moot.

  27. stcordova: I think if a religious belief is demonstrably false, there is little point in talking about whether it should be taken literally or not.

    The problem is that “true” here depends on at least two things:

    1. Your definition of truth. (Some people only acknowledge physical/empirical theory of correspondence. This makes them off topic in this thread, because scripture by its nature is multi-layered with focus on the spiritual level.)
    2. Whether the text/proposition was meant literally in the first place. (Whatever your theory of truth, this should matter when you are determining the truth of the given text/proposition.)

    Without these two points sorted out, people will eternally talk past each other.

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