Monday, March 17, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (14b): Religious grammar continued

At the risk of making this even murkier than it seems to be already, a few thoughts to expand what I said in the earlier post.

Think of different languages. Think of the different words for 'cow'. Clearly there are connotations to the word for cow in Sanskrit and Urdu that aren't present in English or Welsh. However, there is enough in common for the term to be more or less translatable.

You could say that the words for cow across the different languages share a family resemblance. There may not be any one item which is the exact 'essence of cow' which all the words for cow correspond to, but there is enough correspondence for people of different languages to understand each other, and recognise what is being referred to, in just the same way that different members of a family might more or less resemble each other, without there being any one specific feature which they all have in common.

My argument is that there is something similar going on with religious frameworks. There may not be any one essential thing which all religions have in common (in fact, I'm pretty certain there isn't) and there are all sorts of ways in which religions differ - to the extent that even using the word 'religion' is suspect - but there are family resemblances across the different religions which mean that they more or less resemble each other.

Much of that resembling comes in terms of what could be called 'the practice of holiness', ie cultivating certain attitudes and virtues like forgiveness. Again there may not be one specific element which is 'the essence of forgiveness' but, as I see it, there is enough correspondence in behaviour across the different faiths (and even no faiths) for this to become a meaningful analogy.

Now the way in which these different behaviours are described (or justified) across the different cultures may be very diverse, but if the underlying behaviour is sufficiently similar then I believe we are justified in saying 'these are the same sorts of behaviour'. My point is that when this happens the different religious perspectives do not in reality contradict each other, however diverse the explanations may be. (I would say they each correspond to the will of God - but that's an example of what is at issue.)

Ponder for a moment what it would be for this not to be true. It would mean that there is no common humanity across different cultures, no way in which, for example, one person could communicate their hunger to someone from a different society. Making motions towards an open mouth, rubbing the stomach and so on - are we saying that human beings are so shaped by their culture and language that no communication is possible?

Perhaps this is true. My wife is a translator, and certainly some things, some concepts, are untranslatable (I'm sure the word logos is one). Yet I would place this into a spectrum of understanding, whereby some things are more or less clearly common to human nature, and other things are more or less untranslatably a product of specific circumstance. This is why the word schadenfreude is used in English - in order to preserve a more specific meaning (and of course, that word may well by now have developed different overtones and connotations to what it had in its original linguistic home.)

The point I would want to drive home is that differences in spoken or written language do not necessarily make for a substantial difference in belief. They may, they may not. The key is the practice or form of life within which the words are embedded, and which give the words any meaning that they possess. I have no interest in saying that Christianity, Islam, Buddhism etc are all the same (they're not). I do want to say that there are family resemblances, areas of correspondence and compatibility, and that what might seem at first sight to be a contradiction ain't necessarily so.

I return to that Wittgenstein quotation I make much use of:
"Actually I should like to say that ... the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer (Karl Barth). It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense."

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