Definition Swap

Weinberg

There is a large and multi-pronged effort out there to define certain words in such varied and nebulous terms as to rob them of any concrete meaning whatsoever. The word in particular I want to address is “God” but it is not alone, “Truth” is another excellent example of the sort of selective redefinition I’m talking about. Both of these words are used so often, and in so many differing, contradictory, and utterly subjective ways that one could be forgiven for thinking that they don’t actually have objective definitions at all.

I say one could be forgiven, but never excused; misinformation no matter how well meant or innocent of intention should never be excused, it must be unapologetically corrected. “God” with a capital “G” can safely be defined (at least by the dictionaries I checked) as “The one supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.” The concept of “God” is a creation of the Old Testament, which is the defining and original source of the idea of monotheism. It is responsible for the very idea of a single all-knowing all-powerful deity. Before its advent the capitalized “God” did not exist. Before its spread the only concept of deity was that of “god” (note the lowercase) or rather of “gods”. These were lesser, limited creatures with finite abilities and knowledge. This word “god” is a word you don’t really see much in the world anymore, having been largely stamped out by the proponents of its capitalized cousin.

As I said in the opening the effort to change the definition of God is multi-pronged. Pantheists like to claim things like “God is the universe!” while moderate Christians or fundamentalist moderates like to say “God is love” or “God is the best parts of ourselves” and spiritualists and mysticists add to the clamour with “God is energy!” and “God is the laughter of little children” or whatever you like in substitution. They all have different definitions, or redefinitions, but their motivations for changing the definition are all basically the same.

I do not think that the perpetrators of this definition sleight of hand choose their words at random. I think that the words “God” and “Truth” were chosen for very specific reasons. The word “God” morphed from its true definition referring to the all-powerful monotheist god Yahweh to become the anthropomorphized spirit of every good thing once people began to recognize the unquestionable monstrousness of the original character. As we advanced as a species we learned more, we grew more moral and more sociable and unsurprisingly the personality of God laid out in the Old Testament lost its luster for some. Rather than move on from the mythology entirely however some simply kept the parts of god they liked, and discarded the rest. The evolution of the definition of God is exactly the same sort of selective interpretation that fundamentalist moderates use when deciding which parts of their various holy books to advocate and which to dismiss.

Now we come to the second word I mentioned, another victim of constant redefinition and rebranding, the word “Truth”. This word we hear all the time, and most of us would probably say we have a good idea of what it means. I think it’s fair to say that at its simplest and most direct truth means “that which is in accordance with reality or fact.” This definition of truth is the basis of all knowledge, scholarship, science, and critical inquiry. It’s what makes mathematics work, it’s what makes planes fly…and there are large groups of people in the world who want you to believe that it doesn’t exist. They’ll tell you the all truth is subjective. They’ll say that we each have our own truths and that they are all equally true and all equally valid. “It is overly simplistic,” they’ll chorus, “to assume that something is false just because there is contradictory evidence.” If there is no objective standard for truth, if everything is true then there is no basis for criticism and no mechanism for challenge or reform. This is exactly the type of atmosphere religion and theism in general require to not just survive but thrive.

So with “God” safely sanitized to fit their particular attitudes or proclivities and “Truth” relegated to the realm of opinion it becomes impossible say that ANY definition is incorrect because it is true to them. So the pantheist who declares that the universe is God is just as right as the fundamentalist moderate who says that god is love. It is faith without conviction, it is Old Testament fan fiction.

A lot of atheists will be quick to say “the bible isn’t evidence.” I do it myself all the time. Yet I will concede that the bible is better evidence than your unsubstantiated personal relationship with infinity. Subjective truths are very real and very valid, we all have them. A rational reasonable person learns to differentiate between the subjective truths of their individual reality and reach deeper to the fundamental real objective truths of reality.

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Posted on April 5, 2013, in Editorial, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Everything you’ve said here resonates with me on a different level. I’m currently exploring the hypothesis that we experience the world through the lens of a simulation of the world running in our brains. That is to say that what we think we perceive is not directly so, rather it is translated to signals which play out in a simulation in our brains, inside which we analyze that data and apply rules and compare and contrast.

    That personal truth people use is simply the rules sets for their internal simulation. In their simulation their god is real and they don’t need more evidence because they have found enough that their simulation declares their god real. To convince them otherwise you have to modify the rules of their simulation. In their simulation truth is what is true in their bend out of shape world such that common things like 2+2=4 are true there, but the existence of imaginary deities is also true. You can tell them otherwise but until the get data or experience that self corrects the rules of their simulation they will not believe you. This is why ‘experiencing god for yourself’ is a standard and functionally successful ploy.

    They do indeed live in their own little worlds, as do we all. Critical thinkers work extra hard to align the rules of their simulation to the real world. The more correction applied to the rules of the simulation the better your bullshit detectors work. Theists don’t do much to correct their rules and may be running with the very same set of rules they graduated school with.

    Hopefully that made sense

    Good post… yet another one.

  2. things like “god is love” relegate the term to meaninglessness. god is NOT love. god is god, love is love. they have to different meanings because it is possible to conceive of a loveless god and it is easy to conceive of love without god. similarly for “art”. if the word doesn’t have a specific definition than its use in language is null. you may as well insert a blank. in the case of art i offer an anti-definition. art is not something anyone can do. proceed from there. in the case of god, it’s not love, it’s not truth, it’s not any thing which has already been defined in other terms. those may be attributes of god, or vice versa but they cannot be the same thing.

  3. In this article you note that mis-information should never be excused, yet it seems as though your disdain for the old testament may have betrayed you again.

    Modern archaeology, now shows quite clearly the Indus Valley Civilization worship of their “One true God” (capitol) “Agni” or fire god. As well as Amenhotep IV’s (or Akhenaton lliving spirit of the Aten) return to to Egypt’s previous worship of the Aten, may indicate the idea of a single God (capitol) predating Abraham’s god by as much as 2000yrs.

    To be sure, civilizations in the Punjab were recognizing “one true god” thousands of years before Abraham, and writing about their beliefs. Of this much we can now be most certain.

    • Agni is one of a host of Vedic gods, the messenger as a matter of fact. In some traditions he was elevated above the other vedic gods, but there is no tradition that I can find that ever stated that there were no other gods, hardly a monotheistic tradition is it? As for Akhenaton’s promotion of the idea of the Aten as a supreme deity, that amounts to the (short lived) state sponsorship of a marginal cult which lasted only 20 years before being completely disavowed and all but entirely wiped from the historical record, all that aside though it also wasn’t monotheism as the worship of the other gods of the Egyptian pantheon continued.
      In both cases you’re talking about deities who exist as a part of a community of deities. While I don’t dispute that certain individuals and groups may have elevated one of those gods above the others for a short period the fact remains that in both examples given there was a long established pantheon of other gods. By the reasoning you’re using here Jupiter is a candidate for the roots of monotheism, as is Zeus, Odin, and any number of other chief gods throughout history.
      Also both of your examples were beings of limited scope and responsibility. In Agni’s case fire, in Aten’s case the sun, that puts them squarely in the “gods” (lowercase) category. The idea of the all-powerful all knowing one God of modern monotheism is found in no widely spread tradition that predates the Judaic adoption and transmutation of the Babylonian polytheistic god that became Yaweh. That is to say that the modern conception of “God” comes from that source, to change the definition to fit individual proclivities or sensibilities is dishonest. It’s biblical fan fiction.
      My “disdain of the old testament” has little to do with the ideas put forth in this article. As a matter of fact this article would be one of the rare instances where I am defending the “integrity” of the OT by insisting that if you’re going to profess a belief in its characters you have to accept the narrative and characterizations of those characters as well…Thanks for the comment.

  4. I assume that I may have missed your point, for that I apologize. Further to mine, it seems that your under the impression that the discovery of the dead sea scrolls, alerted the modern world that 7K years ago some guy named Abraham tried to convert people to the existence of “one true God”. Maybe as a non-believer, your un-aware how this works. or maybe you’ve studied the wrong things, I don’t know, but in much the same way modern catholics worship Mary, & Joseph in hopes they will intercede w/ the “father God”, the vedic traditions typically have minor Gods, that their devotees worship in hopes of intercession. The most basic course in Theology, teaches that traditions, groups and geography can change, the names of the “gods worshiped’ can and do change, but the practices many gravitate toward remain the same.
    Abraham sought to do away with the minor gods, as did Akhenaten, as do many of the ancient, and current worshipers of the vedic gods.

    The “idea” of an powerful all knowing singular God easily recognizable by modern monotheism is widely spread throughout the ancient world. I feel your sources may be lacking.

    I wonder if you’ve ever made the time to check out the Bhagavad Gita, you may find it fascinating.

    I also encourage you to seek out the “persistent idea” of a “singular God”, as it occurs in the masses, this is the same “idea” many archaeologist in the Punjab, are following, its the “idea” that lead to the discovery of a “permeating idea” of a “risen” christ before Jesus of Nazareth was even born re: Simon of Perea (I may have the name wrong here).

  5. Stacey, I think the point that Adam is trying to make in this article is about the modern day departure from the original concept of a god into a more spiritual or existential definition. For example, he mentions Spinoza’s idea of the universe itself being god…….. The problem with these modern definitions are they rely on nothing more than a person’s faith rather than something tangible, as he said, at least the fundamentalists have the Bible (To look from a purely Christian perspective from simplicity) This allows a person to “cherry pick” their beliefs and simply ignore what they don’t agree with…… This creates a sort of personal belief system. He then talks about the redefinition of truth from “What is absolute” to “What a person believes to be true” This, by itself, makes everything subjective and therefore equally as valid…… As you can easily see, this is not scientific at all and provides a defense for almost any action….. So it’s more of a defense for the definition of “truth” and to show the fallacy of a “personal” belief rather than a discussion on Mono/Polytheism

    That’s how I interpreted it anyway……. 🙂 -Stormy

    • Hey Stormy,
      Thanks for the insightful & intelligent insight, I appreciate it! I remain grounded in my own conclusions, yet I enjoy Adam’s & in this case your well thought out, contributions to the on-going discussion, humanity is an amazing thing, its wonderful when we “make” time to connect along the journey, again sir, thank-you for making time to connect with me, it means a great deal }:)

      • ^apologies^ for the overuse of “insight”, meant to write “Introspective & Intelligent Insight”

      • Thanks, differing opinions are good anyway….. or we would never achieve anything or challenge our own beliefs or see the world from a different perspective so I appreciate your comments, they made me think and evaluate my own opinions even though I still agree with Adam, the experience was worth it 🙂 -Stormy

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