A few years ago I took a class on the Old Testament. In the class there were about 4 Jewish students, 3 Muslim students, 10 Christian students, and me. As the class was meant to be taken from an academic standpoint, it was not about whether what we read was true, but rather what the Old Testament can tell us about the people of the time. However, it seemed as though my classmates weren’t interested in anything other than having their beliefs confirmed, so they talked a lot about their faith and their thoughts from their religious perspectives. As I listened to their interpretations of the reading that we had all done, I couldn’t help but feel as though we were not, in fact, reading the same book. In many ways, it was like were weren’t even speaking the same language.
In the years since that class, that thought process has only been confirmed. When I talk to theists, especially when discussing religious texts, it’s like we’re not speaking the same language. I can’t help but think that this is what has caused a good deal of miscommunication between theists and non-theists. When we speak, we use different words, or we use the same words differently. When we discuss scripture or holy writ, the non-theist (or nonbeliever) does not interpret it the same way that the believer does. We see it differently. This makes it very difficult to come to an understanding. It leads to frustration and anger. And I think that it is important to try and realize that this miscommunication is occurring in order to prevent that frustration and anger. Unfortunately, I’m not quite sure how to avoid this miscommunication because it is not always obvious when a word is being used differently.
Some of the words that I’ve noticed as being used differently:
To a non-theist, this means belief without evidence.
Theists, in my experience, use this word differently depending on a number of factors, but two interpretations that I’ve noticed are trust and their relationship with their deity.
A lot of non-theists don’t like this word. Many feel that it implies faith. To me, a belief is just something that one holds true whether it is or not.
I’ve noticed that a lot of theists use this to mean truth.
When non-theists say something is true, we mean that it is supported by evidence.
Theists tend to have two interpretations of this word. The first is the capital-T truth, which seems to me to mean the words written in their particular holy book. The second is small-t truth, which seems to be defined as true facts.
When a non-theist says this, we generally mean someone who identifies as a Christian.
When a Christian says this, they can mean a number of things. They can agree with the non-theist, they can mean someone who has been saved, and they can even mean someone from their denomination only. It can be difficult to determine what is meant when someone says this.
When an atheist says this, they mean someone who believes that gods don’t exist.
When a theist says this, they often mean someone who asserts that there are no gods, or they may try to differentiate between the above claim and not believing in any gods.
When I hear a Christian say this I hear “the Bible,” but it seems that they often mean “the Gospels.” I’m not really to sure about other religions , but I generally just take “scripture” to mean “holy book.”
When non-theists say this, we generally mean a series of beliefs that inform a person’s view of the world.
When theists use worldview, it seems as though they often mean a single belief, or a few beliefs, where religion is concerned, and only where religion is concerned.
When non-theists say “give me evidence,” we mean tangible evidence. We mean “give me something I can see, touch, and accept.” We want something that will convince us, which means that we need to be able to confirm it.
Theists tend to use “evidence” more loosely. They often conflate personal experience with evidence, and they often try to show their holy book to be true using that holy book.
This one I think is generally a matter of whether or not one has had philosophical training, but there is still some difference between theists and non-theists.
Non-theists tend to mean a series of claims meant to support a conclusion.
Theists often mean getting into a shouting match.
This is not an all inclusive list, but it includes the words that I have noticed getting used differently the most. And it includes some of the most common usages that I have noticed. Also, while I say theist vs. non-theist, I’ve noticed this mostly between members of the Abrahamic religions and atheists/agnostics (I don’t have much dealings with people within the Eastern religions, and I haven’t noticed Pagan’s using words that I use differently. Well, not enough to comment on anyway).
What other words get used differently between theists and non-theists? What do these words mean to you?