My son plays on a vintage baseball team. They play by 1861 rules, use 1860s language, wear 1860s uniforms, and sell soda pop and Cracker Jack. It is what they call a “gentleman’s game.” There is only one umpire, and he is asked for decisions only when the players cannot agree. The umpire will occasionally ask the “cranks” (fans) for their opinion on a close call. “Huzzah!” and a tip of one’s cap means “Hooray!” In this setting, my son is the “behind” (catcher).
Now imagine one of the vintage players playing for a modern team but using language from the vintage game. If he yelled “daisy cutter!” he would not be communicating effectively, either with his teammates or his opponents. (A daisy cutter, for the uninitiated, is a ground ball.)
Words can have multiple meanings, and language changes over time. This makes it all the more important to define and agree on terms up front, before the game or the conversation. And there is no arena in which this is more necessary than in considering words like supernatural, sacred, humanism, and the like. Without explicit definitional clarification, words used in secular humanist and religious discourse may not be as clear as is assumed. I am reminded of the Steven Wright joke: “I went to a restaurant that serves ‘breakfast at any time.’ So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.”
God. Spiritual. Religious. Without communicative clarity, concepts like these can end up being like “breakfast at any time.” Participants can talk past one another. You believe (or don’t believe) in God. Which God? Pat Robertson’s? Spinoza’s? The Pastafarians’? You are (or are not) religious. What religion? Unitarian Universalism? Southern Baptism? Buddhism?
Many steadfast naturalists are committed to avoiding words that have even the slightest connotation of the immaterial or improvable. But even these critics are at their most lucid when they clarify precisely what it is that is being rejected. On the other hand, those who feel that words like spiritual or God can be understood naturalistically walk in a minefield of potential misunderstanding, which becomes even more hazardous if the precise metaphorical intent of the usage is not explicitly laid out up front.
In a recent correspondence with Free Inquiry Editor Tom Flynn, I had the experience of teammates debating the meaning of key terms on the playing field (it is unsettled which of us was vintage). The exchange emphasized for me the importance of not assuming another’s meaning. It’s not just about the definitions. The ideas themselves are often fascinating and worth grappling over.
For example, Flynn has an intriguing take on the definition of supernatural. Here is his logic. He first lists several examples of unsupportable beliefs: concepts such as human perfectibility, the belief that world communism would usher in a utopia of fairness and prosperity, and the belief that humans are on the cusp of an inevitable evolution to a higher form. Flynn then writes (in personal correspondence): “But if a true believer is going to form a firm conviction that his or her chosen idea will come true . . . even though there’s no way it can in the natural world . . . what does that leave? Yep, the supernatural. Not necessarily a specific acceptance of ghosts or gods, but an acceptance of some causality transcending the ordinary natural world.” Flynn then goes on from this understanding of the supernatural to discusses what types of beliefs, in practice, effectively can be considered “religious”: “Whether the true believer expects people to be happy giving according to their ability and taking according to their need, or expects pigs to make like Cessnas, the only way to justify faith in it is to believe in something that bleeds outside the ordinary domain of nature. To me, that makes such beliefs effectively religious.”
While Flynn’s felicitous talent for composition is splendid, I argue that this understanding of the words supernatural and religious is too diffuse. I suggest that the supernatural be understood as an immaterial nonphysical entity or realm that is somehow able to interact with material nature. I argue that faith in the immaterial is a distinct type of claim warranting its own definition and analysis. Such a faith should not be conflated by definition with other unsupportable beliefs. By my reasoning, “optimists who maintain that human beings are perfectible or will eventually create Utopia” are not an example of a supernatural or religious concept. They are just wrong.
The point here is not to argue which definition is better or more accurate. The point is a call, for the sake of communicative clarity, to be explicit and up front about one’s specific meaning when discussing contestable concepts such as supernatural, spiritual, and the like. The burden is hardly on one side. Those of religious faith are rarely explicit and often absurdly disparate in the meanings they attach to the words they use. In order to have any chance for meaningful discourse, religious advocates also need to specify precisely what they mean by spirit and soul, and soon.
If the meaning of a particular word were unambiguous and accepted by all, then explicit clarification would not be necessary. Unfortunately, depending on the circumstances, definitions are often essential to avoid misunderstandings. Especially when it comes to complex and important concepts such as God. Or behinds.
While it might not always seem like a whole lot of fun to have to define terms, it is necessary if we hope to play the game well and communicate effectively. I remember wonderful late-night college “bull” sessions (which weren’t bull at all) with my roommate. After hours of discussion, it would often end up that our differences were reducible to variations in how we were using words. While the process helped clarify our thoughts, such discussions are not for all tastes. I remember my girlfriend once literally fell asleep listening to my roommate and I delve into some discussion that ended up being a linguistic rather than a substantive difference. (I must have convinced the sleeping girlfriend I wasn’t that boring though, because a few years later she accepted my marriage proposal.) Her exceptional and valued intelligence is of a more practical type. While I may strive to think and communicate clearly about terms like cranks and daisy cutter, without my wife I’d probably get lost driving to the game and risk missing the event entirely. In vintage baseball, and in life, clarity of language is essential. But that’s just the groundwork. It’s the game that counts.