Mick Gordon and Chris Wilkinson interviewed religious and non-religious people on the nature of religion (in a recommended book Conversations on Religion, Continuum, 2008). They started each interview with, "Do you have a working definition of religion?"

Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury (UK) replied:

A working definition, I think, would have to be a set of habits: habits of speaking, habits of imagining, habits of behaving physically. Habits which are intended to anchor you in relation to something invisible, incomprehensible, and challenging.

Williams later says that these habits are formed by stories that people tell and which then become the basis of a relationship of trust.

I read that and then the rest of the interview. It could have been in Swahili (which I don't speak by the way) for all I really "grocked". Though highly-educated Williams uses incomprehensible language (I think) to speak about something incomprehensible.

Can we ever talk the same language?


Tags: religion

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I think you are right in that believers and non believers do not speak the same language. However, I would quibble and say that your example of Williams is not one that I would choose. I actually found what the excerpt comprehensible, rather like what many philsophers use (and such that I would question whether or not he really believes himself).

But back to your idea that we don't speak the same language. This means that we think differently, which is an important concept.

Believers say that they want the truth, but then they start with the assumption that they have the truth without questioning it.

Believers tend to be people who won't do science - often because it's "too hard". They often had trouble with it in school (if they went to school). (Science and math will be even more incomprehensible to them than that interview was to you.)
Couple of thoughts...

Point taken about the quote. However it's one thing to acknowledge the concept of something that may be incomprehensible and so on. But it is quite another to suggest one can have a personal relationship with such a thing. That is part of the difference-language story, I think.

A scientific world-view sees only the physical world, as described by the sciences. However most religious people see that secondary to something greater, more significant, inaccessible to our sciences.
I have said it before that atheism is hurting itself by using such incomprehensible language. To a theist listening to the explanations of a non-existent god from a master of words is like trying to explain to your dog; how your car works. I proves that they are smart, but doesn't do any good to prove a point.
I agree that believers and non-believers often do not use terms in the same manner. For instance, when I say I'm an atheist, I mean it in the broad sense that I have an absense of belief in a deity. When a theist hears me say I am an atheist, they take it to mean that I say unequivocally that there is no God. The same goes for terms like "faith" and "belief". Often, a theist will say "it takes just as much faith to be an atheist", but if you ask them to define "faith", the way they are using it to describe the commonly held beliefs of many atheists is not in the same context in which they have faith in the existence of their deity.
I like the "team spirit" analogy.

I can imagine two people talking about that - one who believes that the "team spirit" is demonstrably real in an ontological sense like matter, energy, and so on; and another who is sees "team spirit" as a metaphor for the group unity and cohesion. While the conversation proceeds in a general sense with no commitment to actual existence everything is fine. As soon as the first mentions personal conversations and special practices to invoke "team spirit" presence, then the different irreconcilable world-views appear.

Many progressive Christians have blurred the separation, so to speak, by talking about God as a "life-force". Even many religiously-indifferent people objectify "life" as something that exists independently of our bodies - compare this with the dualistic "mind" myth.


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