The Linguistic Laziness of Religion

In September 2013, I published a post called “Grieving as an Atheist”. It was a response to the accusation that atheists are somehow bankrupt when it comes to expressing or consoling grief. I want to change the perspective and argue that religious language is lazy and robs us of the relationships and bonds we could be forming with other people. Religious language is lazy.

There is also, to a lesser extent, a cowardice and patronisation related to religious language, that I don’t want to dwell less on but it worth considering. People who like to speak in secular terms are often heard saying they’d rather a hard truth than a comforting lie. And said speakers are invariably contrasting that maxim against faithful utterances. The truth, carefully received, is the proper foundation for decision making. Imagine if you made a big decision an advice from a friend they didn’t really believe or understand when they uttered it: you’d be furious when you found out, and they only did it to make their conversation easier in that moment.

The main point―that religiously based language is lazy―though, was strikingly obvious in a discussion I had about marriage. The person I was talking with wanted to defend an unchangeable Biblical definition of Marriage and argue that society was neglecting just such a definition. Part of their arsenal of making their point was the word “sacred”. “Sacred” is a very powerful word and is does express something we can relate to: the reports on actions of ISIS destroying Holy, sacred and ancient monuments does enrage most people; the word “sacred” does relate to something.

But using the word is laziness. We can unambiguously use words like “sacred” to describe things we agree we care about, even if we reject the theological or metaphysical implications of the word. Historical and cultural landmarks are an example of such. However, attempting to use “sacred” as a persuasive word―as an objective quality about a thing―is laziness. It attempts to navigate around the need to actually explain why something might be important and just demands we lend something significance. When I was talking to art & life notes and they tried to convince me their interpretation of the Biblical definition of marriage was “sacred”, it killed their entire point. It didn’t mean anything; they may as well have said “because it’s important, now shut up and eat your fries”. It sounded important and persuasive, which is useful in a debate. But it doesn’t mean anything. It was an off-the-peg token sentence. It’s lazy.

But this reminded me of my post Grieving as an Atheist. I remembered the accusation that atheists’ have a bankrupt language that cannot offer certain condolences. I argued that atheists actually lack clichés, not expression. Looking at the language of condolences, it’s just lazy. “You’re in my prayers”, “they’re in a better place”, “God has a plan” or “everything happens for a reason”.

And when you start looking for lazy language, you find more and more of it. A “miracle”, based on it’s usage, appears to be a statistically improbable positive event. That’s what a foreign language student would infer the word meant, based on its context. But that isn’t what people mean, they mean something impossible actually happened, for a profound and personal reason; they mean “paradoxes are”, but they don’t know what they mean because the word has descended into lazy clichéd talk.

I prefer sincere talk. If you listen to Christopher Hitchens on YouTube, I don’t think he ever relied upon lazy language to express himself. He chose sincere, meaningful, original language. Even religious people agreed he was good at that. And, by contrast to that, I think we can see how religion has developed a lot of lazy words that people have become far too comfortable using.


5 thoughts on “The Linguistic Laziness of Religion”

  1. It is not just lazy but also cowardly at the same time. Sometimes I feel theists are fishing for a reason to condemn.

    Consider the question we all so often get: do you believe in God? This is both lazy and cowardly. They are really asking the question: do you believe in my god?” If someone asks you “Do you believe in god?” try answering “Yes, Shiva is a most important part of my life.” and see what their reaction is. (Probably confusion, followed by changing of the subject, or breaking off of the conversation.)

    Why ask such a divisive question? The only answer is so you can categorize others and/or exclude others. This question is not asked out of honest curiosity or a desire for an enlightening conversation.

    Regarding the “sacred” definition of marriage: if they are honest, they will have to say that their God was entirely comfortable with polygamy, that this is the form of marriage “sanctified” by scripture. My bet is they will not go that far, therefore they are cherry-picking their ideas out of the word soup that is their scripture.

  2. You prefer ‘sincere talk’ allalt?

    He ya go, no charge. All the ‘gods’ of time and history fashioned by the minds of men combined could not lift a finger to bench press a pea.

    Yep, this includes the modern ‘gods’ of Hollywood, sports, religions, culture, wealth, fame, you name it, as ‘gods’ are a dime a dozen.

    Then there is the true God, the One, the only, Lord of heaven and earth, with whom all men have to do. You see, He made the stars also; He has no competitor. And the proof of His existence? It’s called life, which is proven in the scriptures, and confirmed by the conscience of man.

  3. In our Western Tradition is a subject called “rhetoric.”

    Rhetoric is the study of persuasion through the use of words.

    That people would use the word, “sacred,” as a word of persuasion is therefore, totally unremarkable.

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