The field of Information Technology is divided into many specialties. One is “software engineering” which includes what most people think of when they hear the words “computer programming.” Another is “quality assurance” which tests software for “bugs,” i.e., malfunctions. And yet another is “usability” which tests the ability of “real world” users to actually use the software to perform a task. Usability is different from QA because a software might not contain any bugs, but have “poor usability” which would be the case if the software is more difficult to use than it should be for its intended audience (users).
I think this model can be a helpful way to think about constructing, testing, and using philosophical arguments, including arguments in the philosophy of religion, apologetics, and counter-apologetics.
Let’s start with the writings of theists. In my experience, as a general rule, individual theists do a decent job of defining what they mean by “God.” They might contradict one another over various details, but it’s usually reasonably clear what an individual philosopher or apologist means. But there are other words words and expressions which seem to repeatedly cause confusion. I won’t defend my claims here, but in my opinion these words and expressions include:
- any variation of “objective morality,” including “including objective moral values,” and related concepts such as “rights,” “dignity,” “value,” “purpose,” and “meaning” (especially as related to the “meaning of life”)
- “image of God”
Remember: this article is approaching these words from a usability, not a QA, perspective. So my purpose here is not to point out various ‘bugs’ (read: problems) in theistic arguments which use these words. Rather, my purpose here is to point out how problematic these words are for engaging in real communication. Just as software engineers are sometimes surprised by how difficult it is for other people to use their software correctly, I’d imagine that theists who construct theistic arguments using these words must be surprised by how difficult it is for other people to understand their arguments correctly. Just as software engineers might be tempted to deflect usability problems with computer software as “user error,” theists might be tempted to blame their audience (i.e., “nonbelievers are just being willfully ignorant”). But, for both types of usability problems, I suspect that what is usually the case is that most or all of the problem lies with the software engineer or philosopher or apologist.
Nontheists are hardly blameless in this regard. Problematic words include:
- “atheism” (only when explicitly defined as “the lack of belief in God”)
In my opinion, the words “faith” and “atheism” are parallel problems for theists and nontheists. In both cases, the problem is not that the speaker or writer fails to clearly define what they mean. Rather, the problem is that the speakers and writers seem to be fighting an uphill battle against a very common alternative definition of the word. For example, suppose I were a global warming activist debating someone who a global warming skeptic or denier. In my debate’s opening statement, I say this:
“By ‘global warming,’ I mean the fact, accepted by anybody with an IQ above 30, that global temperatures are, on average, rising. By ‘global warming skeptic,’ I mean right-wing whack jobs who are mentally disabled and wouldn’t recognize a scientific consensus if it smacked them over the head.”
This is an intentionally extreme and absurd example to make a point. If I want to make myself feel good by insulting my opponents, this might be cathartic. But if, on the other hand, my primary goal is to increase acceptance of global warming by debating the evidence for and against global warming, those definitions are, among other things, counterproductive.
Similarly, if you’re an atheist activist who wants to ‘rehabilitate’ the word “atheism” by ‘restoring’ its ‘correct‘ meaning as “without theism,” then it might make sense to insist upon that definition of “atheism.” But if your goal is to defend the rationality of not believing in God, then this is a waste of time. You’d be better off self-identifying as a “nontheist” and focusing on the lack of evidence, not semantics.
This entire post makes a pretty big assumption, however. It assumes that the reader actually wants to engage in real communication, not just the illusion of communication. If that assumption doesn’t apply to you, then you almost surely won’t agree with this advice. If so, I’d encourage you not to waste your time (or ours) by posting a comment here or even reading this blog again. We’re trying to do something special and different and rare here.