Overview:

When it comes to playing with words, Christianity is audacious. Let’s also investigate the surprising similarities of change in language vs. change in morality.

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Christianity would be clearer with subtitles. We’ve seen how interestingly messy English can be (part 1), but thing really get weird when we let Christians explain their religion. Christianity is quick to redefine words if the traditional definitions are inconvenient.

  • Does faith mean a belief well-grounded with evidence (and which would change, if necessary, based on new evidence)? Or does it mean belief not based on evidence? Christians use both definitions.
  • The pro-life movement has redefined person to include a microscopic human zygote. (To sidestep this ploy, ask the pro-life person what the newborn baby is that the single cell nine months prior was not. This can help acknowledge the vast gulf of development that turns that single celled zygote into a trillion-cell baby.)
  • The word truth is often capitalized when referring to the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Commenter RichardSRussell clarifies the matter, “They’ve doused the word in piety sauce by capitalizing it, so you won’t mistake it for the meaning you’ll find in the dictionary.”
  • Some words are redefined as their opposite. For example, “Jesus died on the cross.” But if Jesus is alive and well now and was only pretend-dead for a day and a half, then he didn’t die.
  • “I know that God exists.” Really? In a demonstrable way, like “water dissolves sugar” or “the sun is a star”?
  • “Prayer works.” Really? Like “my computer works” or “the light switch works”?
  • Michael Newdow attacked the phrase “under God” in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” as the national motto. Christian defenders of the status quo replied that these phrases had withered to become mere expressions of “ceremonial deism.” That’s right: the atheist thought that the word God had power, while the Christians didn’t.

I wonder how Christianity would look if we called them on their word games and returned to words’ actual definitions. Prayer would kinda work. A Christian would feel very strongly that God exists. Jesus had a painful day for our sins. Faith would be belief based on feelings or customs, not anything verifiable.

What kind of morality says today that birth control is legal and “Whites only” signs aren’t but said the reverse, in parts of the same country, seventy years before? Obviously not an objective morality.

Language and morality

Let’s highlight the similarities between language and morality.

1. Dictionaries. Languages can have dictionaries, and those dictionaries are usually descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, they simply document how words are used rather than say how they ought to be used. Dictionaries are rarely consulted, because native speakers absorbed the definitions informally since birth.

Moral rules can be documented, but these are also rarely consulted because natives pick them up from the environment as they do with the rules of language.

2. Guides. Usage and style guides are the prescriptive sources, which tell you what you should do. These tell you when to use whom rather than who (grammar), when to use continuously rather than continually (definitions of confusing words), or the rules that are mandatory at a workplace (style).

In the moral domain, Emily Post’s Etiquette is a venerable example of the rules that constrain polite people. A broader example is Confucius, who prescribed proper behavior with his teachings.

3. Crowd sourcing. Change in language doesn’t come from some authority but from the ground up, from the users themselves.

Similarly, morality comes from us. Fundamental moral tenets are taken for granted (about slavery or child work laws), and we debate ones that are in contention (abortion, capital punishment).

4. Change over time and place. Words and their definitions change with time. They’re also an attribute of society, and the language spoken in one country might be different than that in its neighbor. In the U.S. the predominant language is Modern English, but other societies do fine with other languages.

Morals also change by time and place. In the Old Testament, we find God ordering genocide, demanding human sacrifice, and defining the rules for slavery (both temporary indentured servitude and slavery for life). Modern Westerners reject these unconditionally. Morals also vary by society, and we find different rules for capital punishment, abortion, and eating meat across the globe. There is no objective set of morals just like there is no universal language.

Differences between language and morality

But this language/morality analogue isn’t perfect. Morality isn’t arbitrary in the way language is. In English, we could get along just fine if we replaced the word head with the word some other language uses—Kopf or tête or holova. And while etiquette rules are largely arbitrary (Does a gentleman need to remove his hat indoors? How do you introduce two people of unequal social rank?), some moral beliefs are part of our programming. Evolution has made our inclinations toward compassion and trust (but also jealousy and lust) more or less innate in all of us.

There was no pre-Babel common language that we all share, but we do share human morality.

What about objective morality?

Christians will say that some things are “really wrong,” but how is really wrong different from regular wrong? It’s different in degree, not kind. The wrongness due to a breach of etiquette is different in degree from that of a murder, not different in kind.

“Really” wrong is usually intended to mean objectively wrong. William Lane Craig defines objective morality as “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not.” But look up morality in a dictionary and you’ll find nothing about an objective grounding. Those who handwave about an objective morality admit that morality doesn’t mean that, because if it did, they wouldn’t have to add the qualifier objective!

To view this charitably, they’re making a distinction between morality from society and morality from evolution—that is, morality as changeable vs. morality as hardwired. But they fail to provide evidence that any part of morality is grounded outside the human mind or comes from God.

What kind of morality says today that birth control is legal and “Whites only” signs aren’t but said the reverse, in parts of the same country, seventy years before? Obviously not an objective morality.

Changes in morality are like changes in language. Language is not immutable, it’s not objectively correct, and it doesn’t come from God. The same is true for morality.

Some women approached Dr. Johnson
after he had published his famous dictionary
to thank him for not putting in any vulgar words.
He said, “And I congratulate you ladies
for looking them up.”

CROSS EXAMINED After graduating from MIT, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and is a co-contributor to 14 software patents. For more than a decade, he has explored the debate between Christianity...