Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Pledge Project: The Philosopher's God

I had some false assumptions on when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will be releasing its opinion on "under God" and "In God We Trust." However, I do not want the Pledge Project to fade away into darkness. For the reasons I stated earlier, I think that failure to take a vocal stand on these issues is a mistake. These practices do psychological harm by generating an 'out-group' psychology among atheists that make them (us) passive and obedient, willing to silently concede power to the dominant and aggressive ‘in group’.

Remember, you can keep up on news relevant to the Pledge Project at The Atheist Ethicist Journal.

When I listened to the oral arguments presented to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals they included an argument that the word “God” referred to what the speaker called “the philosopher’s God”. This is supposed to be some generic, vague, idea of a God that all people, even atheists (assumedly) can believe in. It means, at least according to this speaker, “a moral code that is external to the speaker.”

Of course I believe in an external code that is external to the speaker. Desire utilitarianism finds morality in the tendency that malleable desires have to fulfill or thwart other desires (thus giving us reason to promote or to inhibit them respectively). Those relationships are substantially independent of the speaker – since the speaker has only a small subset of the desires that exist.

However, I have never in my life heard this referred to using the term “God.”

As a writer, one fact that I know about writing is that its purpose is to communicate. In order to communicate, I choose my words so that they generate certain ideas in the listener. What a word or phrase means is whatever idea a person can reasonably predict will spring in the mind of the listener or reader when confronting that term in that context.

Whenever a writer uses a term outside of its normal meaning, he or she owes it to the listener or reader to make it clear that this is an unusual definition of the word. For example, the term 'argument' in logic means ‘two or more propositions where one proposition (called ‘the conclusion’) is said to follow from the other proposition(s) (called ‘the premises’).

If I were to then write that my neighbors had an argument last night, readers would instantly know that I am not talking about the 'philosopher's argument'. What I mean by the term 'argument' is what virtually any native speaker would take me to mean by the term 'argument' in that context. They will take me as meaning that my neighbors had a disagreement that resulted in some emotional language being exchanged between them – perhaps some shouting, but some expression of strong emotion in any sense.

If I meant to say that they had two or more propositions where one was said to follow from the others, I had better include some hint in my writing or speaking to indicate that this was the meaning that I had in mind. Otherwise, the native English speaker will be perfectly within his rights to assume that I meant the "shouting match" definition of 'argument' instead.

Ask any native speaker what the word 'God' means in the Pledge of Allegiance. They will tell you that it means the God of the Judeo-Christian religion, or something similar. They will deny that it means the "God" of the Muslim religion – that God is known by a different name, 'Allah'. Among competent English speakers, 'God' means Judeo-Christian god, 'Allah' means Muslim god, other gods are identified by some sort of qualifier (e.g., ancient Greek god, Egyptian god).

If we are speaking in a way that sets the context for our speech – that is to say, if we are speaking about ancient Greek culture or about religious practices in Iran – then we may drop the qualifier and use the term ‘God’. People know from the context which God the term refers to. This is true in the same way that I can tell my wife that my keys are on ‘the table’ and she knows which table I am talking about.

None of this changes the fact that the term 'God' outside of that context or in a different context has a different meaning – and that the God of the Pledge of Allegiance is the Judeo-Christian God.

Nobody . . . nobody, except, somebody who wants to pull the wool over the eyes of an Appeals court judge or a few gullible readers . . . uses the term 'God' in a sense that means 'external morality'. This simply is not a recognized use of the term.

Claiming that this is the meaning of the term is such an absurd proposition that we are within bounds in many cases to call it a lie. It’s the type of fabrication a person invents when he knows he has been caught doing something wrong but needs to come up with something – anything - to try to deflect blame (or to create a diversion from the real issue).

We can see the magnitude of the lie in the fact that the Pledge is taught to young children. Certainly we do not expect young children to be thinking of 'the philosopher's God' when they are told that there are four great evils that all loyal Americans oppose; one of them being 'a nation not under God'.

They think of the God of their Sunday school class, the God of Jewish or Christian scripture. This is exactly the God that those who put 'under God' in the Pledge wanted children to be thinking about. They certainly made no attempt to try to clarify the situation. They clearly did not express any worries that, "Somebody might misunderstand our statement and think we are talking about the Christian God when we are not – so we had better append some sort of explanation to the law."

Sometimes the person being lied to will accept the lie because it is convenient to do so. You catch your best friend in a lie about where she was at last night. She comes up with some phony excuse as to how she could have been at the movie theater with Brad. You do not believe her but, to avoid a fight, you accept the lie without question and move on.

There are a lot of people who are so intent on keeping 'under God' in the Pledge that they are willing to embrace anything that might give the act a sense of legitimacy. There are even many judges who fall into this category – who are inclined by their prejudices to accept any argument the defense might put to paper no matter how absurd, and to accept their argument in his decision. If any judge were to accept the ‘philosopher’s God’ argument, we can bet that this is what is going on.

It is the same thing as when judges turned a blind eye to the inequalities of 'separate but equal' when they valued segregation.

I would say that, if you encounter somebody in a discussion forum or a debate who tries to pull the 'philosopher's God' defense, that it would be acceptable to simply call him a liar. "You're saying that when people hear the term 'God' in the Pledge, the thought that pops into their head is not the Judeo-Christian God, but the Philosopher’s God? You, sir, know that to be false. This makes you a liar. I bet you can find only the smallest subset of the population of native English speakers – those that you haven't coached into repeating your lie – who will report thinking of this so-called 'philosopher's God' when he hears the Pledge of Allegiance."

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