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  • Writer's pictureStephen Paul

Those words belong to us and we want them back

Imagine that you have concluded that you don't think drinking milk from a cow is good - for whatever reason: the taste, animal welfare issues, the yuckiness of drinking the secretions from another species, environmental concerns, whatever. So you design a substance made from plants to replace cow's milk and hopefully make your fortune selling it. What do you call it? Obviously, plant milk or something more specific inline with the actual plant being used. Maybe oat milk or almond milk etc. Alas, you have annoyed the dairy farmers as they perceive you as a financial risk. What strategy would stop you in your tracks? They get a law passed so you can't use the word "milk".

Now, what do you do? The word milk told your customers exactly what to expect from your product - that it will do all the things that cows' milk does but without the cowiness. But now you've got a lot of work to do to explain what "a non-dairy plant-based drink" is? Can you use that in tea, or put it on your cereal or bake a cake with it? And what would be even more depressing is if your customers turned around and said "we don't want to be associated with the dairy industry, we want your product to be called "vegan love juice". You may have a great product but you've now got a marketing nightmare. Those 4 letters, m-i-l-k are so powerful and you can't use them.

The secular world has self-censored with so many words: Sunday, Assembly, congregation, meditation, commune, church, ritual, redemption, prayer, spirit, faith, belief, salvation and God to name a few. But why should we secularists care? Why should we want to use those words, and if we really don't believe in those things what is the issue? 

The problem manifests itself in that sensitivity to terms strongly associated with religion exaggerate an intellectual divide between the two camps that is unuseful. Secondly, it restricts secular communities communal activities because we hold disdain for what others do in the name of these terms. And thirdly, an unwillingness to engage in debates using this language gives a privilege to religion which it should not have.

The philosopher Hegel, had a few insights into this problem. Imagine, you are in the pub and you have assumed a really good way to cement yourself in your date's heart is to quiz them on their religious beliefs and contrast them with your atheistic ones. Up to this point, your date has proven to be caring, generous, considerate, egalitarian, compassionate, intelligent and sexy. But now, you have smirked when they have mentioned faith and god. You tried not to but those are such ridiculous concepts that you just can not hide your slight condescension.

Hegel, who's been sitting in the booth next to you, has accidentally intentionally been listening to your private conversation, grabs your arm as your date excuses themselves to pop to the loo and text a friend about the deterioration of their date. 

He is keen to explain that everything you think you hold to be true, from gravity to Evolution to even arithmetic, involves an act of faith. Newton was chuffed with his understanding of gravity, Hegel explains, and those equations were good enough to land humans on the moon, but, everyone knew they were inadequate to explain all observations. 

Einstein's model of gravity is superior to that of Newton's. Einstein's theories are not mere tweaks or improvements on Newton's they are a complete paradigm shift. But we also know that quantum mechanics is butting up against Einstein's Relativity. Both are fantastically powerful predictors of the physical world but both, and most probably neither are correct as they are incompatible. The day is approaching when these theories will also be relegated to just being a good approximation of reality by a new and better, but ultimately still incomplete theory. 

Science is in the game of utility. It asks, is this theory the best predictor of the natural world we have? If so, let us use it, break it and find a better one in the ashes of its inadequacies. The march of science doesn't find Truth, it just progressively makes the leap of faith between our understanding and reality forever smaller, even though we can never tell how small that gap remains. The smaller the distance faith travels, the stronger it is, like all forces. If we are looking for understanding, it is not a matter of dismissing faith but measuring the distance competing worldviews are expecting their faith to span. 

God appearing in the sky over London sending forth angels to cure the sick in the capital's hospitals, would increase the strength of Christian faith for only a fool would continue to justify god’s existence from ancient scripture when he is physically floating above us and doing the great deeds we always hoped he would. Their evidence is stronger and their faith expands.


Removing “faith” as either an insult or a virtue, and instead of appreciating it as an inescapable part of knowledge, we are left only to debate which theory has the smallest faith gap, which one provides the strongest faith, not, who has faith and who has not.

Unfortunately, your date has met an old friend on the way back from the loo and uses the distraction to spend a little less time with you. Hegel now takes the opportunity to convince you that you believe in god too. Once your eyes have stopped rolling he continues.

Going back to Newton, you could ask him, why does matter have gravity? He could do no more than say, it just does, there is obviously something beyond my understanding that bestows gravity to matter. You ask Einstein, why does matter curve spacetime? His answer would be very similar to that of Newton's - there is something beyond his understanding that does that. No matter what theories exist in a 1000 years from now there will always be a further "why" that can not be answered, and science celebrates that.

Ultimately, time, space and matter may be constituted of things that are neither time, space or matter and that conclusion may well be the end of science for human minds in that arena. So what do we call this inevitable "something else" that always remains out of our grasp? We could just call it god. That doesn't mean we think it is Thor, Yahweh, Allah, or anyone of other 3000 gods humankind has worshipped. Why would we, when the leap of faith required at these "why" junctures is so much smaller than scripture-based gods for understanding reality?

All religions are very happy to admit that their god is ultimately unknowable. Ours is the same, it is merely the unknown and nothing more. It has set various constants on the Universe, such as the Gravitational Constant and the Speed Of light in a vacuum, but beyond that, we know our God is not active in the physical world for our justifiable and strong faith in our scientific theories occupy that space. In an infinite Universe, the science god would also be infinite no matter how close we came to understand nature, but we would be closer to God than any traditional religion for our faith would be stronger. 

It is very difficult for atheists to use these words as they define themselves against these terms. Perhaps a more useful definition of an atheist is someone who does not believe in supernatural beings, for that grey area beyond science, is, and always will be, just nature.

In accepting that even the most sceptical have faith, to leave a space for god neutralises the word and we are just left to debate whose version of god requires the smallest leap of faith. If conversely it is argued that a great leap of faith is a virtuous thing then a religious person should actively assert that the lack of physical evidence for their god is a bonus and even scripture should be abandoned as evidence.

Maybe expecting atheists to use the word god of themselves is too much to ask at the moment, although, I know many who are comfortable to use the term Christmas, for they understand that the term is rapidly losing its literal meaning in the same way no one feels awkward by the names of the days of the week - for they are all references to gods.

My real concern is the response to much milder terms such as assembly, congregation or church, that many atheists automatically flinch at. One thing we can have confidence in is that humans are social animals and their mental well being is intimately related to their interactions with others. Health professionals appreciate that social isolation is as damaging to health as smoking and obesity. 

Many argue that the need for Congregation is what underpins religion. The particulars of any religion are not important to the value they give humanity. The dogmas are merely tools to bond people together. Those dogmas could be anything but they don’t need to be divisive, judgmental or at odds with science. A Celebration of Life is all that is required, for that is one thing we all do share and value. 

An atheist who scoffs at Sunday Assembly is failing to understand that these types of organisations are developing frameworks to support real human needs without recourse to the supernatural, to reclaim a chunk of the cultural landscape that we have abandoned to traditional religions (or we have just abandoned), and that we can do that without attacking those religions or the people that follow them. Many people stay within religious communities not because they have a literal belief in its teaching but because they want the feeling of belonging.

Many at Sunday Assembly have come from religious backgrounds but they found their church’s inherited belief systems were at odds with their secular values. Those people readily see the benefit of the secular churches but even so, some feel damaged by their past lives and the friction of the separation, and still, certain words are load with past bad experiences for them.

Those who have not experienced the communal aspects of the church can find it hard to care, especially if they have been a condition to react negatively against the language used by religions. 

Atheists need to understand that the notion of communal congregations has nothing intrinsically to do with religion but everything to do with being a healthy human. To create those spaces we can think of new words, but that is difficult, or we can put our hands into the swag bag of stolen words and say "hey, that's mine, and I'm taking it back".

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