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Religion - Commentary
CJ Stone -
4 / 20 / 2003

Talking Points for "Definitions to Avoid Wrangling"

The talking points below refer to the diagram.

  1. Start by assuming that everyone has a model of the world.
  2. That model either includes the supernatural or it doesn't, unless the model precludes discussing the supernatural.
    1. Buddhists are antheists—"the supernatural is not an important question."
      Their myth: a friend is shot with a poisoned arrow. You're about to call for a doctor, when he says, "Now hold on. Who shot me? Who made the arrow? Was it an accident? Was the bowman left-handed or right-?" etc., and refuses to get treatment until all his questions are answered. By the time you get the answers, he'll be dead. By the time we get the answers to all our questions about what might or might not be in the supernatural, its motivations, its means, and so on, we'll be dead and have gotten nowhere. So questions about the supernatural are not important, especially when there are people who need real help with their day-to-day lives (like food, clothing, and shelter).
    2. Agnostics—from Greek, a gnosis, "without knowledge." I originally thought this merely meant the supernatural was unprovable, but it actually has its roots in a Xtian formulation, Gnosis, where gods can be known directly. (Each person was supposed to receive a particular personal revelation from a god, and in their myth, the goal was to actually become a "son of a god" the way Joshua ben Joseph [aka "Jesus"] was the "son of a god."). Agnostics believe it is not possible to know any god in any reasonable or humanly understandable way.
  3. A model that excludes the supernatural is naturalistic—"The system of thought holding that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws." There are many kinds of naturalism: humanism, sciencetism, existentialism, objectivism, etc.
  4. A model that includes the supernatural is best called supernaturalistic—"Belief in a supernatural agency that intervenes in the course of natural laws."
    1. Note that supernaturalism only requires some kind of extra-natural agency—it does not require a god.
    2. A good example of this is the "Faerie Faith" per Evans-Wentz excellent book The Fairy-Faith in the Celtic Countries. (This is available in the UMN library or online at .) The fairies, in all their many forms, are not gods of any kind. The most famous would be the banshee, bean sidhe, "woman of the fairies," who presages death with her wailing. The most powerful of them, the Tuatha de Danuan ("People of the Goddess Danu"), are the equivalent of Tolkien's High-Elves (Feanor and his crowd; Sauron on the dark end). The folks who believe in the Tuatha don't worship Danu. We mostly don't see the Tuatha because they are "sideways to the sun."
    3. Someone asked if the fairy-faith were mostly a product of rural and uneducated minds. I answered yes, but I was wrong. When E-W collected his data, he talked mostly to rural people, but many of them were very educated. The most well-known of them was Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of "Sherlock Holmes."
    4. Yes, my wife believes in them. It was the Tuatha she saw exiting our yard through a special doorway they created some two end-of-summers ago. She sees a lot of other fairy-types, too, like brownies.
    5. If you'd like to give it a go, mix raspberry leaf, elder blossom, and a berry fruit juice; let it sit a couple days; have 125 ml and go for a walk in the woods near dusk. It's fun, cheap, and legal. (You can substitute "Women's Blessing" herbal tea for the raspberry leaf—it actually works better because it has in it more herbs that do the same kind of thing.)
  5. A supernaturalism that includes gods is theism.
    1. Note that this is where atheism—"without a god belief"—comes in. The fairy-faithful could be atheists because they don't have a god belief.
    2. I'm sure you pure atheists are up in arms now because you want to be without supernatural belief. Well, we don't really have a word for that, so let's let atheist stretch and do the duty. Neologisms may apply for the job atheism is doing now.
    3. In writing the point below on "secular Humanism", I came up with the word a-naturalistic—"phenomena cannot be explained expressly in terms of natural causes and laws."
  6. Theists are often concerned with counting. If there's only one god in your supernatural model, you're a monotheist. If there's more than one, you're a polytheist.
  7. Regardless of your count, if you'll worship any theo-being coming down the pike; or if you think the theo-being isn't separate from the creation (kind of like living in the belly of the gods-beast), then you're a pantheist. This is an important distinction because many earlier theisms were localized—gods were gods of a specific place or feature (like a river or lake). Gods weren't everywhere or in everything.
  8. If you think some things are actually made of the gods-stuff, you're an entheist. If you think everything everywhere is made of the gods-stuff, you're a panentheist.
    1. There's a pretty fine distinction between pantheism and panentheism. Taking neo-Paganism as a start, many neo-Pagans believe Earth and the Goddess are one and the same. They don't attribute a spirit or active principle to Her that's separate from Her. That makes them pantheists (of a sort). Xtianity believes that its gods act through some sort of spiritual agent, most commonly referred to as "The Holy Ghost". Their gods can be separate from their creation and the spirit makes changes in the creation while the gods stay separate. (I didn't make it up—I'm just reporting it.). That principle—that there's an active spirit of sacredness working in the world—is raised to its most pervasive in panentheism, where everything that is exists because it is made of that spirit of sacredness.
    2. I lost someone in the audience on this. Let's compare to electromagnetic phenomena, which would be all matter and all energy (except maybe gravity). Tables, light, and SPAM™ are all different things, and we see that, but they are all the same, because they are all manifestations of electromagnetic phenomena. All one stuff, all different. Pan-en-electromagnetism.
  9. People who buy into theism but won't play are apostate ("standing far away"). They still accept, they just don't like the rules or the game. The other end of that—someone who likes the rules and plays by them vigorously—would be peristate ("standing close by"). This is my own neologism. A Greek scholar I know tells me prostate would be etymologically more correct, but since it's already taken for a troublesome structure in human males, we'll stick to peristate and peristasy.
  10. At this point, I started talking about myths, religion, and sacredness, and the fur began to fly (albeit in a pretty friendly way).
  11. Myth—"Myth is a metaphor that explains what is sacred and tells us how to behave in a sacred way," courtesy of William Paden, Professor of Religious Studies, University of VT, from his book Religious Worlds. I continued to whang on this and say it over and over because I could see the thought-bullets bouncing off people's heads.
    1. Somebody actually asked, "What's a metaphor?"
      1. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison, as in "a sea of troubles" or "All the world's a stage" (Shakespeare).
      2. One thing conceived as representing another; a symbol.
        I wised off and said, "A simile, but without using the words 'like' or 'as.' "
    2. Sacred—let's stick to "something deserving special respect."
    3. Myth is not a lie. That is not how I am using the word. I tried to head this off way early in one part of the discussion, but the speaker
      1. denied that's what he was trying to say;
      2. tried to say it (almost verbatim) later.
    4. "Other people mean lie when they say myth." I'm not other people, and it was my discussion. My definition was clear and clearly stated.
    5. "Maybe you should use another word instead of myth so people won't be confused." Could—won't. It's a perfectly good word, the definition I'm using is functional, and folks can deal. Any words that want to apply for the job can do so. I haven't found a good candidate yet.
    6. I'd say at least one person was slow to see that the stories cultures spin about what's sacred (deserving special respect) are their myths, and that myths are designed to explain what deserves special respect and tell us how to live in ways that pay special respect.
    7. This includes Xtianity. I'm sorry I didn't remember the story (myth) of the Good Samaritan right on the spot. I'll do it now—Jesus had just added an 11th commandment to the 10 "shalt not" commands, viz, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Simple construction, but like a freshman asking about the length of an essay assignment, someone had to say, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus doesn't want an extentional definition—one that specifically sets the limits of who is and is not a member of the class "neighbor"—he wants an intentional definition; that is, he want to show what he intends (explain what is sacred), have people internalize that, and act appropriately (behave in a sacred way). He tells his little story and ends by asking, "WHO IS THIS MAN'S NEIGHBOR??" which, according to hypnosis theory, should put all the listeners in an associational network search for the answer and thereby free up their unconscious learnings for new, positive developments in the total personality.
  12. Religion (and I think I scared some people here)—"A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion."
    1. Note there are no gods involved in this definition, so it's possible to be religious and atheist.
    2. I stated and continued to maintain that religion is "a way, a method of conserving myth." Conserve—"To protect from loss or harm; preserve: calls to conserve our national heritage in the face of bewildering change."
    3. I'll unpack that: religion is the conscientious preservation of symbols that explain what deserves special respect and that teach us how to live so we preserve that respect.
  13. Humanism is a religion. If you think not, see
    1. The Humanist Manifesto I ( and
    2. The Humanist Manifesto II (
    3. From THMI, I quote: "Today man's larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and deeper appreciation of brotherhood, have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion. Such a vital, fearless, and frank religion capable of furnishing adequate social goals and personal satisfactions may appear to many people as a complete break with the past. While this age does owe a vast debt to the traditional religions, it is none the less obvious that any religion that can hope to be a synthesizing and dynamic force for today must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present."
    4. Humans are the specific object of special respect in Humanism, or, "Humans are sacred in Humanism."
    5. The Manifestos do a pretty good job of citing what the causes, principles, and activities of Humanism ought to be.
  14. (garnered after our meeting) "Secular" Humanism is a definition created by opponents of Humanism.
    1. I think their goal, in part, was to fractionate Humanists in to religious and a-religious Humanists and get the Humanists fighting among themselves. In the way that theists think of religion, Humanism is secular because it isn't theistic.
    2. In reality, Humanism is a religion (a naturalistic one), and some Humanists are also theistic.
    3. I urge you to use this language when discussing Humanism because it keeps everything functional and clear, and it will piss off the a-naturalists.
      1. And their sub-group, the theists;
      2. and their sub-group, the monotheists;
      3. and their sub-group, the Xtians;
      4. and their sub-group, the fundamentalists.
  15. Someone didn't like the feeling of religion associated with Humanism. She didn't say much more than that.
    1. In the past, it was certainly the case that religionist and theist were synonyms, for each other and for silly git, and accepting what I'm saying about religion would mean you'd have to give up that bit of fun.
    2. In that same way, I imagine many of us have been trooping around claiming "religion is silly", and we'd either have to eat crow, endure the unending derision of our blood-kin, or talk ourselves blue in the mouth explaining how we can be religious without being "religious" (theistic). Or maybe all three. In any case, that's a hard slog, and not one to be undertaken lightly.
  16. The sources of Humanistic myths are highly varied and continue to appear.
    1. Star Trek continues to function this way for a large group of people, and I cite it because its creator, Gene Roddenberry, was a publicly avowed Humanist. He wrote the show with Humanism in mind. "We don't need to look for aliens to explain the pyramids. Humans are clever, and they work hard. We built the pyramids, and we should be proud of that instead of trying to degrade ourselves by claiming someone else had to do it for us."
    2. I'm aware of some folks who use Kung Fu, the TV show from the 70s, in that same way. Given that the show is informed by Shaolin Buddhism, a humanistic philosophy, it makes some sense.
    3. In the reverse case, Frankenstein provides a myth about the limits of reason in the absence of compassion. Frankenstein created a life because he could and because no one could stop him, and it ruined him personally and professionally; it destroyed his family; and it created a creature who could never find even minimal fulfillment in the world he was brought to.
    4. And so on. At the core, there's not a limit to media for the Humanist myth—film, books, poetry, dance, whatever. Content, not form, is ascendant.
  17. My approach to these definitions.
    1. Referential. A definition should refer to something that exists. In the strictest sense, something that can be pointed at; in a modern science sense, something that can be objectively identified (including functions and relations).
    2. Functional. A definition should describe what is happening.
    3. Relational. A definition should describe the relations between the functions and between the things.
    4. Criticism must take place at these levels. A definition can be criticized if it is
      1. a-referential
        talks about some thing that doesn't exist, or
        fails to talk about some thing germane that does exist;
      2. a-functional
        talks about something that isn't happening, or
        fails to talk about something germane that is happening;
      3. a-relational
        talks about some relationship that doesn't exist, or
        fails to talk about some germane relationship that does exist.
    5. My definitions and discussion are very anthropological, and that's intentional. Anthropology is the superset of all other human sciences (psych, socio, linguistics, religion, history, etc.), so the broader view is probably the better view because it allows detailed naming, as demonstrated in the long list of sub-groups above.

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