Doing Better: The Problem of Words

Agnosticism, Atheism, Blog Posts

Should I have called last week’s blog post No More Fundamentalism, picked a different term, or unpacked it a bit?

I want to draw out one (of many) difficulties with words: The tensions between…

  • correctness and convenience,
  • writing something technically correct and writing something people will read,
  • having a genuine and thorough conversation and having a conversation people will actually participate in till the end.

Imagine the following two blog titles:

  • No More Attitudes Toward Knowledge That Allow for Areas of Belief That Are Untouchable and Therefore Leave Certain Areas of Knowledge Permanently Unfixable: A Manifesto for Myself
  • No More Fundamentalism: A Manifesto for Myself

I’m overstating the difference, but the tension should be obvious. On one end of the spectrum, there’s a simple, concise title that may make the wrong impression. On the other end, there’s possibly getting things so technically correct that nobody reads the whole thing.

The tension is real.

A reader rightly commented on my recent blog post that using terms like Fundamentalism can be problematic. There’s a real risk that if we label something “fundamentalist,” we take the emotion we feel for our former religion and transfer it onto that thing. And when that happens, we give ourselves permission to dismiss it. We halt rational thought we could have had. This is both dishonest and stops growth.

At the same time, I’m not sure what else to call it–especially in a post I’d like people to read. See the trouble?

This tension shows up in another place: Do you call yourself an atheist? Agnostic? Or do you avoid labels altogether?

So what to do? Here’s a list of ideas:

  • Embrace the work. Religion allows us to get away with sloppy thinking about complex issues. This can lead to harm and we have an opportunity to do better.
  • When in a conversation with someone, consider working with them to define terms. What is a “fundamentalist” to your interlocutor? If you’re writing, consider the word itself: Is “fundamentalism” too problematic to use?
  • Consider skipping the words or labels altogether. Maybe it’s better to not even use the word “fundamentalist” but instead use the words describing what you mean by it.

If anybody asked, I used the term “fundamentalist” in the previous post mainly because I didn’t think through the implications (oops!). On review, I’m still OK with the word, though I see the potential for misuse. I’m leaving it up to you, the reader, to learn with me as I’m on this journey out of Christian Fundamentalism–a way of thinking that has core tenets, assumed 100% correct and therefore, untouchable.


Top-right image: “Yellow Tree – Daily Tree day 2” by fireytika is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.


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