Religion and Language: Quasi-Religious Terminology
Jun 30, 2012

Religion and Language: Quasi-Religious Terminology

There are a host of commonly used words in the English language which I like to call quasi-religious. Words like soul, spiritual, fate, mother nature, energy, and the like. These are words which have two sets of connotations, one which is spiritual and one which is largely secular, whose different meanings often get used interchangeably. 

Take the soul. On the one hand there is a mystical connotation. It is something separate from the body, which may well survive after the body dies, and is dualist in the sense that its nature is fundamentally different from the physical world we experience. Likewise, there is a perfectly valid naturalistic concept of a soul; it represents some form of aggregation of one's personality and core characteristics but need not claim any mind/body dualism. If someone says "In my soul I feel that something is true" it can be interpreted in this sense to simply mean that they feel very deeply and at the core of their personality that this thing is true. These two meanings are not necessarily distinct; the naturalistic concept of a soul is contained in the mystical one where the mystical one adds extra properties like the dualism and survival after death but retains the property that a soul encompasses one's personality. 

In common usage, these two meanings are often blended together. Most, but not all, people who use the word soul frequently do believe there is something dualist about it (although they may not use that word). However, most uses of the word soul colloquially are actually referring to the part that is shared in both meanings and could be said just as appropriately by someone not believing the dualist baggage. My main criticism of such terminology is that it is simply confusing. If someone says the word soul in conversation, it can sometimes be difficult to ascertain precisely what is implied with it. Are they or are they not associating this with some spiritual baggage (if so I would be forced to demand for their evidence or rationale)? 

In our culture, which has been primarily religious since its inception, there is a lot of aesthetic emphasis put on the rhetoric and imagery of religion. Someone trying to glorify some concept or other is bound to end up using the terminology of religions because these are the terms that, by definition, are used to glorify concepts. It is, if you will, sexier to think not just of nature but of Mother Nature, a vague, providential actor that maintains a perfect balance in this world. But something is lost, in my mind, by propping up concepts in this way. If we need the religious imagery to find a concept powerful and moving to us, is it not diminished by the failure for there to be any evidence for the religious attachments? Pantheism is a view that sees the universe as equivalent to God (much like mother nature) and describes this universe in beautiful, godly ways. But is the universe not wondrous and awe-inspiring all on its on, and diminished by attempts to artificially prop it up?

In Western cultures, Buddhism sees some popularity as a hip alternative religion. As a religion, Buddhism is an interesting syncretism between spiritual and secular aspects. Things like meditation and, indeed, much of the prescriptive aspects of Buddhism are as valid or invalid regardless of the veracity of any truth claims made by Buddhism. But they do make truth claims as well about the nature of the universe, claims for which there is no evidence or rationale. It is possible, of course, to strip Buddhism of its religious claims, as I will call them, and simply keep the secular components with the idea that they can have normative benefits to one's life. This is fine, but it is usually not done. There remains a romantic or aesthetic interest in carrying a lot of this baggage along, even if it is largely rhetorical, I suspect because it makes it seem more glamorous than simply trying to practice a purely secular meditation that is likely the source of any ascribed benefits.

The English language is not entirely deficient - as numerous poets and writers have demonstrated - in its ability to describe the beautiful, awe-inspiring, transcendental, and even numinous nature of the universe and our existence within it. Nothing has to be diminished by riding ourselves of the religious terminological baggage. Because of the prevalence of this religious terminology, however, we are all too easily tempted to resort to them and in so doing continue to give credence to the underlying metaphysical claims about the nature of the universe that their usage implies. 

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