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Terms of Faith: 
Discoursing on Religion
“Effective social action serves to enrich participation in the discourses of 
society, just as the insights gained from en...
“Diversity of languages has been a fruitful cause of 
discord. The function of language is to convey the thought 
and purp...
Why do some people avoid 
religious study or discourse? 
They find the subject confusing. 
They fear causing offense or 
g...
Religious terminology—what does it mean? 
Religion 
Spirituality 
Rapture 
Salvation 
Nirvana 
Karma 
Bhodisattva 
Jihad
Point-of-View: How do we SEE religion? 
This ability to see the same spiritual 
item in two such completely different 
way...
Point-of-View 
Being aware of a writer's or speaker's point-of-view will help 
you analyze their ideas.
Point of View 
Listening to a speaker’s or writer’s 
choice of words. 
Being careful of your own word 
choices. 
Seeing th...
“...when a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading to the 
knowledge of the Ancient of Days...
Because it's easier to knock over a straw man than a 
real one. 
Many writers of religious polemics fail to do this. 
WHY?
A House of Straw 
What is a Straw Man argument?
A Straw Man… 
An imaginary person or construct that 
embodies everything the writer doesn't like 
about something, someone...
Example: The “Every 
Catholic” 
Set-up: A fictional philosophical battle 
between theist and atheist viewpoints 
to prove ...
Example: The “Every 
Catholic” 
Result: The Straw Catholic 
resorted to shrill, dogmatic, and 
emotional rhetoric. 
The re...
Opposing Points of View 
To be true to Bahá’u’lláh’s ideal of the 
“true seeker,” when you consider 
opposing points of vi...
Opposing Points of View 
To be true to Bahá’u’lláh’s ideal of the “true 
seeker,” when you consider opposing points 
of vi...
When a writer has an agenda… 
...a particular belief system to 
promote, an axe to grind, or a 
point to make... 
They may...
Screaming from the pulpit & preaching 
to the choir... 
Sermons sound good to the choir, but 
lay readers may put the book...
How Words Shape the Dialogue
Because of our religious culture, thoughtful Bahá'ís tend to use language to build bridges. 
Beware: The goal of many apol...
Language as a tool of division… 
TAKE-BACK: The writer or speaker 
makes a statement, then takes it 
back by saying he has...
Language as a tool of division… 
MISDIRECTION: The writer or speaker uses 
unattractive, negative or odd descriptions to 
...
Language as a tool of division… 
Guilt by Association: The writer or speaker uses 
loaded terminology to create a false li...
Language as a tool of division… 
SLEIGHT OF TONGUE (Hypothetically 
real): The writer posits a hypothetical 
situation of ...
Language as a tool of division… 
Mistakes Were Made: This method is 
often used in politics. It disguises the 
committers ...
Language as a tool of division… 
The Straw Man: The writer 
singles out a faction whose 
beliefs he considers extreme or 
...
Language as a tool of division… 
The Illusive "They": Ideas, beliefs 
and actions of individuals are 
attributed to a loos...
Language as a tool of division… 
Buzz Words: The writer uses words that 
have specialized meaning to his 
audience, but ma...
The Benefits of Being Fuzzy
I shall call them “DEATH 
PANELS.” 
Speaking or writing with an agenda 
benefits from vagueness and “evidence” 
that canno...
Vermin 
Cockroaches 
Jews 
Plague 
Infestation 
Undocumented 
immigrants 
Illegal Aliens 
We use words to dehumanize peopl...
How can you avoid manipulation? 
Deconstruct and analyze what 
you’re reading/hearing. 
“Muslims want to impose 
Shariah l...
How can you avoid manipulation? 
Don’t let the manipulator define the 
terminology without your input. 
“Faith is belief w...
Neutrality, Humor, and 
Affection 
Can you discourse about religion "safely?" That is, without 
offending?
Let’s face it… 
Complete inoffensiveness is not 
possible. 
Bahá’u’lláh and Abdu’l-Bahá 
offended people merely by 
procla...
The standard 
“A kindly tongue is the lodestone 
of the hearts of men. It is the 
bread of the spirit, it clotheth the 
wo...
Neutrality, Humor, and Affection 
Neutrality: Give facts, not 
opinions as much as 
possible. An opinion with out 
facts i...
Remember that the goal of discourse is to get at the truth—to acquire knowledge. 
Use clear language and neutral terminolo...
THANK YOU!
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Terms of Faith: Discoursing on Religion

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How we use language in discussing and writing about religion and faith. Ways in which language can illuminate and obscure and how to cut through verbal camouflage, avoid straw arguments, and actually communicate.

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Terms of Faith: Discoursing on Religion

  1. 1. Terms of Faith: Discoursing on Religion
  2. 2. “Effective social action serves to enrich participation in the discourses of society, just as the insights gained from engaging in certain discourses can help to clarify the concepts that shape social action. …[I]nvolvement in public discourse can range from an act as simple as introducing Bahá’í ideas into everyday conversation to more formal activities such as the preparation of articles and attendance at gatherings dedicated to themes of social concern…” — Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 2010
  3. 3. “Diversity of languages has been a fruitful cause of discord. The function of language is to convey the thought and purpose of one to another.” — Abdu’l-Bahá, 14 July 1912, at All Souls Unitarian Church, New York
  4. 4. Why do some people avoid religious study or discourse? They find the subject confusing. They fear causing offense or getting involved in an argument because of their own strong religious beliefs. They feel they lack the knowledge to discuss the subject. They find the terminology alien. They're afraid it will undermine their own beliefs.
  5. 5. Religious terminology—what does it mean? Religion Spirituality Rapture Salvation Nirvana Karma Bhodisattva Jihad
  6. 6. Point-of-View: How do we SEE religion? This ability to see the same spiritual item in two such completely different ways lies at the bottom of much written about religion and religious history. Christian historian: Religion is… False teaching. A test for the true believers. Atheist historian: Religion is... Peripheral at best. The root of all evil. Bahá'í historian: Religion is... • Central to history. The cause of the progress of society.
  7. 7. Point-of-View Being aware of a writer's or speaker's point-of-view will help you analyze their ideas.
  8. 8. Point of View Listening to a speaker’s or writer’s choice of words. Being careful of your own word choices. Seeing through the words to the concepts within them. “Deconstruct,” simplify and clarify concepts for clear communication.
  9. 9. “...when a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading to the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse and purify his heart … from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. ...He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.” — Bahá’u’lláh, Kitab-i-Iqan, vs. 213
  10. 10. Because it's easier to knock over a straw man than a real one. Many writers of religious polemics fail to do this. WHY?
  11. 11. A House of Straw What is a Straw Man argument?
  12. 12. A Straw Man… An imaginary person or construct that embodies everything the writer doesn't like about something, someone, or some group. Requires gross a generalization that attaches the particular to a whole. Uses a character or group of characters to represent a larger concept the writer objects to. i.e. “The Catholic Church has shed blood to promote Christianity, therefore Christianity as a faith is violent and bloodthirsty.” or “There have been Muslim terrorists, therefore Islam promotes terrorism.”
  13. 13. Example: The “Every Catholic” Set-up: A fictional philosophical battle between theist and atheist viewpoints to prove the atheist viewpoint to be rational and superior to the theist viewpoint. Scenario: A set of specific Roman Catholic dogmas was presented as representative of beliefs about God. The atheist protagonist asked the Straw (“backslid”) Catholic hard, but valid questions, BUT she was unable to answer them intelligently. Can you guess why?
  14. 14. Example: The “Every Catholic” Result: The Straw Catholic resorted to shrill, dogmatic, and emotional rhetoric. The reader was asked to accept that "Religion” had lost the battle with "Reason," when nothing like a real dialogue between the two had actually taken place.
  15. 15. Opposing Points of View To be true to Bahá’u’lláh’s ideal of the “true seeker,” when you consider opposing points of view in a religious or philosophical setting... Try to think honestly about each point of view. Imagine what a person who holds this viewpoint would say or do in response to your words. If you can't imagine what a person with that mindset might advance as an argument, how can you frame a response to it? If you don’t know or understand the arguments for that point of view, research it.
  16. 16. Opposing Points of View To be true to Bahá’u’lláh’s ideal of the “true seeker,” when you consider opposing points of view in a religious or philosophical setting... Be as well-informed as possible about divergent viewpoints. Try to think honestly about each point of view. Try to represent them fairly. Glean information from sources friendly to the “other” point of view. i.e. If you’re have a dialog about the Mormon faith, draw on Mormon sources for your understanding of what this particular sect of Christians believe.
  17. 17. When a writer has an agenda… ...a particular belief system to promote, an axe to grind, or a point to make... They may resort to satire and mockery. This can result in unsupported, dogmatic statements. The analysis becomes a sermon.
  18. 18. Screaming from the pulpit & preaching to the choir... Sermons sound good to the choir, but lay readers may put the book down once they realize they're being preached at. Why is this a problem? The point of language is to communicate. Alienating people is not the best way of doing this. If you scream your message, the listener will cover her ears.
  19. 19. How Words Shape the Dialogue
  20. 20. Because of our religious culture, thoughtful Bahá'ís tend to use language to build bridges. Beware: The goal of many apologists is to use it to create division. Fundamentalist Christian apologists wish to distinguish their form of Christianity from other faiths. New Atheists want to portray all religion as irrational. Language becomes a tool of division rather than communication. Language becomes a tool of division rather than communication. Language becomes a tool of division rather than communication. Language becomes a tool of division rather than communication. Language becomes a tool of division rather than communication.
  21. 21. Language as a tool of division… TAKE-BACK: The writer or speaker makes a statement, then takes it back by saying he has no evidence for it or is just hypothesizing. Example, JK van Baalen in his 1938 book "Chaos of the Cults" states that a Bahá'í who leaves the faith "has good reason to hide as far as possible out of reach from the leaders of this loving cult. The last statement can, in the nature of the case, not be backed up by references; but the author vouches for its truth." (CoC, p. 89)
  22. 22. Language as a tool of division… MISDIRECTION: The writer or speaker uses unattractive, negative or odd descriptions to distract the reader from the substance of the account. This creates a particular aura around the subject (threatening, comical, etc) and is usually accomplished with carefully chosen adjectives. Examples: JK van Baalen makes reference to the "frightfully outlandish names in use among Bahá'ís..." and refers to the Faith as a “ladies’ cult.” William Petersen ("Those Curious Cults of the 80's") refers to a Bahá'í as a “Pretty horse-faced young thing” with "red patches on her knees". He refers to The Hidden Words as “the sleep-inducing writings of Bahá'u'lláh.”
  23. 23. Language as a tool of division… Guilt by Association: The writer or speaker uses loaded terminology to create a false link between the subject and some negative or threatening idea or entity. Of the Bahá'í temple in Wilmette, JK van Baalen says: “And with this temple they conjure.” From an op-ed piece: "…history demonstrates that Islamic terrorists can change. The Bahá'í faith is a good example." It tells how the Báb'is carried the Báb's message "through armed conflict, beheadings, and murder until they were brutally suppressed by the Persian government." But Bahá'u'lláh "quickly began modernizing the various cells." The letter concludes: "If the world responds to al-Qaida with condemnation and military force, perhaps they too will adopt a quietist expression of their religion, as the Baha'is have."
  24. 24. Language as a tool of division… SLEIGHT OF TONGUE (Hypothetically real): The writer posits a hypothetical situation of what “might have happened,” then subtly changes the language from the conditional or theoretical to the positive until he is speaking of the hypothetical incident or situation as if it had actually happened. This is the "as we have seen" or "as I have shown" argument. The writer promotes the idea, assumes the reader has accepted it, then proceeds as if the point has been proven rather than merely raised. Cloning: The writer adduces motives to the subject that one would have to BE the subject to know.
  25. 25. Language as a tool of division… Mistakes Were Made: This method is often used in politics. It disguises the committers of an act by putting the act in passive voice. From an anti-cult website: "An attempt was made on the life of the Shah." This doesn't ascribe the attempt to "the Báb'is" (The illusive “They”), but by placing this sentence in the midst of a paragraph on the Bahá'í Faith, it draws a connection between the two. The reader remembers only that she read about an assassination attempt in connection with Bahá'ís and Báb'is.
  26. 26. Language as a tool of division… The Straw Man: The writer singles out a faction whose beliefs he considers extreme or absurd and implies all religious people hold this belief. Eg., the Catholic belief that Christ's physical body is literally present in the Eucharist (transubstantiation) is used to argue that ALL religious people indulge in magical thinking and therefore ALL religion opposes science and reason.
  27. 27. Language as a tool of division… The Illusive "They": Ideas, beliefs and actions of individuals are attributed to a loosely defined "They." Max Dimont in Jews, God, and History posits there is a distinct group of "people who invented anti-Semitism". Pat Robertson announced on the “700 Club” that the Haitian people entered into a deal with the devil to get rid of the French.
  28. 28. Language as a tool of division… Buzz Words: The writer uses words that have specialized meaning to his audience, but may not mean the same thing (or anything) to the subject group. JK van Baalen states: "There is no salvation for apostate Bahá'ís according to the system." The Christian reader (van Baalen's target audience) will interpret "salvation" and "apostate" according to a sectarian Christian understanding and leap to the conclusion that Bahá'í's believe people who leave the faith are damned.
  29. 29. The Benefits of Being Fuzzy
  30. 30. I shall call them “DEATH PANELS.” Speaking or writing with an agenda benefits from vagueness and “evidence” that cannot be proved or disproved. Ascribing feelings, beliefs, thoughts, and actions that can't be proved or disproved to individuals or groups that don’t really exist is a common way of engaging the reader or listener on an emotional level. Manipulative imprecision can have far-reaching and dire results.
  31. 31. Vermin Cockroaches Jews Plague Infestation Undocumented immigrants Illegal Aliens We use words to dehumanize people with whom we do not wish to empathize.
  32. 32. How can you avoid manipulation? Deconstruct and analyze what you’re reading/hearing. “Muslims want to impose Shariah law on us.” “Haitians made a deal with the devil.” "Oklahomans blew up the Murrow Building." Distinguish between individual beliefs and actions, and institutional ones and insist that others do too.
  33. 33. How can you avoid manipulation? Don’t let the manipulator define the terminology without your input. “Faith is belief without evidence.” Don’t get caught up in answering irrelevant questions or defending manmade dogma. “Why do you Bahá’ís spend so much money on those temples?” “How can you love a God who commits genocide?” “You believe we evolved from monkeys?”
  34. 34. Neutrality, Humor, and Affection Can you discourse about religion "safely?" That is, without offending?
  35. 35. Let’s face it… Complete inoffensiveness is not possible. Bahá’u’lláh and Abdu’l-Bahá offended people merely by proclaiming the Faith, and we are to “refute what is vain and false”, BUT... We must NEVER intentionally give offense.
  36. 36. The standard “A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding.” — Bahá’u’lláh
  37. 37. Neutrality, Humor, and Affection Neutrality: Give facts, not opinions as much as possible. An opinion with out facts is like a curtains without a window to put them on. Humor and affection: There’s a difference between humor and mockery. Mockery is a bad tool for communicating facts. It’s very good fueling prejudice.
  38. 38. Remember that the goal of discourse is to get at the truth—to acquire knowledge. Use clear language and neutral terminology. Be willing to compromise on terminology. Remember: the point of language is COMMUNICATION. Avoid jargon (i.e. Bahá’í or other “buzz words”) Define terms that are unfamiliar to your audience or understood differently. Instead of making statements, pose questions: “What makes you say that?”
  39. 39. THANK YOU!

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