Why People Misunderstand Each Other in Talking About Religion

In my previous post about “Heathen’s Progress,” I mentioned that “Even religious liberals may struggle with scientific principles.” In response, one reader reported that his religiously liberal minister rejected “the prevailing scientific understanding of evolutionary biology (an unguided and undirected process without an overseeing intelligence directing it). She didn’t like the theological implications and said that the evolutionary process only “appeared” to be undirected/unguided …”

In Bridging the God Gap I suggest that a lot of what people say about religion is ambiguous, with many possible interpretations. In such cases it’s easy to think I know what someone means, because I know what I would mean if I said those words. (Or at least I think I do!)

In reality, even the speaker may not know what s/he is driving at, not having thoroughly explored the many ways one can look at a seemingly straightforward theological issue. Let’s take the minister’s statement about evolution as an example. Here are some ways of interpreting “Evolution only appears to be unguided, but actually an overseeing intelligence directs it.”

Interpretation 1. Evolution is directed by the God described in the Christian Bible.

2. Evolution is directed by a personal God (a being that does what persons do – thinks, makes decisions, acts). But this deity is different in important ways from the Christian God.

3. Evolution is directed by an impersonal intelligence that knows about us as individuals and intervenes on our behalf.

4. Evolution is directed by an impersonal intelligence that works for good in a general way, but does not intervene in our personal lives.

5. The universe itself has or is a sort of mind and works toward positive goals. Evolutionary of progress is evidence of its intelligence. (Remember, some people construe “mind” and “intelligence” rather abstractly. For example, some say that the Internet, the human immune system, the stock market, and the American electoral process are examples of intelligent systems. Perhaps it’s a stretch to call the stock market or the electoral process intelligent, but you get the idea.)

6. Saying evolution is “directed” by “intelligence” are metaphorical statements, meaningful but not literally true.

7. Sometimes people say things they didn’t mean (or are misquoted). “I didn’t intend to imply that a supernatural mind is running the show. Evolution is ‘a design without a designer,’ but that means it isn’t really random. It has a positive direction.”

I could give more examples, but I needn’t belabor the point. When someone says something about religion, your first interpretation of their words may be exactly correct – or completely off base. Try asking clarifying questions:

“Basically, then, you are saying ______. Is that right?”

“Are you saying ____ or are you saying ____?”

Remember, even the speaker may not know exactly what s/he is thinking. Someone who says evolution is intelligently guided may not have reflected upon the varied ways of interpreting this statement which I listed above. Clarifying questions help people sharpen up their own opinions.

To the fellow who offered this example: Your interpretation of the liberal minister who has qualms about evolution may be exactly right. I am not in a position to pass judgment about what she wanted to convey. Regardless of what she intended, I appreciate this opportunity to offer a case study about ambiguous language. Thanks.


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2 thoughts on “Why People Misunderstand Each Other in Talking About Religion

  1. Roger wrote:

    To the fellow who offered this example: Your interpretation of the liberal minister who has qualms about evolution may be exactly right. I am not in a position to pass judgment about what she wanted to convey. Regardless of what she intended, I appreciate this opportunity to offer a case study about ambiguous language.


    If you’re curious about what was said, here is the web link for the podcast audio (the comments about the minister’s concerns over the scientific understanding of natural selection starts at 5:00):

    “Evolved to Wonder” by Rev. Barbara Jarrell (27 February 2011)
    [audio src="http://allsoulsuushreveport.org/podcasts/27February2011Worship.mp3" /]

    The comments responding to the mainstream scientific consensus that the essence of natural selection is being a completely mindless process without forethought or goal (this description comes from an undergraduate-level evolutionary biology textbook (Evolution, Second Edition by Douglas J. Futuyma). The philosophical/theological implications of this idea were discussed on the following blog site by Dr. Jerry Coyne (biology professor, University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True):

    “Natural selection and evolution: material, blind, mindless, and purposeless”

    This Unitarian Universalist minister’s concern was the philosophical naturalism on the scientist’s blog site was too dismissive of personal spiritual experiences and the tactical consideration that this would make it harder to convince the public to support science and science education.

    But that doesn’t really doesn’t address the the theological and philosophical implications of natural selection and the importance of this theory in human history. And are we as Unitarian Universalists so insecure in our personal theologies that we can’t unflinchingly face the possibility that we arrived here out of a purely material, mindless, and purposeless process?

    I will close with the closing paragraphs from Jerry Coyne’s blog on this where he talks about the importance of natural selection in the history of human ideas:

    In the end, the absence of evidence for a godly hand in evolution is evidence of godly absence, for evolution and selection show precisely the characteristics they would have if they were purely material, mindless, and purposeless processes. There is no sign of orthogenesis, directed evolution, or a one-way march to Homo sapiens. There is no more evidence that god directed evolution than there is that god keeps the engine working in your car—and yet nobody keeps an open mind about the possibility that god is pushing their pistons.

    To withhold from students the evidence that natural selection is purposeless—lacking direction, guidance, or goals—is to cheat them of the very essence of that process. It is part of the wonder and beauty of selection that this purely material process can produce species so exquisitely attuned to their environments. That is why Futuyma—and I—emphasize the undirected, material, and blind nature of selection and evolution.


    • Having the podcast will be very helpful. As you can understand, I need to be careful in commenting on a colleague’s preaching, particularly since I am not familiar with the congregational context in which she is speaking. She may be responding to previous discussions with various people, including concerns about theological issues which people have raised in pastoral counseling sessions. But I’ll listen to the podcast as soon as time permits. BTW, I’ll be speaking on Evolution Sunday, Feb. 12 at Los Gatos UU. My title is: “Thank You, Charles Darwin: Wonders of Bygone Bugs and Beasties.”

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