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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