Words, stories, fundamentalism

“Words really have meanings, you know!” protested my friend, who’d been angry about something, someone had said to him that wasn’t meant the way he thought it was. It was one of those rare moments when you realize that other people can have a totally different outlook on Life, the Universe and Everything than 42. In my world, words don’t have real meanings, they are assigned meanings by both speaker and listener, and the two may not necessarily coincide.

The meanings words do have are so minimal, vague and imprecise that only rudimentary conversation is possible. When things become even a tiny bit more complex, differences in assigned meanings happen. Only through prolonged communication can people find out what the meanings are to the words that make up their conversation, which meanings are intended and which are not. Usually that doesn’t happen and we simply start blaming each other.

Not only words can carry or convey meaning though, sentences too: ordering words into a string of them, declensions, conjugations, grammar and syntax can all be subject to the assigning of meaning. Sentences on their part are strung into stories, and those too are subject to the subtle rules of narratives. Those rules differ not only per language but also per culture. Sometimes even different groups within one culture will apply varying rules to storytelling.

And it gets worse. The words not used determine the meaning of the words that are. If you say you’ll break something, you won’t shatter it as long as the language you speak has a word for ‘shatter’. In a language that doesn’t, your declared action has a much wider range of meanings.

The very same goes for phrases and stories. Nothing in a language is as difficult to learn as how you put the things you want to say into the proper words. In English you ask a mechanic to fix your car, preferably using the word ‘please’. In German and Dutch you simply tell them to. The task is exactly the same, but it’s put into words differently. If you would use the German way of phrasing in English, you’d unwillingly stumble into a very different social situation.

As if that wasn’t difficult enough, mankind has invented irony, hyperboles, proverbs and metaphors: figures of speech that make you say things you don’t mean. Instead, you say the exact opposite (irony), exaggerate (hyperbole) or you bring a totally strange and seemingly unrelated subject into the discussion (proverbs and metaphors). There’s something to be said in favor of the theory that all language is ultimately just vocabulary, and nothing else.

Vocabulary, grammar, syntax, sentences, figures of speech, stories: culture! Take a text from any place or time away from the environment that gave birth to it and it’ll get hopelessly cut off from its original meaning. Without it’s cradle, nothing and nobody is going to engage in the prolonged communication that is needed to rid your understanding of a given text of unintended and unwanted assigned meanings.

Texts don’t speak for themselves, they’re written by the reader. And the worst of all readers is the one that takes everything literally. That’s because there is no such thing as ‘literal meaning’. The literal meaning of a text is nothing but the readers vocabulary, grammar, syntax, phrases, figures of speech, stories, in short: his culture read into the text. It’s understanding a text written in one culture through a culture that’s alien to it without realizing the harm you’re doing.

Reading religious texts literally may not be the exact same thing as fundamentalism, but it’s a necessary prerequisite. It certainly explains the lure of religious fundamentalism: it’s not alien to the culture people grow up in. It may also explain why secularists and atheists in their criticism of religion so often rely on fundamentalist versions of a given faith and why atheists are so often labeled ‘fundamentalists’ by believers. Both religious fundamentalists and atheists tend to read religious texts ‘literally’. They both take them out of their original cultural context and assign words, phrases and stories a modern meaning. They both operate on the same mistaken semantics and because as opponents they agree on those, nobody questions their accuracy.

It’s a classic example of ‘truth as coherence’ (semantically) versus ‘truth as correspondence’ (to reality). Coherent semantics are a common ground between atheists and fundamentalists and they seriously bias the whole discussion about religion and society. A modern, literal re-reading of old sacred texts causes both groups to monopolize it whereas those with more complex (culture-conscious, alternative semantics) views of faith should participate. However, these cannot easily do so for one simple and widespread misconception: words have meanings.

No they don’t. Instead, we should talk and listen to each other.

One Response to “Words, stories, fundamentalism”

  1. […] blogged before about what happens when religious stories fall into the hands of fundamentalistst. In that blog I said: Reading religious texts literally may not be the exact same thing as […]

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