Monday, February 20, 2012

Hutton and Dawkins separated by equivocation

A recent article at the Observer covers a short debate between Will Hutton and Richard Dawkins.  The two spar back and forth (among other things) over the issue of whether secularism requires atheism. However, reading their arguments I see that they really just differ on their definition of secularism. If either had taken the time to define the word they wouldn't have had the argument.  So before I provide you with quotes from each let me show you the definition of secularism being used by each.

Dawkins' definition of secularism: the idea that governments should not take a stance on religion and should not support any single religion. This is essentially the idea that church and state should be separate. However, this theory of secularism also believes that government should not interfere with personal belief and should allow all to believe what they wish.

Hutton's definition of secularism: the idea that religion should not have a role in public life.

With those introductory definitions completed lest look at their respective arguments starting with Dawkins:
my foundation is campaigning for secularism, not atheism. There are many religious secularists, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, plenty of clergy, JF Kennedy and indeed every religious American who upholds the constitution.
Clearly Dawkins is referring to secularism as separation of church from state because he describes religious people who fought for separation of church and state.

Now lets move on to Hutton:
I ... think your distinction between atheism and secularism is sleight of hand. Secularism unsupported by atheism is nonsensical. The reason why a secularist objects so strongly about the extension of religion into the public sphere – and even its private practice – is because its adherents are delusional, and, using your own words, imposing a delusional set of values and practices on others.
Nor do I understand what you mean by religious secularists: it sounds like "expansionary fiscal contraction" – a contradiction in terms. Martin Luther King and Gandhi certainly had secular ambitions, but their inspiration and inner strength came from religious conviction. You've made your reputation by being one of the country's most articulate atheists. Don't muddy the waters!
Clearly Hutton is referring to the definition of secularism that religion should't play a role in public life. Because obviously religious figures like Martin Luther King Jr. believed that religion should be part of people's belief system in their public actions.

So in reality both Richard and Hutton are correct when viewed under their understanding of Secularism but wrong when viewed under the other's view of secularism.  This is once again a case of equivocation: where a word has two meanings and each person is using a different meaning. If either Dawkins or Hutton had taken the time to define their term or pause to ask what definition the other was using this debate would not have happened.

Now since Dawkins first used the term secularism and his usage is really the more common one I think the fault here really lies with Hutton for switching to a different definition of secularism. Dawkins' definition of secularism is extremely common and for Hutton to ignore Dawkins' obvious invoking of this definition is either dishonest or simply careless. Of course on the other hand, Dawkins could have explicitly pointed out the ambiguity and equivocation after Hutton misunderstood. But, no matter the fault, the argument could have been avoided by clearly defining terms.

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