What does ‘X works’ mean? What does it mean to say that something ‘works’? It means different things, which need to be sorted out, and it’s not ground-shifting to say so. It’s not ground-shifting to make necessary distinctions and to clarify definitions. It’s just not. It’s an essential requirement for critical thinking and for coherent discussion, not ground-shifting. Look at Steve Fuller’s testimony (which I will be doing more of later, if I can steal the time) for example after example of fuzzy language allowing someone to make absurd claims – absurd claims that could do their bit to sabotage the education of a lot of students. Fuzzy language does that kind of work all the time; it is far from a trivial issue; and it is not ground-shifting to make an issue of it. That’s why there is a new dictionary of euphemisms and obfuscations on B&W, only it’s invisible.
Alister McGrath likes the word – as theists and their admirers so often do. Theism ‘works,’ you see.
Hopelessly overstated arguments that once seemed so persuasive – such as “science disproves God” – have lost their credibility. Anyway, our culture’s criterion of acceptability is not “Is it right?” but “Does it work?” And the simple fact is that religious belief works for many, many people, giving direction, purpose and stability to their lives – witness the massive sales and impact of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life. Atheism, already having failed to land the knockout punch by proving that God does not exist…
Hopelessly overstated arguments that no one but silly people made in the first place. Non-silly people don’t say ‘science disproves God’ so that’s a straw argument. Try to do better. But that’s a separate issue; the question here is about ‘works.’ ‘Our culture’s criterion of acceptability is not “Is it right?” but “Does it work?”’ Boy is that ever debatable, and boy does it depend on a lot of fuzzy words. Our? Culture? Acceptability? Right? And especially ‘work’?
McGrath does implicitly say what he means by the word – ‘it’ works in the sense of giving direction, purpose and stability to the lives of many many people. True. But the fact that theism (for theism is the it that McGrath has in mind) works in that sense does not mean that it is true. So if McGrath means ‘true’ when he says ‘right’ in that sentence, then he’s wrong – but no doubt that is exactly why he was careful to say ‘right’ instead of ‘true.’ That’s how fuzzy language does its work. That’s how it ‘works.’
Simon Blackburn tells a joke that also hinges on the word ‘works.’
It concerns a friend of mine, who was present at a high-powered ethics institute which had put on a forum in which representatives of the great religions held a panel. First the Buddhist talked of the ways to calm, the mastery of desire, the path of enlightenment, and the panellists all said ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’. Then the Hindu talked of the cycles of suffering and birth and rebirth, the teachings of Krishna and the way to release, and they all said ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’. And so on, until the Catholic priest talked of the message of Jesus Christ, the promise of salvation and the way to life eternal, and they all said ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’. And he thumped the table and shouted: ‘No! It’s not a question of it if works for me! It’s the true word of the living God, and if you don’t believe it you’re all damned to Hell!’
And they all said: ‘Wow, terrific, if that works for you that’s great’.
Same thing, you see? It works for you. Great. It’s all bullshit, of course, but it works for you.
Okay, it works for you. It’s useful for you in some narrow sense – but that is not the same thing as saying it’s true.
It’s also not even the same thing as saying it’s right, but that’s another and large subject. Later.