Butter no parsnips, whatever you do

Jerry Coyne did a post on the Templeton Foundation a couple of days ago, and Templeton’s ‘Chief External Affairs Officer,’ Gary Rosen, offered a reply. I call your attention to one thought in particular:

[W]e do like to include philosophers and theologians in many of our projects. Excellent science is crucial to what we do, but it is not all that we do. We are a “Big Questions” foundation, not a science foundation, and we believe that the world’s philosophical and religious traditions have much to contribute to understanding human experience and our place in the universe.

I asked Gary Rosen

What exactly do you ‘believe’ that the world’s religious traditions have to contribute to understanding human experience and our place in the universe? Can you specify one theory or explanation or bit of evidence that a religion has contributed to understanding human experience and our place in the universe?

But answer came there none.

Of course I didn’t really expect an answer – but if Gary Rosen really wanted to persuade anyone of anything, it would have been sensible of him to give one. That’s because his comment is highly unpersuasive precisely because what he says is so carefully vague and empty and meaningless. This is what pro-woolly people do, and it is why anti-woolly people can’t take them seriously even if they try.

Note the wording. ‘The world’s philosophical and religious traditions’ first of all. He puts ‘philosophical’ first, so that we start out by thinking something rational is afoot, and he attaches religion to it so that we will associate religion with philosophy, and also so that we will think the two form a natural and reasonable pair. Then, he says ‘religious traditions’ rather than just religions – which is a much more shifty, evasive, vague, deniable way of saying religions have much to contribute. Saying ‘religious traditions’ have much to contribute could just mean something about music, or stained glass, or calligraphy, or community feeling. It could mean anything or nothing. Then ‘much to contribute’ is carefully vague too – one can ‘contribute’ sheer nonsense, or fairy tales, or a bowl of macaroni and cheese. And finally ‘understanding human experience and our place in the universe’ can also mean anything or nothing. Understanding human experience is a broad, vague, capacious project, and so is ‘understanding our place in the universe,’ and almost anything can ‘contribute’ to it. So in a sense Templeton is perfectly right to ‘believe’ what Rosen says it believes, but then, that’s just like saying Templeton believes ice cream is nice. It’s not very disputable, and it’s not worth disputing – because it doesn’t say much of anything.

Yet Rosen thinks it’s worth saying things like that on anti-Templeton blog posts. Why? It’s just a kind of advertising language, a kind of PR speak. It’s worse than useless when arguing with people who are actually thinking critically, because they will recognize it for what it is. It’s funny that he doesn’t recognize that.

I was treated to a similar bit of PR boilerplate a few days ago from someone at an ad agency. Bacardi rum ran an ad in Israel based on the suggestion ‘Get an ugly girlfriend.’ Funnily enough some feminists objected to this, and a VP sent one such feminist a kind note which she shared with the Women’s Studies list. The note concluded:

Bacardi proudly celebrates diversity and we do not endorse the views of
this site. We sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by this
site and thank you for bringing it to our attention.

Bacardi proudly celebrates diversity – what’s that got to do with running a sexist ad?! Women aren’t ‘diverse’ – we’re the majority! Proudly celebrating diversity has nothing whatever to do with running a sexist ad, but it’s the stock bit of ‘we’re good people please leave us alone’ for such situations. So language is used for not saying things.

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