05/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Power Of Words: God, Atheism, Religion, And Spirit Revisited

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." -William Shakespeare

I've been thinking a lot about words lately and how they shape our lives, often with little conscious attention directed toward them. My thoughts came in the aftermath of last week's post where I discussed the variety of 'religious' beliefs and included atheism in the discussion. Per some feedback posts, I had failed to distinguish 'spiritual' in my discussion and subsumed atheism under a general classification of diversity along a religious spectrum (i.e. I meant for this spectrum to include all beliefs ranging from none, to spiritual, to religious orientations). My intent was to advance discussion of diversity in 'beliefs' and how to embrace such diversity as long as actions stemming from beliefs are not harmful or stagnating to more 'inward' discovery. Many comments were focused on my use of words such as religion, God, etc. and less on the point I intended to make, and that brought me back to the power of words.

I read in Chuang-tzu, The Inner Chapters (by A.C. Graham) that this Chinese poet and philosopher (living around 370-301 BC) was the first Chinese thinker to "appreciate that names have only a conventional relation to objects". So, while the 'rose' in Shakespeare's example may be easily accepted by convention, objects of internal experience, such as one's relationship to the universe, moral terms and the like, are much less easy to find agreement among people. In the approximately 2400 years since Chuang-tzu, this conventional relation of names to moral terms (or inward experiences) remains elusive at times.

It seems this difficulty in finding consensus in naming inward experiences creates a conflict of sorts because, following Chuang-tzu's observation, 'beliefs' or the words assigned to them require group consensus for strength. Again, the point of my previous post and this one alike, are to encourage each of us to let go of the particular system (word convention) we may have for such inward experiences and relationships and to explore more of the experience itself (as Shakespeare notes "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet").

If we were to each attend and investigate our 'inward knowledge' more and lessen our efforts to rally public consensus about what we call them (or groups that profess to have the same belief) we might find ourselves, our humanity, moving closer to the 'kindness' in humanity (cooperation and compassion) rather than conflict and violence.

Roget, who created the Thesaurus, recognized the value in classifying words reflecting shared meaning. He spent his life making lists of word synonyms, creating classifications of words in much the same way that Linnaeus had classified nature.

In both systems, the limits of classification need to be realized so that the classification itself does not hinder change. Many times our religious or secular institutions seem to work toward fixing 'beliefs' rather than encouraging their exploration.

The power of words to cause division needs to be brought more into our conscious attention. Perhaps if we each look more carefully at our own experiences of truth rather than the words used to describe it, we may find greater common ground.

As the Taoist saying goes, "The Way that can be told is not the constant Way." It seems to be an old truth that needs repeating again and again.