Who’s in Your Universe of Discourse?

One of the things that makes for effective communication is being aware of who is listening to you and who you are speaking to.

So, for instance, one can say with literal and strict exactitude that “Everybody needs oxygen.” This is a universally applicable statement with no exception (unless we note the stickler who points out that the dead do not need oxygen).

A closely related remark might be that everybody needs food and drink. It’s almost universally true–except for endstage terminal people whose appetite has died and who refuse food and drink as their body shuts down–which they have a perfect right to do, by the way.

“Who doesn’t love a feast?” is a statement we might well make to a roomful of Christmas revelers with perfect accuracy–given the audience we are addressing. Within that “universe of discourse” we are expressing the consensus of the crowd and gauging accurately the mood of the room. We are not being mathematically precise about the entire global hospice population, but neither are we insulting the dying either. We’re just expressing our joie de vivre.

This is normal human speech on a huge number of occasions. We say casually that “Everybody loves Star Wars” and even people who don’t care for Star Wars generally understand that we mean “Star Wars is a very popular film, beloved by millions.” If somebody objects that Star Wars sucks, our world is not thrown into crisis by that data point, unless there is something wrong with us.

But now consider a slightly different situation, where those who stand outside the Universe of Discourse really push back against those inside it. Lenny Bruce, one of the first consummate Outsider comedians, illustrated the discomfort that comes when our Universe of Discourse is too easy breezy about who constitutes the In Crowd. He pictures the Lone Ranger, surrounded by Indian attackers, turning to his companion Tonto and saying, “It looks like they have us surrounded!” To which Tonto famously replies, “What do you mean ‘we’, White Man?”

This sudden shift in which we realize that there are realities we have overlooked, people we have unthinkingly ignored and paradigms that we have never considered, is what the idea of Universes of Discourse are all about. And many and many a bigot is, these days, finding that social media is making it hard to maintain their sometimes suffocatingly cramped Universe of Discourse intact:

Qasim Rashid, Esq. on Twitter: "On the front page of Reddit with this  oldie.… "

One way in which Universes of Discourse expand is simply through human encounter. And while professional bigots like Jacob Wohl may work very hard to maintain their Bubble Universe out of pigheadedness, many people can go their whole lives simply not giving any thought to a group of strangers until one day encounter makes them rethink everything.

Case in point: a woman my mother-in-law Pat went to school with. She was a Baptist gal from Shreveport who had never known a Catholic in her life: very sweet and kind. Pat was a born-and-bred Catholic from Brooklyn. They took a cosmetology class together in the 50s and practiced cutting each other’s hair. The lady from Shreveport was genuinely surprised and registered perfectly innocent astonishment when she lifted up Pat’s bangs to trim them and found a complete absence of what she had been told all her life Catholics supposedly had: horns.

Pat, like the sensible woman she was, took no offense but instead laughed her head off and corrected this sweet young thing that, no, Catholics don’t have horns. The woman was genuinely grateful for this new information and they became fast friends. Her Universe of Discourse was gently and painlessly expanded to include Catholics as real humans and not mere cartoon figures and she never again repeated the weird myth her local culture had taught her.

As Jacob Wohl’s ugly career shows, sometimes we can deliberately choose to dwell in a Universe of Discourse precisely to victimize those outside it. That is what cliques and cults are all about. Or we can be so focused on our Universe of Discourse that we are heedless of those outside it when we should be considering them. In the first instance, we see the stereotypical Mean Girl clique in the movies, who go out of their way to exclude and humiliate the new kid. In the second, we see the new kid trying so hard to be popular that she forgets about her friend who cares about her in her passionate quest to get a seat at the Cool Kid’s Table. The first is a sin of commission, done with malice aforethought. The second is a sin of omission, done not to hurt the kind friend, but also done without any consideration for her. And both are sins.

Recently, a fairly well-known Catholic podcaster interviewed a convert to the Faith from a Muslim background. His organization ran an ad in which it was eagerly declared that Muslims worship a different god than Catholics do.

This very popular idea among conservative and Reactionary Catholics has really taken on a life of its own since 9/11. So much so, that Reactionary Catholics think nothing of calling the Church herself heretical for teaching in CCC 841:

CCC 841: “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

Yet this is not a new take. Pope St. Gregory VII, writing to the Muslim Sultan of Bougie in North Africa in 1076 says:

For there is nothing which Almighty God, who wishes that all men should be saved and that no man should perish, more approves in our conduct than that a man should first love God and then his fellow men … Most certainly you and we ought to love each other in this way more than other races of men, because we believe and confess one God, albeit in different ways, whom each day we praise and reverence as the creator of all ages and the governor of this world.

This is typical for the Church. It seeks to find whatever can by affirmed in common with other religious and philosophical traditions. Paul did it on the Areopagus. The Fathers of the Church did it. Thomas did it with Aristotle–and with Muslims, whihc is why he was constantly comparing notes with Averroes and Avicenna, both Muslim. So the Church affirms that Muslims and Jews both worship the God of Abraham together with us, not a “different god”. This is the fundamental teaching of holy Church and rejection of that teaching is heresy. Period.

Happily, the podcaster saw that much and issued a retraction.

But here’s the thing, since his Universe of Discourse extended only to his audience of conservative and Reactionary Catholics, his retraction took into consideration only them and not the Muslims his ad had so casually slandered. What mattered was only crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s of Correct Doctrine, not the human beings insulted by the ad. Consequently, his apology read:

I have a group who post for me on social media and they don’t always get things right (we’re all human). Regarding the recent post on Muhammadism… It is not my opinion that Muslims worship a different God to Christians. Catholic theology has always maintained that Muslims worship God the creator (this has also been taught by Catholic Popes such as Pius X). I apologize for the post.

This is something like a Fundamentalist saying, “My apologies for calling Romanist Mary Worshippers ‘baby eaters’. They do not, in fact, eat babies”. The mention of Pius X signals to the Ingroup that is your Universe of Discourse that you are committed to technical accuracy while the gratuitous slam “Muhammadism” also tells them (and the victims of your slander) that you still have no respect for the Outgroup you insulted. No Muslim calls himself a “Muhammadist” just as no Catholic calls himself a Romanist Mary Worshipper. It is a label deliberately chosen to mischaracterize and belittle the targeted Outgroup. Muslims do not worship Muhammed any more than Catholics worship Mary. They worship Allah, which is the Arabic name for the God of Abraham. They call their tradition “Islam”.

My point: courtesy costs you nothing. If you propose to be an evangelist or witness to the Faith, particularly to those who are not members of your faith community, one way of starting that project is to speak with respect to, and about, those whom you wish to address.


19 Responses

  1. Do these people ever stop to consider that if Christians and Muslims worship different gods, that actually reflects worse on Christians than on Muslims? Neither Muslims nor Jews believe in the Trinity but Christians do, so if a fundamentally different understanding of God necessarily equals a fundamentallly different god, and if Christianity is an outgrowth of Judaism built solidly on the belief that our God is the God of Judaism, that pretty handily eliminates the possibility of Christianity being a true religion. As the kids say: Congratulations, you played yourself.

    N.B. I’d quibble that cults are built to victimize the ingroup at least as much as the outgroup, but they do that by controlling the universe of discourse to turn the ingroup against the outgroup, so your point still stands.

    1. Yeah, Christianity is the odd one out in the Abrahamic traditions as regards the conception of God. The Jewish view of God is much closer to the Muslim one than either of them is to small-o orthodox Christianity.

      No other currently existing religion–excepting cults–believes that God became a man.

      Which makes it no coincidence that the incarnation is the hardest thing for people, even many Christians, to wrap their heads around. Notice how quickly all manner of Christological heresies proliferated after the Apostolic age–Ariansism, Docetism, Monatism, Adoptionism, Patripassianism, etc etc etc ad nauseum.

      The closest you can get to something like the Trinity is certain Hindu conceptions–and even those aren’t all that close.

  2. Well, I suppose it is a little bit encouraging that I have never heard of Jacob Wohl, so his circle of discourse isn’t universal. Even though what he wrote in that post is incorrect, there is at least a little bit of comfort in that he is probably just preaching to his own choir.

  3. Even in my most brainwashed moment of conservatism, when they would trot out the “Muslims worship a different God” thing, I realized what they were up to. It was one of those prickly sayings they grossly took pleasure in. I wonder who started that. They’re probably on a list for using hate speech–and not just about Muslims–their term “anchor baby” comes to mind too. How a pro-life veteran could ever utter those words is beyond me.

    The more extreme ones who preach about God frowning upon the “mixing of the races”, are simply out of their minds. It disgusts me, but there’s this part of me that would be fascinated to sit them down and try to understand what makes them tick. I’m curious to know how they can possibly reconcile their racism with Christianity. One of the really sanctimonious ones who was a big Catholic donor once lectured my mother for repeating something that he considered indiscreet. Not long after that he lectured me outside of mass for marrying outside of my race.

    What’s strange is that because he was rich, everyone sucked up to him like he could do no wrong.

    1. @ taco

      “ I’m curious to know how they can possibly reconcile their racism with Christianity.”

      I know I’m just the atheist in the nave here, and that holding that position means i’m going to repeat myself. But just because I am and I do, doesn’t mean I’m not right about this.

      No one reads the bible, and says “I’m going to be that guy. Or that woman.” Always, ALWAYS, they are already that guy or that woman, and how they read the bible is intended to justify that. If you were born and raised in the south 175 years ago, your culture determined that black people were inferior, were improved by being slaves, and that everything and anything said in church about black people, white people, race, slavery, and race relations simply proved the obvious truth of it. That there were SOME Christians in the south, and a lot elsewhere, that were against slavery didn’t change the facts that a lot of people there were not.

      And they had the bible to prove it.

      Moving on, a century later, guess what! your culture determined that black people were inferior, were improved by being segregated, as were white people,, and that everything and anything said in church about black people, white people, race, segregation, and race relations simply proved the obvious truth of it. That there were SOME Christians in the south, and a lot elsewhere, that were against segregation didn’t change the facts that a lot of people there were not.

      And they had the bible to prove it.

      The morality of slavery didn’t change, the bible didn’t change. WE DID. The morality of segregation didn’t change, the bible didn’t change. WE DID. Or most of us did.

      The ones that didn’t change were given permission by Dolt45 by !aura Ingraham, Fox News, Cucker Tarlson, and a host of others to be racists, dominionists, MAGAts, fascists, authoritarians, anti-semites, anti vaxxers, anti muslims, anti brown people, and gay, anti constitution, and all of the other deplorable things they are.

      They don’t need to read the bible to justify any of that. Your own church is full of people who define themselves as the Only True Qhristians(TM) reject the magisterium, reject the pope, reject any authority whatsoever except their own.

      They didn’t read the bible, or consult with Jesus on any of that. They were already there.

      It may sound trite to say it, but they have created their god in their own image.


      1. Ben,
        I’m slightly tipsy right now because it’s the eve of Mother’s day. What license. Lol. And a Saturday night, and I still cooked! I made Lemon Chicken Piccata and listened rebelliously to Doja Cat while I did it.

        But the fact of the matter is that I’m not just just happy because I’m slightly inebriated on the eve of mother’s day on Milagro Tequila. My 24-y.o. (who is the most like me) called me today to say “I’m Catholic again” after leaving confession today. It’s probs about 10 years since he sought out confession.

        He’s such a good guy. I wish I could explain my happiness to you.

        It’s not about “the Church” it’s about Jesus.

      2. @ taco

        First, Happy Mothers’ Day!

        Second, congrats on your son returning to the fold.

        Third, this is why you are the person you are. Your eye is on what counts, not on what is counting you.

  4. You’re right that this isn’t a new view. The view that Muslims don’t worship the same God as Christians is the novel interpretation–first pushed, btw, by anti-Catholic Jack Chick.

    To wit: when Christians first encountered Muslims, they initially viewed them not as heathens, but as *heretics*. And that’s an important piece of evidence.

  5. The whole concept of “a different God” is completely antithetical to monotheism. If you are a monotheist, “God” isn’t a category of thing of which it is possible for there to be more than one: there is God, or there is not-God. You could, in theory, say, as a monotheist, “Muslims do not worship God”, meaning they worship something other than the one who is the creator and sustainer of the universe, but if you have even the most superficial and basic knowledge of Islam you only have to utter this sentence to realise how absurdly wrong it is; it’s even more absurd than believing Catholics have horns.
    Ironically, saying “Muslims worship a different God” is arguably an inadvertent confession by the speaker that it is they who don’t worship the same God as traditional monotheistic Christians. The theologian David Bentley Hart (who I am a big fan of) uses the portmanteau word “monopolytheism” for this: it is a belief in a god who rather than being “being itself”, or the source of being, and the uncreated creator and sustained of the universe, is a kind of powerful supernatural entity acting within the world in support of his followers, distinguishable from worshipping a polytheistic god such as Zeus or Thor only by the belief that there happens in practice to be only one such entity, rather than many.

    1. It’s not only monopolytheism (I am a Hart fan too btw, well on most things), it’s also a sort of monolatry–there are many gods, but only mine is worthy of worship.

      Even some of the pagans managed monolatry–though it’s pretty clear the Israelites were monolatrous early on in their history before God revealed his true nature to them more fully. Evangelicals btw always get upset when I say that, but come on, the Trinity wasn’t fully clear at first, either. Man had to figure that one out over time from what had been revealed. I’m sure the ancient Israelites were no different in this respect.

    2. But they actually are different gods, Iain. They must be. All of them evolved out of the mishmash of Semitic religions in what we now call the Middle East. And it doesn’t make it true, because of that fact, that they all worship the same god. Quite the opposite.The jewish god and the muslim god did not have sons, or even admit to the possibility. Paul said his gospel was, you might say, the last word of god, and that anyone claiming otherwise should be accursed. Which takes us right to Mohammed 600 years later— Mohammed who said he had the last revelation of Allah, who used to be a midianite storm god known as El, as in Dani-el and Rafa-el. Meanwhile, Christianity claims to be monotheistic, although the trinity is not a new concept to hinduism, what with gods and avatars and all. And yet they are all god-ish. What about Mary and Satan? Are they gods, too, beucasethey certainly act likegods to in other faiths.

      And Christianity says the trinity always was, which the jews and muslims don’t recognize. In short, totally different backstories for the gods, which means different gods, same as hindu gods and abrahamic gods are different gods.

      For my extensive experience with gods, and a lot of religious reading, I can be pretty sure of the truth of this: the possibilities are either no Faiths, one faith, or most entertaining of all: ALL faiths are true.

      As an atheist, I ascribe to the first possibility: no faiths are true. But that’s because for me, as an atheist, atheism really isn’t a statement about god, but a statement about religion, But that’s because I was a sociologist. This whole discussion tells meI need not be all that concerned about god if I haven’t figured out which religion is the true one.

      Which is the second option. But first, You guys need to figure out which one of you has the true religion. Some of you claim to know the answer. Maybe you do. I am an atheist, so i don’t have a cassock in this fight. But if you cannot agree on which of you has the One True Faith, how can any of you convince anyone else? You cannot even convince each other.

      Agreeing or Acknowledging that you all worship the same god is just a way of co-existing together, it!s a necessary adaptation, but as you note, denotes a glaring weakness in the entire argument.

      It doesn’t seem possible that some religions are true, simply because the back stories will never agree. And if both or five turned out to be true, a whole new faith would be needed to cover it.

      But for me, the last option is the most entertaining. They are all true, because “what matters is not so much that which is true but that which is entertaining” as Agathon said.

      1. Ben, there’s a lot about you I don’t know. I know from your previous screen name that you are, or were at one point, in Oakland. I know that you’re an atheist because you’ve said so just now (among other times), and I know that you’re gay and have a husband because you have said so previously. I know that your name is Ben because it’s part of both screen names. That’s not quite everything I know about you, but it’s the better part of it.

        I don’t know any of those things with a high degree of certainty, because this is the Internet and for all I know you might be someone’s sockpuppet, or maybe you’re lying about some or all of these things for the sake of your privacy. (Which: Fair.)

        But there’s certainly someone who knows you much better than I do. Probably several. Even if you’re actually so extremely reclusive that nobody you’ve met in person knows you any better than some rando on the Internet, you know you.

        I’m sure you see where I’m going with this: While I have a very incomplete, and quite possibly incorrect, picture of you, there’s someone who has a much better picture of you. But they’re both still pictures of you. I might be wrong about any number of the things I think I know about you, but there is still a you that I’m thinking those incorrect things about, and that’s the same you whom the people who actually know you actually know.

      2. As for “that which is entertaining,” and speaking of non-sequiturs, you might try Emara. Fair warning: It ends on a cliffhanger and their social media has been inactive since 2019 so I’m not convinced there will ever be a season 2. Also, speaking of things I don’t know about you, I’m taking a total shot in the dark with regard to whether you’ll find it as entertaining as I did, but so it goes I guess.

      3. All three of us believe in the God of classical monotheism. Whatever other differences there are, that’s a commonality. None of us are worshiping idols, or the Earth or Sun or stars, or some Zeus-like god who is just a really really powerful being.

        Anyway, I think when Jews, Christians, and Muslims overwhelmingly affirm that we all worship the same God and have for 1500-2000 years (depending), you might want to take us at face value.

      4. @ line

        I changed my screen name because I didn’t want to be as identifiable as I have been. I got doxxed twice because of my screen name. One time didn’t bother me, because I knew the guy was a kook. But the other one, equally kooky, was also scary kookie. I knew who he was, and right wing authoritarian was not someone I wanted to get tangled up with.

        I did not actually see where you were going with your comment, at least, I don’t think I did. but on the off chance that I did understand what you were going, it brings to mind a story from more than 40 years ago. My Then best friend in the world, and still my oldest friend – nearly 60 years now— Asked me if I was not concerned about salvation and eternal life. I responded that neither was of any use to me. He never brought up the subject again.

        I would have to say the same thing is true about God knowing who I am. What use is that to me? Especially, in light of our current conversation, what does it mean, and of what use is it to me if I don’t know what it means, if i don’t Know what he intends to do with that information.

        I am not familiar with emara. I had to look it up. But what little I’ve read about it made it seem to be a good thing: Muslim women should not be restricted because of cultural assumptions maintained by religion is the word of God, when they are simply cultural assumptions. But I will try to check it out. Right now, we are traveling in the desert and Internet is at best spotty.

      5. @ benjamin

        I still have more to write from earlier, but I’ll answer this…as a sociologist.

        Why would i do that? I contend that you yourselves don’t do that. 1900 years of officially church sanctioned anti semitism led tothat unpleasantness 80 years ago. 30 years later, F. Bailey Smith, president of the SBC, proudly announced that “god almighty does not hear the prayer of a jew. then there is whatshername and her Jewish space lasers. Soros is code for JEW. Billy Graham scrubbed his mormon stuff when rMoney became Republican annointed. religious wars for centuries. The Troubles ended in Ireland only 25 years ago— protestants and catholics having a grand time.

        The constant attacks on islam by christians in this country is legendary. Sunni kill shia, shia kill sunni. Israel needs to be buried, according to half the muslim world. Abp. welby announces that of course the CofE can’t approve gay marriage because muslims might kill christians.


        I’m sure if i thought about it, i could come up with some jewish stuff. But you get the point.

        I believe that What you do when you say “we should know” is that you assume, probably subconsciously, that there is a we and a them. We are the civilized ones, and THEY are…not. WE are not the ones attacking jews, muslims, and other Christians. WE would not do that, because WE are nice people.

        And i agree. You are. You’re not the ones denigrating and attacking and murdering and jihading.

        It’s the no true Christian fallacy.


  6. @bensnewlogin,

    If God is of no use to you (which is really the wrong question to be asking, but whatever) why are you repeatedly signing up to comment on a religious blog after getting booted? As the saying goes, don’t tell–show. If this is the case you shouldn’t have any more interest in a Christian’s blog than I have in gymnastics or knitting or skydiving blogs, which is to say, none whatsoever.

    You can’t even us being gay as an excuse at this point. You’ve won. You’ve won the culture. The battle is over. Congrats. You shouldn’t be this morose–you should be enjoying yourself.

    1. @ benjamin

      I am unaware of having been booted from anywhere. I don’t go where i am not welcome and/or I have nothing to contribute. Well, i did get banned once from LieSite and Frankie Graham’s propaganda mills for pointing out some inconveniencies, but let he who hasn’t rawdogged a b-list porn star while his third wife d-list fake lesbian porn star is pregnant with his fifth child cast the first stone.

      I’m not the only atheist, apatheist, agnostic, doubter, or anti-theist who contributes here. I’m probably the only it-doesn’t matterist, though. And i am certain I am the only devotee of Koschei the Deathless, Who Made Things As They Are. I never said god is of no use to me. Nor would I. I’d give worlds to know that there is a god or gods who are intimately concerned with me. I’d even settle for a leprechaun who is indifferent. But Koschei is implacable, and I lack the belief that others here have.

      But all kidding aside, assuming that’s what I am doing…

      I find all of these questions very interesting, and I always have. I find the people who make the assertions also very interesting. As a former sociologist, a part-time psychologist, something of a philosopher, and in a vague general sort of a way, a former believer of a sort, I find it all fascinating. But as I have said on these very pages many, many times, I really don’t care what people believe. We all of us need our metaphors. What I am interested in is what people do with their beliefs, and what has motivated me personally for decades is the intersection of politics, faith, and sexuality…

      Because what people do at that intersection intimately and ultimately affects everybody in the world, often to their detriment. On the other hand, as i have also said repeatedly here, If your faith makes your life better, and you a better person, I’m all for it. So I can assure you that I am not an anti-theist. I don’t give a small crap about “winning the culture“, not in the sense that you seem to mean it.

      But that is where you end up when you follow Koschei, Who Made Things As They Are.

      I have more to say, but we’re in the middle of the desert right now. Perhaps a bit later I can tell you about two of my encounters with The Greatest Catholics of All Time.

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