Dream diary, 11/21/09: Terrorist Pizza Party »« Atheist Meme of the Day: Atheists Don’t Worship Science

What if People Actually Treated Religion as Just a Metaphor (Like Trekkies and Secular Jews)?

Storybook bible If religion really were just a metaphor, just a comforting and inspiring story that gives shape and meaning to people’s lives… what might it look like?

One of the most common tropes among progressive religious believers is Religion As Metaphor. “Religious beliefs don’t have to be literally true,” the trope says. “They’re just useful metaphors: stories that give shape and meaning to our lives.”

I’m not buying it. I’m not buying it for one simple reason: If religion is just a story, then why does it upset people so much when atheists say it isn’t true? Any more than it would upset a fan of “Alice in Wonderland” if someone told them it wasn’t true?

I’m seriously not buying it. I think the “metaphor” trope is just a disingenuous way for believers to slip away from hard questions about their beliefs. But it’s got me thinking: If religion really were just a story — a story that people found comforting and inspiring, a story that people sincerely knew wasn’t true but still enjoyed telling and re-telling — what would that look like?

And would atheists have a problem with it?

I was debating the other day with a believer who was getting bent out of shape about how religion was just a story people found comforting. People didn’t have to believe religion was literally true for it to make a difference in their lives, he insisted. So why was I being so intolerant and mean and trying to take it away? And it suddenly struck me:

The version of religion he’s talking about?

It’s Trekkies.

*

Thus begins my new blog post up at AlterNet, What if People Actually Treated Religion as Just a Metaphor (Like Trekkies and Secular Jews)? In it, I talk about what religion would be like if it really were just a metaphor, as many progressive believers claim; if it really were just a story that people found inspiring enough to devote their lives to. I look at a community that’s passionately devoted to a story that they know isn’t true — namely, Trekkies. And then I make a somewhat more serious comparison: I look at secular Judaism. and how that community is finding a way to sincerely treat religious traditions and stories as metaphors, without needing to believe in God. To find out more, read the rest of the piece.

BTW: This is the second in a four-part series of pieces on atheism I’m writing for AlterNet. (#1 was The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful.) If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t been doing as much blogging lately on my own blog: This series is why. It’s drawing a fair amount of my time. If you’re wondering why I’ve been doing my atheist blogging for AlterNet instead of my own lovely blog: $$$. I’ll be reprinting all these pieces here on my own blog soon; in the meantime, enjoy them on AlterNet!

Comments

  1. Moxiequz says


    then why does it upset people so much when atheists say it isn’t true? Any more than it would upset a fan of “Alice in Wonderland” if someone told them it wasn’t true?

    Haven’t read the AlterNet article yet but I just wanted to toss a quickie comment in (add your own grains of salt):
    I think the distinction is that liberal religious folks may treat specific stories as parables or myths but they still believe in the underlying diety – God (or “spirts”, angels, a higher, sentient force, whatever). That’s what causes the defensiveness. To extend your “Alice” metaphor a bit, coming from their point of view it’s as if you’re saying not only are the “Wonderland” stories not real, neither is Lewis Carroll.
    I’ve talked to plenty of believers (and used to be one myself) that don’t believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible – at all, even questioning the historical accuracy of the text. Yet they still believe in “Christian-like” God and even Jesus. Contradictory, yes but we humans are masters of that.

  2. Robyn Slinger says

    coming from their point of view it’s as if you’re saying not only are the “Wonderland” stories not real, neither is Lewis Carroll.
    Not quite: indeed, wouldn’t they also believe that the white rabbit had written “Alice”?

  3. Moxiequz says

    Not quite: indeed, wouldn’t they also believe that the white rabbit had written “Alice”?
    I suppose. But my point was that in the eyes of these believers God is as real as Lewis Carroll. They may not believe that Methuselah existed and they may not believe the narrative of the various stories (flood, garden of eden, etc) but there’s no doubt in their mind that the force that supposedly “inspired” these stories is real. And that’s why they get defensive.
    Just to give a very simplified personal example: if you had walked up to me when I was still a believer and said “The Bible is full of fictional stories and distorted history. None of those miracles really happened.” I would’ve agreed with you. I may have even agreed (albeit with some hesitation) if you said “Jesus never existed – he’s a fictional character”. But if you said “God doesn’t exist either” that’s when I would’ve balked.

  4. Ben says

    The pertinent question: would atheists have a problem with it?
    I can’t speak for everybody, but it’s no different than if the believers think it’s real. If it doesn’t affect me or others, then I have no issues with it at all. If they only find comfort in the stories and don’t try to force me (or anybody) to do the same, or live my life as they think it needs to be lived, then go right ahead.
    The same goes for actual religion. Keep your tentacles out of government, live by the law, stop preaching at the rest of us and trying to convert us, stop committing crimes in the name of your deity, and you can believe whatever you want to believe.
    Unfortunately that’s not the case, and while it is like it is I make it my right to argue that nobody has a “God”-given right to do anything, let alone control the greater population.

  5. G.S. says

    Thanks for writing this! I really enjoyed this piece, as well as the one titled “When Anyone is Watching: Metaphors and the Slipperiness of Religion.” I think you did a good job of showing that even some moderate believers still literally believe in some aspects of religion. When I used to believe in God, I didn’t buy all the hateful parts of religion, but I still used to literally believe in God until I realized that my doubt was too great to keep believing.
    I think we can definitely learn a lot from stories, even if they are fictional. I’ve learned a lot from books I’ve read, both fiction and non-fiction.
    By the way, I’m a Trekkie! (Plus, I’m one of those weirdo fringe cultists who like “Voyager”.) It made me smile when you mentioned Trek, because it’s definitely had a big impact on my life and made me think, even though I know it’s not literally real.
    Thanks again for writing!
    -G. S.

  6. says

    As a member of fandom as well as a secular Jewish atheist…yes. Yes yes yes, a thousand times yes. You’ve explained what I’ve been trying to articulate for years.

  7. Agnes says

    I think that looking at religion as metaphor is a useful way to put things in perspective, of looking at how our early ancestors viewed the universe and their place in it. I find it really fascinating to look back and try to figure out why early humans believed the things they did and how those beliefs got passed down to us over the ages. I’m also a big fan of literature, and it seems unduly dismissive to completely reject the notion of religion as metaphor, when not everyone who uses that phrase is using it as a smokescreen–as you’ve just gone out of your way to demonstrate by the examples of Trekkies and secular Judaism. I think Moxiquz has a good point in that some believers who like the stories as metaphors don’t believe the more ridiculous aspects of their religion, but still believe in a literal God of some sort. However, in the majority of my admittedly limited experience, I haven’t seen all that much overlap between the “religion as metaphor” crowd and the “religion is literally true” crowd, and when I have seen overlap it’s usually been because the people involved were using the word “true” in two different ways, the believers to mean truths about human nature and the skeptics to mean truths about the cosmos.

  8. says

    I love the alter.net piece. Very well done. I particularly enjoyed your discussion of secular Judaism. I could probably live very easily alongside of people – such as secular Jews – who actually treated their religious beliefs, including the core bit – the god-belief – as useful metaphors.

  9. Indigo says

    The question of the difference between literal truth and metaphorical truth is really interesting to me, and had I gone on to grad school I probably would have become really mired in it. As I see, a metaphor is a way of getting at the truth (and interestingly enough, you can’t talk about figurative language much with using a lot of it). The problem with “religion is a metaphor” is what sort of truth we’re getting at. A moderate believer might say, “Our holy writings are all allegorical; they’re a way for us to understand our god. They don’t have to be literally true, just like Aesop’s Fables don’t have to have literally happened for us to understand what they’re teaching.” The atheist, however, says, “But your writings are an empty metaphor because they actually don’t point to any kind of higher reality. They don’t help you understand your god because your god is not there to be understood.”

  10. says

    Something that has always annoyed me about the metaphorical truth claim is that the metaphors of many religions are so profoundly disturbing that one needs to be seriously worried about what they are metaphors for. In Judaism one of the central stories is the binding of Issac. For what is that a metaphor? The tendency for self-described sources of morality to abuse their power?
    Similarly in Christianity, one of the central aspects of the story is what appears to be a sadomasochistic incestuous roleplay. What is this a metaphor for?
    Moreover, the seriousness of the metaphor is a problem. Trekkies might tell you that they that the story is about the human condition or examines deep seated moral issues. But I don’t think any Trekkies seriously ask “What Would Kirk Do?”

  11. says

    Well, this atheist Jew loved it. I think this, and the linked piece about “When Anyone is Watching”, are among your strongest pieces on atheism so far (high compliment indeed).
    And you’re welcome for Passover at our house any year. :)

  12. says

    I think that’s a fair question, Joshua. But again, among the benefits of a truly secular religious observance is that (a) you can cherry-pick without twisting yourself into knots, and (b) you can acknowledge the flaws in your religious stories without twisting yourself into knots.
    In fact, (b) is an important part of Judaism for many Jews — even non-secular ones. They don’t have the idea that the Torah is perfect and all the stories in it are wonderful examples of moral excellence: they look at many of them as the opposite, as object lessons of how not to behave. (I think many of them would agree with your assessment of the Isaac story, and would say that Abraham acted wrongly.) And coming back to (a), secular Jews are free to use their own good judgment about which stories are the cherries they want to pick (and how to interpret those stories), and which are the icky ones they want to reject — without twisting themselves into knots explaining why some of these rules and stories are the ones God still cares about, and some of them aren’t.

  13. JL says

    I love your post! Especially the parts about atheist Jews, since that’s a personal topic for me.
    I’m not convinced, though, that there aren’t Trekkies that regard other forms of Trekkies as blasphemers and sinners. :)

  14. Clarence Thomson says

    The problem with considering religion as metaphors without substance is that the “substance” is supporting you. I think you, as a gay, should have equal rights. But those equal rights are based in America on the Founders’ believe in a creator that considers your equality “god-given.”
    And a lot of atheistic Jews want Israel to have some land based on more than mere metaphor.
    And Bach wrote his celestial music from a heart full of Protestant faith.
    Metaphors without substance don’t work, any more than wedding rings without love.

  15. Maria says

    But those equal rights are based in America on the Founders’ believe in a creator that considers your equality “god-given.
    Uh…
    And a lot of atheistic Jews want Israel to have some land based on more than mere metaphor.
    That might be part of the problem…
    And Bach wrote his celestial music from a heart full of Protestant faith.
    You think his talent and skills would mysteriously disappear if he had been an atheist?
    Metaphors without substance don’t work, any more than wedding rings without love.
    Love works just fine without wedding rings!
    Yours is one long argument from wishful thinking.

  16. DSimon says

    Clarence Thomson, Greta’s post was a response to religious people who say “But my religious beliefs are just a metaphor, not a truth claim, and therefore your epistemological arguments don’t apply to my beliefs”.
    If you’re not claiming that your beliefs are a metaphor, then this particular post isn’t directed at those beliefs.

  17. WScott says

    Great article, Greta. But


    Progressive religion says, “This is simply a story”… but it isn’t sincere. You can tell that it isn’t sincere by how bent out of shape it gets when people point out that it’s just a story, and therefore isn’t really true.

    I think it’s a little more nuanced than that. A lot of Progressives are fine with the idea that the Bible is not an infallible source of history or physics, but still believe it’s a infallible source of morality and wisdom. (Or at least a Highly Respected source.)
    To look at a more narrow example within the Bible, take the Parable of the Good Samaritan. (Or substitute your own parable of choice.) If you said “Jesus wasn’t reporting a historical incident that literally happened; he was telling a fictional story to illustrate a point,” I think most Christians would be fine with that. But if you continued “I think the moral of the story is nonsense too,” then yes a lot of Christians are likely to get bent out of shape. The distinction as I see it is that even if the event is accepted as not being literally true, the underlying moral lesson is presumed to be infallible because of the infallibility of the author.
    I think the same mindset can be applied to the Bible as a whole. Of course there’s still the issue that many of the Bible’s “moral lessons” are vague at best, and contradictory or downright repulsive at worst. But that’s another post.

    They treat sacred Jewish texts the way we all treat philosophers and political writers who aren’t purportedly passing on the divine word of God: they read them critically, they embrace the ideas that make sense, they actively oppose the ideas that are barbaric, they ignore the ideas that seem silly.

    Fair enough, but “read them critically” is the key phrase, and one that assumes a lot (not just in terms of Judaism). Cherry-picking which rituals you want to observe and pass on to your kids is one thing. But cherry-picking which moral lessons you’re going to follow is trickier, as confirmation bias tends to lead people to only pick the lessons that are easy/convenient or that they already agree with. Witness the way most New Agers seem (IMO) to cobble together whatever spiritual beliefs happen to justify what they were planning to do anyway (or whatever sounds cool or fashionable at the moment), without any consistency or unifying thread of morality to hold them together. Any morality that only tells you when you’re right is worthless.

    Original Showians don’t treat Next Generationists as sinners and blasphemers

    So I take it you’ve never actually BEEN to a Trek convention? ;)

  18. says

    But those equal rights are based in America on the Founders’ believe in a creator that considers your equality “god-given.”

    They are nothing of the kind. The “god given” language is in the Declaration of Independence. It is not in the Constitution… which is actually the document our country was founded on. And many of the Founders were not religious.
    And religion has overwhelmingly not been our friend in the fight for same-sex marriage. It has overwhelmingly been our enemy.

    And a lot of atheistic Jews want Israel to have some land based on more than mere metaphor.

    Yes. They want it based on the long, ugly history of anti-Semitism, and their need for a homeland as a result.
    I’m not saying that all secular Jews have always had a perfect attitude towards Israel — far from it. But at least their attitudes are not based on the belief that God wants them to have this land. Which means they can be debated reasonably — not on an untestable belief in what God does or doesn’t want.

    And Bach wrote his celestial music from a heart full of Protestant faith.

    As Maria said: Do you think Bach would have not created great music without religious inspiration? Many great artists have created great art with secular inspirations and themes. What’s your point here?

    Metaphors without substance don’t work, any more than wedding rings without love.

    I think you may have missed the whole point of this piece.
    Secular Judaism is not — repeat, NOT — metaphor without substance. It’s just that the substance is not a belief in God. The substance is family, history, our need for stories and images that shape our lives, our need for rituals that gives our lives continuity and connect us with our past and our future. Do you really think that secular Judaism is “metaphor without substance”? I hope not.

  19. says

    Greta, I think you make valid points but if one is picking and choosing then how is it metaphor so much as simply picking stories that one finds meaningful and touching? I’m not sure that’s a metaphor so much as simply saying “these practices and legends are culturally important to me because I grew up with them and they give me a feeling of connection to my ancestors and community.” But that’s not a metaphor.

  20. says

    I’ve always addressed the metaphor argument from a different angle, but I really like this one, too.
    When someone has tried to tell me that the Bible is a metaphor, I ask, “A metaphor for what?”
    They usually come back with something about “love your neighbor” or whatnot, and then I ask them to explain to me the metaphor of the flood. What am I supposed to get from a story about God wiping out the entire human race except for one family because he was jealous?
    The fact is, even as a metaphor, the Bible fails miserably. The God of the Bible is morally bankrupt. Unless we’re setting out to learn about all the ways to NOT be loving to ourselves and our neighbors, the Bible is one big FAIL.

Leave a Reply