This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
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?
Think about it. Trekkies are devoted to a story that they find entertaining and inspiring, even though they know it isn’t factually real. And there’s great diversity in their devotions, similar to those among religious beliefs. Some Trekkies are intensely dedicated to the story, to the point where it takes up a substantial part of their lives: going to conventions, making costumes, buying memorabilia, watching the shows again and again. Others are more casual followers: watching the shows when they happen to come on, maybe taking in a convention or two. And different Trekkies follow different variants of the story. Some are more interested in the original show with Spock and Kirk; others care more about The Next Generation. Some weirdo fringe cultists even follow Voyager.
But they all have one thing in common: They know that “Star Trek” isn’t real. Unless they’re certifiably mentally ill, they know that the story they’re devoted to was made up by people. And they act accordingly. Avid convention-goers don’t treat casual fans as apostates; Original Showians don’t treat Next Generationists as sinners and blasphemers; and none of them write editorials lambasting people as immoral sociopaths if they prefer documentaries to any sort of science fiction. And they — okay, fine, we — don’t insist that “Star Trek” is just a story… and then get bent out of shape when people point out that it is a story, and hence that it’s not true. Trekkies have a good time trying to fit the inaccuracies and inconsistencies into some sort of continuity (that’s half the fun); but we understand that the show is a fictional story, with all the flaws that fiction is heir to, and we don’t treat it as a divinely-inspired guide to reality and life.
That’s what “it’s just a metaphor” religion would look like.
And if religion looked like that, I would have no problem with it at all.
Now, if you’re a religious believer, maybe you think this analogy is trivializing your faith. Maybe you think it’s insulting to compare centuries of serious religious practice and thought to nerds wearing Spock ears at convention centers. So let’s take a different example.
Let’s take historical re-creation societies. Not re-enactors of real historical events like the Civil War, but re-creators of historical fiction. Let’s take communities who like to act out the characters and worlds of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.R.R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare. Let’s take communities who find these stories beautiful and inspiring, and who devote a significant portion of their lives to reading them, studying them, discussing them, re-imagining them, dressing up like the characters in them, and attending ritual and celebratory events dedicated to them.
You don’t like that analogy, either? But those are wonderful stories! Rich, complex, highly respected stories! Stories with decades and even centuries of tradition behind them! Are you saying that historical re-enactors are giant nerds and that you resent being compared to them? How dare you insult my faith! I declare jihad!
I kid, of course. I do enjoy some occasional historical fiction re-creation events; but I’m not going to start a war, even an Internet flame war, defending them. (Although this kind of proves my point: if believers get offended at their religion being compared to other stories — even if those stories are serious literature — then the “religion is just a story” trope can’t be very sincere.)
But I’m off on a tangent. Let’s come back to the main point. And let’s get a bit more serious. Let’s look at a genuine, religiously- themed example of my Trekkie model of religion.
For plenty of Jews, Judaism is much more of a cultural/ historical/ familial identity than a religious one. In fact, for many Jews, Judaism is entirely a cultural and historical and familial identity, and not a religious one at all. The phrase “atheist Jew” has a non-absurd, readily- comprehensible meaning… in a way that “atheist Baptist” doesn’t. Many Jews cherrypick the Jewish rituals and stories that they like, and reject the ones they don’t — not as a slippery way of trying to shoehorn an obsolete and untenable faith into a modern worldview, but entirely openly and without shame or pretense, in an “I don’t think God gives a damn about this, I don’t even think God exists, this is all just mangled history at best and totally made-up at worst, so I have no qualms about picking the parts I like and ditching the rest” approach. Questioning the tenets and texts of Judaism is part of the rabbinical tradition, and many secular Jews view their selective observance, not as a rejection of the Jewish tradition, but as part of it. 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.
Exactly the way “Star Trek” fans ignore and reject “Spock’s Brain.”
I guess I’m saying that secular Jews are the Trekkies of religion. And good on them. I’m totally serious. If I could convert to secular Judaism and not feel like an idiot, I’d seriously consider it. Secular Jews have found a way to (mostly) take what’s good about religion and (mostly) leave what’s bad about it. And that way is to not treat it as religion. That way is to not treat it as the divine word of God. That way is to treat it as a story: a fascinating story, a story with a powerful tradition behind it, a story worth telling and caring about and getting involved in… but a story. A story with parts that are inspiring and useful, and parts that are gruesome and ugly, and parts that are just plain batshit.
Now, there is, of course, an important difference between secular Judaism and Trekkies. And that’s the deep, intense connection many secular Jews have with family and history. It’s not just about being invested in the story, and the rituals connected with it. It’s about the fact that the story and the rituals are ones that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and so on were invested in.
And of course, much of that investment has to do with how Jews and Judaism have historically been treated by the rest of the world. As a friend pointed out when I ran this piece by her: Plenty of Jews in Germany were very secular, didn’t even particularly think of themselves as Jewish… but that didn’t change how the Nazis saw them. Practicing the rituals of Judaism is a way of acknowledging this reality. And it’s a way of defying it, a way of saying “Fuck you” to it: to Nazis, to pogroms, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, to ghettos, to forced conversions, to being barred from all professions except money-lending and then being vilified as money-grubbing usurers, to expulsions and massacres, to the blood libel, to the Spanish Inquisition. Secular Judaism isn’t just about the fact that your great-grandmother practiced these rituals. It’s about the fact that she was put in a concentration camp because of them.
So that’s an important difference from Trekkies. But my basic premise still remains. Which is that secular Judaism is a way of preserving religious tradition, without needing to believe in God or the supernatural. Secular Judaism shows that you can take religious observances seriously, as a connection to family and history… without believing that you’re doing it for God.
Judaism may not be alone in this, either. I’m beginning to hear of secular Catholics, too: Catholics who are following the “we think these rituals and images are beautiful, and they’re an important part of our family history handed down through generations, but it’s not like we actually believe it” pattern laid out by secular Judaism.
And, of course, there’s one of the most classic forms of secularized religion: Christmas. Christmas is ostensibly a celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; but for many people, it’s simply a celebration of the fact that the days are dark and cold, and we need to feast and light lights and give presents and generally schmooze with the people we care about. It’s becoming a secular holiday for many, and hard-line atheists from PZ Myers to Richard Dawkins have spoken cheerfully in favor of it.
And you know what?
I love this.
I would love to see more of this. I would love to see a secular Catholicism that preserves the soothing ritual and rich pageantry, without the sex-hating dogma and the authoritarian hierarchy. I would love to see a secular Baptism that preserves the wild oratory and soaring music, without the hateful obsession with hellfire and judgment. I would love to see a secular Hinduism that preserves the magnificent imagery and generous diversity, without the rationalization for the caste system. I would love to see a secular Wicca that preserves the passionate love of nature, without the dismissive contempt for science that is so contradictory to that love. I would love to see a secular Methodism that preserves the Jello salad. (Actually, I could do fine without that… but if other people want to preserve the grand tradition of Methodist Jello salads, more power to them.)
I probably wouldn’t practice any of this myself. My own familial religious tradition is “boring Middle-American Protestantism” from my grandparents (hence the Jello salads), agnosticism and atheism from my parents. The former isn’t interesting enough for me to preserve (except for Christmas), and the latter I’m already running with. So no secular religion for me.
But I could totally see it. I could see it as a way for humanity to preserve the cool stuff about religion — the ritual and the tradition, the narrative and the imagery, the community and the connection with family and history — without the active disregard for reality that causes so much trouble.
And as an atheist, I could be totally happy with it.
So what’s the difference?
What’s the difference between this secular Trekkie Judaism that I respect, the secular Trekkie Catholicism that I’m encouraging… and the “Religion is a useful metaphor” trope that I’ve argued against so hotly?
The difference is this:
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. Progressive religion uses the “metaphor” trope as a slippery way of avoiding hard questions when engaged with skeptics… and as soon as the skeptics turn their backs, it slips right back into actual, non-metaphorical, “belief in immaterial entities or forces that it has no evidence for” religion. Progressive religion is ultimately just as willing to ignore evidence that contradicts its comforting story as hard-line conservative religion.
Truly secular “religion,” on the other hand, says, “This is simply a story” — and means it.
The difference is this:
If you say to a “Religion is a useful metaphor” believer, “Your religion is a story, it isn’t factually true, a lot of the history is mangled and some of it’s flatly wrong, and all the God stuff is totally made up”… chances are they’re going to get seriously defensive. They’ll tell you how intolerant you are, how you’re just as dogmatic and proselytizing as religious fundamentalists, how disrespectful you are to point out the flaws in religion and try to persuade people that it’s mistaken, how close-minded you are to reject ideas just because they’re not supported by dumb old evidence.
If you say to a secular Jew — a genuinely secular, non-believing, atheist Jew — “Your religion is a story, it isn’t factually true, a lot of the history is mangled and some of it’s flatly wrong, and all the God stuff is totally made up”… they’ll say, “Yeah, I know. So what? So are you coming to Passover or not?”