Religion is a Set of Symbols and Metaphors?

Even Dexter is a little skeptical that religion is just a set of symbols and metaphors to express the inexpressible

Even Dexter is a little skeptical that religion is just a set of symbols and metaphors  used to express the inexpressible

I just finished watching an interesting interview with Professor Reza Aslan who says that religion is basically a coded language of symbols and metaphors that provide ‘a language’ which allows someone to ‘express the inexpressible’.

You can watch the video for yourself at the bottom of this post.

Anyhow, the host of the interview (Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks) asks a poignant question about why someone would choose to use symbols and metaphors that are both untrue and violent in nature.

Reza’s answer was less than satisfying. Instead of answering the question directly, he asks Cenk why he chooses to use English. He goes on to point out that language is just a way of passing on a message using symbols like religion. Religion (he says) is the language religious people use to pass on their messages of faith etc. He then gives an example of a Christian saying to another Christian that they’ve been ‘washed in the blood of the lamb’. The Christian would know what the other person was saying because they’re using Christian symbols and metaphors, while a practitioner of Judaism wouldn’t know what they were talking about.

Alright, so there is the groundwork to their discussion . Now I’m going to tell you why I think Reza’s comparison to language is a side-step of the issue.

English can be used to construct a metaphor, but it isn’t one by itself. Any language can be used to construct a metaphor, but it isn’t one by itself. I am using English to construct this blog post, but those words – each by itself – does not constitute a blog post.

English doesn’t tell people what to believe, how to believe it or what is true about the nature of reality and what isn’t. Religion often attempts to do that using English or language of any kind.

Cenk’s point is well made – why use those metaphors and symbols if you know they aren’t true and contain many violent passages?

Even if you are merely using your religion as a way of passing on ideas and information, why not use language that doesn’t contain mythology and violence?

And what exactly is Reza refferring to as ‘inexpressible’? If it can’t be expressed, then religion wouldn’t be able to express it either, yet he is implying that it is the only medium able to do so. So is it expressible or inexpressible?

If it’s expressible using one medium or set of symbols, ideas and metaphors, then surely the same ideas can be expressed using language that doesn’t contain falsities and violence. In fact, aren’t there lots of religions, all with their own set of symbols and metaphors, that all try to express the inexpressible?

When something contains ideas, metaphors and claims that can be shown to be factually untrue, and that contain violence, I have no problem calling it what I believe it to be – a bad idea that needs to be challenged.

That goes for any religion, idea, political opinion etc that I might come across.

And furthermore, if these religious messages are merely metaphor, why do so many religious people consistently believe them to be literally true? Why do these beliefs constantly show up when people want to craft public policy?

For example:

In most countries surveyed, majorities of Muslim women as well as men agree that a wife is always obliged to obey her husband. Indeed, more than nine-in-ten Muslims in Iraq (92%), Morocco (92%), Tunisia (93%), Indonesia (93%), Afghanistan (94%) and Malaysia (96%) express this view. At the same time, majorities in many countries surveyed say a woman should be able to decide for herself whether to wear a veil.

Or:

The percentage of Muslims who say they want sharia to be “the official law of the land” varies widely around the world, from fewer than one-in-ten in Azerbaijan (8%) to near unanimity in Afghanistan (99%). But solid majorities in most of the countries surveyed across the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia favor the establishment of sharia, including 71% of Muslims in Nigeria, 72% in Indonesia, 74% in Egypt and 89% in the Palestinian territories.

And if you’re talking about the metaphorical symbols of Christianity:

By the year 2050, 41% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ definitely (23%) or probably (18%) will have returned to earth.

Of course there are Christians, Muslims etc that view their religion as being untrue and just a language for faith, but the question still stands – why use such violent, archaic language to express that faith, when you know it’s patently untrue?

Wouldn’t it be better to use language that is more accurate and less violent?

Tell me what you think, dear reader.

 

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17 Comments

  1. Glad to see this post, GC! I hope all is going well with you!

    For starters, I don’t think religious people know that what they’re believing is wrong. I’m reminded of a recent conversation I had with a Christian about whether or not someone can assume nothing about deities and weigh evidence neutrally. His position was that people MUST use their assumptions when deciding God’s existence. I mention his position because from his vantage, not only does he refuse to think that his view was wrong, he refused to even think that he might be wrong.

    However, even if he knew he was wrong, there’s a great reason to use metaphor and symbolism: it’s imprecise. Having a gray area means you can leverage emotion and bias to one’s advantage. And that’s used to great effect to keep people in the pews. You can also use mental gymnastics to explain a metaphor one way for one purpose, and then twist it another way for another purpose.

    There’s another use for it too, but I’m going to save that for the next post I publish.

    Great post!

    • I’m doing very well. Work took a crazy turn so I was super busy and unable to do much online. Things have calmed down a little now.

      I think many religious people don’t take it as metaphor at all, but literal truth. Even if they are metaphors, they’re often unhelpful, violent ones that (in my opinion) pass along the wrong message.

      I think you’re onto something about keeping it in the grey.

      It’s nice to see you my friend!

    • I agree with SB. The use of symbols and metaphors enables a wide range of interpretation without the need for the precision and communications (and understanding) that words in any language are intended to provide. I actually think that most Christians do respond to the symbolism or religion and to the allegory and metaphor of the Scriptures. I tend to think it’s only the more fundamental Christians who interpret the Bible to be the literal truth.

      • I agree with the sentiment that most Christians (or any religion) often search for the metaphor and allegory. At church, you often hear sermons about scripture stories and the priests ideas of what he thinks it means. They also often talk about the stories as being literally true, yet they contain hidden meanings along with the truth.

        For example, Daniel and the lions. They will teach it as being literal, but also try to explain why it happened and why God and Daniel would act in such a way etc. It’s a weird mixture of the literal with the metaphorical.

        Thanks for stopping in, Doob. And yeah, I’ve been really, really busy and been too exhausted to do online stuff. I’m back now though. 🙂

  2. Glad to see you back. I love brawling on your site. Then I can go back to the relative peace and quiet of my own little virtual world 🙂

    I STILL say you lump “religious people” into one, great, big undifferentiated heap which may suit you for writing/debating/blogging reasons, but isn’t a reflection of reality. I know that the fundamentalists are getting all the media coverage these days, but I know from my own experience that what the media finds “sexy” has a lot to do with what sells advertising space and damned little to do with reality as anyone else experiences it.

    You’ve chosen a highly simplified world-view of religion and religious people because you can lob missiles more easily at this big, bright target. If you start to subtly differentiate between beliefs and believers, it will get complicated. Maybe too complicated for you.

    But I enjoy your broadsides. I’m always surprised when someone takes it personally. No one I have every known is the way you portray them and I have never met a single Christian — or Jew — or Hindu — who held the kind of super-simple-minded beliefs you say they espouse. But hey, whatever floats your boat, right?

    • Ha ha! I love that you feel safe brawling here and thanks for the welcome back.

      “You’ve chosen a highly simplified world-view of religion and religious people because you can lob missiles more easily at this big, bright target.”

      No, I think religious people vary in their beliefs, practices etc. I think it’s religion itself that is the problem and it’s simplified/archaic view of reality.

      “No one I have every known is the way you portray them and I have never met a single Christian — or Jew — or Hindu — who held the kind of super-simple-minded beliefs you say they espouse.”

      And yet I can quote them every single day if I chose. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. I think Aslan is a chuffing phony. I have seen a few of his videos and that was enough to put me off buying anything he has written.
    He does the theological two step,like so many of his religious brethren.

    People of this style of kidney always resort to metaphor and frakking ”symbols” when they know their argument holds less water than a Galilean fisherman’s net.
    This is why they cherry pick their info to suit their argument.
    I cry Bullshit!

  4. Pingback: No True Whatevers | Amusing Nonsense

  5. Even if you are merely using your religion as a way of passing on ideas and information, why not use language that doesn’t contain mythology and violence?

    Because mythology is a more effective way in many cases to pass on the ideas and information. And often the information is the story. The violence in many of these stories both reflects the reality the people lived in and can be used to emphasize certain points (make the story more memorable).

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