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?
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.
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.