Monday, May 19, 2008

The metaphorical interpretation of religion

Carl Sachs, caught on the horns of a dilemma, tries to throw sand in the bull's eyes and change the framing of the atheist critique of religion.
The so-called "new atheists" (a term that I frankly loathe) take an assertion-centered view of language. If it's not an assertion about how things are, then it's mere subjective fantasy, unworthy of serious consideration, and so on.

And if that's right, then one way to advance the conversation is to open up this view of language, somehow -- perhaps by emphasizing, as James does here, the importance of metaphors and symbols.

As a "new atheist", I would object to this interpretation. If some statements sound like assertions, if they use assertion-like grammar, if millions of people seem to act as if they they believed these statements as assertions, if they hold these assertions as directly competing with scientific assertions, if they seem to construct their moral and ethical beliefs on the basis of the statements as assertions and seem eager to impose the moral and ethical beliefs on the rest of their society, then maybe, just maybe, we might be interested in discussing whether these assertions are actually true.

If McGrath wants to define religion as just a state of mind, then his religion is definitely of interest to anyone — myself included — interested in psychology, spirituality, phenomenalism, and everything else to do with the endlessly fascinating human mind.

There are hundreds of millions — perhaps billions — of people, however, who really do take statements about God, or Allah, or Shiva, or Odin or Zeus as assertions of truth in precisely the same sense that assertions about the mass of the Earth or the law of gravity are assertions of truth. Their religion is not metaphorical, it is not literary, it is not symbolic, it is taken as literally and factually true.

When we're talking about this kind of pernicious, deluded, misguided belief, then no, we're not really interested in religious people who define their religion in purely subjective, phenomenological terms.

Atheists are just as interested (and some just as uninterested) in poetry and literature as the next person. And most of us — myself included — would be well pleased and consider our efforts entirely successful if religion were commonly taken to be of the same ilk as poetry and literature.

So I get a little suspicious when someone tries to undermine the atheist critique as a whole by saying his particular brand of religion is not susceptible to the critique. Perhaps it's not; if the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it. But why try to undermine the critique as a whole when it's patently obvious that it actually applies directly to hundreds of millions of people? This is why I suspect that those who put forth a metaphorical or literary interpretation of religion are not being entirely sincere, that somewhere under the metaphor is some assertion of truth which the believer is intent on protecting.


  1. You're right that I'm caught on the horns of a dilemma. What exactly the dilemma is, I'm not yet sure.

    I do think that there's a fascinating and under-explored dislocation (?) -- or slippage? -- between the sort of language that McGrath employs and the sort of language that "the average theist" employs.

    On the one hand, I agree with Barefoot Bum that "the average theist" is in the business of making assertions, and is not speaking metaphorically. Likewise I agree that "the average theist" is inferring ethical and political beliefs from these assertions, and that these assertions usually (though not always) conflict with our best natural and social science.

    (For various reasons, those who find that their assertions conflict with science -- for example, the assertion that abstinence-only sex education is effective at reducing teen pregnancy -- are more vocal in the public square than their more reasonable fellow believers.)

    And since those who do make assertions are vulnerable to just the sorts of challenges issued by Dawkins or Harris, I think that's a misplaced criticism to accuse them of neglecting Tillich or Barth. What Tillich and Barth have written is interesting, but mostly as an attempt to reconstruct religious discourse as something other than assertoric. But "the average theist" does not strike me as a Tillichian or Barthian in her use of language, and so her assertions are vulnerable to criticism.

    At the same time, though, I'm willing to regard it as an empirical question as to whether "the average theist" means to speak assertorically or not. Perhaps she does, perhaps she doesn't. Perhaps her speaking so is due to theological naivete rather than basic conviction. I don't know.

    On the other hand, I wouldn't say that McGrath's view takes religion to be a state of mind. It's not a private psychological state, for one thing. Religion is not merely subjective but intersubjective -- a set of practices and symbols which make possible certain forms of community. (Which is part of why religions are tribalistic.) So I'd push against a merely private interpretation of the phenomenological take on religion; religion is about collective experiences. (Perhaps this one of the things that makes religious rituals different from works of art?)

    For me, what's interesting in these debates isn't whether religious discourse is used assertorically -- since it clearly is -- but whether it should be -- whether that's the best way of understanding what religious discourse, how it functions, and the roles it plays in human life.

  2. The dilemma for the "metaphorical" theist is that either religious language is assertoric, in which case it's directly vulnerable to a scientific critique, or it's purely subjective — about nothing but minds — in which case you're an atheist. God doesn't exist any more than Oliver Twist exists — which is not to deny the obvious social and spiritual value of literary fiction.

    While I get where you're going with the "average theist" metaphor, it's not a very good metaphor. Theism differs on a qualitative basis, and an average is a metaphor for a quantitative measure of qualitatively similar things. Hence I'm careful to simply say that a large number of people take their theism literally... and they really burn the shorts of a lot of skeptical atheists.

  3. Nicely said Larry.

    I'm getting very tired of being told I'm missing the point by the religious. No matter what view point you engage with, there is someone on you stright away exclaiming that that is not their belief and quite often claiming it is not the belief of Christians. There is a whole lot of 'no true scotsman' going on. One of the reasons these 'metaphorical' theists exist is that some people just can't ignore the sheer volume of evidence against a literal reading or religious texts but still want to hold on to the fantasy.

  4. I certainly don't want to undermine your critique of fundamentalism. When I read Sam Harris' book, it was immediately clear that the same arguments that persuade him to be an atheist are the ones that persuade me I cannot be a fundamentalist. We would both point out the same things to fundamentalists in conversation. The only difference is that I suspect that I would perhaps be able to do so in a way that was sympathetic to their experience (if they have had one, and if not then their "faith" is really just blind assent to propositions and should be challenged on that grounds as well), and hopefully show that it is possible to value that underlying experience and the positive aspects of the Christian tradition, without accepting any part of it uncritically.

    I'd say that the 'average theist' or certainly the 'average Christian' does indeed think that a personal God is going to arrange for them to find a parking space. We could both make common cause in pointing out the problems with such a view...

  5. "Their religion is not metaphorical, it is not literary, it is not symbolic, it is taken as literally and factually true."

    Agreed. This is about where I draw the line.

    I consider myself a skeptic (which I believe naturally leads to agnosticism / atheism). If someone has a story about a UFO, loch ness monster, or Jesus sighting, I'll listen. I wouldn't discredit it just because it sits outside the "how things are".

    I'd like to think a lot of other atheists follow a similar thought process.


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