Atheistic bigotry and religous metaphor

I understand religious bigots. Atheistic bigots are harder to take.
If religious language is inherently metaphorical, there’s no point debating its empirical content. Taken as a proposition in comparative primatology, “God created Man in His own image” is just gibberish. Taken as a proposition in botany, “My love is like a red, red rose” is also pretty silly.

I guess I’m glad I know that, freed from the chains of obsolete superstition, atheists are invariably tolerant, rational, and loving, and that they don’t go off on bigoted rants as so many religious folks do. Because if I didn’t know that independently, I don’t think I could prove it from the evidence.

After all, if I heard Jerry Falwell claim that all Muslims, without distinction, are “ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed,” or heard Osama bin Laden make the same claim about Christians, I’d just nod my head and say, “Yep. Bigots.” So I might easily have made the mistake of calling P.Z. Myers a bigot for saying exactly that about religious believers in general. And that would have hurt his sensitive feelings. After all, he’s not a bigot at all: “My cause,” says Myers, “is simply the truth.”

Now, what’s the difference between “My cause is simply the truth” and “What I believe is true”? None that I can see. The gospels refer to Jesus as “the Truth.” The fact that Meyers doesn’t use a capital “T” doesn’t make him any more open to ideas he doesn’t currently hold.

I’m not a member of any congregation or an adherent of any denomination. So it’s not my self-love that protests when Meyers refers to all religious beliefs as “goofy, stupid, and ridiculous.” It’s my liberalism that’s offended, and my suspicion that there might be something to be learned from very old and widespread traditions. (I’ve always wanted to ask someone like Meyers &#8212 or Dawkins, or Pinker &#8212 how much smarter he thinks he is than, let’s say, Heraclitus or Socrates or Maimonides or Newton, who thought hard about religion and didn’t dismiss it as nonsense.)

Myers , it seems to me, is just the flip side of Michael Gerson. Myers furiously denounces as false the sort of childish religion that Gerson exemplifies but that thoughtful worshippers of every persuasion have always despised.

Religious thought, writing, and speech, at its adult level, is always metaphorical. “Humans are created in the Image of God,” taken literally, is nonsense, if you remember that it is a part of a religious tradition that says that God is an infinite, omniscient, beneficent, immortal being “without form, parts, or passions:” that is, the precise opposite of finite, boundedly rational, ethically challenged mortal beings with physical bodies and emotional drives. It makes no more sense as a proposition in anthropology than “My love is like a red, red rose” makes sense as a proposition in botany. But it’s a very powerful metaphor for the ethical proposition “Human beings are not to be damaged or degraded.” (Of course religious writers don’t generally assert that “God” names a metaphor rather than an entity, any more than the actor playing Hamlet looks at the audience and says, “I’m not really the Prince of Denmark,” or any more than a Pynchon novel carries a disclaimer on the title page, “None of this stuff really happened.” But sometimes they give a rather broad hint, as when Heraclitus writes “That which alone is wise and good does, and does not, allow itself to be called ‘Zeus.’ “)

Confronted with the verse from Robert Burns, Myers would no doubt say: “She is not! Why, she doesn’t even have petals, and her reproductive strategy is entirely different from that of a rose.” And Gerson would reply angrily, “If you don’t believe in the petals of your beloved you have no objective reason to have sex, and the species will die out.” Confronted with the fragment of Heraclitus, they would say, in chorus, “Fallacy! You’re violating the Law of Noncontradiction!”

Considering “God exists” as an empirical proposition on the model of “the Earth is a spheroid,” there’s no evidence for it. It corresponds to no observation or well-formed theory, and the attributes usually attributed to the metaphorical entity are, in logical terms, mutually inconsistent. (Really, It’s not very hard to prove that One doesn’t equal Three.) Believing literally in the old but remarkably fit white guy with a long beard that Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling makes about as much sense as believing in unicorns. So, as between Gerson and Meyers, I side with Meyers, since “The proposition you maintain has no evidence to back it up and is, moreover, incoherent” is a stronger argument than “Yes, but I couldn’t stand it if the proposition were false.”

But if, like anyone who has thought deeply about these matters, you think of God as an especially potent metaphor (or, to put in more flowery terms, “a mystery to be understood only in part, and then by faith”) &#8212 if you think that, then the whole debate is pointless. Both Gerson and Myers are just being silly: it’s two blind men debating the nature of the elephant while groping around different parts of a Land Rover.


P.Z. Myers (whose name I apologize for having misspelled &#8212 I hate that when people do it to me, which is often) responds to my criticism of his theological tone-deafness by repeating his original false argument VERY … LOUDLY … AND … VERY … SLOWLY, for those of us whose intelligence is less acute than his.

On one crucial point, he misreads my argument. I didn’t say that most believers are self-aware of the metaphorical/mystical nature of the beliefs embodied in the traditions they follow; I haven’t done the appropriate study, and it would be a hard study to do.

But the fact (if it is a fact in this case) that most of the people who believe some idea believe a trivial or vicious version of it doesn’t show that the idea, properly understood, is false, let alone that it is stupid and worthless.

Take the atomic theory of matter, for example. Most Americans no doubt “believe” that matter is made of atoms; they were told as much in school, and fortunately the Religious Right hasn’t decided to deny it as un-Biblical.

But if you ask them what an “atom” is, most of them will tell you (if they can tell you anything) that it consists of nucleus &#8212 a mixture of two sorts of little spheres, protons and neutrons &#8212 with still smaller spheres, electrons, whirling around that nucleus, like a miniature Solar System. That is, they’ll describe the Bohr atom, vintage about 1925.

Now that model of the atom is false. The math doesn’t work. It doesn’t agree with the experiments. No one who knows any actual physics believes in it.

On Myers’s reasoning, that would discredit the atomic theory; sure, a few egghead professors have sensible ideas about the constitution of matter, but the atomic theory as an actual belief of large numbers of people is arrant nonsense, and we should therefore describe believers in atoms as “ignorant, deluded, and foolish” (somehow “wicked” and “oppressed” don’t seem to apply), and atomic theory as a superstition imposed on the populace.

As to Myers’s belief that many widely-held religious beliefs don’t work very well as metaphors, I’m largely on his side. I can’t make much sense of a “personal God,” any more than I can of a “personal sine wave” or a “personal photoelectric effect” or a “personal Law of Noncontradiction” or a “personal Categorical Imperative.” So, for me, “that which alone is wise and good” does not allow itself to be called “Zeus,” or by any other name. (“The name that can be named is not the Eternal Name,” says Lao-tse.)

But your mileage may vary; a metaphor that doesn’t work for me may be life-giving to you. And not believing a given religious tale, even metaphorically, doesn’t deprive it of all value. No one even professes to believe any more that there’s a perpetual party on Olympus, with Zeus presiding over a dysfunctional family, but Hermes and Athena represent real forces in the world, and there is much to be learned from the myths about them and their modern re-tellings. (Cf. Cryptonomicon.)

Newton’s astrological interests are cited as evidence that, despite his greatness, he was subject to believing whacky ideas. But let’s look at that one more closely, shall we? The astrologer’s prime belief was summed up in the maxim “As above, so below”: what happens in the heavens is reflected on Earth.

The project of judicial astrology was a wild-goose chase, even before it was vulgarized by the newspapers. But the maxim, as transmuted by Newton’s genius, turned out to be gloriously correct: the laws of motion here below are the same as the laws of motion in the heavens, and the force that makes the apple fall is the same as the force that holds the Moon in its orbit.

Could a non-astrologer have made that fantastic leap? We’ll never know. But we know that Newton, the astrologer, did in fact make it.

It’s the eagerness of people like Myers to scoff at, and therefore refuse to learn anything from, traditions that go back thousands of years that bothers me. Among other things, it cuts them off from much of the world’s great literature, art, and music. Heaven may not exist, but a Byrd motet or a Tallis mass is the “soundtrack of Heaven” (the place where “all that is not silence is music”) just the same.

Footnote The word “agnostic” gets misused in this debate. An agnostic is not someone who says “In my mind, it’s even money whether God exists or not.” An agnostic, properly speaking, is one who doesn’t think “God exists” is a proposition that can be argued about, either because the relevant evidence can’t be gathered or because it wasn’t an empirical proposition in the first place.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

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