What if People Actually Treated Religion as Just a Metaphor (Like Trekkies and Secular Jews)?
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If religion really were just a metaphor, just a comforting and inspiring story that gives shape and meaning to people's lives... what might it look like?
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.