Thursday, April 14, 2005

The metaphor wars

If you want to understand why apparently nice people can be so intolerant over religion -- including people who seem constantly to be talking about the importance of tolerance (but who can't say the word "fundamentalist" without sneering) -- then you have to understand the role dominant metaphors play in religion. There are seven critical points you must grasp.

(1) Whenever someone thinks about religion, he thinks of religion in terms drawn from a particular dominant metaphor. That metaphor makes it possible for him to think about religion meaningfully, but it also puts limits on his religious thought. It is also from that metaphor that he draws -- without even thinking about it -- his assumptions about what a person ought to feel about various situations in which religion is involved; when it comes to religion, all his motivations and emotions are drawn from the metaphor, not from religious beliefs standing on their own.

(2) Very, very few people have consciously chosen which metaphor they are going to use -- in fact, very few people are aware that they are using any metaphor at all. It's rarely the case that people have looked at the different metaphors available, weighed the choices, and chosen the one they think is most appropriate. The vast majority of the time people are conditioned by their upbringing (by all the complex human relationships and formative experiences that we subsume under the word "culture") to use a particular dominant metaphor to make sense of religion. Furthermore, when they do become aware that there is a difference, somewhat more often than not they automatically assume that their own culture's metaphor is the "right" one.

(3) Therefore most people assume, without thinking about it, that everybody else who talks about religion is working from the same metaphor they are, and they draw conclusions about other people's motivations and emotions by trying to figure out what motivations or emotions would cause those actions or opinions to be generated from their own metaphorical framework.

(4) Two people who are using exactly the same words, but working from different fundamental metaphors, can mean radically different things -- but if they don't realize they are working from different metaphors, they usually think they understand what the other person is saying, and pass judgment accordingly on the other person's opinions and/or character.

(5) Historically there seem to be four dominant metaphor-families that people have used to think about religion:

(a) Religion as superstition/opiate/poison.

(b) Religion as family/culture/clan membership/sense of belonging.

(c) Religion as therapy/tool/hobby/emotional pragmatism.

(d) Religion as fact/truth/science/medicine.

I need names for these other than just the letters; so purely for the sake of having names I'll refer to them as "Superstition," "Family," "Therapy," and "Fact."

(6) The predominant metaphor in modern Kazakh society (a particular interest of mine) is what I'm calling "Family." The predominant metaphor in modern American society is "Therapy." However, there is a very significant subculture of American society (which used to be the dominant culture and is extremely displeased at having now been relegated to minority status) for which the dominant metaphor of religion is "Fact." And then much of the American Jewish subculture, and especially the more Orthodox variants of Judaism, come from a passionate attachment to metaphor "Family." Finally, there is a small but vocal element that sees religion as "Superstition."

(7) Most of the bitterness, hatred and intolerance in American society comes not from a disagreement on specific religious doctrines such as whether or not there is a hell that all infidels (from whichever perspective) will wind up in, but from a fundamental disagreement on whether religion ought to be thought of in terms of "Therapy" or in terms of "Fact." And since this is not recognized as the fundamental issue -- in fact it's hardly recognized as an issue at all -- all of the talking and arguing and mutual recrimination do absolutely nothing to move us toward any sort of reconciliation, since practically all of the sound and fury manages to miss the point entirely.

I'll talk more about this topic in future posts, starting with this one.

UPDATE (27 September 2005): When I first wrote this out, I used the term "Truth orientation" rather than "Fact orientation." I have been uncomfortable for a long time with the term "Truth orientation," because the word truth is one of the words that means either of two radically different things, depending upon whether the person using it comes from a Therapy perspective or a Fact perspective. Driving to the coffee shop this morning it suddenly occurred to me that "Fact" would be a more accurate, and much less ambiguous, designation than is "Truth." Mr. Data, make it so! (That's not a Star Trek reference; it's a TMQ reference.)


At 8:50 PM, Anonymous Jim R said...

Hey Kenny,

I am still working this out. I think your metaphors need a couple more dimensions. I think the dimension that is missing is around the Law. I think that many who we would call conservative religious have a strict adherence to the Law of the religious text, and what we would call liberal have a more relative adherence to the Law. For example the legalistic would live their lives using the biblical and religious rules as determining factors for what they consider moral for themselves AND others. The more relative would use the biblical law more as a guiding principle then a strict Must Be. I think religion as moral code, is missing from your list.

I think that this answers my difficulty with the question of "whose God" when you write about Fact Vs. therapy.

While I can agree that some people use religion for therapy - to make THEMSELVES feel better, I think that others use religion to make OTHERS feel bad. I think some extreme evangelical churches do this; you are damned to hell unless you repent. My college minister said that the suicide rate went up when the street preachers came to town for their revivals.

I am still struggling with how you use Fact, I almost interpret it more as Legal rather then Truth.

On a slightly different note I have a general comment about language, that I think you may want to consider. Language is vitally important. The words you use, and you realize this in this post, are often tied to other connotations. I think the Therapy term has a negative connotation, I think you may consider using pragmatic instead. I also think Fact can have a dismissive connotation from people like me, who I think you would link into the therapy group. I again ask, whose facts? Does idealistic fit what you are trying to say. The other difficulty I have with Fact, is that all of the metaphors you point to, would have their own set of facts.

I personally think that religion and science as schools of thought are almost mutually exclusive. You cannot measure faith scientifically and Scientists do not accept faith as evidence. I think there must be a better word, then Truth or Fact.


Jim R

At 9:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ken, and Jim

I'm linking over here from ATB, so please excuse any ignorance on my part, in advance so to speak.

Firstly I think people are of course often motivated by some "union" of some of those religious drivers you describe. I mean Fact is a therapy all its own, don't you think?

I must disagree with Jim R. suggesting some are religious out of a desire to "punish" or straighten out others. I think much Western religous experience is best described as a cycle, wherein someone can be attracted by what they see as fact, led to therapy, and then proceed to witness to others in the quite genuine desire to share their own transformation with others.

It would be well worth examining how the religous drivers break down according to regions of the world, and stages of industrialisation, don't you think?

I'd suggest in sparsely populated regions, and "underdeveloped" societies (whatever that means) Family is probably the most important Fact in your life. I'm sure religion as therapy is less important.

It seems that most of the Western world is caught up in the need for self-improvement through therapy. I can't decide if that is a Victorian (ie industrial revolution) holdover, or if that is a general trait of Christian society.

Great ideas of yours though. Thanks for the fresh perspectives.

I don't believe religion and science are any less compatible than science and history, for example. In fact mathematics and science are largely divorced from each other, it having been shown that many of the mathematical properties we've ascribed to the universe are in reality untenable, and were simply arbitrary premises.

At 10:20 AM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

I think people are of course often motivated by some "union" of some of those religious drivers you describe.

Absolutely. It's really like the love languages: you have a dominant metaphor, but that doesn't mean you don't also have a subsidiary metaphor that also contributes. And the dominant metaphor is far more dominant in some people than it is in others.

I hadn't thought of charting orientation against industrialization...that might indeed be interesting. I'll have to think about that some more.

Basically it's about time to fire this conversation up again, I think.

At 6:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a great post. I would suggest you take a look at George Lakoff's attempt to frame Democrats and Republicans according to metaphors as well. There is no war like the metaphor war. This is why we are now fighting about whether Iraq is a Civil War, a Terrorist War, an Insurgency War, etc. Wonderful ideas here.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

Thanks very much; that's very kind.

So I'm curious: how did you find your way to this post?? I mean, it's certainly one of the posts that's closest to my heart, but it's way down deep in the archives...

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