Richard Dawkins on Why Metaphors Metastasize – The Perils of Personification – Sinister Symbolism

Richard Dawkins is, well, Richard Dawkins. He started out by talking about how metaphors can be useful, enabling us to understand and conceptualize things that would otherwise pose difficulties. To fulfill this role, a metaphor must do real explanatory work, and must not be confused with reality. He gave several examples in science – e.g., the personification of genes, looking at them as though they were conscious agents, helping us to understand how they behave, without anyone actually thinking that genes are in fact conscious agents.

Religion, he argued, got its start in this way, with the personification of natural phenomena –

A metaphor

the Greek Gods, for example. But in modern religion, Dawkins said, the use of metaphor and symbolism has become a con trick. Whereas at least fundamentalists know what they really believe, sophisticated theologians have become so drunk on symbolism that they don’t know what they really believe.

An example is the treatment of the Genesis story, which is so often cast in terms of metaphor and symbolism by people who don’t believe in the story’s literal truth. But the problem is that a lot of people sitting in the pews do believe the literal words, and are being flim-flammed.

To exemplify the theological dishonesty, Dawkins spent some time deconstructing one theologian’s torturous disquisition on the virgin birth, which belabored the story’s “necessity” and “importance” in disregard of any concern for its truth or falsity. Further, and worse, in Dawkins’s view, the love of metaphor seduces religionists into what is really a love of atrocity: the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, and of course Jesus’s death – both incorporating a grotesque idea of blood sacrifice, that without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins. (A point similar to Dr. Compere’s discussed above.)

Of course, again, sophisticated Christians will deny that they actually literally believe any of this stuff. As Dawkins sees it, they can’t defend it, so they redefine it. The whole of Christianity becomes a metaphor.

And why should atheists be concerned about any of this? Dawkins observed that the tendency of religious believers to get drunk on symbols produced a recent episode in which actual human beings were killed in Afghanistan, as a response to a symbolic act – the burning of a symbol, a book, by a jerk in Florida. There is, indeed, a great tendency for going to the extreme inherent in the whole phenomenon of religion.



One Response to “Richard Dawkins on Why Metaphors Metastasize – The Perils of Personification – Sinister Symbolism”

  1. Lee Says:

    The American flag is a symbol of the ideals of the United States. For me, and perhaps many others, some of our best ideals are manifest in our Bill of Rights, especially the first amendment that protects freedom of speech and expression, especially political speech and expression.

    And yet there are those would change the law to make it a crime to “desecrate” an American flag. For many of these people, the symbol is more important than the ideal of political expression that it stands for. I find this unpalatable for many of the reasons you discuss above with regards to religious symbolism.

    However, I do not argue that we should do away with the American flag, even though, apparently, too many people do not understand its role as a symbol. I think similarly about religious symbols. Many religious symbols represent ideals that are worthy of our esteem, and I’d rather not throw the baby out with the bath water.

    Well, maybe we should toss out that blood sacrifice “baby.”

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