Metaphors for religion

It can be helpful to look at religion metaphorically, because that gives us a different perspective on it than one that is merely focused on beliefs, or even values. Useful metaphors for religions include software, cookery, dancing, music, radio receivers, ex-partners, color schemes, trees, landscapes, river systems, underground root systems or rhizomes, and cities.

 Jeff Lilly [1] compares religions to languages, in that they are embedded in particular cultures, and both languages and religions are often spread through trade and conquest; even when a religion claims to be universally applicable, it is still modified by each new culture that adopts it. There are local dialects, and languages can become fused together into new languages (which is what happened to English; similarly, the Sikh religion is a fusion of Sufi mysticism and Hinduism). This is a useful metaphor because it emphasizes that different religions have different perspectives on the world, and finding one that works for you is a matter of sharing its perspective and values, rather than regarding its pronouncements as incontrovertible truth. 

Maybe religions are like software. Your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, and religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it is very difficult to uninstall them). Some religions are like large corporate software manufacturers, bent on world domination and being installed in as many devices as possible; but the user interface is attractive and they offer support on a 24/7 basis. Other religions arise in opposition to them, like open-source software. They are small and developed by a dedicated community of geeks, but their support arrangements are a bit patchy, and they are eclectic and have lots of shareware. I like this metaphor partly because I am a software developer and a bit nerdy, but also because it is a great metaphor for deconstruction. When you are deconstructing the ideas of an oppressive religion, it is as if you are deprogramming your brain.

If religions are like cookery, each of them has a different set of recipes, techniques, and ingredients that they use to access the numinous (the experience of encounter with the mysterious other). It is also possible to improvise with a set of ingredients to make something new. Music and dance are also useful metaphors here, as they also involve specific instruments, dance styles, musical rhythms and structures, and the potential for improvisation. This is a good metaphor because it is okay not to like a specific cuisine, recipe, or musical style; maybe it is too spicy, too bland, or too sugary. Some religions are definitely like food with a high glycemic index. You go to a service or ritual and get a massive high or sugar-rush, and you’re on Cloud Nine for a few days, and then you come crashing down and go into a trough. I prefer the kind of religion that is gently nourishing, or low glycemic index; you partake of it and continue to feel quietly happy for days, with no spikes or troughs.

Perhaps religions are like radio receivers, tuned to different frequencies of the divine, and some of them have a completely different set of knobs and dials. In between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Again, this emphasizes that not all religions are for everyone, and that’s okay. Some of them are like talk radio, and some of them are like classical music stations.

The metaphor of religions as ex-partners (who all naturally have opinions about each other) was dreamed up by Al Billings [2]. Each of them has their charms and their foibles, and their annoying obsessions with each other. This can be seen in many people who obsess about the religion they have left for years afterwards, instead of dealing with their issues soon after leaving. Of course, it can take a long time to get over your issues with the religion you left, especially if it is very authoritarian – but if this is the case, I would definitely recommend getting therapy to deal with it, especially if you have low self-esteem as a result of spiritual trauma or abuse.

Different religions each have their own liturgical colors and symbolism of different colors, so taken together, each religion is like a color palette or color scheme. Paganism is a collection of natural shades, Buddhism is full of the colors of ochre and incense smoke, and Hinduism is the colors of the Indian landscape and the bright colors of the festival of Holi, or the rangoli created for Diwali. Seeing religions as color schemes is another great way to see them as different perspectives on the world, rather than the possessors of absolute truth.

Another useful metaphor for religion is a root system, underground rhizomes, or river systems. Deleuze and Guattari saw the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes – branching and growing, opening out into new spaces. A religion is also a very complex discourse (a group of texts, a set of connotations, a praxis within which certain things are thinkable or doable, and others are not). Both discourse and religion can be seen as being like a river, in that a river both shapes and is shaped by the landscape through which it flows. Rivers and root systems change over time, and as Herodotus said, you cannot step in the same river twice, so this metaphor emphasizes the changeability of religious traditions.

Religions can also be seen as trees. JRR Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, this is a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (the type of tree, and the environmental conditions in which it grows). This metaphor emphasizes the way in which different religions are products of the cultures and environments in which they emerge, so it is useful for understanding that religions do not always translate well from one culture to another, and are not necessarily in possession of universal truths.

The metaphor of religions as cities has been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, Christians started referring to polytheists as “pagans” (rather like saying “those hicks from the sticks”)  and themselves as urbane, and Saint Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, it is not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, “the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof”. If Christianity is a city [3], is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside? The question is, what kind of city do you want to live in? A fortified town that looks suspiciously at the neighboring towns, or a city that welcomes new ideas and inventions, treats its citizens well, and allows them to visit nearby cities when they feel like it?

Yvonne Aburrow (2009), “Metaphors for Religion.” The Stroppy Rabbit.

[1] Jeff Lilly (2008), “The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma”. Druid Journal.
Jeff Lilly (2008), “The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic”. Druid Journal.

[2] Al Billings (2007), ‘Religious Faiths as Ex-Girlfriends.’ Arcanology.

[3] Andrew J Brown (2009), “Another Unorthodox Lecture – Or What On Earth Is The Minister Up To?” Caute: Making footprints, not blueprints.

This article was going to be part of the book, but then I removed it for reasons of space, so I put it here because I think it’s fun.

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