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Symbol-Making and Deception

Posted on: June 03, 2018

Category: Theology

Symbol-Making and Deception

Human beings are symbol makers, and as we grow up the first challenge in life is to learn how to use our most basic symbol system, which is language. Other animals and even plants use symbols in certain ways. Some plants, for example, can mimic insect eggs on their leaves to prevent insects from laying real eggs on their leaves. In this case, the plant uses an "egg symbol" for self-defense. However, the complex use of symbols and the stringing of symbols together in a sustained and highly functional language is something that defines the experience of being human.

Why should we focus on language as a symbol, and what does this focus have to do with thinking about religion? A symbol is a thing that stands in place of or represents something else. A symbol lies between reality and our consciousness of (or thinking about) reality. When I see a plant out there in the world and use a symbol, like "rose," the word stands in place of the actual plant. To say the word is to employ a symbol that can be shared with other people and can represent a common experience. But we certainly could use another word to do the same thing. Whatever word is used to stand in place of an experience depends on the history of the language involved. There is no rule but only convention that says you have to use "rose" for this experience. Language is a cultural-historic symbol system.

Religion is different because its symbols do not refer to physical objects. Religious symbols refer almost strictly to human emotional experiences. Some words, of course, refer to objects. The word "Bible" stands in place of a collection of writings and symbolizes that specific collection. Yet, this collection of writings is important because, at an emotional level, it represents a cultural history and its sense of sacredness. The way that philosophers talk about symbol systems like religion and politics is to say that in these cases the symbols cordon off or section out specific emotional experiences. The symbol systems create a systematic "reality" of experience that can collectively be known either as a religion (like Christianity) or a politics (like Republicanism). It is important to understand this well. The symbol system that is Christianity cordons off a section of emotional history with inter-related words that operate the system. So, words like Bible and Trinity or like Christ and God have meaning in the symbol system but otherwise do not have "real" meaning at all. To put this even another way, we need a "God symbol system" (Christianity, Islam, or another religion) in order for the word "God" to have meaning. No symbol system, no meaning.

This profound analysis of how symbol systems create, from our emotions, a religious or political relationship with reality is the analysis behind the claim that religion is a human creation. Religion is a creation of symbol systems that do not refer to reality per se but to the human experience of reality, that is, to human emotions. This new way of analyzing religion as a human creation began in the 19th Century and has a become standard understanding in the 21st Century, though few people have heard about it. It is another one of those secrets that are kept in the academic world and that rarely find their way into popular understanding.

The importance of saying that religion - and politics - is a human creation should be evident to everyone. This information should be liberating for our collective imaginations. If we create religion ourselves, and if we create politics ourselves, then we are free to find, in these symbol systems, the best ways we can to value community, our own humanity, our future, and our collective well-being together. We are free not to get stuck in a system and to have that system control or compromise our futures. No one has to believe a doctrine or a political idea as a "real" reality. These things are not really "real," but they do play havoc with us - or can - if we forget that we have created them ourselves. When our own creations control us, we move a symbol system to the category of an ideology. Both religion and politics are harmful when they are ideologies.

The liberating news, or we might say the gospel, that religion is a human creation does not mean that religion is meaningless. All symbol systems are meaningful. If they were not, they could not work. I depend on shared meaning to use a symbol system like English with another English speaking person. Likewise, religions are meaningful. They do motivate people. And they can change our lives, our sense of what is important, and our psychological health. We do not have to believe religion literally or think that it describes real reality in order to value its presence among us. We can, and do, benefit from religion insofar as it helps us mature psychologically and helps us accept who we are and how we can be empowered to live a full life.

Religion is our own creation. This means we need to take responsibility for the forms it takes among us, and we need to ensure that its value for the human family remains a positive way to affirm our lives together.


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