Spiritual Pillar #2: Allegoricalism
I have three statues of Ganesha in my home, despite not believing in his objective existence. Although I take delight in their artistic beauty, that is not why I have them (or not the only reason I have them, anyway). They act as a kind of cognitive/emotional shorthand, or more precisely, a symbol of things that I consider sacred. The statues themselves are not sacred—they are lovely configurations of common metal—but the concepts that Ganesha represent are. And they are sacred for one simple reason: I choose for them to be, and having their physical analogs in my living space connects me with them in a meaningful way.
One label for this viewpoint is allegoricalism, where religious objects are not taken as true in and of themselves (i.e. literalism), but are used to represent meaningful ideas, principles, values, experiences, and desires. In fact, human thinking is allegorical by nature—we constantly reduce complex concepts down to simple icons, such as flags, proverbs, logos, and the like. On a cognitive level, we also tend to take multiple memories and nonconsciously combine them into single, highly inaccurate amalgams (or cognitive palimpsests, if you will). It’s just what we do (I won’t bore you with the evolutionary advantages to this function).
Allegoricalism is the key to a liberal religious perspective. Liberal traditions tend to be much more interested in values and principles than in any given manifestation of those things. At the same time, they commonly understand that symbols are important to a spiritual life, and so they will employ things like rituals and sacred texts and icons—even while knowing that no inherent power or truth lies in the objects themselves, only what we project onto them.
Just as our combined memories of childhood are meaningful and satisfying despite their inaccuracies, so are our religious symbols. I know that there doesn’t exist a man with an elephant head and a tiny mouse that he rides around upon—but nevertheless I adore Ganesha. When I tickle his fat belly, I allow myself to imagine his laughter; when I place a grain of rice at his feet, I see him delighting in its taste and nourishment. Doing these things allows me to flex my mind and connect with a reality beyond my daily life, making it a bit more joyous, meaningful, and fulfilling.
As we all know, there are dangers in religious beliefs as well, most especially when they are taken as literal. For example, when such beliefs divide people into value categories, only trouble can come from it—unbelievers, heretics, infidels, sinners, outsiders, troglodytes, apostates…these arbitrary classifications all serve only to create in/out groups, often engendering (or outright encouraging) things like hatred, contempt, and fear. Another dilemma sets in when religious beliefs are used to address pragmatic problems or questions when other, more effective tools are available. An obvious example is using the Bible to determine the age of the Earth instead of empirical science and physical evidence. The world is a complex, infuriating place, and it can be tempting—and often comforting—to use religious models to try to make sense of it. The allegorical position promotes using secular systems and tools that are best qualified to lead to effective outcomes, even if religious models are used in parallel to develop meaning out of it all or to promote comfort and strength to deal with challenges.
In my last post, I talked about Religious Naturalism, which holds that the natural world must be placed at the center of our most significant experiences and understandings. The awe and wonder felt towards that world can find meaningful expression in allegoricalism. This endeavor is fundamentally subjective and individual, since the translation of the world into allegorical form will be unique for each person. At the same time, it is possible to have enough of a shared symbol set—usually rooted in shared principles and values—to allow for religious groups to form and thrive.
A structural benefit to the combination of religious naturalism and allegoricalism is the lack of any need to defend religious objects from empirical criticism since those objects are not held to be intrinsically “real.” Rather, the final argument is whether or not those objects promote well-being and support effective solutions to problems. To return to my personal example, I do not have to defend my reverence of Ganesha because I do not argue for his objective existence, but can say that my “relationship” with him benefits me spiritually without hindering my agency in dealing with life. For example, when roadblocks spring up, I might or might not pray to Ganesha to help remove obstacles (one of his fortes) but I will nevertheless apply real-world, pragmatic solutions.
And so we have two of the three legs of my personal spiritual path—religious naturalism, which “honors the experience and expression of the human emotions of awe, reverence, wonder and gratitude at and for the magnificence of the cosmos and the human possibilities for participation in it,” and allegoricalism, which interprets and employs religious objects as symbols of values, principles, experiences, and desires. The third leg, which I will talk about soon, is Progressivism. Stay tuned.