Frames and Religious Language
Over time, as I’ve pondered religion as a phenomenon, I am much less attracted to the idea of borrowing from its vocabulary. If anyone has looked into the work of George Lakoff, a cognitive and linguistic scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, you’ll be familiar with the idea of framing, which is “a schema of interpretation—that is, a collection of anecdotes and stereotypes—that individuals rely on to understand and respond to events.” Essentially, a frame is a conceptual framework that people use unconsciously to contextualize information. As such, certain words or phrases will evoke (and reinforce!) conceptual frames, which then impact how one perceives and translates new information.
I regularly argue against “god-language” when discussing non-theistic spirituality because it evokes the frame of a supernatural and paternalistic all-powerful being. It doesn’t matter if it is intended to be metaphorical, the frame will get evoked whether you want it to or not. The moment you say “God is love,” the average mind will instantly conjure up an objectively existing being—as well as any given conceptual frames regarding the religion through which that God was understood, such as the Catholic church. It doesn’t matter if you then say “this is a metaphor, don’t take it literally”; the frame will already be invoked and reinforced anyway, which will be used to then interpret what you have to say.
I now believe that using all religious language does the same thing, if to a lesser degree. Words like sacred, spirituality, faith, religion and so on will inescapably evoke a supernatural and/or traditionally religious frame in the mind of the average listener. Why is this bad? I argue that is it, in the aggregate, a bad thing because religious thinking often shuts down the critical faculty; it promotes credulity and wishful thinking. It dampens one’s appreciation for reality, as well as one’s curiosity about the natural world. Further, religious thinking often provokes an us-versus-them tribal mentality.
The challenge is to find new language and to create new frames that capture the beneficial elements of religion that are worth keeping. Ideas like community, inspiration, hope, morality, transcendence, wonder, justice, gratitude, comfort, and redemption need to be wrestled out of the dying grasp of religion. I’m happy to say that this project is already underway by people far more influential and intelligent than I. More and more people are reframing these ideas in ways that are secular and naturalistic. However, we’ve a long way to go…as of yet, there are no large-scale frames, which is something that will simply take time to form. And religion will not let go of these ideas willingly.