Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The Power of Metaphor, or, Don't Blame Santa

Before I begin, I ought to warn you that there is no real conclusion or argument to be found in this entry; it is rather intended as a collection of musings hoped to inform but primarily provoke further thought. Most of what is contained herein is part of an ongoing internal discussion I'm holding with myself, and this forms something of an update as to the point that that debate has reached. So open your mind, and read on.

I have made mention before of my status as a pagan atheist. It's not just an incidental matter for me, either; while I don't believe the Gods or spirits are actual entities capable of any kind of interaction with this world, I believe they are powerful and practically useful metaphors for a great deal of human life. The Gods we choose for ourselves - if choose them we do - represent those principles which are most important to us. For this reason I tend more toward the Northern European pantheon, in particular the Norse Gods. If I had a Sabbath like the Christian Sunday or Jewish Friday, it would be Wednesday, named for Odin, a.k.a. Woden (Woden's Daeg -> Wednesday) - for he is the figure with whom I most identify.

He is the symbol for wisdom, courage, and honour - among many other things. He is also seen as the guardian of travellers, much as the Christian Saint Christopher. All of these themes are ones which ring true with me: I aspire to be wise, courageous and honourable above all else; I can think of no qualities I would rather possess. There is also an emphasis on respect and reverence for nature in the Northern European religions, which it won't surprise you to find has particular resonance with me.

So why, you might ask, don't I just identify with those qualities directly instead of expressing them through the language of mythology and religious faith? It is a good question, and one which I have asked myself on many an occasion. I think the answer, as far as I can fathom it, lies in what I refer to as the "power of metaphor"; that is, the linguistic and emotional force that can be expressed only in terms of phenomena that transcend the physical, evidential world. Humanity is known for being a fickle race, and a claimed devotion to an abstract concept such as justice seems to hold less force, somehow, than a claimed devotion to a deity personifying that concept. It is an appeal to the eternal nature of these ideals as opposed to the sometimes-fleeting nature of humanity's adherence to them.

Another example of this that I recently found out about (thanks to my friend the Nietzschean feminist) is Laveyan satanism, which again is essentially an atheist religion. The ideals it favours are individualism, a realistic approach to humanity's darker impulses and an acceptance of these drives as an inevitable an essential component of understanding what it is to be human. There is also a strong element of anarchism, a rebelliousness and hostility toward authority that is reflected in few other mythologies. But it is atheist - and specifically non-Christian, a claim which cannot be made by theistic Satanism - because it entails a commitment to these ideals only, not a belief in a literal Satan or lesser demons. There is much in LaVeyan Satanism which rings true with me and values which are shared by the pagan faith.

On a tangentally-related topic, I also want to address the topic of Santa Claus - not as a metaphor, but as a belief tantamount to religion but treated as a socially-acceptable falsehood. This line of thought comes from listening to my backlog of Point of Inquiry podcasts, specifically the interview with Todd C. Riniolo. He noted an objection to the widely-used argument in sceptical circles that it is little wonder that people are credulous in adulthood when they are raised to believe in Santa Claus as children. It is rarely used as a forceful argument, usually instead forming a arbitrary comment; but nonetheless is worth addressing. Riniolo's objection is that there is simply no proof that belief in Santa during childhood leads to credulity in adulthood. Indeed, he argues, the "debunking" of Santa constitutes many a child's first truly sceptical activity.

I thought this was a very interesting point, and it contributed to an ongoing internal debate I've been conducting with regards to how best to raise a child in the sceptical mindset. It hasn't helped me make up my mind on the subject, but has made a significant contribution to the complexity of the issue. Is it wrong to lie to one's children in this regard, or is it a valuable experience that teaches them that deception (harmless or otherwise) is everywhere and that nobody is to be trusted implicitly? On a personal note, I think I "grew out of" notions like God and spiritualism around the same time as I did the notion of Santa. I don't recall being annoyed at the deception, either; at some point it just became a childish absurdity and I scoffed at my parents for persisting in the charade.

So would it be better or worse to deny one's child this experience? Should we rather explain as best we can the lessons that would be learned through it, rather than perpetuate the white lies? At the very least, it seems that the lies do less harm than one might think.

1 comment:

Never Knowingly James said...

With regards to your thoughts that you need to personify your metaphors to truly follow them, i completely agree, humanity has always anthropomorphized animals, things, concepts to have a better understanding of them. But not only that putting metaphors into the guise of a person or near person like creature also makes that metaphor/concept more reachable for us, as simple as it is human features or humanoid embodiment makes something look more like it could be us, and that's something thats needed for us to even come close to shaping ourselves in that image.

On your second note of Santa i have had this issue with others myself, i have used the lying to my children about Santa as an argument for my not wanting to bring up my future children to believe in Christmas, a concept i see as a combination of crass commercialism and another part of the Meme that is Christianity fighting for survival by embedding itself so far into the general populace's subconscious, that just my saying i won't bring my children up to believe in Christmas has people shouting at my for how much of a bad parent i will be.

Im not entirely sure where i was going with this so i will end my comment here.