The Other I

March 30, 2011

Sometimes 2 + 2 = 3

I have often thought that a key problem with religious fundamentalism is that believers have lost the capacity to understand symbolic thought.  They have lost the capacity to value poetry as a kind of truth.  Metaphor is soft-headed thinking.

According to fundamentalists, God could not possibly be speaking in metaphors or symbols.  The only valid interpretation of the Bible is a literal one.  And so they get themselves into the impossible position of arguing against all the evidence that the world was created in six days about four thousand years ago, and that Adam and Eve lived in the garden of Eden until they listened to the advice of the snake.

This is actually a rather recent interpretation of biblical truth.  For thousands of years the scriptures were interpreted metaphorically.  The Hebrews themselves  understood metaphor, a fact illustrated by Jesus’ frequent use of parables to teach a universal truth or principle.

So where has this anti-symbolic prejudice come from?

As a scientist I hate to say this.  But I fear that at least part of the problem comes from us.  For hundreds of years there have been scientists who have argued that the only reliable, verifiable source of truth is through the application of the scientific method.

Valuable as I think it is, the scientific method does not “do” metaphor.  The very first thing one learns in applying the scientific method is to define terms in clear, unambiguous and concrete terms.   In other words, science defines terms literally.

This is fine.  This is legitimate and immensely valuable.

But over the years, scientific thought has in the minds of many taken a place of precedence.  It is seen as superior to any other kind of thinking.  And so when funds are cut by stretched governments or educational institutions, the arts are cut rather than science.  Film, literature, sculpture, poetry, music are all “soft” subjects, rather like dessert following a meal.  They are pleasant and enjoyable, but in tough times, they are a luxury.

Similarly, only highly intelligent students are considered suitable for careers in the hard sciences.  Poetry and story-writing and composing music again are seen as wonderful contributions to a society that can afford such luxuries.

Which is why I fear that scientific thinking has contributed to the impoverishment that I believe is reflected in so much fundamentalist thought.

Yes, I am a scientist by nature, by education, by choice.  I value what it has given me, which has included moments of intense, even transcendent, joy and profound insight.

But to think that the arts are somehow secondary in our endeavour to become fulfilled human beings is a terrible impoverishment.  They aren’t a luxury.  We need them in the worst of times possibly even more than we need them in the best.



  1. This is an intriguing argument. Scientific (i.e., concrete, non-metaphoric) thinking leads to fundamentalist (i.e., concrete, non-metaphoric) theologies. I never thought of it that way. Thanks for this!


    Comment by Chris — March 31, 2011 @ 5:09 pm | Reply

    • What a perfect way of summing up what I was trying to say. I almost wish I’d thought of it first!
      Thank you.
      The Other I


      Comment by theotheri — March 31, 2011 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

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