Gods & heroes

nativityI’m an atheist, but not a militant one. Instead of scrapping religions, I believe we should instead recycle them. All that ecclesiastical art and architecture shouldn’t go to waste. Religious music is heavenly and a good requiem is to die for.

And what about Christmas? Even die-hard atheists love their Christmas trees and their mistletoe.

Religions are superb at two things – narrative and symbolism.

Why narrative? Because the primary purpose of religion is to explain. It explains how the world was created and why we are here. Not very well, admittedly, but nobody had any better ideas two thousand years ago. It also offers us Gods and heroes, served up in memorable, bite-sized stories and verses. These heroes usually go on a journey, facing difficult challenges and overcoming impossible odds, before ultimately triumphing over evil. They are inspirational and show us how to live better lives (just skip the parts about seizing infants and dashing them against rocks).

El Greco Christ

Religion also excels at symbolism. The Christmas tree; the holly; the mistletoe. We just don’t have enough symbolism in everyday life, so we cling to our religious symbols, even if we’ve stopped believing the narratives.

We have real life heroes, of course. Nelson Mandela has even been compared with Jesus. But the problem with real heroes, however wonderful they may be, is that they are human. Scrutinise them closely and you find character flaws and problematic behaviour. You may stop believing in your heroes if you worship them too much.

We need narrative in our lives and we crave symbolism. Real life can’t provide them. So if religion seems to be outmoded, let’s turn to an equally rich source – fiction. Here we have involving narrative, interesting characters, as many symbolism-laden metaphors as you can fit on a page, and a truly inspiring story that ticks all the right emotional boxes.

So, this Christmas, after a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, sit under the Christmas tree, whip out some pagan mince pies, and enjoy Harry Potter or the Hunger Games on TV. You’ll be getting all the narrative, inspiration and symbolism you need to recharge your soul, without any of the nasty Bronze Age thinking that accompanies traditional religion. And you’ll be presented with some heroes you can truly believe in.

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18 responses to “Gods & heroes

  1. When I said that nobody had any better ideas for explaining the world 2000 years ago, I kind of forgot about the Greek philosophers.

    Thales (~600 BC) was the first to explain how the world works without Gods and demons pulling the strings, but it takes time for new-fangled ideas to catch on. Maybe one day soon …

  2. Very well said. Glad you did the addendum on Greek philosophy.

    On real life heroes, I think the idea of a hero who is a paragon in all ways is pernicious. It’s a myth of modern fiction. (Ironically, most religious and ancient mythology had no problem showing flawed heroes.) The modern myth can cause you to conclude that there are no real heroes in the world, or even in history.

    I’ve found that it pays to admire the specific qualities in real life heroes that make them heroes, but always remember that they’re human and fallible. For example, I admire Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Benjamin Franklin for their leadership qualities, but not so much for their family relationships. If you can do this, you can find a lot to admire in the world.

    • Yes, the best heroes usually have a flaw. Even superheroes like Superman, Batman, etc that are obviously not intended to be realistic always have a fatal flaw. It seems that writers intuitively understand that we cannot identify with perfection.

  3. As my favorite Episcopalian priest once said to me (during an early crisis of faith), “Ritual, symbol and myth … that’s what it’s all about.” It didn’t help my crisis of religion, but it popped up an idea into my head that has been there every since. When I worked in schools I was always conscious of the need to cultivate and create that school’s particular sense of ritual, symbol and myth. Good stuff, our Steven !

  4. Excellent post as always- and we love the Greek philosophers more on them please….

    • Greek philosophers – always good value for money, whether as a fancy dress outfit, or as an intellectual thrill. Will see what I can do for you in 2014. Thanks for your comments!

  5. whatever keeps you going in your way of knowing peace is in my way of knowing this supposed to be in opposition – but I don’t se that is the case at all.
    Peace and light Steve…
    ~ Eri

    • Thanks Eric, I know that you are a Christian, and I hope that my blog doesn’t irritate you too much when I talk about religion. You are showing the way forward with your tolerance of my ramblings. I truly believe that we are headed for the same destination but are taking different roads to get there.

  6. If a person comes inward into the heart – doing this for a reason – not to purge or crush the self, but to transcend the self, irrespective of if a god truly exists or not, the brain is no longer interested with any accuracy of reality – the inner mind of the heart maintains an adaptability of how to respond. If in the heart mind there is a stillness, the ego needn’t engage me. There is no ego defense unless or until a self-interest or self-serving challenge may occur. I’m not a debate candidate regarding Christianity, Atheism, Religion, or even Philosophy. I do my best to discover some common place to collaborate from. In our world, humanity needs compassion and we may supply compassion no matter what spiritual teachings that we may agree upon or not. I am Christian; yes. Christian religion is not a disability for some of us. For some, it may interfere. I am not the best at this, but I do my best. I believe that Jesus announced that the Holy Spirit is available for all people. I believe that science demonstrates that Richard Dawkins and Deepak Chopra both use the human brain and heart to transcend self and thus attain spiritual growth. The two men probably will not come to agree on that this is the same in the flesh. Dawkins will keep it bio-mechanical but agree and Chopra will connect it to source and agree. Thus, they will agree to disagree. They are world voices. I am not. I will agree that directing the bio-mechanical brain body toward transcending self-sufficiency is the necessary willingness that eliminates any need for an accurate description of why a the process works. I didn’t provide lots on the science aspect on my blog — a few though:
    http://hunt4truth.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/is-the-brain-spirituality-wired/

    http://hunt4truth.wordpress.com/2013/09/22/the-entity-we-call-mind-may-not-be-as-neuroscience-says-just-a-manifestation-of-the-brain/

    Probably, I’ll come back around to the science – it is easier to get agreement when empirical evidence points the way.

    I plan to enjoy reading your blog Steve. I visit Mike (SelfAwarePatterns) too and lots of other blogs where I am in a minority of the readers – being Christian. Probably though I am not the only Christian that visits blogs by other than Christians.

    Thanks for asking.
    ~ Eric

    • Eric, anyone of any faith or none is welcome on this blog. I will take some time to read and re-read what you have written here and get back to you. You will find that I am not such a deep thinker and need to dissect complex arguments into bite-sized chunks that I can understand. I agree with you that humanity needs compassion and I will be writing on this topic soon.

  7. Pingback: Religion for Atheists? | Hunt FOR Truth on wordpress

  8. Hi Steve. I read about you on Eric’s blog. I was wondering what your opinion is on the gospel of Thomas? (I’m agnostic. I like to weigh all my decision with as much fact as possible. I think that God is energy and haven’t made up my mind if God made us or if we made God in our image. I value the input from all sources as I think we exist on a spectrum, including religion even though there have been some fundamentalists who have called me Satan’s mistress for educating people on environmental issues. Anyway, I was just wondering if you would like to weigh in on this as the question comes with me reading a couple of books on the Dead Sea Scrolls and the value of the Bible. Eventually, I would like to feel as if I’ve caught the Road Runner rather than to have the ACME anvil fall on my head again!)

    • Hi, thanks for visiting the blog. That’s probably the hardest question anyone has asked me on this blog! I really know very little about this. My understanding is that the Gospel of Thomas describes Jesus as more of a man than the official “son of God” approved versions of the New Testament gospels. Seems much more convincing to me than the miracles and resurrection. I can believe that Jesus was a real historical person and that over time he was turned into a God (by men). Look at other religions – ancient and modern – and you’ll see that people are very good at inventing Gods. That’s because we need narratives to explain the world. For me the central question all religious believers must answer is this: why is your religion true and not all the others? Agreeing with its teachings or “feeling” that it’s true can’t be enough, when presented with the evidence of how easy it is for people to invent Gods and religions. Want to follow the teachings of Christ – sure, go ahead, but use him like you would John Lennon or Martin Luther King – he’s just a man.

  9. I agree with you on how Jesus should be viewed as a man with a great philosophy. It makes sense why they would need a philosophy like that back then due to the corruption of the Jewish religion and the political corruption from the Romans that created the poor, ill, and homeless. Since man could create religion, we see today the differences of ideology such as my friend who thought she could pray her daughters head lice away, the ones who preach to me that Obama is the antichrist but now it’s Pope Francis, the one who preaches “thou shall not kill” and that algae fuel is a conspiracy to put Big Oil out of business and doesn’t believe that fossil fuels create mercury that goes into our lakes and that’s why dead fish float to the top, my favorite is “God lifted his hand for Hurricane Katrina to get New Orleans to repent for their evil ways” and that’s why my religious sister had to put up with homeless people down there throwing rocks at her van for weeks after the storm. I mean… I can’t wrap my head around some of these crazy ideas. I get that people want to feel like they belong in a community and that few people who defend the God of Love, but it really is creating a paranoia and sickness. Looking back at the last 10 major plagues, I imagined those people thought it was the “end of days”, which it was for many and I guess the Dead Sea Scrolls state that the apocalypse happened in 140 AD (which Matthew would be the only book that I might believe that represents Jesus, but the other books were written many years later and I don’t believe a book that has direct quotes in it because no one can remember what someone said 7 years later let alone 50-60). But there are so many people who will put faith into the Bible and even die for that book. It’s sad because Jesus had a simple message. If you teach someone how to fish and how to grow food and I would imagine that the water sources were contaminated then so wine would be a stable let alone, nutritious. For all we know, he could have known about the local plant life and healed people with it. I mean, they thought midwives were witches in the late 1600’s, that’s probably one of the things that Jesus was persecuted for. But that wouldn’t be good reading in a bible, so they made him magical. I won’t say that there isn’t a god, but my question is, did God make humans or did humans make God in their image? I get not having the answers and coming up with something to tell the kids, but this idea went global. There must be something to it. I like to think that God was created in the Big Bang during the chaos and with evolution, intelligent design was created and order was made. All NDE’s that I’ve read stated that there was always a ball of light that they felt love. Perhaps God is energy, which is in everything. Perhaps that is what they meant when they said “Split a piece of wood: I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.” Gospel of Thomas Maybe they figured out that God was energy. I believe in spirits are residual energy. Working with dying patients, I believe that they see them. Hell. I’ve seen them! And I’ve been in scientifically impossible situations working in healthcare and in my personal life. Wrote a book about it, but it didn’t stop my friends from believing in their God. In fact, since my NDE, they ignore me. So… I went looking for God and ended up alone which left me confused and frustrated for not finding answers and the endless hours of tears and praying makes me angry. How does that work into God’s plan??? So this is my idea that kind of makes sense but is not accepted at all in the religious community but it’s ironic how their actions made me into the “monster” I am today. Anyway, I realize that I talk too much but you seem like a very intelligent and educated person to talk to, so any input would be appreciated. =)

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