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How can you do this to me, Greta? I have so much more important things to attend to than just reading stupid blogs, but night after night I find my reading these ponderings of yours and even vastly enjoying them.
Also, I love the fight and I just love to disagree and disapprove of things in the stupid blogs the world is so full of, but you disappoint me time after time, as time after time I cannot find a thing I can disagree on.

Stephen P

Interesting that you should write this, because I had recently come to a somewhat opposite conclusion: that many such people actually don't believe that God exists but desparately want to avoid admitting that.

Certainly it's possible for someone to strongly dislike being told something that they actually know is true. Suppose you desperately want to be a really good parent / pianist / manager / writer / whatever, but the evidence is that you are hopelessly bad. You might still get angry and resentful when other people point out the unavoidable truth.

In the case of religion these people have probably grown up in a society where it is socially unacceptable to say that God doesn't exist and may have pinned much of their reputation on their religious nature. Now they half want to back out, but don't have the courage to do so, so they water their original position down as far as they can without disowning it completely. But when someone asserts that they are unbelievers they feel like someone has seen through them, as if someone is peeking at them under the shower, and react furiously.

I'm not convinced that your Tarot example is very strong, because there isn't a comparably strong social taboo on saying that Tarot doesn't work (but perhaps there is in some circles - I don't know.)

But I said my conclusion was only somewhat opposite, since the two positions could of course both be correct, but applicable to different people.

Mary O

Not completely on topic, but not far off, I wondered if you had seen this article about how we deal with cognitive dissonance.

There's definitely some serious evasiveness going on with these people at best, and outright dishonesty at worst.

I call the "god" of people like Armstrong the Shapeshifter God. He's crafty, that deity. Tenuous. Slips through your fingers like smoke. Like invisible smoke. His followers don't like to define him (or her, or it, or them, or, you know, whatever)because definitions can be measured and found wanting, and that would never do. So they like to talk in generalities, in ever-shifting metaphors, in wilful obscurantism, in veiled and vague allusion. The important thing is that you must never really understand exactly what they mean. That way, if you succeed in identifying a flaw in what you think they mean they can snort derisively and say, "Well of course that would be absurd... but that isn't what I meant."

Thus they set up a "god" that they contrive to be criticism-proof. The more you try to hone in on even one specific facet of Shapeshifter God; the more you try to catch just a few particles of the invisible smoke so you can subject them to analysis...poof! They're blown away on another blast of hot air from the mouths of their desperate defenders.

I find this sort of "believer" more contemptible than those who readily admit to believing obviously false or nonsensical things, because their intellectual cowardice is greater.


Nice piece, Greta. This phenomenon has started to be referred to as "whack-a-mole" on Pharyngula. A lot of religious types make strong assertions about what their God (beneficent, omniscient, wants you to be nice to your parents) but when called on lack of evidence, they start shrinking until they're left with the Deist 'god'. Yet try to get one to admit they're being dishonest.

The worst part with people like Armstrong is when they try to pretend that all believers throughout history have been like them, with their unknowable God. Us atheists are all wrong, God is just a symbol/metaphor/work of art. Explaining why people have spent millennia fighting over this mere symbol/metaphor/work of art is left as an exercise to the reader (well, if they think of it themselves, she never cops to the fact that people can be demonstrated to believe in something more than the Philosoper's God she espouses).

Rob Jessop

My experience of Armstrong's 'case for god' is less a god of the gaps trope and seems more along the lines of: If you practice something long and hard enough you'll attribute personal significance to it. This conclusion seems obvious to me as the more I invest in something the more significant it becomes to me, so why shouldn't the same be true of religious practice?

She also romanticises the past a lot, as Paul above points out. This is typical of most people to an extent and Armstrong falls for this trap in spectacular fashion in both the case for God and her biography of the bible by suggesting that past generations of superstitious people shared her rarified deism.


Given the statement "Religious beliefs are just useful metaphors: stories that give shape and meaning to our lives", I would like to know for what the stories in Genesis or Judges are a metaphor, and how does the concept of Hell help give shape and meaning to our lives. Among all the books I have read, fiction and not, the Bible lies pretty low on the scale of useful metaphor stories that give shape and meaning to my live.

Rob Jessop

Also, props for referencing Julia Sweeney! I found 'Letting go of God' to be profound and touching. If I ever meet her (unlikely, granted) I'd like to give her a great big hug!


> They only think that when someone is watching.

So... it's some kind of Quantum Untheistic Principle?


I read an article not long ago on a similar topic. To my amazement, according to the article, religion was a topic of philosophy and discussed and passed on as stories to explain what wasn't understood at the time. Then, sometime around the 16th/17th, whatever century, religion began to be view as literal and the mess we have now is the result. Different thought process.

John B Hodges

I think Greta's point is also shown by the stress on "belief" that believers make. If religion were only "stories that give us meaning" without having to be true, then believers wouldn't lay such importance on "believing" them, and how important it was for EVERYONE to believe the same story they themselves do.

As I write in
Human beings are storytelling animals. For most people, "the meaning of life" is what larger story they think their life fits into. They get great satisfaction from having a larger meaning for their lives. A philosopher named Braithwaite described religion as "morals helped out by mythology." People want a "good" story to include heroes with goals, ideals, aspirations; to identify obstacles and challenges against which the heroes must struggle; to offer a real hope of victory. To provide meaning for their lives, people must regard the story as true, or potentially true, in its essentials. You must have good reason to hope that, if you live by the morals taught, the goals, ideals, aspirations will be achieved in reality.

Religious folk get meaning from their religion, and feel that if they lost their religion, life would have no meaning. But the stories of religion are not the only stories possible. Meaning is the story you choose to join. There are other stories we can join, that have the advantage of being true.

Besides "meaning", there are other common motives for wanting to believe that the stories of religion are really true. The fear of death, the promise of Heaven, the desire for moral clarity (Us moral, Them immoral). For these other motives to be satisfied, the believer must believe that the stories are really true, and not just metaphors.


I think what you observe may be less a distinctive property of religion and more a general issue that "what we know as reality is a story, a conceptualization from a certain point of view" doesn't form part of most people's "common sense".

I also agree with Stephen in the sense that I think a lot of believers believe more strongly that they ought to believe in their god than they actually believe in their god.

Timothy (TRiG)

This comment is sparked by the references above to the "taboo" against admitting unbelief.

I live in Ireland, a majority Catholic country, and I was brought up as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. I remember seeing various public displays of faith: maybe a woman would cross herself when an ambulance passed, or there would be prayers in school (spit!). And I had nothing to do. Witnesses don't cross themselves, nor would we bow our heads while false religions (!) pray. So it would look as if I wasn't religious. And I didn't like that. I really didn't. When other people were being obviously religious, I wanted to do something to tell them "I'm not non-religious; I am religious, I just don't share your religion."


It's not that I didn't want to be seen as an atheist. It never occurred to me that anyone would see me as an atheist. I didn't want to be seen as a lapsed Catholic.

Actually, I still don't want to be seen as a lapsed Catholic. Those people who believe God exists but don't think he's important confuse me.



Greta, this may be because I'm not familiar with the particular argument Karen Armstrong makes, but it seems like you are overstating the position of people who accept the Bible as a metaphor. They still believe in God and the soul and all that-- THAT part is not metaphorical. There is a range of significance that they place on the Bible, from "divinely inspired allegory" to "beautiful but fallible human creation," but largely the people I know who have these sorts of beliefs don't mind assertions that a particular Bible story is false. What they do tend to mind is the suggestion that god/the afterlife/the soul/etc don't exist.

I think they would tell you it is less like asserting that Alice in Wonderland didn't really happen, and more like claiming that Lewis Carroll never existed.

Ian Andreas Miller

"And John the drunkard summarized Armstrong's theology thus:

"We don't really believe anything that you have demonstrated to be absurd...while anyone is watching."

While anyone is watching."

EXACTLY. I said it before, and I'll say it again:

Religion is like a two-headed hydra. One of the heads is named Truth and the other is named Comfort. By responding to Truth with arguments against theism and attacking theism's claims to truth, you lop off its head. But then Comfort comes up and says "But my faith comforts me! I don't wanna die! My faith is personal! It's true to me!" When you show that religion is not a mere form of recreation and that it can cause harm, you lop off that head, and yet both Truth and Comfort resurrect themselves and Truth says "Ah, but you can't prove us wrong!"


I read your post here and I'm not really sure what you're trying to say. I'm a Christian, and of course I believe the Bible is true and I believe God exists; in fact, according to a recent poll, 92% of Americans believe in a God although not all of them would see him as the God of the Bible.

I would say that more people believe in a God than don't, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or some other religion.
You have to be pretty jaded to look at the Universe and see it (and yourself) just here by chance.

As Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote in one of her Sonnetts From the Portuguese - "Atheists are as dull, /Who cannot guess God's presence out of sight.”

The ordinary man isn't the only one who thinks that; many scientists who look long and hard enough agree that there must be a maker - they just don't like to think it is the Christian God. For example, Francis Crick who helped discover DNA, saw that it was sop complex that it couldn't possibly have come about by chance - it's almost computer code - so he subscribed to the idea of “Directed Panspermia" - that aliens from outer space with a higher intelligence 'seeded' Earth. Richard Dawkins also made a similar comment when asked what he thought about the idea that the possibility that Intelligent Design might turn out to be the answer to some issues in genetics or in evolution?" Dawkins said - "Well, it could come about in the following way. It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved, probably by some kind of Darwinian means, probably to a very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto perhaps this planet. Now, um, now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it's possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of biochemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer."

But it mustn't be God though - heaven forbid!

For inspiration maybe you could read There Is A God, by former longtime atheist Antony Flew, who recently became a Christian.


Fletch, I'm going to respond to your comment in a moment. First, I'm going to go get an alcoholic beverage, and read your post carefully, and take one sip for every argument that Greta has already addressed in one of the posts on her blog. Two for those which she has not only discussed multiple times, but also put into the form of catchy, one-sentence explanations that the kids today call "memes".

If I don't reply to your comment again, it will probably be because I have drunken myself into a stupor.


fletch wrote:

I read your post here and I'm not really sure what you're trying to say. I'm a Christian, and of course I believe the Bible is true and I believe God exists

If you read the post again, you will see that Christina is trying to talk about a group of Christians who do not believe the Bible is true, and do not believe God "exists" in the same sense that you believe God exists. She thinks these people are playing a game with themselves. You may find that you agree with her post.

However, if we were to start asking you for specific descriptions and details on what you think God is, how it works, what it's made of, and so forth, you will probably understand how it can be so easy for God to turn into a metaphor, a feeling, a way of looking at the world, a symbol, a value, a person, a type of energy, a magical force, an idea, a Mind, a need for community, a sense of transcendence, and so forth, and so on.

There really isn't any content behind your story-telling. That's why the concept can shift-shape so easily, from believer to believer -- and even within the believer, depending on what's needed at the time.


Heh. A Christian trying to find converts on Greta's blog. That's cute.

Something else that's worth pointing out is that the theologians who say God is just a story, or a metaphor, rarely act as if they believe that. They still go to church, they still pray, and they still enact all the other religious practices and rituals that only make sense under the assumption of the anthropomorphic, rule-making god they claim not to believe in.

In fact, many of them still carry out the same religious rituals exactly as they've always been carried out (I'm thinking in particular of John Shelby Spong here). They've kept everything the same except the justification, substituting a conveniently vague and ill-defined notion of God that's much more difficult to attack.

padre mambo

I don't think you're right here.

If a Christian were to say that Good Atheists were secretly Christans, although they didn't call themselves such, would this be correct? After all they seem to do good works; they get divorced less, and seem to follow ethical teachings.

First, the conceptual confusion is between a metaphysical concept of God and the biblical story. For years theologians have been arguing if they can be harmonized. Plenty don't think so. But its one thing to argue, as John Updike might, that God enchants and liberates in a panentheistic way, and another to say that the bible is true. The latter need not logically follow from the former. And you couldn't prove it empirically.

Saying that Christians "secretly" believe such and such is, an assertion made without evidence.

Telling the believers that the earth is a physical place is a great observation.

But it doesn't matter. What matters to them are stories. I suspect human beings are built to love stories. And there is a sense that stories can change us.

It seems that it is frustrating that believers are simply not asking the questions you are, or are interested in the answers you give.

One of my conceptual problems here is that when you say a religious story isn't "true" I'm not sure if you merely mean "it isn't a fact" or "it doesn't give insight into human nature" or "believing this story doesn't change anything."

For it's one thing to continue arguing about Jesus and the resurrection. Lots of biblical scholars have written for and against. Who cares?

It's another thing to say that when someone talks about love and challenges the system, chances are he'll be scapegoated, possibly killed, and then deified.

For some such a story is a myth that should be ignored. Not only that, it should be actively dismissed and ridiculed, as well as the ethic such a story implies.


@padre mambo,

only when they take it more seriously than Greta takes such great literature as "Alice in Wonderland" and start trying to legislate who can't get married because they're trying not to make baby jesus cry.

yup, then I'm going to ridicule.

Greta Christina


You're actually making my point for me. You say that I don't understand Christianity or Christians... and then you make exactly the assertion that I'm talking about: that it doesn't matter if the story is literally true as long as it "enchants and liberates," that people love stories, that what matters is the message that people will get scapegoated when they challenge the system, etc.

My response to that is this:

1: Yes, it matters whether or not it's factually true. The truth matters. IMO, the truth matters more than anything. The universe, as it really is, is more important and more interesting than anything we could make up about it.

2: In my experience and observation, believers also think that it matters whether it's factually true. Again, I ask: If it doesn't matter whether the story is literally true, if all that matters is that it's inspiring, etc.... then why does it trouble you when people say it didn't really happen? Any more than it troubles me when people say that Alice in Wonderland, a story with great meaning and inspiration for me, didn't really happen?

We can have stories, and treasure stories, and make stories a central part of our lives and our identity... without believing that they're literal, factual accounts of real events. That's the whole point of my Alice in Wonderland bit. I don't dismiss and ridicule the Jesus story as a story (well, parts of it I do, there are many parts of that story that I find troubling and messed-up and not at all inspiring... but parts of it are lovely and valuable, and besides, that's not the point). What I feel free to dismiss and ridicule is the assertion that the story literally and factually happened, as written in the Bible. And I feel free to dismiss and ridicule when people shape their lives and major decisions on the assumption that the story literally and factually happened, and that the teachings in it will all take place as taught.

As for this:

Saying that Christians "secretly" believe such and such is, an assertion made without evidence.

It is not made without evidence. I speak with the evidence of my own experience as a believer, and of other believers I knew when I was a believer... whose beliefs were just as slippery, and just as likely to shift from "useful metaphor" to "this is factually real" according to what was convenient. And again, my evidence is how upset people get when you say that their "inspiring story" is just that -- an inspiring story, not something that literally and factually happened.

Evidence that you, yourself, are providing right here.

John the Drunkard

Fervor is a faculty that seems to exist entirely separate from judgment.

The believer's belief rests on feeling, not thought. 'Thinking,' to the extent that the believer can think, is only engaged to escape contrary evidence.

Thus someone can declare that 'they are Christian, and of course [they] believe the Bible is true.' If you ask them whether they believe π = 3, or that Jesus is descended from David through 28 and 42 generations simultaneously, they will find some way to rationalize away the contradiction. They may even distance themselves from the specific notion...while you are watching, but the wound will heal afterwards.

Religion is not unique here. Woo-woo, whether fortune-telling or quack medicine, is equipped with a vast array of escape clauses and immunizations against inconvenient facts.

Politics can be even worse, as 'shut up, thats why' can be enforced by violence. Note how often the fervor of belief can be preserved even as its object changes:'we have always been at war with East Asia' and all that.

It can be very uncomfortable agreeing with a writer on one subject and later finding them to be cranks on another. Or finding that they have leapt from one position to another without reasoning. e.g. David Horowitz' leap of faith from Huey Newton to Reagan, or Hitchens' jump from gullible pro-palestinian nationalist (and apologist for Edward Said) to anti-Islamist (and apologist for G.W.).

padre mambo

I think I see your point. In some conversations, we locate the event in history, in others it is a metaphor. That's probably true.

Perhaps what I find imprecise is I that statements like "the bible is true" or "religion is true" are themselves slippery assertions.

Maybe what is true that the bible is true, or religion is true, when there is evidence for it. Were there Jews in Palestine 3000 years ago? Probably. Did they worship pagan Gods? Probably. Is a religious claim about human nature true? It may overlap, for example, with a scientific claim.

You are probably right that most Christians would find it disconcerting if their beliefs were not factually true. In part it is because one of the peculiar aspects of Judeo Christianity is that it does make historical claims.

However, I don't think it holds that religious people (and I'm not exactly sure what makes a religious person different from a secularist) cannot believe in mythology that is not "factually" true. It seems that you will find secular Hindus, such as my cousins, who say their prayers to Shiva and engage in the private rituals about their faith. They pray to air conditioners, but they still need to turn them on.

It is fully possible, given the inventiveness and creativity of the human mind to hold those two - facticity and metaphor - in tension depending on the community in which we are talking. Some people will believing that the resurrection is a metaphor or has a secular meaning on the context of this blog as well as asserting its history in a religious context. I'm not exactly sure what the problem is with that.

There are some, I think, legitimate concerns that the church has about dehistoricizing the story, and not merely because it would be put out of business. But that is for another time.

Thank you.

Greta Christina
Some people will believing that the resurrection is a metaphor or has a secular meaning on the context of this blog as well as asserting its history in a religious context. I'm not exactly sure what the problem is with that.

My problem with that is that many people who claim that they only believe in their religion as a useful metaphor will nevertheless get very aggro when atheists say, "Yes, it's a metaphor, it's a story, it isn't factually true." My problem is that the "religion is a metaphor" trope is very often not sincere. My problem is that many believers seem to use this trope as a way to deflect and ignore difficult questions about beliefs that ultimately aren't tenable.

I think metaphors and stories are fine. I even think making metaphors and stories important and central to one's life is fine. If religious practitioners were like Trekkies -- devoted to a story that they find entertaining and inspiring, even though they know it isn't factually real -- I'd have no problem.

I just think it's important to clearly distinguish between fiction and reality. And I think the "religion as metaphor" trope usually doesn't do that. In fact, it often serves as a way to muddy those waters.

Timothy (TRiG)

Have I mentioned Jesus & Mo here before? Easily my favourite webcomic. Author wrote about Karen Armstrong recently.


"Interesting ..
.. but applicable to different people."
I'm not sure they even really need to be about different people so much as people in slightly different circumstances. Its basicly the same thing going on, believing in one thing when its feels useful to, and believing in something else when that feels better.

I would be unsurprised, if Greta herself went from where she describes to what you describe during her implementation of skepticism into her life.

Kip Leitner

The notions of literary metaphor, analytical psychological distance and rational desconstructionism presented in the original article are modern concepts completely outside the semantics in play during the origination of all Monotheisms. While it seems true that religious folks don't typically appreciate secular folk yammering about the weirdness of cloying attachments to ancient doctrines, it's also true that secular zealots don't typically appreciate religious folk telling them that their thought taxonomies may all in fact be infused with some n-dimensional thread energies, which when considered all together in their ultimate interconnectedness, may in fact constitute what has historically been perceived as "God." As to the charge that the religious folk are muddying up the definition of "God" so as to make him/her/it more difficult to attack, I'd say, well yeah. The bottom line is that the human brain has limited malleability with regard to deeply embedded thought patterns, so that no one really likes another sashaying through their neural net repatching the matrix, you know, just as a gag to see what will happen. The likely response of "Hey! You! Get outta my brain." is the predictable result.


The problem I have with this is that there are many who are not so very upset when people like yourself say there is no god. They might think you are right, but they won't be upset and tell you to stop. They can handle it.

Likewise, unlike Julia Sweeney (loved her one person show), there are priests out there who are quite willing to answer questions about controversial matters.

And, religion is not "just a story." Religion is the practice and rituals and feelings that go along with the stories. Some who follow them don't trust atheists since they target "religion," which includes such rituals.

I don't know how many atheists, e.g., will say "hey, I can see the value of confession, but I just don't believe God himself is forgiving your sins." I can see the value of a community going to a service weekly and doing various stuff, but I don't believe in God.

Religion is full of things where God simply is not the primary thing at issue. Sure it is not ALL metaphor. But, lots of it is. Heck, chunks of the Bible are tossed aside as metaphor.

Account Deleted

This is so spot on, it sort of blew my mind. I used to talk to other believers in a sort of simple, straightforward way, and then when talking to skeptics, I'd suddenly change into some kind of philosophical mystic. And like you, there was no conscious deception on my part, it was something I can only see in hindsight which seems incredibly bizarre to me now. Anyway, love your blog.


Dang this is an old post, but it's new to me. I find this phenomenon comes up a ton when discussing prayer. The people will say, "prayer isn't supposed to be about literally asking for things, it's just connecting with God", but will never turn down a prayer request

Blamer ..

As other commentors have pointed out
(1) the religious reify more metaphors than just those that they're conscious of, and
(2) by self-identifying as religious then critically examining those specific beliefs becomes difficult, both psychologically and socially.

Note that religious denominations are setup in competition with each other. Their leaders daren't promote the God Of Theology lest it result in a watering down of their own market differentiator and brand identity.

And above I mean to use economics as a metaphor only. The overtly religious I suspect are more profoundly motivated by their core reifications (souls, afterlives, gods, etc).

Dr Donald Kaasch

I'm new at this and, undoubtedly, less intelligent in my intrusion.

I believe that people choose their beliefs to always satisfy their own needs and/or wants. This isn't necessarily a bad thing when the candy store is wide open without a real and qualified policeman to catch you and throw you out.

This is, after all, only a question of faith. The difficulty, all-to-often, is that faith doesn't like the 'unofficial' position it is by necessity and wants to wear other, more official looking, garbs. Here we have the so-called debates between Agnostics like Bart Ehrman, Atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchins with such Christian Apologetics as William Lane Craig and others in which the issue of Theology is ceaselessly brought out as something which it is not.

The cowardice of these debates, to me at least, are found in the often childish and pandering method of belittlement of the non-believer as being stupid or mentally deficient.

I myself have my faith. It is exactly what I choose to believe. I can no more 'prove' it than can anyone do the same with their point of view. The beauty of pure atheism is in its no confrontational form. It is as bottom line and simple as can be. We don't know what cannot be proven and therefore we cannot, any of us, treat another as if they are stupid if they believe something that is contrary to what we believe. That's the beauty of it, isn't it?

I wholeheartedly support the attack upon attack dogs and fully condemn any attack upon the quiet belief that does not demand the surrender of others' personal belief.

Christianity cannot claim the gift of love and compassion in this world any more than anyone or any other belief can. A moral compass is inherent to human kind. The parable of the Good Samaritan (to me) demonstrates this. The parable is telling us that a person of NO religious bent found the plight of another human being to be worth attending to at the cost of his time, trouble, money, business... whatever. The parable is specifically telling each of us that our fulfillment in design or merely our existence does include a pre-wiring for compassion. This is the very calm that can only be found in each of us being steady and confident in our own belief needs without feeling either threatened by others or by needing to do the threatening.

In conclusion, I proudly state that I have my point for throwing my head 'in the sand', as it were. I believe what I believe because I like it that way. I cannot prove my place to be right or wrong and will not expound on it unless asked. I love my wee place of respite. I fully hope each of you have yours too!

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