“All religions are true, in that the metaphor is true”?

When responding to Stephen Fry’s prose on a “stupid God”, Russell Brand shared a quote that pops in and out of the public consciousness: all religions are true, in that the metaphor is true. The actual quote is “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble”, and as Brand rightly attributes, the quote is from Joseph Campbell. I have no intention of deriding Brand for glassing over all the nuance of Campbell’s actual quotes for his own end, you can unpick the dishonesty in that yourself. I, instead, want to look at using this line of reasoning as a defence of religions or God.

Metaphors are not true. They are metaphors. Metaphors can be used aesthetically, or they can be used to emphasis or foster understanding of truth, but they are not intended to be true. My favourite book on this issue (and perhaps of all time) is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding real-ity, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, any-thing’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.

That’s a true story that never happened.

Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face. I can see him turning, looking back at Rat Kiley, then he laughed and took that curious half step from shade into sunlight, his face suddenly brown and shining, and when his foot touched down, in that instant, he must’ve thought it was the sunlight that was killing him. It was not the sunlight. It was a rigged 105 round. But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow recreate the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth.

Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It’s always a woman. Usually it’s an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. She’ll explain that as a rule she hates war stories; she can’t understand why people want to wal-low in all the blood and gore. But this one she liked. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears. What I should do, she’ll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell.

I won’t say it but I’ll think it.

I’ll picture Rat Kiley’s face, his grief, and I’ll think, You dumb cooze.

Because she wasn’t listening.

It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story.

But you can’t say that. All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth. No Mitchell Sanders, you tell her. No Lemon, no Rat Kiley. No trail junction. No baby buffaloes or moss or white blossoms. Beginning to end, you tell her, it’s all made up. Every goddamn detail—the mountains and the river and especially that poor dumb baby buffalo. None of it happened. None of it. And even if it did happen it didn’t happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up screaming with a leech on his tongue. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.

And in end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

O’Brien tells the story of comrades that drown in Vietnamese bogs, of a civilian mistakenly shot in the face and Rat (or was it a buffalo?), who stood on a landmine and died. These are all the same story, trying to say the same thing, and having read the book with the goal of dissecting it for a university essay, I still cannot say exactly what the story is: perhaps it’s about asking whether there is a point or perhaps me still having no idea is exactly the point. I don’t know.

If Campbell is right, and all religions are true in some way, then O’Brien’s The Things they Carried is equally true and can be called a religion. But the point is this: it doesn’t matter whether the stories in The Things they Carried are physically or ontologically true. In all likelihood, most of them are not (and not all of them can be). But O’Brien is simply trying to make the reader see something, to append feeling and images to the idea of war; to equip the reader with tools or exploration and understanding of something other than the physical or historical truth; if O’brien does his job correctly (and he does) the reader leaves with images of beautiful horror. Rat never stepped on a landmine and ascending skyward on a fatally white light. Rat might not even exist, and it doesn’t matter. The truth of Rat and the landmine is irrelevant, so long as you realise the story of grief and delight, ugliness and awe…

And so it is with Campbell’s religions. The truth of God doesn’t matter. What matters is the story the lie allows you to experience. There doesn’t have to be Jesus or Heaven or Hell or Moses or Genesis. “Beginning to end, you tell her, it’s all made up. Every goddamn detail… None of it happened. None of it.” It’s art; it’s metaphor. None of it is physically true because all of it tells a true story, but not about the protagonists. The story is about our humanity. The protagonists have never have been.

Some of our darkest humanity is contained in the Books. Our self-righteousness is contained in God-given permission, and our fears are expressed in the keeping of slaves and the deaths of first born sons. The horror we are capable of is written in clear black and white, with rape, paedohilia and murder littering the pages. But if the Books are a metaphor for our humanity, and not a document for what God really said, then we can actually evaluate these Books and honestly notice the horror of acts described in them. We can honestly tell the difference between Jesus’ turn the other cheek and God’s burning of Sodom, or between Mohammed’s smite at their necks and the reward of goodness is nothing but goodness.

The truth of Allah, Yahweh, Jesus and Mohammed is irrelevant here: if Campbell is right, we are meant to use our humanity to see where religions describe us at our best, us at our worst and the world we really want to live in. They were written thousands of years ago by cultures we have superseded and we are supposed to ask which bits we really want. We are supposed to cherry pick. But we are supposed to do so knowing that “Beginning to end, you tell her, it’s all made up. Every goddamn detail… None of it happened. None of it.

19 thoughts on ““All religions are true, in that the metaphor is true”?”

    1. I’m going to start cornering weird spiritual/mystic theists in a more defined way when they defend their beliefs and oneness and tolerance of bad ideas when they say bad ideas are metaphors.
      There’s also the Bo Burnham approach:
      the father, reads a little bit farther,
      assuring the assured that they need not bother
      “when god, in verse 45, said the slaves are okay to buy,
      he meant that people, all from the start
      each have slaves within their hearts.
      things, that we have sold or boughten, that are forced to pick our moral cotton
      god calls us to set these free, free our hearts from slavery…
      and then as god goes on to explain the logistics of buying and selling slaves… he was messing with us”

  1. Brilliant. Just brilliant writing because it’s so insightful. And such an important point you raise:

    And so it is with Campbell’s religions. The truth of God doesn’t matter. What matters is the story the lie allows you to experience.

    This is the key to understanding the power of myth: it allows us to experience the story (which is always a fiction, always a lie and obviously so when it must contain supernatural elements to be read as symbolic, a symbolism that is essential for the meaning making by the reader to take place!). This experiencing the story is central. In order for the experiencing to take place, we must have a two way communication, namely, symbolic elements we assign meaning to, and then the story from which we then extract meaning. We are the meaning makers of myth and this making of meaning can then then be successfully applied to our own lives. This application then enriches it, allowing us to gain wisdom, granting us the ability to learn what it means to be human so that we can face life with all its complexities better armed.

    Only in this sense does myth contain truth but it’s an archetypical commonality all humans have: to make meaning of life from experiencing it and not ‘receive’ it from some authority on high as religious stupidity tries to sell.

    This is a very difficult insight to grasp and you’ve done an outstanding job highlighting it. Thanks.

    1. is it that you had a good teacher or you are a teacher of English. You explain things so well you militant atheists[ I couldn’t resist calling you that].

      1. Well, you could say a bit of both for all of us, right? But I will say that allallt’s post inspired me to compliment his good ideas here with at least as much strident tone as I would use to criticize bad ones!

    2. I originally set out to write a post called ‘Mythos Vs Logos: is God a metaphor or real?’ but just exploring the mythos element seems to go on and on.
      (However, I think O’Brien did all the heavy lifting for me in this post. But I will take his credit for now.)

  2. This is quite brilliant and thought provoking. Well done. I have just gone down the rabbit hole and am asking: since we did make all of this up, what does it say about us?

    1. I don’t think we made it up, in the sense that our brains work by making meaning and doing so by representing things and relationships with symbols. We then decipher order out of chaos, meaning out of meaninglessness, whether consciously or not and we affect change in our brains by doing this.

      What on earth does all that have to do with creating fiction and what it says about us?

      Well, think about dreams. What are they? Why do we ‘make all this up’ every time we sleep? What’s going on and why don;t we do a daily review with actual memories of it?

      Think about your favourite movies and books. What are they? Why did someone ‘make all this up’ and why do we respond so emotionally to them?

      Do you see where I’m going with this?

      Our dream language – the language of our brains – is expressed outwardly as fiction, myths, narratives, stories. It is communication… a necessary process for our brains to do what they do (function… well, most of us, anyway). And by doing this dreaming in representative fashion suing symbols for certain themes, we engage not just with the different parts that make us up (and explain to ourselves certain responses we have had) but with the world itself. And we do this so that we can re-experience it and make meaning.

      We connect not just with ourselves (as a regular exercise) but our environments when we do this… an environment we discover that also just happens to contain other agencies in the same predicament. We communicate with these other agencies and find the universal language that overcomes physiological impairments as a well as learned systems (like culture and ethnic languages), is symbolic (think music, think rhythm, think math, think myths).

      Our stories express aspects of this living and we are drawn to pay attention. We recognize this language even if we don’t fully understand its particular grammar but are aware of the syntax and so we can make whatever meaning we find arousing (in the strictly physiological sense of that term). Remarkably, we can gain literacy by intention and ever deeper and more meaningful interactions with this language in whatever form or forms we find appealing.

      A nice little experiment I liked to try in my early days doing stuff in ‘special’ classrooms overflowing in highly agitated, impaired, and unregulated emotive students was to very quietly sit down and start telling one child a story – some fantastic fiction. Never once did I fail to gain over a bit of time the undivided and rapt attention of the entire classroom.


      What is it about such stories that draw children like moths to a flame unable to break away and go with other (and usually highly arousing but very troublesome) undertakings?

      I think it’s because this is our common language and the most alluring. As humans, we know from our nightly dreams that to experience them is to affect some kind of necessary change, some paring of neural connections with little emotive resonance to the growth of those with greater emotive resonance. A good story contains this emotive resonance and offers us a way to extract meaning useful to us, a meaning that can be used to help us navigate the world and fill in our mapping of it from those who have gone before. This is very practical. After all, we are the hero of our own narratives so why not take a page from those other heroes who have gone before us and who populate these fictions?

      So to answer your question, this allure to fiction says a very great deal about how clever we are as a species to utilize the experiences of others in symbolic form to represent how we can learn very difficult and complex lessons second hand. As you well know, life is a brutal teacher in that we usually get the punishment first and then have to try to figure out the lesson. Fiction grants us a way to borrow the lessons and maybe even avoid some of the more unpleasant but all too common punishments waiting to befall those who don’t listen carefully to the stories of others.

      1. Very well said. I think of it a bit more mechanistically though. Our brains do indeed acquire knowledge and ‘truth’ by experience of another story line vicariously. Empathy allows our mind to process the details of the story in a guided way. That is to say that we don’t have to work out all the rules and logic involved: it is pain free thinking when we adopt the thinking of others. Stories let us do this. We listen or watch and let go of the rigid hold we have on what we consider the rules of the world and how it works and the story gives us the rules to use for that experience. As we assimilate the rules and causes and effects of the story it allows us to adopt those rules and cause/effect relationships in our own independent thinking.

        Quite literally a story that resonates with us does indeed change our brains – by giving us the rules of the protagonist to use in our day to day simulation of the world around us. Where you call is symbolic form I see bundled rules and relationships carefully placed next to one another in a manner that explains a cause/effect situation. The more clearly this arrangement makes sense to us the more deeply it affects us and the more it affects our brains and thought patterns.

      2. Quite so, although I see this suspension of disbelief more along the lines of entertainment through vicarious experiences. I was speaking specifically of myths for first hand experiences but you’re quite right about stories generally: there is a lot of overlap.

      3. I believe it to be true of any kind of story. In my youth I vividly remember the connections and thought pattern changes when I read ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ I remain altered from that moment to this: http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/908211-stranger-in-a-strange-land

        It is the guided thought which allows us to adopt those new rules and ways of thinking. This is exactly why believers don’t read their holy books, that would mean that they would have to do the thinking.

  3. Somewhat mangled aesthetics. I can think of quite a few metaphors that are actually quite true. Metaphors consist in tenor and vehicle or (variously according to wiki, for practical purposes) ground and figure, source and target. Furthermore, there are many mansions (ho ho) to the house of metaphor: Dead metaphor, mixed metaphor, compound or complex, dormant, synechdoche, not to mention polysemy, metonymy, the list goes on.

    Metaphors are stronger to the extent to which (I’d argue) their tenor holds true. They deteriorate, generally, and are weaker to the extent to which any inherent frivolity or decorousness in the substitutionary aspect of their vehicle begins to overwhelm or permeate the usage or subject. I’d argue this happens, to an extent, in the O’Brien citation. Mostly through death, mixture or dormancy of the metaphor. The “nothing adequately signifies adequately anyway, so let’s just settle on a law-of-averages derangement” metaphor is, perhaps, the worst kind. That metaphor, well, just plainly sucks. And not just sucks. Sucks itself out through forgetfulness and derangement, even as O’Brien vaguely (but is he really?) tends to carry this nebulous miasma over toward the elegaic.

    But to apply from this the broad stroke that metaphors are not true? Sorry, unacceptable and it offends my aesthetic taste in a way I don’t like. For one thing this opens up a rather sticky question: I agree with you about “expressions of understanding.” In fact, metaphor is one of the big ways our understanding of reality gets organized. So if they are not “true”…holy shit!

    But, really, I feel behind this my bigger bone of contention is properly picked with Brand and his “sensei:” Obviously I reject Oprah “Woo” “Universalism” (and far more rigorously, I’d contend, than atheists are ever capable) so that need not even be an issue. My issue is with “in that the metaphors are true.” The problem is the fallacy of composition: Metaphors can be a component of religion. Perhaps certain religions, if even possible, don’t contain any metaphors whatsoever.

    It is far less aesthetically offensive, at any rate, simply not to derive my notions of metaphor (chiefly) but also religion from a celebrity. He should stick to what he’s good at: Making people laugh.

  4. An excellent article mate! Very insightful. I’m gonna start reading The Things they carried now 🙂

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