Metaphors for Religion

There are many different metaphors floating about for religions, and each one illuminates something different about the nature of religion – that’s why I collect them.

Religions as explanatory tools for various situations – like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven’t been discovered).

Religions as languages

Viewing religions as languages helps us to see them as a group of distinct forms which may be related but may also be mutually incomprehensible. They also have dialects, just as religions have many variations which are still recognisable as part of that religion.

Religions as languages – the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it’s not the whole picture. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:

Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.

Religions as software – if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it’s really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.

Religions as people

Different people respond to the world differently depending on their personal history, the culture in which they were born, and the historical circumstances of their era. The same is true of religions.

Religions as vinegar tasters – there’s a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.

Religions as ex-girlfriends – a hilarious article by Al Billings (sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:

[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.

Religions as landscapes

This group of metaphors is particularly useful for illuminating the widely varying practices, traditions, and values within different religions.

Religions as cities – this one’s been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside?

Religion as landscapes – In my post “Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine“, I suggested that the Pagan revival (and other religions) is like a vast landscape with mountains, rivers, camping grounds, cities, and forests – and each of these fulfils the needs of different groups of people.

Religions as rhizomes or river systems – Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an ‘expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.’

Religions as trees – Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it’s a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).

Religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions. The different religions form different wagon trains, and some are searching for gold, others for lush farmland, others for good fishing. Not only that, we don’t necessarily know where our wagon-train is headed – it’s all about the journey.

Religions as light, colour, energy

I particularly like this group of metaphors for illuminating the idea that religions are different perspectives on life, which generally promotes mutual tolerance.

Religions as receivers of frequencies – it occurred to me that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on — so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.

Religions as prisms refracting the light of the divine:

Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light — infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure “white” light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true — yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.

Religions as colours – each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it. Colors of PaganismColors of JudaismColors of IslamColors of HinduismColors of ChristianityColors of Buddhism.

Religions as art-forms

I like this group of metaphors because it suggests that there is an aesthetic to religion and ritual, and that it can be great art and drama, or it can be mush.

Religions as dance (suggested by Yvonne Rathbone):

Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn’t a metaphor but a tautology.

Religions as movies (suggested by KNicoll): reconstructionist religions are like films “based on a true story”. I suggested that Wicca is a movie based on a romanticisation of a folkloric trope – but it is still satisfying and effective.

Religion as cuisine – Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices. On a related note, religion as ice-cream, and mixing religions as a spiritual buffet.  Then there’s the idea of religions as different desserts (apple pie is not the only dessert), and religions as different types of alcoholic beverage.

Religion as music: Music can transport us to other realms of imagination; it can be uplifting, stirring, boring, disturbing, discordant. There are various genres of music – some people like thrash metal, others prefer classical. Different types of religion can also have wildly varying effects on people – some people prefer charismatic religion, others prefer the formal and liturgical.



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