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Humanist Essay for March 2014
"Metaphors Work for Me"
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[Reprinted from the HSNM March 2014 Newsletter.]

"Is solace only possible with the suspension of disbelief?" This question has been rattling around in my mind lately. To put it more bluntly: "Do I really have to drink the Kool-aid to gain peace of mind?"

Peace of mind, solace, forgiveness, courage - these are emotional needs that spiritual and religious practices set out to fill. Those of us raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition perhaps noticed that the same beliefs intended to provide inner strength were also effective at feeding guilt and insecurity, necessitating more solace, comfort, etc. We suspected it was all intended to keep us busy and obedient with manufactured needs and misdirected fears. Our first step in actually finding peace of mind, then, would be to purge our minds of those oppressive myths and imaginary threats.

"I am done with the judging, vindictive god." Really, I had that figured out by the time I was ten. But it doesn't change the fact of those first impressionable years, and so I have been judging myself ever since. Peace of mind remains elusive. Still, a first step is a first step. And shrugging off the patronizing, puritanical, tyrannical weight of an organized religion is a huge first step. Where do we go from there?

Many in my generation - and I suspect this is still true today - looked out across the religious landscape and wondered what we were missing. We were ready to give up a religion, but not all religion. Some looked for a better match in Eastern, pagan, or indigenous traditions. Since these have their own imposed rigors of behavior and ritual practice, others prefered the New Age buffet of mix-'n-match rites from any and every "spiritual" source. "Spiritual" was preferred over "religious" so as to distinguish between an organizational structure and something pure, personal, internal.

But what about that peace of mind? I know that many people who leave the religion they were raised in do find a home in another faith community, whether traditional, adapted or invented. I'll go further and say that in the whole gamut of spiritual practices and philosophies we will find a lot of overlap with humanism. It is one of our own tenets, after all, that morality and compassion are natural human traits - we would expect to find similar humanitarian concerns, for instance, across the religious-nonreligious spectrum. Where we do not overlap is in the acceptance of a central myth as truth. Humanists do not endorse belief in myths no matter how benign, creative or comforting they may be.

Which brings me to another variant of my question: Why can't the metaphor itself be enough? I mean, the myths are not going away any time soon. The gods, the saints, Adam and Eve, the damn snake, Noah, Shiva, Zeus - they are part of our history, language and collective imagination. You could say we're stuck with them, but why let them be a burden? Stories - our ability to invent them, adjust them and interpret them - are an essential element of human existence. To accept a story as a story - so that it can be examined, discussed, even re-imagined starting, progressing and culminating in a variety of ways - enhances our understanding of ourselves and the world. Passive faith in the story as truth, on the other hand, can be truly destructive. If we cannot distinguish between actual history and the stories we make up, then how will we ever confront the future, and the impact that our behavior (not beliefs!) will have on human destiny?

Faith traditions profess to offer serenity, hope and joy to the true believer. We can debate whether that is typically the case, but my interest here is in whether we can have all of those good feelings without the supernatural belief. As far as I can tell, humanists are a happy bunch - also brave, caring and optimistic. The ills of the world - poverty, violence, injustice - present themselves to us not as punishments, lessons or karmic scorekeeping to be reconciled emotionally and then "let go," but as conditions that require and are capable of correction - by people!

It turns out that facing reality isn't a hindrance to peace of mind, and solace comes from confronting problems honestly in the knowledge that we are equipped and empowered to work toward solutions.

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Copyright © 2014 Zelda Gatuskin

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