The discussion following this comment is actually more interesting than the post itself (in which Jerry Coyne mocks Chris Mooney’s recent discovery of 1970’s style “spirituality” as the bridge between science and religion). The commenter, one Timothy F Simpson, is apparently a Presbyterian professor of religious studies who acknowledges a metaphorical interpretation of his religion and is interested in promoting acceptance of science by the faithful but concerned that agressive and harshly toned responses on the website might offend people he sends there. In a long exchange he meets with a variety of responses in a wide range of tones including near the end an accusation of being a “tone troll” and an invitation in plainer language to autocopulate. Ophelia Benson chimes in a couple of times and continues in her own blog with some appreciative disagreement. And Coyne (who does not participate) refers to the discussion in a subsequent posting, saying that “The proper response to this kind of argument is derisive laughter.” I disagree.
The question of whether a metaphorical interpretation of religion can serve the emotional needs of those who hold it is an interesting one, as is also the question of whether, and if so, in what sense, a metaphor can be “true”. It is not obvious (to me) that the metaphorical interpretation has traction in the broader religious community though. In a sense, an acknowledged metaphor as really no more than a simile and the desired emotional effect may be lost. But on the other hand failure to make such acknowledgement explicit encourages a literalism that may be counterproductive to other needs and possibly even dangerous.
Jean Kazez expands on this ‘true meaning of truth’ aspect in a post at her blog In Living Color. I too tend to be irritated by the “true for me and my community” bit, but for technical reasons can’t be as definite as she is. (not to mention the self-satisfied absolutism of Coyne and his acolytes).
Either generic “spirituality” or metaphorically interpreted religious “faith” does little damage to society so long as the teachings are benign. But the existence of supporting techniques and/or interpretations does call for instruction, and mentorship is particularly easy to abuse when the subject is largely one of ethics. It is the delegation of moral authority that is the primary problem with religion – and one which is innate since the raison d’etre of an organized religion seems to be exactly to achieve such delegation.
By itself, and without that delegation of authority, literal belief in arrant nonsense about the world is probably easy to correct in all but the insane and in fact it is less harmful than anything (be it faith or political idealism) which demands (or even permits) that delegation of moral authority.
So I suspect that the first step in saving the world from religion is not so much to drive people back into their communities of comfort by mocking their irrationalities but to encourage independence of moal judgement. Once that is achieved, either critical thinking about what is “real” will come naturally to most people, or we as a species are living beyond our mental means.