Blame it On the God of Poetry?: Is an Emotionally Charged Metaphor the Real Reason You Say That You Believe in God—Or Say That You Don’t?

Is metaphor-charged experience behind the power of conversion?

When the Apostle Paul, in Romans 1:18-20, says that God reveals himself “plainly” to us by a direct apprehension of nature and the heavens, might we shift focus and have an equally visceral apprehension of God’s absence and silence at the moment when our lives are confronted with a great loss, or we see photgraphic images of the bodies of Auschwitz victims piled like cordwood?

If, as theologians have suggested from John Calvin to Alvin Plantinga, God has given us a sensus divinitatus (a faculty capable of a direct sense that the divine is present), perhaps (S)he has also given us a sensus adivinitatus (a faculty capable of a direct sense that the divine is absent).

In other words, the metaphors of “GOD AS DESIGNER” and “GOD AS ABSENT FATHER” may generate a similar triggering force upon the human psyche, which, when attached to powerful emotional experiences, lead people to believe that they “know” that God exists (or does not).

And when asked how they “know” they are on the right path (which is also a metaphor), they point to an experience in which it was just obvious to them that God exists (or doesn’t). 

This may be why metaphors, and the experiences we connect to them, can be so powerful, and turn us into believers or disbelievers in God.

It’s because metaphors give us an emotional link to experience.

This may be why the religious have conversion experiences—and so do atheists. They have a visceral experience linked to metaphors of harmony or disharmony (“God as designer” or “God as absent Father”).  

This may also be why it is hard to talk people out of their position—because our underlying conceptual metaphors seem to give us direct access to an apprehension that makes sense to us at a visceral level. 

A religious person can read atheist books and not get past a visceral experience, five years previous, of hiking in the mountains and feeling God’s design in nature. Likewise, an atheist can read religious books and not get past a visceral experience, when travelling in Eastern Europe, of visiting the Nazi death camps in Poland and having an overwhelming sense of God as an absent father.

To conclude with a simile: It seems that each human being is like a chicken with its beak stuck to the chalk line of a metaphor that makes visceral sense of his or her peculiar and contingent life experiences. Some of us are on the chalk line of “God as designer” and some of us are on the chalk line of “God as absent father.”

It is one of these two metaphors, linked to our experiences, and not formal logic, that probably most determines our response to the question, “Do you believe in God?”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Blame it On the God of Poetry?: Is an Emotionally Charged Metaphor the Real Reason You Say That You Believe in God—Or Say That You Don’t?

  1. socratesvotes says:

    Hmm. Might be something to this. Stumbled upon it searching for something on Plantiga…

    I have little doubt that unconscious psychological forces shape our takes on religion. Whether they’re natural instincts or the result of design, I can’t say for sure. Interesting though!

    —Matt—

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