Using symbolism as an atheist

Though I’ve touched on the topic before, I think this topic deserves some additional attention.  I believe in being a moral member of society (of course right?), and I also believe quite firmly that no one needs to pay any attention to religion or by extension, singular, plural, or omni gods to be such a member.  Thus I am an atheist.  You might also call me a non-theist, a freethinker, a secular humanist, a Pastafarian, or even a Pope, but those last two could confuse you if you’re not familiar with religious satire.

There was a great TED talk, which I only partially agreed with, but took great inspiration from called Atheism 2.0, presented by Alain de Botton.  He argues, more or less, that we should, or at least can, pick and choose bits we like from religions without subscribing wholesale to their ideals or doctrines.  I think that he’s missed the point he should have made, but only barely, and managed to get across a useful idea in the process anyway.

Mr. De Botton seems to think that Atheists are wanting for “something”.  I definitely know some atheists who feel drawn to exploring their “spirituality”.  I think that’s fine, but I for one do not feel any need to seek spiritual enlightenment, I’m quite satisfied with skepticism and evidence based enlightenment that we find in science, observation, analysis, hard work, cooperation, and peer review.  I do think that many other atheists feel the same.

There is a tool however, which comes up in the TED talk, that I feel many of us forget about or choose to ignore, perhaps because we associate it with the many religions that implement it to great extent.  That tool is symbolism.  Obviously we all make use of symbolism everyday as it’s an intrinsic part of all forms of language, signs, and any representation of shared knowledge necessary for communication.  But the use of symbolism I’m talking about is less of a tool for communication or representation of shared knowledge as it is a reminder, a personal cue.

You might ask why bother? And one perfectly legitimate answer is, you needn’t.  But you would be missing a valuable tool for personal growth and development.  Symbolism provides an instantaneous trigger in our mind to connect to whatever idea we’ve associated with that symbol.  Doesn’t that sound ridiculously awesome?  I think it certainly can be.

Concepts and ideas are the building blocks of our lives, we need them to learn and improve ourselves and our situations.  And yet we can get lost and even crushed in them like a herd of raging wildebeests.  Whether our ideas or others’, they wash over us in waves and leave us wet but without any water to swim in.  There are just so many concepts, and so many ideas, it can be hard to recall the ones we value personally, and easy to forget them when we fall into stressed-out-fight-or-flight mode.

Alain de Botton does a good job of illustrating how religions implement some of their ideas, and I think there’s some value in his observations.  Extrapolating on them I’ll point to two religious uses of symbolism.

Catholicism uses a simple piece of jewelry called a rosary, something which can be worn or carried at all times with no inconvenience to the believer.  It has a set of beads, each signifying a specific prayer, the believer can hold that bead as he prays, then move to the next one in the sequence as he finishes each in turn.  It’s useful for the believer because it allows them to easily keep track of repetitions and reminds them of their daily devotions.  Forgive me Catholics, if I have misrepresented the use of the rosary, feel free to educate my ignorance.

Buddhism uses buddharupa, which are statues or idols of the Buddha as a salient visual reminder of Gautama achieving enlightenment, and escaping the cycle of rebirth.  There are various symbols portrayed in most of the statues which remind people of Gautama’s background and attributes.  Less well known, but perhaps more important to certain aspects of the Buddhist faith are mandalas, complex designs which often symbolize the Buddhist cosmology and serve as an aid for the yogi preparing to meditate or go into a trance.

I don’t advocate copying Catholicism’s rosaries, or Buddhism’s idols or mandalas, or any other religious works for that matter.  Instead, since the goal is self-centered, try to create your own meaningful symbols.  Develop items, or designs, or jewelry, or devices, or bash scripts, or whatever you like that cue some valued idea or concept for you.

At the present I use personal symbols in two ways.  I wear a bead necklace, I have decided on a significance for each bead, and they all correlate to various events from my life.  When I accomplish certain long term goals I award myself a bead.  Everyday I put it on I remember the path I’ve walked to get here, and I also remember my next major goals, the beads I want to add.

I also use symbols in the form of metaphors during my personal yoga practice.  I’m not a very new-agey kind of person, but still I find great value in practicing yoga for physical and emotional well-being.  In order to find balance in my standing poses I use metaphorical imagery; My leg is a tree trunk and my roots extend out through the four corners of my foot; My torso is a tree-top swaying in the wind, and then settling back to its center; My arms are laser beams fired out from my heart.  These are purely mental images and metaphors, but when I think “laser beams”, my arms get straighter, when I think “roots”, my balance improves; they are cues, and useful ones at that.

I expect I’ll develop more symbols as I move forward, especially as I develop as a writer.  I’m going to try to find symbols which help me get into the frame of mind I need to create, the frame of mind I need to revise, and the frame of mind I need to complete.

Give it a go.

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Filed under exercise and outdoors, language, musing, personal, writing

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