Growing Trees, Not Planting Seeds

Growing Trees, Not Planting Seeds May 17, 2015

As I wrote in my very first post for Ex-Communications, I’m a sucker for a good analogy.

That also means that I’m often picky about bad analogies as well. I’ve got a literary background (my degree is in English, which I taught at the high school level for five years), and symbolism is important to me, even down to the symbolic meaning of unity ceremonies.

There’s one exceptionally popular analogy in particular that, despite having used it several times in the past, I’ve grown less enamored with: planting seeds.

Before I spell out my misgivings, let me say what works well about this metaphor: It conveys the idea of setting something into motion which only comes to fruition (if you’ll pardon the pun) at a later time, which is a great way of focusing on the ways in which conversations do not yield immediate results but may have long-term effects. I think that if you asked most formerly religious people if someone had told them something that only later had repercussions on their confidence in their religious beliefs, you’d be quite likely to hear about something. I know it’s true for me, and I’ve heard my fair share of stories from others where someone said something that eventually developed into a serious problem for their faith – a seed of doubt, if you will.

It has been in reflecting on that phrase – “planting seeds of doubt” – that I’ve become uncomfortable with what it seems to entail. More to the point, I remember using that same idea as a Christian in evangelism.

I think that, as secular people, we often think we have the market cornered on doubt, particularly if we are ex-religious. After all, we were able to entertain our doubts and allow ourselves to consider the alternative – which we then accepted. But while I don’t think most religions handle their own adherents’ doubts well, I do think that religions which evangelize understand that doubt is a powerful tool that they can then exploit. Pascal’s wager, for instance, seems to me a blatant example of exploiting non-believers by introducing doubt about whether a final judgment awaits them beyond the grave. (And I think the reason that it often fails with us is that we see it for what it is: a sort of last-ditch effort of emotional manipulation.)

And that really is the root of my unease with the metaphor: It posits our interactions with believers as ones where we are actively trying to subvert their thinking.

Perhaps subversion really is what some people have in mind when they interact with believers. If so, then I think the metaphor is for you. After all, the essence of the metaphor is that you are performing an act upon a largely passive participant, as if they are merely fertile ground for the introduction of your ideas. (Unless, that is, you go full Parable of the Sower in order to have a ready-made explanation created for why your ideas didn’t take hold with everyone.)

It’s not what I want my role to be, though, and frankly, it isn’t how I think the atheists who had the most profound influence treated me. It almost seems to me like using people as a means to an end, like you’re trying to propagate your ideas by implanting them in another person’s head.

I don’t want to subvert thinking. I want to activate and engage thinking. I want others to see the problems with faith as a way of ascertaining truth, and I want to make that happen by trying to teach people to use their critical faculties more frequently and more vigorously. (This isn’t just how I feel about religious people, either; no one is exempt from this admonition, even me.)

So maybe the analogy serves the limited purpose that I conceded earlier. But I think that, as an approach to helping the religious to find their way out of religion, there is much to be desired. If our only goal is to undermine religion’s hold on the thoughts of its adherents, then we will be doing a disservice to those who achieve escape velocity – we will have essentially left them without much of a way to disentangle themselves from the various ways in which religion had influenced them.

Let’s think less about sowing seeds and more about growing trees that will naturally turn toward the light.

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