God is both a metaphor and real: a serious mind dump by a possibly stoned comedian

July 3, 2019 • 9:00 am

(Re the title: perhaps you are old enough to remember this commercial.)

Can anybody appear on The Big Think these days? Apparently so—if you’re willing to make nice to religion.

Reader Kit, who called my attention to the misguided lucubrations of Michio Kaku yesterday, also pointed me to this 8-minute Big Think video by comedian, actor, and writer Peter Holmes, who tells us that he knows what God is—thanks to his having read Joseph Campbell on the nature of myth.

No, God is not an old man with a beard, he’s really a metaphor for a mystery—a kind of truth that is not only ineffable (rendering it, of course, non-refutable), but a “higher level of truth”.

It does not seem beyond the realm of possibility that Holmes was stoned out of his gourd when he made this video (after all, he says he wishes the listeners were stoned and also makes approving noises about Cannabis sativa). The stream of “thought” is disconnected, bizarre, discursive, and fragmented: just the kind of mind-dump you hear from some stoners. Believe me, it’s no Ulysses. 

Have a listen (there’s also a transcript at the site):

The transcript is one long paragraph, like a stoned monologue. Here’s the end of it (emphases are mine):

. . . And Richard Rohr talks about God being like a verb more than a noun. It’s not a thing that you have and you know that you have. It’s an experience and it’s a way that you change how you go about every single moment of your day, which is really the same moment. We’re just moving through it. [LAUGHS] I hope you’re stoned. I hope you’re stoned while you watch this because there’s only one moment, we’re just moving through it. That’ll kick it up a gear. I hope it’s a sativa. But anyway, he helped me understand that literal truth is the lowest level of truth, and that God– obviously a man with a beard on a throne in the clouds is a metaphor for God. It’s old, the beard is old. OK. Old. Been here a while. Throne is important. Clouds is above it. Seize it. In the old days, if you want to know a town, climb a hill and see the whole town. So it’s just a metaphor. But he does better than that. He says, God itself– a man and a beard, a cloud, all that, that’s a metaphor for God. But he says God itself is a metaphor. And God is a metaphor for what? It’s a mystery. So he’s the thing pointing– or she or it. This is a metaphor for the mystery that we’re all in, regardless of your beliefs. I do not think someone is going to scan your brain when you die for the correct beliefs. Fuck that shit. I believe in aliens. You know what I mean? I give my believe away so willy nilly, how could this precious, unbelievably vibrant, juicy, sexy game come down to, what thoughts did you think repeatedly? I believed this and I didn’t believe that. Scan. OK, you go to heaven and these Hindus go to hell. God, we lost it. But guess what.

Okay, so Holmes tells us that no religion has a monopoly on truth, and they’re all metaphors for something that’s apparently a “higher truth”, which, he says, is infinitely superior to “literal truth”:

That literal truth is the lowest level of truth. It’s the lowest. The way that I love my wife– the literal way that I love her is like garbage. The metaphorical and mythical and emotional ways that I love her, that’s where the juice is.

Well, if you can figure out what he means by literalism versus emotionality, and what “emotional truth” is, and what the mythical and emotional truths of his love for his wife are, then good luck to you. But when it comes to something Higher and beyond Holme’s spouse, what, exactly, is he talking about? Is it spirituality? Is it awe? Or is it something beyond these feelings—something real. And if it is real, what is it?

I have no idea, nor do I want to smoke weed to figure out what Holmes is saying. Let him sum it up with the bullet points:

  • A good story has the ability to transform its readers — it speaks to our psyche, and, in doing so, has the ability to how we perceive the world.
  • When trying to understand the adherents of the world’s major religions, Joseph Campbell advises to try to look at mystical experiences through the lens of the founders. In doing so, we can better understand the context of their messaging.
  • When we talk about God as an old man on a throne in the clouds, when seen as a metaphor, the imagery helps us understand the divine — the beard expresses great age, the throne symbolizes its supremacy, and the clouds signify that it presides over all of us.

It seems from this pabulum that Holmes really does accept the existence of some kind of “divine”—something numinous. It’s not just Richard Dawkins looking up at the stars and feeling awe and wonder. No, there’s something Supreme, and Old, and Presiding Over Us All.

But what, pray tell, is It? We don’t know, and Holmes, perhaps overcome by the fumes of a burning plant, doesn’t let us in on His Secret.

I haven’t scanned the Big Think videos to see if there are any atheistic ones. But I hope that if there are, they aren’t as bizarre and nonsensical as the one above.


h/t: Kit

47 thoughts on “God is both a metaphor and real: a serious mind dump by a possibly stoned comedian

  1. You know, I’m starting to get annoyed with the whole Joseph Campbell thing. I’ve even seen movie reviews in which the reviewer carefully explains why the movie was bad due to their failure to abide by Campbel

    1. The interesting thing about Campbell is his identification of the recurrent pattern of the Hero’s Journey across time, cultures, and geography. What’s nonsense are the theories attempting to explain its emergence (e.g. Freud, Jung, collective unconscious, archetypes, etc).

  2. “After all, he says he wishes the listeners were stoned and also makes approving noises about Cannabis sativa”

    I’m an Indica man myself

  3. My definition would never make the big think. Religion is a strategy for making money. Not exactly high minded thinking but that is it. The Vatican is just the oldest ponzi scheme and a very successful one. Just remove all money from this business and see where it is.

  4. Reminds me of Babylon 5, when the character G’kar found himself as a religious figure, he tried to explain to the people now fawning over him that they needed to work together and whatnot, but his new flock was having none of it, and demanded:

    Narn: But what is truth? And what is God?

    G’kar, finally gave up and spouted off a complete deepity:

    G’Kar: Truth is… a river.

    Narn (fawning): Ahhh!! And what is God?

    G’Kar: God is the mouth of the river.

    Complete nonsense, but they just ate it up.

  5. Maybe for his next profoundity he can tell us what color the walls are.


    But when you endeavor to explain the mystery of the universe by the mystery of God, you do not even exchange mysteries—you simply make one more. Nothing can be mysterious enough to become an explanation.

    ― Robert G. Ingersoll, Letter to Rev. Henry M. Field

      1. He’s the cat’s meow.
        I liked, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, by Susan Jacoby.

        1. Last night I pulled Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby off of my bookshelf while reading up on falsification. I met Susan Jacoby in 2004 while volunteering at the CFI in NYC. Maybe I should put The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought on my list.

      2. When listening to his works read on Librivox, I always look forward to hearing his “dimpled, prattling babe.”

  6. Holmes seems a bit inexperienced when it comes to handling a good “buzz”. Perhaps he should review the definition of “hallucinogens” .

    1. Me to but I didn’t like his fake cracking up in the outtakes. Almost as bad as Jimmy Fallon’s fake “break character” shtick from his SNL days. Dude pretended like he couldn’t keep a straight face. Every. Time. Gimme a break Jimmy.

    1. God could be anything. When someone announces what they think god is someone else disagrees. That’s not a problem. That’s religion. Claims about the nature of our universe without any evidence.

      Like a bunch of six year olds forging new rules to a game they just invented on the playground that make no sense except to the one uttering the rules.

      1. In a nutshell, when we think of the well being of others, things usually improve, when we think of ourselves alone, it’s a selfish world, thanks for the comment

  7. I found his pitch a little feeble, but I could follow his line of thought. He’s talking to the person who was raised in the Christian tradition but who has always had doubts about the literal truth of it. He wants to explain that the emotions surrounding religious experience are independent of the truth of religious dogma. These feelings are a legitimate aspect of human nature. Makes sense to me. People have emotions and yearnings that frustrate their lives. These moods drive people to seek answers in myths and stories. Concepts to arrange life around. I feel well beyond such a need since I feel well grounded in a material world. But, for many, I think his explanation can be meaningful – perhaps transitional. It would be interesting to see a poll to determine how many people agree with Holmes.

    1. He makes too many claims to support a simple poll about whether you “agree with him”. For example, people could agree with your claim that many need something “higher” to believe in, but then he also makes an existence claim about that higher “divine” thing, and I doubt that few–at least here–would agree with that.

      1. I thought his claim was that God (or whatever) exists only as a metaphor. He’s not very clear. He makes a kind of sense. God stands in for the emotional need for “something more”, “bigger than myself”, etc. Which is not a material existence, but a poetic one. I may have missed it if he made claims beyond that. I think he’s somewhat slyly pulling his audience from theology toward literature. I could be wrnog.

  8. Literalism would be the words on the page, the pigment on the canvas; emotional truth is the meaning behind the words and the pigment. Ditto pari passu for nature. I don’t see that this is all that difficult.

    1. Let’s just call it “emotionalism” instead of “emotional truth”, okay? Emotional truth is “this is what I feel,” and is not the same as scientific truth. So don’t pretend that what you feel says anything about what is real in the cosmos (like spirits in rocks); it only says what you feel is true or what you want to be true.

      This is not all that difficult, and I don’t want to continue this discussion.

  9. Holmes should probably STFU and just suggest people read Campbell. Although many claim to have read him – most have merely watched the Bill Moyers interviews and presume to understand his amazing life’s work.

    The truth is very, very few understand Campbell at all, and most simply project on to him whatever nonsense they’ve come up with in their own belief system.

    The one thing about Campbell that is almost completely forgotten or ignored is the fact that was an avowed atheist. He even tells this to Bill Moyers at the end of the series. It must have gone over most of their heads.

    Moyers asks him point blank, “So, do you believe in God?” and somewhat annoyed Campbell shakes his head, and replies, “Oh, no. I’m a scientist.”

    And that’s the crux of Campbell. He sought to establish what he called “The Lineaments of A New Science. (It’s even the subtitle of the first Chapter in The Masks of God Series.

    Or, just read this from his The Symbol Without The Meaning:

    “Let us ask, therefore: What can the value or meaning be of a mythological notion which, in the light of modern science, must be said to be erroneous, philosophically false, absurd, or even formally insane? The first answer suggested will no doubt be the one that, in the course of the past century, has been offered many times by our leading thinkers.

    The value, namely, is to be studied rather as a function of psychology and sociology than as a refuted system of positivistic science, rather in terms of certain effects worked by the symbols on the character of the individual and the structure of society than in terms of their obvious incongruity as an image of the cosmos.

    Their value, in other words, is not that of science but of art: and just as art may be studied psychologically, as symbolic or symptomatic of the strains and structures of the psyche, so may the archetypes of myth, fairy tale, archaic philosophy, cosmology, and metaphysics.”

    Joseph Campbell, Flight of the Wild Gander, p.98-99

    1. Spot on! Have you read or listened to Campbell’s ‘The Way of Art”? He basically repeats what you quoted and would say the comedian was “locked in his metaphors”, mistaking the referent for that which it references.

    2. I took a sociology of religion course as an undergraduate. The instructor for the course, a professor Uli Locher, was asked: “So, what religion are *you*?” or something like that. The answer was: “Why is this relevant?”

  10. I think the comment about being stoned was meant as a self-deprecating joke, like “Ha ha, I know I’m getting into the kind of thing people say when they’re stoned now, I get it, I get it, I’m not totally clueless about how I sound guys.” The rest of the style I would chalk up to comedian-speak. I feel like they have to get into those free flow semi-rambles during standup routines because they have to stay in tune with the audience (so a very set routine wouldn’t work,) so maybe he’s just used to talking that way. Same with the random expletives, that strikes me as something that comedians tend to do, although I’m not sure why, maybe it does something to prime the laughter pump (it would be interesting to ask a standup comedian about how all that works, I’m sure there’s a whole psychology behind it that isn’t intuitive.)

    Other than that, I think he sounds like a formerly literalist Christian trying to reason with himself (maybe even convince himself) about metaphorical Christianity being “ok”. I don’t think he was making many specific propositions about what being “spiritual” means, specifically, to him – it sounded mostly like he’d had this insight that it’s ok to see religion metaphorically vs. literally and it blew his mind a little bit so now he’s sharing. This probably wouldn’t register as anything noteworthy to those raised in largely secular homes but my guess is that to him, this in and of itself is an exciting discovery. That’s my armchair psychoanalysis, at least.

  11. The first three words are fine; as Hitchens said of the title of his book “god is not Great” that is was one world too long. God is not but in the minds of humans, residing in the vacuum of space between the ears, created eons ago when humans didn’t know diddly-squat about seen agents, let alone unseen agents. GROG

  12. Sorry – I have no need of that hypothesis. If you want something to believe try evidence.

  13. His “emotional truth” seems to be subjective truths. These are claimed to be greater than literal truths, and what he means by that is that emotional truths are beyond all reasoning. Beyond revision or disproof by facts and evidence. That is fine for things like love for ones’ wife or cat. But for finding out fundamental truths about the nature of reality? Not so great.

    1. That’s funny Peter (Oz) Jones, I saw “Mitchell & Webb” and clicked your link and re-watched one of my favourite clips of theirs … ahhh I miss them.

      Then I realized it was me who posted the video back in 2011.

      They have so many amazingly clever clips. The one about the Good Samaritan just makes so much hilarious sense when you expose that parable to a bit of logic. (basically, exposing bigotry against Samaritans.)

      The “are we the baddies?” skit about WW2 Germans in a foxhole … the moon landing hoax … the homeopathic hospital. So much comedy genius.

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