I find it interesting that between two polarities being expressed regarding the role of religion in mainstream politics -- the recent over-saturation of Barack Obama's affiliations/non-affiliations with Jeremiah Wright, and the elucidating essay by Sam Harris on this site -- there has not been any discussion of religious symbols and what they represent. This is not to fault any party aforementioned. Obama/Wright stick to a very broad and easily digestable understanding of faith, in which God is a man or spirit of some sort, and plays with humans like humans play with pets. Harris's work has always been about the dangers of faith, especially blind faith, where we give credence to an abstract idea without investigating the actual effects those beliefs create in the world.
Yet religion has always been about symbolism, and it is in the personification of ideas that we "miss the mark," which is an original meaning of the word "sin." That is, taking universal ideas and limiting them to one or a few particular historical individuals, instead of comprehending and integrating the symbols into our life in the here and now. Hence, Jesus did this or that, and the best we can do today is mimic that idea; we will never touch the perfection by which he did it anyway. It's no wonder that people involved in this sort of religion feel both 1) disempowered by the world and their place in it, and 2) immediately hateful toward anyone that questions their beliefs.
There's little surprise that in such a reading of popular Christianity that the entire spectacle takes place in the underworld--the birth of Jesus, which roughly corresponds (and more traditionally, exactly corresponds) to the winter solstice, and his death and resurrection, which falls near the spring equinox. The soul of the Christian is literally in darkness: winter. This is a very old motif, used some time before the Jesus figure in the story of Osiris, as well as the underworld quest of Gilgamesh. A similar idea was employed in Persephone and Hades. All these examples deal with the barren soil and the "resurrection" of agriculture in spring. It is the sun's descent and rebirthing, which in turn gives us nourishment through grain and greens, when soil is once again virginal, ready to bring forth fruit.
It is here that we encounter mistranslations. As Richard Dawkins pointed out in The Selfish Gene, regarding the figure of Mary, the translation from Hebrew to Greek rendered "young woman" as "virgin," and hence a disastrous series of biologically impossible misinterpretations ensued. The virgin motif is not new; the Buddha too was born of a virgin in some stories. Recognizing the feat as symbolic in the Christian world, Mary was an updated equivalent of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who, as Manly P. Hall wrote, "although she gave birth to all living things -- chief among them the Sun -- still remained a virgin." If we treat the word virginal as meaning purity, then the birth of her gifted son (sun) was due to her positive nature: she was pure at heart, as the fields were pure to plant upon.
Mary was the mother earth receiving the light of our closest star. Her son was born at midnight on the winter solstice, the time of year when the sun is furthest away from the planet. This would correlate her as a lunar deity giving birth to the sun. At the point of total and complete darkness a light is born. This is why he is destined to be a "light unto all nations," for the star that beams into every nook of this planet, as well as what gives life to this planet, is the Sun -- the Son, "light bearer," Christ.
His "return" was the barren fields once again giving life -- what we today celebrate as Easter by decorating and eating eggs, a symbol of gestation. Christ's own birth is the sun in its darkest moment, and its eventual return to nourish us. Then we are fed: wheat by which to make bread; grapes by which to make wine; the body and blood of Christ. His victory in dispelling winter is the second coming of humankind -- the return from the underworld, as Osiris strode along the river of death in his boat.
How then have we strayed so far in our understanding of these symbols, turning the processes of nature into celebrity figures with no actual regard for their archetypal significance? One way is our environment. It has been predicted that by the end of 2008, half of the world's population will be in urban societies. Without a doubt, the majority of media is rooted in cities. When you live in a place where your food arrives on trucks, into grocery shelves, it's easy to forget that that food is part of a sun-dependent process. It's especially challenging if, like me, you had pineapple for breakfast this morning -- in the first week of spring in New York City. There is nothing natural, or sustainable, about the amount of energy (human and fossil) it took to make that happen.
This misunderstanding of mythological symbolism, regarding what we nourish ourselves with, is the foundation of a culture that suffers startling rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease -- all diseases which are rooted and can be treated by nutrition choices. It is upsetting how vehement people become regarding their religious affiliations without even cracking the shell of the symbol. Unsurprisingly, the food we eat often elicits a like response. These two are not separate -- religion has long been affiliated with what we put inside ourselves, in every manner.
I applaud, as I have since The End of Faith was published, Sam Harris for his keen insists into the politics and social misfortunes that have occurred in the name of "God." Many of the so-called New Atheist writers have offered challenging and necessary perspectives on the dangers of modern religion. Still, their stories tell important tales, and when we interpret them as they were dreamed -- as human beings being part of nature, not separate from it -- we understand ourselves, and our place in the world, all the more. While we can't expect a presidential candidate or his pastor to divulge this information, we merely have to do what we've long done to politicians and priests: Put them aside, and educate ourselves, for ourselves.