- For those who are coming to the dinner tonight, Friday, we are meeting at 10pm
in the restaurant: RAÍCES DEL MUNDO, Calle: Galileo, 56
- Sunday the 10th of December, TWO weeks time, will be our last meeting for this
year, because Isabel and I have a Christmas engagement and then the following
two Sundays are Christmas and the new year. The first meeting in 2007 will be
the 7th of January, but I need to confirm this with the pub.
This Sunday we are discussing Symbolism in Religion, but as I point out in the
essay the title should really be Symbols in Religion. Talking about essays, I
hope I don’t have too many typing errors this time. I have corrected last week’s
essay (Is it possible to be honest in politics?) so if you want a clean copy,
please let me know.
In the meantime, I look forward to seeing you again Friday or Sunday which ever
SUNDAY 6.00pm START at Molly Malone's Pub, probably downstairs----
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Symbolism in Religion [symbols in religion]
[The title should really be “symbols in religion,” since we were considering the
wearing of certain types of cloths as required by some religions.]
A working definition of symbol is that it is an object or a behaviour that
represents some metaphysical concept. A common feature of a symbol is that it is
usually something exclusive or special.
For example, only the Pope can wear the Fisherman’s Ring, but all members of the
Roman Catholic religion can wear a medallion or a cross. And although most
members of the Catholic church can freely choose to wear a holy medallion, it is
inconceivable that a Pope wouldn't want to wear the Fisherman’s Ring. Therefore,
symbols impose a certain degree of obligation to use them. This obligation
ranges from the mandatory to nice-if-you-could-do-it.
Symbols in themselves have no real value other than what they fetch in an open
market. The value symbols have is the value people place on them. Usually, these
people belong to a specific group. The value a Roman Catholic places on St
Peter's ring is different from the value an atheist would place on it. The value
of authority this ring has is only really recognised by member of the faith. I
cannot think of a symbol that represents a value that is accepted universally.
What is the relationship between symbol and referent? Apart from the symbol
representing a concept, it is supposed to convey information about the referent.
Thus, the Fisherman’s Ring represents not only the authority but the origin of
the religion when Christ is said to have told Peter the He, Christ; would build
a church on this rock. That religious symbols convey information is not in
In fact symbols are universally used to convey information and not just in
religion. Symbols are used in mathematics, logic, catering, aviation, medicine
every where. One advantage symbols have is that they are physical, meaning that
a lot of information is conveyed by simply seeing the symbol. Is chant and
singing a symbol? In other words, most symbols use light energy to convey their
information, making them an information channel that is very efficient, quick
and maximises information content.
But by seeing a symbol as an information channel it also means that those who
send the information and those who receive it must share the same code to
interpret the message. In other words, people who share the same symbol must
also have the means to understand the symbol or the information conveyed by the
symbol. The condition of sharing the same ''code'' to interpret symbols leads to
one of the most powerful and important aspects of symbols.
Symbols not only convey information to those who share the same code (knowledge)
but also to those who do not belong to the group and maybe do not know what the
theological information conveyed by the symbol means. Hence, a cross hanging
from a gold chain not only conveys the message of the cross to Roman Catholics,
but also that the wearer is a member of this particular faith. This would be
useful information to a member of the Jewish or Muslim faith. Symbols, are
therefore, means to include as much as to exclude people from a group; in a very
efficient and effective way.
Someone who bears a religious symbol is really saying that they belong to a
particular religion and not another. Symbols are also a sign of conformity.
However, conformity usually implies an element of free choice. But sometimes,
religion and symbols are imposed on people, even to the point of making them
mandatory. More about this later. In the meantime, symbols are linked to that
very basic need of belonging to a group or society. Rituals, trinkets and
practices are all part of a group's cohesion. By definition individuals in a
group must have some things in common. A group is a set with members sharing
some common criteria. Symbols confirm and affirm this need to belong.
What is of interest to us is that religion, with its group members, seems to be
causally linked to a civil society, with its group members. Sometime both groups
are made up of the same people. This is an important link. First of all, we need
to establish the parameters between society and religion. So far, many people
have held religion to be superior than civil culture. Hence, identifying what is
culture and what is religion will help us establish the statues of a symbol.
After all, it is the gospels that report Christ as saying: give to Caesar what
is Caesar's and give to God what is God's. We'll be better off by following this
wise counsel. In fact, by following this advice, we can examine the second
question, why are some religious symbols mandatory or obligatory? Who is being
mandated and who is mandating to wear certain symbols will further help us with
the question: why make it obligatory? And finally, we can examine what is the
status of religious symbols in modern society?
In the 21st century western societies accept the separation of civil society
from religion. Even if this is a matter of degree rather than absolute fact.
Traditionally, however, this was not always the case. Historically, religion was
always the main or a strong force in society and the remnants of this historical
past can till be found today. For example, the English monarch is still the head
of the church of England.
Many of today's national holidays were and some still are religious events. But
some of them date back even before the relevant religion was created; Christmas
is a good example. If religion and society are so inter linked and in many cases
indistinguishable, then one important implication ought to be this: religion and
religious symbols ought to evolve with society. It is clear that if a religion
does not keep up with society it will lose its function within that society. For
example, is charity relevant in a welfare state and human rights environment?
Secondly, if a religion /including symbols/ does not evolve, ought it to have
the same privileged status it once had in a society? For example, if a religion
prohibits the consumption of a certain animal, but today parts of that animal
can be used for medical drugs, should a religion be allowed to veto the use of
Why should some symbols be obligatory? I think we can all agree that religion
deals with something that is metaphysical? We don't need to argue this point or
what it means. Why, therefore, should something metaphysical require some
physical representation? Is it not enough that the metaphysical has to live in
the physical domain of our brain or ink on paper? For example, we don't need
elaborate physical symbols to represent the metaphysical concept of probability.
As a strong believer of probability I don't go around carrying a trinket to show
that I belong to this group of believers. And as far as I know statisticians
don't have to wear some social garb to show they are statisticians, although
some could do with a helpful hint from a fashion stylist. (I’m not referring to
faculty members with their gowns). So, for example, why should the idea of
dignity imply in some religions covering-up from head to toe and beyond? Why
shouldn't dignity be a concept in the mind of the members of the religion when
then act in a respectful way?
If we accept that symbols are channels of information, maybe semantic
information, why should they have to be mandatory? Why should we be forced in a
civil society, or religious society, to identify with the group? This is one of
the most important challenges to symbols in religion. It's one thing for a
leader of a religion to wear or carry certain symbols, and another to impose
certain symbols on the population.
Unfortunately, mandatory, obligation and manipulation usually have negative
implications. This is unfortunate since not all manipulation is negative or
evil. For example, crowd controls during big events might be restricting the
freedom of movement of a lot of people, but surely this is for the benefit of
all present. But, having two possible outcomes does not make judging
manipulation that much easier. Furthermore, it does not necessarily follow
automatically that if something is good it should be enforced.
I want to use the following argument to show that symbols are manipulations:
either in the strong sense of forcing people to do something against their will
or as influence bearing devices, in the sense of people opting in favour of a
- Religious beliefs are metaphysical in nature, even if we accept that morality
is some physical event emanating from a physical entity, such as genes. Good and
bad are such metaphysical beliefs.
- An important function of concepts is to influence people in their beliefs, but
ultimately in behaviour. We can also add that information has a changing effect
in us. Not only does information change the way we look at the world and
interact with it, but also physiologically. For better or for worse, we can only
access information in a physical form, which in turn changes our physical state
of being, in particular the brain, but not only. The implication of this is that
information must be represented in physical form for human beings (eg. written
form) and that has a physical effect on us (eg we feel emotional about a
- Symbols are physical channels of information used for communication purposes
usually in the public domain. (We are not really interested in symbols that act
like some secret code.)
- It is/was widely believed that communication was used to transmit information
for the general good. This has been, in my opinion, conclusively challenged by
Dawkins with his position that communication is to influence (manipulate) people
I think that this establishes the argument that symbol are there to influence
people. However, whether that influence is positive or negative depends on three
questions. Who is doing the manipulation? Who is being manipulated? And what are
they manipulated to do?
We may answer the first question by identifying those in power as doing the
manipulation or those who stand to benefit from such manipulation. Benefits need
not be monitory, but also social status, and access to other scarce resources.
We are inclined to think that it is individuals who are in power and stand to
benefit, but we must also consider sub groups within a group or religion.
Who is being manipulated? and To do what? are more difficult questions. They are
difficult not only, as mentioned earlier, manipulation can be both positive and
negative, but also for this important point. The effect of a symbol (the
manipulation) might be more critical on a third party than on the wearer of the
symbol. In other words, the target of the manipulation need not be the same
person who is carrying the symbol. For example, a crown worn by a monarch has
more serious implications on the subjects of the monarch than the monarch who is
wearing the crown.
The title of this discussion was first proposed as, ''to wear or not to wear the
burka?" In itself this question is not a philosophical issue; it a matter of
choice. And certainly not an interesting issue, or at least not more interesting
than to wear or not to wear bell bottom jeans. Of course, it becomes an issue,
certainly a sociological one, when we consider that some times what we wear we
do it because we are ''dressing for the occasion.''
The philosophical angle of the principle, ''dressing for the occasion,'' implies
value judgement, obligation and implications on others. Let us therefore
consider this issue of covering-up: it does not matter if it is total or
partial. Part of this consideration involves, a what if..? type of examination.
In the distant historical past it made sense to cover one's head. Personal
hygiene and hair care were not necessarily as advanced as they are today. It
made sense to cover one's head to prevent bugs from other people’s heads to
emigrate to one's head; and vice versa. It made even more sense to cover-up in a
tight or confined crowd for example in a house of worship.
Although today, we spend a lot of time indoors during the day and night, this
was not always the case. In the past a lot of time was spent outdoors; walking
from place to place, working in the fields or construction sites and so on. And
especially in hot climates with a lot of sun all year round it made sense to
cover-up to prevent sunstrokes or worse, such as skin cancer from long exposure
to the sun. We can even argue that without the right creams and lotions,
exposing one's face to a strong sun will result in wrinkles of the ugliest
This sort of speculation might not reflect the whole picture, but we can
understand it. Covering-up makes sense even in cold countries for obvious
reasons. But what about women being singled out to cover-up, because of their
sex or beauty? Why not mandate men to cover-up? After all, some women do find
some men handsome and beautiful.
Whatever the religious justification, it also makes sense to cover-up in a
society without any advanced sense of law and order or personal security. If
people do take the law in their own hands, it makes sense not to attract
attention to one’s self. Whatever we think of the situation, nature made most
men to be attracted towards beautiful women in particular and women in general.
This second most important of human instincts, the first being life
preservation, can lead to fatal devastation if there wasn't a mechanism to
control certain instincts. In a fragile society, the last thing it needs is for
its members to start fighting each other, when they should be fighting their
enemies or the ravages of nature.
However, we also know that covering-up as a law and order measure is not
universal. There are many societies, especially in tropical regions who do not
cover-up and this does not create any problems in their. And in other societies,
to cover-up or not is not even an issue. Why, therefore, is it the women that
are singled out to be mandated to wear certain clothing? In reality, even the
males are mandated with a dress code, but let's not complicate the issue.
If religion mandates women to a certain dress code, is it the women who are
being manipulated? Earlier I presented a difficulty with which is now very
relevant. A symbol can have a greater effect on a third party than on the
wearer; you will remember that I used the example of a monarch wearing a crown.
Imposing a dress code on women, in my opinion, fall within this ambit.
One very important negative effect of a woman covering-up is to deny access to
information about her physical being. Never mind, that this stops information
about aesthetic looks from reaching others, but it also stops other information
from reaching others, for example information about the person’s well being. In
evolutionary terms , how and what a person looks like is important information
when looking for a mate. We have been built to look for a healthy mate and
beauty is a good indicator of this. I would argue that from a biological and
evolutionary point of view, the female is not put into great disadvantage. It
does not affect the female’s value judgment on who to mate with whether she is
fully covered or not, and certainly won’t affect her reproductive functions
either. I am of course assuming that the female can choose or reject a
prospective mate, but this issue is beyond the scope of this essay. However, we
cannot say the same about the male who, incidentally, needs this sort of
information about a prospective mate, as much as the female.
I have already tried to establish the relevance of the idea that communication
is manipulation. But I submit that withholding information or controlling
information is equally manipulative. I have argued in the past that lack of
information can still affect how we behave; hence manipulation just as much. And
furthermore, since covering-up is mandated by a religion the question of who is
mandating is very relevant. Few religions have power centred in its female
members; most religions are led by males (can you think of a religion that is
led by females? Apart from the Church of England). But the reproductive
competitor of a male is not a female, but another male. Hence, by controlling
the female population it is not the females that are being manipulated, but the
male members who are prospective competitors of those males in power.
I started by saying that this issue of whether to cover-up or not is not
interesting because it is a matter for the person to decide. What I wear is not
interesting for others, although they might despair at my sense of style, it is
no skin off their nose. And social norms or natural necessities will soon take
care of what we wear; you try and work in a steel foundry in your bikini. But
this ideal that it is up to me to decide what to wear makes a huge assumption.
The assumption that we have rights is a modern and certainly western ideology.
It might be argued that having the right to decide what to wear contrary to a
given ideology and maybe considered as interfering by western society in other
societies. Maybe, but if western medicine is ok, western transport technology is
ok, western luxury goods are ok, western economic systems are ok, what wrong
with western rights that say someone can wear what they want?
But mandated behaviour challenges rights, even if it is for our own good.
However, as I have tried to argue, mandating that the female members of the
group to be covered up, is not necessarily for the protection of the female,
apart from the reasonable use of clothes for protection from the environment.
The objective is straight forward manipulation of the male members of the group.
Female members need not cover-up to be protected from would be predators. Law
and order and a culture of respect can achieve a lot as it does in many other
societies. Some might argue that this is required for the sake of social
dignity, decency and decorum. The concept of decency is a metaphysical one and
probably best served by education and knowledge. We can be decent without having
to mandate what certain members of society have to do. In any event, no one
suggests that those people who live in tropical regions and do not cover
themselves are not decent people. So, is mandating certain wear to a given group
of society a matter of rights?
As I have show, suspending one’s rights, for example in crowd control
situations, might be an advantage, but being mandated is not the same, even if
it is an advantage. For example, when we suspend a right we still hold those in
authority accountable and usually the right is not given up for ever, even if it
does seem that way. Today we accept that there are some rights (and duties) that
are universal and equal to all. Hence, the “not-invented-here” argument does not
apply when it comes to rights.
I have tried to argue that mandating women to cover-up, than what is reasonably
expected, is a matter of manipulating the male members of a group. But it is
also a gross violation of the female’s right because it is an imposition that is
unnecessary, there are alternatives and therefore there is no need to impose
this symbol. But more importantly, it is a violation the female’s rights because
as I have tried to show the female is being used as an innocent party to
manipulate other members of the society. No one has the right to use innocent
people as a weapon to fight one’s enemy.
However, the issue of symbols in general and imposed apparel as a symbol of a
religion, are more deep seated than a question of rights, information,
reproduction, sex and exploitation. The issue relates to the very core of life
and evolution. Earlier I argued that religion must evolve with civil society
otherwise it will wither away in the garden of history. Hence, by implication so
do religious symbols have to evolve otherwise they will wither away in the scrap
yards of human junk.
At some time in the past a symbol would have been successful for the function it
served, some might still be useful, while others become redundant or superseded.
Unfortunately, evolution is backward looking; in other words what exists today
is the result of evolution reacting to events and situations in the distant
past. But today knowledge and information about the world around us enable us
not only to understand that same world around us, but in many cases to
manipulate that very nature before it has time to injure us. For example,
identifying heritable disease.
Could it be that today’s successful evolution is forward looking, rather than
backward looking? Could it be that we have reached an epistemological state when
we can manipulate nature to meet our immediate needs instead of waiting for
evolution to do its thing? Today we don’t wait a million years to cure a tooth
ache, but go to the dentist. Isn’t it the case that symbols in religion are
backward looking? Could it be that access to information, knowledge and rights
will become the symbols of future human groups?