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An essay donated by Alton C. Thompson

Is enlightenment all that we need,
or is there a continuing role for myths?

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Should our lives be primarily about discovering and learning “truths” One gets the impression that that’s what most scientists believe.

Another question: If something -- a novel, for example -- is clearly untrue, should it then be abandoned? For a work of fiction, the answer would be a clear “No!” But what about those stories that have acquired the label “myth”? That is a question that I would like to address in this essay.

Stories of the “mythical” variety are associated with the pasts of most, if not all, societies. These stories make claims about the origins of a society, identify heroes in the society’s past, present “information” about the exploits of those heroes, etc.

The fact that today we apply the label “myth” to these stories reflects the current dominance of Science in our thinking. For most moderns, the label “myth” consequently means “untrue.” That assessment may be strictly true. But it forces us to ask several questions about “myths”:

  • If the events described in these stories never occurred, and if many of the characters in the stories never existed, then should the stories simply be discarded as unworthy of our attention?

  • Instead, can we not simply regard these (discredited) stories as constituting literature, and recognize that, as literature, they may have value?

  • Is it not possible, also, that the various stories found around the world -- many of which are eerily similar in having common themes! -- can tell us something important about our species? Is it not possible to make valuable inferences about our species from these stories?

  • Granted that many of these stories contain obvious fantasy, but does not that fact also tell us something important about our species? Can we, for example, infer from that fact that humans, qua humans, have a need for fantasy?

For many of us moderns, these ancient myths not only present no problems for us, but attract us for various reasons -- for we place them into the category “literature.” Some contemporaries, however, treat some of the old stories -- those of a religious nature in particular -- as factual records rather than literature. They are seen as making factual statements about both past events and individuals living at that time.

The basis for such a stance relative to religious stories in particular is the claim that a given “record” was dictated to a scribe by a deity, and gains its veracity from that “fact.” People holding this belief are unable to provide any evidence in support of that claim; but because they are somehow able to segregate their thinking into a rational compartment and an irrational one, the fact that they accept some beliefs that lack rational support is not a problem for them (although it may have psychological implications for them).

For those of us who accept the empirical findings of scientists, such people are puzzles, anomalies. But such people do exist now, and are likely to exist into the foreseeable future. There is likely a socio-psychological explanation of this fact, such that only societal system change of the right sort would “solve” the problem (by making this sort of person change their beliefs).

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Still, the disappearance of religious myths would not necessarily involve the disappearance of other myths as well. My belief is that other myths can and should be retained -- but as literature. As, that is, stories, of which one does not ask whether they are literally “true.” For a story can have “truth-value” even though it is not truthful in the conventional sense.

The study of myths -- by, e.g., notable scholar Joseph Campbell -- has concluded that they have served a number of functions. Some are still relevant; others are not. I find it of interest, for example, that the “notorious” Edward Snowden “had grown up reading large amounts of Greek mythology and was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces [1949], which, he noted, ‘finds common threads among the stories [that] we all share.’” (Quoted in Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U. S. Surveillance State, 2014, p. 45).

Thus, one function that the old myths can serve is given individuals a sense of connection with other individuals in other societies, past and present. In addition, however, myths have and do:

  • Give one guidelines for living—including giving one examples of fictional characters (“heroes”) to emulate.

  • Give individuals a sense of identity—a sense of where they came from, and where they will go, or should try to go.

  • Help one recognize one’s smallness in the Big Picture, thereby promoting an attitude of humility.

  • Help one gain a sense of solidarity—not only with the members of one’s own society, but with people in other societies as well.

  • Help one recognize that our knowledge is far from complete—that our world still abounds in mystery, and likely always will.

  • Help give a society stability, because they may suggest a rationale underlying the society’s institutions.

  • In the past, myths provided people with explanations of why things existed, and why they were as they were. Today, however, that function is obsolete—although in the case of religious myths, many are unwilling to recognize that fact.

Today, we cannot abandon scientific thinking,. It’s unfortunate that many in our society are “stuck” in the past intellectually. Joseph Campbell once said about this:

"The moral order has to catch up with the moral necessities of actual life in time, here and now. And that is what we are not doing. The old-time religion belongs to another age, another people, another set of human values, another universe. By going back you throw yourself out of sync with history."

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On the other hand, the “secular barrenness [of Science] threatens to strip us of the healthful awe which other types of mythology engender.” Thus, we are living in an intellectual/psychological wasteland of sorts, for even if we reject the old myths for their lack of truth-value, while embracing them as having literary merit, Science’s domination of our lives -- i.e., the enlightenment that Science has provided us -- has failed to give us satisfying lives. We humans evolved with a number of different “design specifications” (see pp. 38 – 117 in my What Are Churches For?) and modern living fails to address the full complement of those “specifications.”

Does that problem have a solution? Good question!

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Al Thompson retired, in 2014-JUL, from an avionics firm in Milwaukee, WI.  He may be contacted using this email address:

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Originally published: 2014-SEP-24
Last updated 2014-SEP-24
Author: Alton C. Thompson
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