It's Not Nice To Criticize People's Myths


Editorials slamming “new atheism” as “strident,” “tedious,” “uninformed,” or the kicker, “fundamentalist” crop up every week like new mushrooms sprouting on cow dung after a rain. They dish out the same false claims, straw men and ad hominem attacks against high-profile atheist intellectuals, and get thrashed for it every time on the same grounds by other atheist writers. Then there’s the variant that promotes accommodation of believers, expressing concern that we are too harsh, we need to woo people with honey rather than vinegar. It’s just good “marketing,” you understand.

Most of the time I don’t comment on these stories, it’s just too repetitive. If we’re turning people off, then believers should be all-too-happy to see us fall on our faces and commit rhetorical suicide.

In this case, it’s Hitchens’ new film that’s being targeted. Instead of engaging with the debate, Ottawa Citizen editorial page editor Leonard Stern tries to act as if he’s above it all, explaining to Hitchens how childish it is to discuss the claims religions are actually making.

My favorite trope, which Stern plows like a familiar rut, is the “literal-mythological” dichotomy. It involves the comparison that while some fundamentalists take the patently absurd stories they read in the bible literally, atheists are guilty of the same thing when they mock them. “No one really believes those absurdities anyway, so mocking them proves nothing.” Or–they do in fact believe absurd stories, but it doesn’t matter because we are ignoring the true (and far more complex) purpose, function and dynamic of how religion is “actually lived.”

Wilson really believes, for example, that Noah crammed all those animals on a single boat. I wonder how many times Hitchens has patiently crunched the numbers for his pal, calculating the mass of the animals in order to show that Noah’s task was an engineering impossibility.

The problem with this pedantic brand of atheism is that it conceives of religion in very narrow terms. Religion is ridiculous for Hitchens because, in his view, it means that you necessarily believe that Eve was made from Adam’s rib. No disrespect to pastor Wilson, but this ignores the reality of how religion is actually lived.

Hitchens is pedantic, and a nerd to boot. Welllll…..Really?? It’s not important that they believe that stuff? It’s not important that otherwise sensible people go to church and take communion, in which they pretend that a cracker and some wine becomes the literal body and blood of a person who may have never existed, but even if he did he’s been dead for two millenia. This is far stronger than a belief, it’s action. And to prove how seriously they take it, try walking out of a Catholic church sometime with the “host,” and see the kind of death threats you get. Or desecrate a “host” and post the picture on the web. Two thousand comments later you might start to understand how strongly they really do believe in the very absurdities we are talking about, and how much a myth can very much affect real life. If myths are so beneficial and not harmful to society, shouldn’t host-desecration cause a lesser offense than constitutionally protected flag-burning?

A different sect of so-called moderates want to see their children full-immersion baptized even though it would be patently absurd to think going swimming in a special pool gets you anything other than wet. But they consider this some sort of conditioning that–notwithstanding hair dryers–makes it impossible for their kids to later renounce their faith. For the record, I’d call it a form of hypnotic shock induction to reinforce childhood indoctrination and prevent defections. But that’s just me.

So it’s ritual, then. Humans have performed rituals for all sorts of nonsensical reasons throughout history. Believe it or not, I’m OK with that so long as no one gets hurt. Most of what we humans do has very little concrete purpose, so if doing a rain dance makes you feel better about yourself, or gives you a sense of control over your crops, I’m fine with that. I’m even fine with people being baptized or taking communion. I’m fine with chanting, I’m fine with people sitting around thinking positive (or negative) thoughts. I’m fine with rituals involving talking to the dead (as long as you don’t pretend they talk back).

And this is the point. Rituals can’t hurt anyone unless they are claimed to be something beyond the symbolic. And that’s where the problem comes in: they nearly always *are*. No one wants to think their rituals are meaningless. People think chanting changes the world. They think their positive thoughts affect matter. There’s no end of absurd claims people make about their wishing and willing. When one group makes such concrete claims, then expects others to accept it literally, it becomes a problem. What they are really asking non-believers to do is to grant unearned respect for their sheer earnestness–even if the end result is opaque or useless.

It’s galling to me that religions claim to offer people objectively valuable purpose and meaning, yet thousands of them perform different and often conflicting rituals. If there was really a God watching up in the sky–he could only see these as billions of thoughts and sentiments blended into a haze of vague desiring and begging for “something more.” I think any God worthy of the name would find it all rather amusing: “Children, children, be of good cheer, I regret to inform you I can’t prevent you all from dying some day, so in the meantime–do your homework, love each other and your planet, and eat your vegetables.”

Stern continues:

I’ve known many devout people from a variety of faith communities. They are religious in the sense they believe there is purpose and meaning to the universe. They believe in a creator — an infinite presence that our finite minds cannot comprehend but know is there. They believe it’s important to feed the poor and help the sick not just because it alleviates human suffering but because doing so contributes in some inchoate way to the cosmic order.

Vague, vague–piles and heaps of vague. I love the use of the word inchoate. Talk about about an intellectual surrender! We see the next fallback position of the confused apologist is to say that it’s really not about belief anyway, but about action, “how you live.” This is just a bastardized version of humanism (but to them, humanism’s “not good enough.”) We humanists feel that how we treat each other and the kind of world we make has ultimate value because it’s all we have and all we will ever have. The apologist distorts this to say that treating others with kindness could only have meaning if it pleased the Almighty, “contributed in some inchoate (ill-formed and incomplete) way to the cosmic order,” and upped our chances at immortality. That’s just naive Pascal’s Wager tripe anyway.

The humanist makes the greater contribution, because she does it without the expectation of any other reward than feeling good. The only ‘cosmic order’ of any consequence to humanity comes through the promotion of human unity and the alleviation of suffering.

The point here is that moderate religion stripped of the hierarchy, belief, and ritual is at its core humanism. It came from naturally evolved morality, which is based on reciprocity and empathy. And that’s the stuff we all strive for, strive to become better at, strive to express in ever more powerful world-changing ways. Or we should. The problem is that any religion that is based on the reification of myths is bound to drain resources, talent and time from accomplishing things in the here and now. It’s bound to be less agile at responding to the changing circumstances of life, since it’s based on stories that have remained the same for hundreds of generations.

Believers are taking up a large portion of their brain power running an overlay simulation that they attempt to blend seamlessly with the natural, observable world. In this sense the myths become very important to them because without them the simulation collapses. Without the attendant grandeur and promise of eternal life, finding motivation or purpose becomes, well, what it really should be, a personal, interior journey.

And what of the myths themselves? There are good ones and bad ones. Believing in stories that are absurd and impossible cannot be good for anyone. Look at the damage the idea of original sin and the virgin birth does. It turns ordinary “good” Catholics into crazy deranged people blocking access to birth control and abortion services and ensuring the spread of the deadly plague of HIV around the world. How much suffering can be laid at the feet of this one despicable idea?

Sure there are positive metaphors and lessons in myth: renewal, sacrifice, loyalty, betrayal, superhuman strength, conflict, or intelligence. But we have to evaluate each one. Is it a good myth? Or does it promote the same old pathologies of abuse of hierarchy or authority. Does it help people see things as they are? Or will it confuse them further?

Stern seems to think it doesn’t matter–that even false histories can have value:

The Canadian theologian Rabbi Gunther Plaut talks about how American tradition mythologized the frontiersmen, presenting them as enterprising pioneers and courageous adventurers. The truth, of course, is that many pioneers, having failed in the east, had no place to go but west, and were motivated as much by a desire to get rich as anything else. "But Americans have preferred to see their past in an idealized light, (emphasis added) and their admiration of the value of personal independence and frontier virtues has itself shaped the psychology of the nation." In the same way, says Plaut, Biblical narratives "mirror the collective memory of our ancestors, and in the course of centuries this record became a source of truth," incorporated into "the consciousness of the people."

“Preferred to see their past…” But what is the value of ‘truth’ that’s not true? And if we accept a historical error of our collective memory as truth, is it not corrupting? Stern tries to assert the value of biblical stories that are not literally true by bringing up false perceptions about frontiersmen. I think he’s arguing against himself. Romantic notions of history blunt the real lessons of that history. If we have a rose-colored view, it’s just as bad as a blinkered one. Let’s just take off the rose-colored glasses altogether and see things for what they are. That includes Bible stories and other myths. Let’s ask whether the story we’re reading makes a point of value measured against modern, universal, inclusive human ethics.

Stories that directly conflict with science are the most corrosive, and so should be out at square one. Tossed, kaput. That means “creation,” the talking ass, the virgin birth, water into wine, the Eucharist, the Resurrection, and all the rest. Myths are only valuable inasmuch as they provide a supportable moral lesson, cautionary tale, or inspiration. Many things about the great American explorers were laudable. But that doesn’t mean some of them weren’t also deeply flawed. Since when did their ambition to get rich become a moral failing on its own? Doesn’t it matter more *how* the explorers’ fortunes were made? And whether they treated the native peoples ethically? Those are the questions we should be asking, because they require greater nuance. The answers can be brought to bear on how we should behave as we explore our own frontiers today.

In the end, this is not a battle between religion and atheism, nor even between literalism and metaphor. It’s a battle between glossing over unpleasant truths and facing them. For humans, these truths are the inevitability of death, and the competitiveness and rapaciousness of our untempered nature. In the face of these, religion and its apologists have made a cowardly stand for pleasant but corrupting stories that hold us back. Why can’t we simply find the courage to face the truth of our history and existence? I don’t care how many times people say “that’s not nice.” It’s a stage we’re going to have to get through if we want to slog our way forward.

Comments (22 comments)

Burk / November 9th, 2009, 1:39 am / #1

Hi, Sean-

RIght-on. But understanding what is going on is worthwhile as well. These stories are not just theories that people have like atomic physics. They are stories of meaning, of which we really have to have some kind in some form. What gives out personal lives meaning? Attacking religion, doing science? Making money? Screwing people in the courtroom? Going to church? Watching Star wars movies? Matrix movies?

While it is nice to stake one's meaning on true premises, many people don't, and when their premises are questioned or shown to be false, they will take it personally, even be "deeply" offended. Religion has invaded people's meaning via an intense natural selection process, deploying every artistic medium available- sculpture, poetry, singing, dancing … you name it, religion has harnessed it into an hypnotic gumbo.

You know all that, but the kicker is that any personal myth is going to have arbitrary aspects to it- values that are not rational or premised on "truth", but simply a matter of taste and desire. And of all the values, truth is an important one, but not the highest. How many times do we lie or dissemble in order to serve higher values such as life itself or social peace?

It is clear that new atheists have an implicit feel for these boundaries. We don't advocate killing theists or even killing a-apostates who fall off the atheist bandwagon(!). (Sam Harris might be an occasional exception.) Or even making people believe anything they don't want to believe- all we are for is the free and public discussion that inevitably shows that religions are nutty to the core, to anyone who cares to truly pay attention. So we should recognize that and say that we don't aim to destabilize people who are happy with their settled way of life and thinking (which would be a bit mean), but only to take on those pastors, theologians, politicians, "philosophers", evangelists, and other public defenders of the indefensible in an honest and deep discussion, which will inevitably pervade the wider culture.

Sorry to ramble!

BlackSun / November 9th, 2009, 6:33 pm / #2

I get your point about meaning. But you don't see Matrix or Star Wars fans getting so bent out of shape. No one could give two craps about if someone desecrated photos of Yoda or Neo. People know it's make-believe. That's the all-important difference.

Some of the other things you mention like science and making money are "meaning neutral." They're a vital pursuit, for sure. But money means nothing unless you suddenly find you don't have enough of it. Science means little to non-scientists if they refuse to use it to inform their political and moral decisions.

The key is to realize that life itself has only subjective value. Most people have only a handful of others who would care if they died. And all of us would perish without so much as a trace if our Sun decided to burp out a flare in the right direction or explode.

We feel it's all so important. But like the song says "Learning that we're only immortal, for a limited time." (Dreamline, Rush, 1989)

I'm not sure I'm OK with people who are "settled" in their way of life. Look at all the damage such unconsciousness is causing. I wouldn't want to hurt them in any way. But shake them up? Definitely.

Craig / November 9th, 2009, 2:00 am / #3

Methinks Mr Stern might never have read Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth" or seen the excellent interview series with Bill Moyers on which it was based……

BlackSun / November 9th, 2009, 6:49 pm / #4

Joseph Campbell = brilliant. He was probably the most cogent explorer of the phenomenon who ever lived.

BlackSun / November 9th, 2009, 6:22 pm / #6

Haha! Now, Clint, my question here is, are you insulting Catholics or Hindus?

ClintJCL / November 9th, 2009, 6:24 pm / #7

I'm not sure why that would insult Hindus, but I'm always happy to expand my demographic of insulted persons.

BlackSun / November 9th, 2009, 6:50 pm / #8

You could have been pretending to turn the wafers into a Bindi.

ClintJCL / November 9th, 2009, 6:52 pm / #9

Oh. Duh! I didn't even think of that, and I should. Honestly, I don't know anything about Bindi. I thought the dot was a cultural thing, not a religious thing. Like nose piercings here :)

BlackSun / November 10th, 2009, 5:22 am / #10

Shermer's always been a bit of an accommodationist, though he's otherwise smart as hell.

If we ever so much as walked a neighborhood knocking on doors like so many religious people do, they might have a point. But all we're doing is going about our lives peacefully, writing, voting, gathering in small groups, speaking publicly, and maybe a little advertising.

This in a country where churches are still used as polling places. I just don't get the outrage. They've had a monopoly on the debate and American way of life for centuries.

Liquid Egg Product / November 11th, 2009, 4:28 am / #11

Yeah, but have you seen one of those really swank cathedrals or mosques? Just looking at those makes religion worth it right there…

BlackSun / November 14th, 2009, 9:04 pm / #12

Ha ha, always a funny take on things.

Amaterasu / November 15th, 2009, 8:28 am / #13

LEP, yeh, they would also make nice museums one day, and venues for parties. I know of a Church, "St Pauls" that was converted in to nightclub. Not sure it made as much $$$ as it did when it was a Holy Place of Worship and Tit$$thing though.

Liquid Egg Product / November 17th, 2009, 4:07 pm / #14

@Black Sun: Politics, religion, and sports are naturally humorless subjects which need an artificial infusion of humor from time or time.

@Amaterasu: LOL. Ah, yes, tithing. If only the people tithing to the likes of Benny Hinn would instead spend it on food and clothing for the poor instead. While Hinn would have to downgrade to a smaller mansion, I'm pretty sure Jesus would approve.

ben / November 12th, 2009, 3:20 pm / #15

Hey Sean did you catch Obama mention non believers at his adress after the Ft. Hood tragedy

BlackSun / November 14th, 2009, 2:03 pm / #16

Yes, fantastic!

You Made Me Say It! » Blog Archive » Humanist Symposium #46 / November 29th, 2009, 6:24 am / #17

[…] Sun Journal – It’s Not Nice To Criticize People’s Myths The point here is that moderate religion stripped of the hierarchy, belief, and ritual is at its […] / December 5th, 2009, 11:23 am / #18

Very good concept, I like how you convey the msg.

felixkrull77 / December 9th, 2009, 2:41 am / #19

Sing from the rooftops:

Atheism is dead!

Duff McDuffee / February 11th, 2010, 1:01 am / #20

In the end, this is not a battle between religion and atheism, nor even between literalism and metaphor. It’s a battle between glossing over unpleasant truths and facing them. For humans, these truths are the inevitability of death, and the competitiveness and rapaciousness of our untempered nature.

I've found many religious people of various persuasions that would argue this same thing. I tend to think of myself as a Buddhist and I very much agree. Ironically, many religious fictions are about this very subject.

I agree that we should be very clear in our thinking, and fully acknowledge that religious stories and rituals are fictions, and account as best we can for the harm done. But once we do that, then what?

Then we attempt to make sense of the world again, and we do so with stories, music, movies, literature, etc. that hopefully also integrate the best stories (backed by rigorous methods and testing) that science offers.

Yet science changes so rapidly and has so many branches the task of making sense of everything and putting our knowledge together in a coherent narrative is enormous, if not impossible. It may be a basic human need to make sense of one's life and role in society–without which we face tremendous alienation and existential anxiety. The simplified stories of religions, while they have their drawbacks for sure, are pretty decent stories with some relatively universal themes. While they are certainly in need of updating and reinterpreting, the underlying themes can be seen again and again (for example the redemption in the apocalyptic Singularity of Ray Kurzweil).

While some may be able to peer into the void without collapsing, for others this task is too great. When we critique the myths of our traditions, we must face that void somehow.

BlackSun / February 11th, 2010, 1:24 am / #21

True, true. Can't disagree with the human need for answers. I just don't think we should make them up.

I don't find the Singularity apocalyptic, but hopeful. Some people find similarities there to mythology. But I don't think Kurzweil meant it that way. At least in his mind, he's extrapolating trends with some pretty good evidence to back them up. Whether it happens like he says is an open question. There's always unintended consequences of anything new we humans do.

I'm all for every form of entertainment. When you get to reality, though, I think we can just face the void and leave it at that, if we so choose. I think that's the best option.

Duff McDuffee / February 11th, 2010, 1:59 am / #22

Apocalypse is hopeful for the saved, in this case those who live long enough and can upload into the network. In fact I've been thinking of starting a blog called Hopeful Apocalypse (or maybe a band–good band name) that would compare and contrast myths of end times including the Singularity. I know that Kurzweil has lots of data to back up his theory, but it strikes me as a conclusion that could only come from someone obsessed with Moore's law. You'd be hard-pressed to find an economist that would take Kurzweil's predictions (beyond a few years) very seriously.

I think we can and should face the void, but I don't think we actually can leave it at that–not if we use words, think about the future, or even do science. We have to have models and myths to function in the world, but we certainly can be more evidence-based and less dogmatic about those reality constructions.

Post a comment

Comments are closed for this post.