Secular Mythology

Marc Schaus

What do you think of when you hear the word mythology?

Many of us tend to picture a culture’s “mythology” as a collection of stories and personal narratives particular to that social group and their way of life—usually with the most popular and enduring myths of each culture intending to explain key features of social life, the environment, and the roles of our species within it. Or, as famed mythologist Joseph Campbell once wrote in his 1988 classic, The Power of Myth: Our collective stories are often forged to help create identities. Identities for ourselves, for our immediate social group, and for the cosmos at large.

Because people have been “mythologizing” for all of human history, however, we now have a lengthy list of competing identities staking various claims on the truth for everyone. And as most of these claims have eroded under the real knowledge we do gain, we in the year 2018 now tend to associate the word mythology with fantasy. Which is to say: we now understand that imaginative, culturally relative myths are as fake as they are ubiquitous throughout history.

For the people who first heard about and believed in the legendary sky- and thunder-god Zeus—hurling thunderbolts down to Earth from his throne perched high near the peak of Mount Olympus—such a realization was not so obvious. Sure, people of each time period have tended to view all other belief systems as fake, because that’s just how mythology goes. While a group’s stories are still being actively believed, mythologies are more aptly called “religions” early on in their ideological timeline.

Individuals still endorsing active mythologies today—these would be our major international religious faiths—naturally do not enjoy viewing their beliefs as fanciful folklore on the same level as past civilizations. I can’t blame them; neither would I. Yet that also brings me to the curious line of thinking I’ve been falling into lately as a secular humanist. Just as all other cultures throughout history have not taken to the prospect that they’re believing in fake forces and empirically overruled concepts, we nonbelievers also tend to believe that our chosen narrative is not simply the mythology du jour. But is there, in fact, a “secular mythology”?

Religious nonbelief and secular value systems have often been dubbed “superstitionless” worldviews, in that they are constantly in flux relative to what the scientific method can verify empirically. This condition, we often believe, disqualifies the tag of mythology because mythologies are simply made-up stories, while our latter views are based on real evidence. And evidence-faith versus straight-up faith-faith seems like an easy dichotomy to separate the two.

Now, if nonreligious worldviews were being based purely on the above dynamic, it would be great. But I have not often found this to be the case in pro-secular media. Yes, a scientific narrative for reality reflects the latest and greatest findings of groups of experts in a variety of fields. Which, yes, is certainly the way it ought to be. Endorsing empirical science for our understanding is ultimately self-correcting over time, and that’s the best we can do. However, our methodology is based on proving things that can potentially be shown to be false. Hence even if we do cater to a version of reality that can be considered the “most true” at any point in time, this also implies that even today’s best theories may turn out to be thoroughly erroneous. So when I sometimes see fellow nonbelievers reacting with a religious fervor to newer research results, this can begin to assume that traditional faith dynamic without the accompanying skepticism and context. And theists realize that. They recognize the thin conceptual line between defending a deity with fewer and fewer discernible characteristics and the potential that you may be embarrassingly red in the face defending our next phrenology or phlogiston.

More importantly, though, and as noted, we also know that mythologies tend to craft a specific narrative (or identity, if you will) of what any given culture tends to value. For many of us living the secular life in the twenty-first century, that means celebrating the heroes who reflect the values predicating this specific culture. Usually, in our case, our heroes are scientists, artists, and civil rights visionaries who have advanced such values as the freedom of speech, self-reliance, sexual emancipation, gender equality, faith in the scientific method, and a resistance to arbitrary authority. One kind of secular mythology, then, reflects the distance between the facts and our hero stories.

Myth #1: Scientific Martyrdom Is Plentiful throughout History.

Take scientific martyr Giordano Bruno, for example. Were one to watch only Bruno’s story in the Cosmos episode where Neil DeGrasse Tyson describes his jailing and torture, we’d really have half the story. In this example, Cosmos implies to us that Bruno only wanted to read about and understand the universe—with a shadowy, evil Pope figure sneaking up on him and going all thought-police to stop that dangerous learning. We viewers only really hear about the charge against Bruno of asserting other worlds in the Copernican sense. In reality, though, Bruno’s conviction also rested upon his more incredible assertions of the Virgin Mary not actually being a virgin and that Jesus was not actually the “Son of God” (more of a wizard, in Bruno’s view). And that does change the context a little: shifting Bruno’s character slightly from detached rationalist and untainted hero of science, with the Church shifting less into easily identifiable villain status.

Or we might consider stories that we’ve heard about Galileo. Tales abound in pro-secular literature of Galileo being ruthlessly imprisoned and tortured for advocating a Copernican view of the cosmos. Despite research potentially indicating that Galileo may have been neither sent to jail nor tortured, although he was certainly still at least threatened with both (see Ronald Numbers’s 2009 Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion). Of course, my point is not to denigrate Galileo or his incredible achievements in furthering our species’ self-understanding. The point is just that history told by folks who would like to believe in scientific martyrs may be replete with tales of misunderstood hyper-rationalist champions fighting to free us from the limits of religious bondage.

The more sordid underbelly of our scientific past is one rarely mentioned in literature of our kind. We do not often hear about the decidedly nonprogressive attitudes many of our scientific champions may have had living within the context of their own time. We typically don’t discuss Carl Linnaeus, original developer of the taxonomy system still in use today (species, genus, family, etc.), for his view of different races being separate species, complete with a separate species for children born with disabilities labeled “Monstrosus.” Or James Watson, codiscoverer of the DNA double-helix, for his consistent racial commentary about the inherent deficiencies of African intelligence. To say nothing of how mythologized Watson and Crick’s story already was in the absence of Rosalind Franklin—and every other scientist solitarily celebrated without acknowledging any of the help he or she received from collaborators. We typically do not discuss American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, historical source of the phrase “all men are created equal,” for his slave ownership, which continued even after the Revolutionary War. Selective telling of their stories, like others from our intellectual history, sometimes reflect less a telling of history and more a tone of taking the moral high ground in a custody battle for the truth.

Myth #2: There Are No Leaps of Faith in Science.

We also do not typically discuss the leaps of faith that proposers of new ideas have needed to take in their own respects relative to what they could verify. We now have a long list of decorated scientists who needed to invoke the handy influence of God to complete their theories (Newton, Hyugens, and more). But aside from history, we would do well to keep in mind that some of our more speculative theories today still lack empirical evidence—take string theory or multiverse theories, evidence for both of which lies absent outside of abstract mathematics—or that quarks somehow constitute the most fundamental form of matter despite an absence of generally falsifiable results.

Myth #3: Giving Up the Shackles of Religion Will Instantly Bring Us Social Paradise.

Mythologies usually come complete with tales instructing us to give up our sinful ways if we hope to experience social paradise. And for anyone who has been reading the New Atheist literature, you are likely familiar with the appeal against faith for the sake of human progress. Or maybe the argument that holding religious convictions merely embroils our social groups in endless wars over unprovable assertions. Or the one that, because religious values are often very conservative, religions stunt our progress by their very virtue of being nonprogressive in definition. Or that they do even worse, by historically (and sometimes even violently) repressing scientific research if it is not favorable.

We certainly do have historical evidence of officials from religious organizations repressing new ideas for religious reasons. The mythology lies in selectively blaming one source and implying that ceasing it will stop the process. Because while we do have evidence of church officials repressing new ideas, a reading of Thomas Kuhn reminds us that even celebrated scientists can repress research when it is not favorable to a generational zeitgeist. One may look no further than the early, entirely scientific denials of atomic theory, big bang cosmology, and today’s climate change denialism based undoubtedly upon financial rewards.

There are additional mythologies here—both that all “religious wars” were actually being started over religious ideas and that abandoning the supernatural source will stop the process. People have, and will find, many reasons to rationalize violence besides religious faith. Indeed, a growing lobby of scholars tells us that history’s religious wars have not always been waged over religious ideas by those giving the commands to fight. By which I mean to say: wars supposedly waged over religious concepts have sometimes more realistically been resource and commerce wars at heart, no matter how they were later propagandized to (and rationalized by) citizens and soldiers. I mean, yes: aggressive attackers having one less insane rationale to justify killing others would be great. But it’s far from the only one available, and our literature can be reticent to mention that.

Lastly, I have read many pro-secular books over the past ten years envisioning a paradisiac future for our species should we simply just finally give up our religious bondage. But we have very little historical evidence of substantial religious decline and then subsequent social progress thereafter. Instead, what we do have plenty of evidence for is that as social groups seem to progress along a matrix of socioeconomic values (education, standard of living, strength of law, power of democratic institutions, and the like), they become less likely to be conservatively and supernaturally religious. The numbers tell us that rather than a group giving up religion and its people being better off thereafter, people tend to get better off first, then give up religion because it seems less necessary.

Although I suppose, at the very least, that even if pro-secular literature may sometimes be off-base on that last point, discovering the converse is still pretty good.

Marc Schaus

Marc Schaus is a debut Canadian author who has recently published his first book on the rise of secularism and religious nonbelief around the world. Marc has previously completed research in neuroscience labs mapping out neural networks in the brain—and has also appeared in digital print on Patheos and The Huffington Post. His primary research focus, now, is how the transition from belief to nonbelief “works” in the human brain and why twenty-first–century life is creating a cognitive advantage for secular, so-called superstitionless belief systems. His latest book, Post Secular: Science, Humanism and the Future of Faith was published this year.

What do you think of when you hear the word mythology? Many of us tend to picture a culture’s “mythology” as a collection of stories and personal narratives particular to that social group and their way of life—usually with the most popular and enduring myths of each culture intending to explain key features of social life, …

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