Religious myths

I got my hands on a copy of Keith Ward’s Is Religion Dangerous? courtesy of our local library and have been enjoying it very much.

In the introduction alone Ward takes on several myths about the study of religion that tend to be propagated by its cultured despisers:

1. “Religion” is a univocal term. Ward points out the obvious (but frequently overlooked or elided) fact that the term “religion” covers a broad array of phenomena and it’s by no means easy to identify a core of belief or practice common to everything we would identify as a religion. “Is Communism a religion? Or football? Or Scientology? How do we know what a religion is?” (p. 8). And this makes it extremely difficult to say that “religion” as such is good or bad:

There are obviously many different sorts of things that we can call ‘religion’. Since religions have existed as far back as we can trace the history of the human race, and in almost every society we know about, there are going to be as many different religions as there are human cultures. They are going to exhibit all the variety and all the various stages of development of the cultures in which they exist. That is going to make it virtually impossible to say that religion, as such, at every stage of its development and in all its varieties, is dangerous. (pp. 9-10)

2. The true nature of religion is given by its earliest examples. Early anthropological studies of religion that first took up the attempt to explain religion as a natural phenomenon made two questionable assumptions. The first was that religious beliefs were false and thus to be explained entirely in naturalistic terms. The second was that so-called primitive religion showed the “essence” of religion and that all more developed religions were ultimately reducible to this essence. Religion, the story goes, began when people attributed personalistic characteristics to the natural objects around them, giving rise to animism, the earliest form of religion. Gradually, however, these spirits were combined into a single spirit and monotheism was born. These beliefs were rooted in early humans’ attempts to make sense of and exert control over their environment. But now that we have science these beliefs have been revealed as superstitious and irrelevant.

The problem with this view, says Ward, is that there is very little evidence to support it. We simply don’t have access to the religious beliefs of early human beings, nor do we know in what order they developed. “It seems more like pure speculation without any evidence at all — a story that might appeal to us, given certain general beliefs about the universe and a generally materialist philosophical outlook” (p. 13).

3. Early people took their religious beliefs “literally.” We commonly assume that people in the past took their religious beliefs literally and only gradually do they start to think of them as symbols or metaphors. Sometimes atheists accuse more “sophisticated” religious believers of not really being religious since they recognize the role of myth, symbolism, and metaphor in religion. The implication is that real sincere religious belief means literalism.

But Ward calls into question this assumption. For starters, we simply have very little evidence about the content of the religious beliefs of “primitive” people. “We simply have no way of knowing how they interpreted their religious ideas. The truth is that we know virtually nothing about the first origins of religious belief” (p. 13). Again, the assumption that the evolution of belief starts from literalism and gradually moves to symbolism and metaphor is more a philosophical dogma than the result of empirical investigation. In fact, Ward suggests, it may well be that literalism is the late comer on the scene:

If humans have evolved, then it will be true that at some stage, many tens of thousands of years ago, human thought would have been less developed than it is now. But does that mean it would have been more literal? Perhaps literalness is a late development, and the idea that artefacts should literally be like what they represent — or even the idea of ‘literalness’ itself — is a concept that only developed when humans began to think scientifically or analytically. (p. 15)

Ward cites anthropological investigations in India where worshipers are puzzled by questions about whether the gods are “real” or whether the images “really” represent them. And linguists have long recognized that virtually all human language is metaphorical to some degree. A purely literal language about anything, much less about the divine, may well be impossible for us. “Metaphorical thinking is deeply rooted in the human mind. It may be the case that very early human thinking was more metaphorical than literal in nature” (p. 15).

4. It is inauthentic for religion to develop. This myth can take religious or anti-religious forms. The atheist may point to later, more sophisticated forms of religion as not reflecting the “real” nature of the faith. This is often an attempt to catch the “moderate” believer on the horns of a dilemma: either you’re a fundamentalist or you’re not a genuine believer. Ironically, the same argument can be made by fundamentalists of all stripes; the “faith once delivered” is taken to be a set of timeless truths that can never change, and any re-thinking of previous expressions of the faith is tantamount to apostasy.

Ward’s contention is that one of the positive fruits of the scientific study of religion has been the realization that religions do develop and that later forms aren’t necessarily inauthentic expressions of the faith. Since religious ideas are ways of trying to give expression to a reality that is “beyond all images” they naturally become more or less effective over time. That doesn’t mean they have no basis in objective reality, but that they can never perfectly depict it and are therefore subject to critique and revision. “Once we escape the delusion that [religion’s] earliest stage provides its real essence, we will be able to see that it is a continually developing set of diverse traditions” (p. 20).

5. Religious belief is primarily aimed at explanation. One common atheistic argument, related to a particular story about how religion developed, assumes that religious belief is primarily about explaining why things happen, a kind of proto-science. But once science with its superior explanatory power comes along, the “God hypothesis” is rendered unnecessary.

This may be a powerful argument against, say, 18th-century deism, but it’s not particularly convincing as an argument against religious belief as such. It’s not at all obvious that religious people either today, or historically, believe in God primarily as some kind of explanatory hypothesis. For instance, it’s been a commonplace of biblical scholarship for some time that the ancient Israelites first became aware of Yahweh through the powerful experience of deliverance from Egypt and only later did his role as universal creator become apparent to them. They didn’t propose the existence of God as a hypothesis to explain creation; rather through their awareness of his power and loving-kindness it became obvious that he must also be the Lord of all creation.

As Ward says, “if we look at present religious beliefs, they are not only, or even mainly, used to explain why things happen. They are used to console, inspire and motivate, but not to explain” (p. 17):

It looks as if the roots of religious belief do not lie in attempts to explain why things happen. If we ask intelligent modern believers where the roots of their belief lie, many different sorts of answers would be given, but rarely that their beliefs explain why things happen. One answer, and I think it is a very important one, would refer to experiences of a transcendent power and value, of greater significance and moral power than anything human. The metaphors of religious speech — metaphors of ‘dazzling darkness’ or ‘personal presence’ — are inadequate attempts to express such experiences of transcendence. Why should it ever have been different? For all we know, early religion could have originated in experiences of a transcendent spiritual reality, especially in the vivid experiences, sometimes in dreams and visions, of shamans or holy men and women. (pp. 17-18)

I’m sure Ward wouldn’t deny that religious belief can sometimes play the role of explanation, but more often than not this isn’t to explain particular phenomena, but to offer more “global” sorts of explanations. For instance, Leibniz’s question Why is there something rather than nothing? may not demand the existence of a god, but it can point to or suggest it. Likewise, the question Why the universe has the particular order it does, one that seems “fine-tuned” to give rise to intelligent personal life. The existence of a personal God can make sense of these global phenomena that appear to be beyond the reach of scientific explanation.

Ward’s point in discussing these myths is that any study of religion that proposes to evaluate whether it is on the whole and all things considered a good or bad thing needs to look at it in all its complexity and as it is actually lived. Too often critics of “religion” are attacking what is essentially a straw man or an ideological construct.


9 thoughts on “Religious myths

  1. Camassia

    Sounds like an interesting book. The point about literalism reminds me of a quote about art on Eve Tushnet’s blog a little while ago, pointing out that it actually takes a lot of training to be able to draw what’s “literally” in front of you. When children draw things, they naturally draw a mixture of the literal reality and their emotional relationship to it (more important things are bigger, background details disappear, etc.). And if you look at the history of painting, for instance, it started out pretty fantastical and only in the last few centuries (and mainly in the West) did it go for photographic realism. It does challenge the idea that literal/concrete is the more “primitive” state of mind.

    On the other hand, I’ve never been 100% satisfied with the “that question has no meaning to premoderns” answer to whether non-Western peoples think gods are real. It makes it sound almost like they don’t distinguish between reality and make-believe, and that can’t be right.

  2. Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    A number of years ago, I was in India visiting a friend who was there studying some aspect of Hinduism for his PhD. As he told me the Hindu stories about Ganesh and Krishna and so on, I asked him if Hindus take these stories to be historical in the same way Christians take the stories about Jesus to be historical. He told me they do, but I have a really hard time believing that.

    Similarly, you often read the in Ancient Greece the common people believed the mythology in a literal way, but the philsophers knew that it was only mythological.

    But maybe it’s just that only the intellectuals bother to expound on such things. Who knows what the common people think? The relationship of faith to stories is complicated, and I think it’s likely that most people just don’t worry about it. They have access to the deeper aspects of religion through the symbols, and so it doesn’t matter how literal the stories are or aren’t.

  3. I share Camassia’s dissatisfaction with the claim that premoderns don’t worry about the reality of the divine. It seems obvious that they must – after all, as Andy points out, it’s not like skepticism and atheism were unknown in the premodern world, so someone clearly thought that religion involved truth-claims.

    The issue about the relationship between religious truths and historical narratives doesn’t seem to me to admit of a straightforward answer. As C.S. Lewis said in a quote I posted a few days back, there are some stories in the Bible where is just doesn’t seem to particularly matter if they’re historical or not (Jonah and Job come to mind). On the other hand, it just as clearly does matter that at least some of the stories of Jesus are historical. Christianity couldn’t abandon its historical core without changing pretty radically as a religion.

    I’m not sure if the same applies to other religions – does it matter to Buddhists if there really was a Buddha who did the things attirbuted to him? Does the Bhagavad-Gita lose it’s religious value if it’s not historical? I can imagine adherents of those religions offering different answers.

    It might also be helpful to distinguish between historicity and literalness. We can and do use non-literal language to refer to actual historical events. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry use symbolic language to describe historical events (such as Jesus’ baptism, the Transfiguration), in a way that seems to imply that there really was something happening “back then” even if only highly symbolic language can describe it (e.g. did the Holy Spirit “really” descend in the form of a dove?).

  4. Pingback: Is Religion Dangerous? - Redux « Eating Words

  5. RE: “did the Holy Spirit ‘really’ descend in the form of a dove?”

    I can’t help thinking about Luther’s tongue-in-cheek announcement of relics to which included “two feathers and an egg from the Holy Spirit.”

  6. Lately, there has been a renewed focus on the claim that monotheistic, Abraham religions are and were especially violent and intolerant as compared with polytheistic or other pagan religions.

    We have been hearing this since the englightenment.

    It matters, who writes the histories.

  7. from an article on, part of an argument why a Belief in God is not essential to being religous,

    “Central to faith communities’ cohesion around worship and broader practice is religious language. And unlike the language of science and politics, the purpose of religious language is to mythologize, to offer those who speak it a connection, at the most basic level, to the “eternal” cycle of new beginnings. This is where both the fundamentalist and the atheist get it wrong. A Christian fundamentalist reads the book of Genesis and says, “It says here the world was created in six days, so it must be true.” The fundamentalist, attempting to speak scientifically, commits the grave intellectual error of proof-texting inside the selfsame text. The atheist reads the book of Genesis and says “It says here the world was created in six days. Only a fool would believe this nonsense.” Refusing to admit that the scripture may hold some greater metaphorical truth, like the fundamentalist, the atheist can only read Genesis one way—as a misguided historical account of the beginning of time.

    But fundamentalist believers and non-believers alike would do well to remember that Genesis is not about belief at all. It’s a mythic vision that relates an encounter with the majesty and wonder of the world. It also has to deal with human suffering and temptation, and like any good myth, uses a foil, a trickster by way of a serpent, to explain the sins of humanity. ”

    to read the rest of this article:

  8. matthew edem

    religious myths are bound to exist because the prophets described how they saw god from their own perspctive so as bring about an harmonios co-existence with the people under this divine jurisprudence

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