Saturday, 25 July 2009


If you know me (whether personally or simply through my posts here), you'll probably know I have a fascination with mythology. This extends beyond a mere enjoyment of the stories, into what they can tell us about the human condition, and our cultural history. But recently, I heard a wonderful quote which I'd like to share with you, as best as I can remember it:

"Mythology is a vital part of our history, and must be kept alive. But to claim that one mythology is more valid, or holds more truth than another, is arrogant and dangerous. (pause) Basically what I'm saying is that religion is bullshit."

An elegant summary if ever there was one. The speaker in this case was a man I'm coming to admire more and more - Heri Joensen, vocalist of the very excellent Faeroese folk metal band Tyr. They've always had strong pagan overtones in their music, and he is becoming less subtle and more outspoken about his distaste for religion - particularly Christianity purely due to the history of persecution in Northern Europe around the turn of the second millennium.

Thinking about this recently, I recalled a teacher I had at A-Level, in Religious Studies. A creationist (and a bloody nice bloke by the way), he objected to the term "Christian mythology", because he felt it somehow denigrated the religion. I disagreed silently at the time, unsure of my ability to marshal arguments against his position. But on reflection now, it's not a difficult case to demolish. The real question is, why on earth would Christianity not count as mythology?

Perhaps on first glance it's a little more subtle (or perhaps dull and boring would be a more honest appraisal) than most mythologies, with highlights being a rather tame collection of stories that would seem unremarkable indeed amongst the vibrant madness that one encounters in those of Egypt, Greece, India, and Scandinavia (to name but a few). But a lack of imagination does not exempt it from being mythological.

It is still, after all, a collection of stories, with symbolism and morals and magic and impossible events. There is no objective reason to place it above any other set of mythologies, and of course the impulse to do so comes simply for one's own biased regard for that one belief system. Which is why I think it is sad (however inevitable it may be) when one set of mythologies manages to all but wipe out a competing one, and I think that Christianity's triumph in Europe is one of the great cultural tragedies of history. But why did it succeed? Why did people choose to follow the teachings of the Bible over their own cultural stories?

Well of course, to get the answer to that question we need to look predominantly to the ruling class; it was they who converted first, and passed on that conversion to their people, through force, persuasion, or simply a kind of peer pressure. So the question becomes one of why those in power adopted the new faith from the south. Was it a resonance of truth and goodness they felt? Possibly, I'll not deny that. But looking at it realistically, I'd say it was more likely that the majority of them simply found it more useful, more expedient.

I don't think it is too controversial to suggest that most of those in power are there because they sought it. It is hardly a leap to also suggest that those who seek power and attain it do not cease to seek it. Is it any wonder that they chose to adopt a religion which preaches meekness, obedience, unquestioning devotion, and enforces it with fear? I'm afraid I have another quote for you, this time from a novel I read fairly recently. It's Viking: King's Man, book three of a wonderful trilogy by Tim Severin:

"...the worship of the White Christ suits men who seek to dominate others. It is not the belief of the humble, but of despots and tyrants. When a man claims he is specially selected by the White Christ, then all those who follow that religion must treat him as if they are revering the God himself... This is a contradiction of all that the God is meant to stand for, yet I have witnessed how, among rulers of men, it is the truly ruthless and the ambitious who adopt the Christian faith, then use it to suppress the dignity of their fellows."

Simply, Christianity succeeded where other mythologies failed because it was a useful tool by which men might gain and maintain power. Politics has, once again, shown itself to be a (if not the) driving force behind major cultural change. However innocent, bland and otherwise fluffy and inoffensive* a belief system might be, there will always be someone there to exploit it. That's human nature.

* Though I might note here that, despite the commendable and generally positive attitude of many of its adherents, Christianity isn't the nicest of religions once you examine the literature. No, sir.


Vincent said...

I've been thinking about the very same things, Darkwinter, but reaching a somewhat different conclusion, as you'll see from part of my latest blog post "A tumbling profusion".

Religion is a framework of symbols and metaphors, bound together in stories. It is only the most sophisticated congregations who can still count themselves as believers whilst acknowledging the mythical basis.

The sceptical / atheist / humanist viewpoints are no less mythical, in my view, basing themselves on the sovereignty of reason and science.

I'd take issue also with your interpretation of European history. In early medieval times, Christianity, a religion first popular amongst slaves and dispossessed, was adapted to power politics, supporting the claims of secular rulers to rule absolutely.

The "worship of the White Christ" only suited men who sought to dominate others because it was adapted to that purpose.

However, Christianity served the needs of the ordinary people just as any other mythology might have done.

One could construct a counterfactual history in which the Norse Gods were dominant, but would this have led to a better society? You have only to look at the way the Nazis stole that mythology, via Wagner.

Darkwinter said...

You could indeed construct such a counterfactual, but I fancy the Christian mythology with its morals of meekness and obedience and poverty were more useful to leaders and thereby more suited to the adaptation of which you spoke - a point with which I entirely agree and apologise for not making clearer in the body of my post. On this interesting tangent, I think an adaptation of the Norse religion for the purposes of pursuing power would be ultimately doomed due to the strong currents of empowerment and individuality they contain - not the things about which you want a dominated citizenry to be thinking too strongly. Of course, I could well be wrong, and even if I'm right it's beside the point.

The issue on which I will strenuously disagree with you is, of course, your characterisation of the sceptical / atheist / humanist viewpoints - they are not mythical. Myths are a collection of stories with little or no basis in fact, designed to produce a message or moral (a better definition can no doubt be found, but this is I think a fair characterisation). Their basis on the sovereignty of reason and science is rooted in our practical reliance on those things to carry out our everyday tasks. We might argue endlessly on the trustworthiness of our senses, but it does little good to apply that doubt to our everyday routine - I don't conduct tests to ensure that the floor is there before getting out of bed every morning, and nor do I think it is there simply because I believe that it is.

Science is a rigorous, self-correcting framework in which we are able to form ideas about the world around us in the most accurate way. I know I won't get anywhere arguing this point with you, but there it is. I value your comments here, as it is always refreshing and valuable to have an alternative viewpoint critiquing one's arguments. But on this point I feel we must agree to disagree. : )

Vincent said...

When I say that the sceptical etc viewpoints are mythical, I don't mean to suggest that there's a set of passed-down fairy-tales providing authority for them; at least not the kind of imaginative fairy-tales cherished by their opponents.

But I find non-rigorous, non-self-correcting beliefs amongst the sceptical camp all the same.

These beliefs themselves are based on a counterfactual: what would the world have been like if for example Christianity had not taken hold. The assumption is that the world would have been better off, and indeed will be better off, when what the outsiders call myths are acknowledged as fiction by the insiders who at present call them truth.

Or perhaps the sceptic myth is that Christianity was somehow imposed on the people from above. I would be the last person to defend Christianity myself, having never been one, even though brought up in boarding schools in which Anglican church attendance and Scripture lessons were compulsory. But also having studied medieval and renaissance history, I cannot but acknowledge that European culture was completely soaked in Christianity, not just in outward displays but in the way each European from peasant to king thought about his own life.

You were not burned at the stake for being a silent agnostic or atheist. You were burned at the stake for being an active heretic.

I have nothing against science and rational thought, but I question the motives of the sceptical / atheist / humanist axis, in seeking to destroy their declared enemy.

My tentative conclusion is that this is an unnecessary import from America, where everything has to be fought over, and agreeing to disagree is not the way they do things.

Darkwinter said...

Thanks for clarifying your position, it makes a great deal more sense now than my previous interpretation.

I agree that even the sceptic viewpoint has its myths. I don't subscribe to the counterfactual that Europe would have necessarily been a better place were it not for the triumph of Christianity, though I think there is an interesting set of discussions to be had there. I do however regard the often-violent spread of the religion to have been a great tragedy, particularly from a cultural perspective.

I think the world would be better off without religion. I am not, however, in the business of eradicating it. I wish only for people to open their eyes - and if what they see when they do so is God, or Gods, or "Energy", or whatever it is they expect to see, then so be it.

Vincent said...

Dogs like to befoul places where people walk. Alcohol can cause bad behaviour and early death. The sexual impulse gives rise to ugly things like rape and pornography. Some bacteria cause illness and death.

But it would be an intolerant killjoy who would ban pets, drinking and sex; and an ignorant person who does not know that bacteria are essential links in the ecological chain.

Can you see my analogy? We can think what we like, but it is better to understand and respect what others do; and help establish sensible controls on the harmful excesses.

Darkwinter said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your analogy, but do not subscribe to the worldview you use it to criticise. To modify it, I would desribe my endeavour as attempting to explain why dog fouling is a bad idea, the dangers of alcohol, etc.

I don't want to ban things. I want people to be educated and aware to the point that they freely choose to avoid dangerous and unnecessary practices. If they still choose to indulge, that is their right and I'll defend it to the hilt.

I must say again that I appreciate your commenting on my blog - this in particular has been an enjoyable and informative discussion.

Vincent said...

I'm glad it's been fun for you too.

To take the analogy a step further, there's hardly a need for non-pet lovers to explain why indiscriminate dog-fouling is a bad idea, for pet-lovers are not ignorant.

Religionists are the experts in seeing what's wrong with religion - the other person's of course, not their own.

But it seems to me that there are two aspects to the critique of religion & allied belief-systems (new age etc).

One is to criticise harmful side-effects. The other is to find fault with anything irrational.

The problem with declaring something irrational is that someone has to be the judge, and I would respectfully suggest that the criteria are culturally determined.

Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica applied the most rational system known to Europe in the thirteenth century - Aristotelian logic.

Clearly we have moved on since then, and religions find themselves today in a post-Darwin, post-Marx, post-Nietzsche, post Kierkegaard-and-existentialists world, with additional input from psycho-neurology and I know not what else. Plus a lot of history.

But religions are intensely conservative, defending not only their present but their past too: because in the past are to be found their main credentials.

Main credentials but not all. What keeps religion alive (and new age healing etc) is the power of imagery (myths, symbols, beliefs about the nature of reality) to provide a language for today's experience.

The religionist is constantly validating his interpretation of scripture through inner experience. Within the same congregation there may be no two views the same, but we may suppose that when the hurricane and floods devastated New Orleans, there were those who felt it was God's judgement on the wicked, just as described so often in the Old Testament.

Don't blame the religion for that. It merely gives form and justification for an already-existent prejudice - perhaps against gambling, prostitution homosexuality.

For we can see clearly that there is no consistent view even within a given Church about whether homosexuality is or is not an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. From this alone we may extrapolate that religion doesn't tell people what to think, it's a place where if they look hard enough they can find justification for almost any view.

People really do want support for their world-views. They do not want someone of an opposite viewpoint telling them how and what to think. They will flock together with birds of a feather.

You and I are no different, methinks.