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.