Mythology and religion have long and intertwined histories.
Mythologies often provide a lot of context, flavour and examples of various ideals and consequences of thoughts, feelings and action that serve to inform our own understanding.
Religion provides the underlying principles, mythologies are the sets of stories where these principles play out. Often, the principles are laid out throughout the mythologies, so they also provide a method of delivery for the principles involved.
Throughout ages past, many wars have been fought over competing mythologies. The number of people who have died over varying interpretations of the nature of Jesus is truly staggering. Regarding principles, in terms of how they should treat their fellow men and women, what a quality life lived looks like, the ideals they should seek to embody – they are largely the same. But the accompanying mythologies differ, and due to greater concentrations of influences in ages past, wars were fought over who’s story was the ‘right’ one.
Mythology serves a very valuable role in the insight in can provide us, about ourselves, about others. It becomes hugely problematic once it takes on a dogmatic quality – ‘believe our story, or else.’ Indeed, much of the story of the human race is unfortunately defined by our petty squabbles over who’s story is the ‘right’ one, a concept which becomes further laughable once we take into account that most of these same mythologies agree about the flawed nature of man, and perhaps more importantly, the flawed nature of man’s senses and reasoning.
It would almost be funny to see such hard conclusions being arrived at with such logic, if it didn’t result in such calamity.
Due to increased concentration of influence in earlier ages – the whole ‘who’s realm, his realm’ idea (that everyone in a kingdom would follow the religion of the king), it was quite possible to mobilize large groups of people under a religious banner to further political ends. There was quite a gate-keeper system in place that thrived off a lack of education in the general public – low literacy rates and lack of access to material – these factors converged to make it much easier to direct large groups of people on nothing more than well-sounding opinion. In fact, many wars and suppression of populations occurred to help keep these factors converging for as long as the people in positions of influence who were benefiting from the system were able to.
In the 21st century it is still quite possible to do this same thing – Donald Trump was just elected President and there are some ‘religious’ teachers who manage to convince others to strap bombs to themselves and blow them up.
However, the relatively high levels of education – both the overall literacy and the wealth of knowledge we have access to, have made it more difficult to mobilize people under the banner of ‘religion’ in the same way. The same activity happens, but the agitators have to appeal to a far wider range of things in order to garner the same effect – to be effective, they have to find some bias in you to exploit.
And this is why an overly developed or relied upon mythology becomes the kiss of death for most religious traditions in the 21st century.
Stories, parables, metaphors – these are all very effective educational tools that someone who is truly teaching religion and spirituality is able to make use of to help transmit their understanding to their audience. However, if they continue to press past the point of making a point, to insist that the story is the absolute and only truth, they weaken their position due to the ease with which anyone can debunk their story if it departs from the historical record. A well-structured myth can still provide many worthy important insights into the nature of ourselves, but cannot stand up to the intense and sustained scrutiny typical of our rigorous scientific process.
Fundamentalist Christians are an excellent example of this – secular society has trouble hearing any value in the principles they exhort – which often due have great value! – because they can’t hear them outside of the sounds of ‘the world is 4 thousand years old’ or something about the dinosaurs, because some position assumed by the mythology is so far out of touch with what we now know and have verified through our scientific understanding.
Religion does not conflict with science. Myth conflicts with science. Any religion that is overly dependent on its myths, or places too strong an emphasis on them for anything other than personal development and understanding, is going to come into conflict with science, and it is this dynamic that leads many people to erroneously believe that religion is incompatible with science.
As a brief afterthought, this reminds me of the tension between alethia, or truth that reveals, and truth, as understood by the historical critical method, which is often the underpinning of scientific understanding.
Historical critical truth tends to be understood as objective, and alethia tends to be understood as more subjective – in the former, the truth of a moment revolves around who, what, where, why and how – who is saying what, in what context etc: Thomas Jefferson gave such and such a speech during the formation of the declaration of independence. He said X, Y, Z. In the latter, the truth is more what Jefferson is stirring in the hearts of men – what he is teaching them about themselves – that they do need liberty, etc….or whatever.
It is easy to see how these two understandings can come into conflict when discussing the stories and histories of religion. This is another contributor to the understanding that religion is incompatible with science.
Again, it is resolved with recognition that the personal truth is basically one’s working narrative, one’s personal mythology. It may or may not be based in fact, but the person is still bound by it – most religions offer practices to help one further develop their working understanding of the world, but it has been an unfortunate by-product of concentration of influence and interests that those practices have often become overshadowed throughout history by the clamor for the myth, and a simple, often black and white explanation for many of our experienced ‘problems.’