December 2004

The Logic of Myth

The Buddha told the story of the blind men and the elephant. The men, each assigned a different part of the elephant, could not agree on the nature of the beast. Yet we know that the elephant was a combination of all of the things that each man experienced. Because the term “myth” means so many things to different people, in discussions of it we need to establish some kind of common bond, but also to expect and accept that you will have points of disagreement with what I say tonight. What we try to do in the study of myth is to gain access to the whole elephant, to see that the elephant is not A, not B, and not C, but all of those things–and that is sometimes hard to realize, because we use culture-bound ways of seeing things.

Myth means many things to many people, but the meaning I will assign to it this evening is, “a narrative of importance to an entire culture.” The terms myth and culture can generally be used interchangeably if we modify that definition a bit to read, “deeply held ideas of importance to an entire culture.” Culture is (to use Edward T. Hall’s phrase) out of awareness–it is so completely ingrained in us from our childhood that the particular patterns that we live by are not available to us for rational examination. We do not necessarily understand that we are operating under rules that we know deeply in our bones, but we often get upset, without knowing why, when these cultural rules are violated.

We can know things in only three ways: from direct experience, from vicarious experience (what others tell us and what we read), and from ideation. (Just for reference, we might say that the experiential part is Aristotelian and the ideational part is Platonic.) Everything we are capable of thinking about, from myth to logic, comes from the same well. The center of human experience–what differentiates us from other animals–is nothing practical; not any technique nor any knowledge about how to stay alive, but (I believe) our ability to be bowled over by realizing that we are but a small part of a world that is immeasurably bigger than we are. This idea is not my invention; Joseph Campbell reiterated it in all his writings, especially as he grew older.

The mystery of being is experienced in awe at our recognition of our personal tiny-ness in the vastness of the universe. Because such experience is humbling, it is spiritual, and our recognition of it is a form of worship–that is, of “worth-ship.” Direct and vicarious experience teaches us that sooner or later, inevitably, we are going to feel pain and to suffer and to die. Myths are told as a way of placing our awareness of our individual suffering and mortality in that grand universal context. I believe that all human expression–material, customary and oral–is artistic and is ultimately grounded in this awe and is a form of worship. The most primitive designs on earth–the zigzag, the meander, the spiral–were created in worship, not to gain practical ends but to express a spiritual recognition. The same is true of later, more sophisticated, stylized and bilaterally symmetrical designs such as the bucranium (ox-head), labrys (double axe), rosette, cross, circle, and swastika. None of these is “practical,” but rather a human statement about symmetry in the universe. Six crossed lines in a circle will sooner or later suggest spokes and a wheel, but the design itself is best understood as a revelation of our ancestors’ awe at seeing heaven with its celestial bodies as meaningful and connected to us (the Zodiac) and to the sensory world (the seasons). It may seem odd to think of a calendar as a spiritual object, but the first calendars were circular and were created as a map of the divine plan in heaven.

Codification, rigidification, and religiosity inevitably, eventually, replace the kind of spiritual expression discussed above. The cross was turned into something that now means only one thing. In modern times the swastika, in the wrong hands, became the very symbol of evil. These designs were appropriated by a particular group to fulfill a particular agenda. Yet we respond to these ancient symbols at some deeper level than just the political or the religious. According to Carl Jung, who was Joseph Campbell’s early inspiration, this response may have to do with ancient experience. Campbell offers the example of newly hatched chicks, which (with no direct experience) run for cover when they see a shadow of a chicken hawk fly over.

Experiments show that this happens even with a wooden model drawn across the chicken yard on a wire. If all actual chicken hawks were somehow to disappear, baby chicks would still respond to the model. Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious may thus be analogized as the reason human beings respond to symbols. (I do not subscribe to Jung’s theory in its entirety.)

Myths of the world may seem extremely strange and puzzling, but really a very small number of things are accomplished in their telling. All myths are metaphors, using language, itself a form of metaphor, for our awe at the mystery of being, which is unknowable. Myths cannot give voice to the unknowable, but they can make up a story, a metaphor, about the unknowable. Even “God” is a metaphor for the unknowable. A very small number of themes can be found time and again in creation myths of every culture (but not in every creation myth!), for example, order out of chaos, creation by speaking, sacrifice of a divine being to make the world, the androgynous parent, the paradox that once creation happens it is no longer perfect, and others.

For us who live in the Occident–the West–the logic of Western myth is seen everywhere even if we don’t consciously live by the codified official belief system of our culture the Bible, say–even if we consciously defy it. We still have unexamined cultural assumptions that are grounded in those myths and we cannot manage without them, for they provide the pattern or model against which we measure and evaluate our experience and our thought. Even if the most we do is rebel against our culture, we are ineluctably part of a system whose values are systemic.

After the lecture, Dr. Stewart responded to questions about terms and phrases she had used in her talk–for example, “spirituality,” “God,” and “divine”–that many humanists tend to avoid. She stated that language is metaphorical, words are metaphors (that is, they stand in for something) and that the vocabulary of spirituality–being humbled by a sense awe before the “mystery of being”–is necessarily metaphorical because it addresses that which cannot be known directly. Anyone who finds a particular metaphor unsatisfying is free to reject it.

–Polly Stewart
HoU chapter member

What Ever Happened to the Enlightenment

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

The term Enlightenment refers to a unique set of ideas and ideals that came to fruition in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. It began with Bacon, Descartes, Locke and other philosophers who sought a universal method for establishing knowledge. They looked to science as the model for knowledge and debated whether reason or experience was more important (both are important) they took impetus from the remarkable discoveries of Newton and Galileo in mathematics, physics and astronomy and culminated with the French philosophes–Volltaire, Diderot, Condorcet and d’Holbach.

They criticized the ancient regime of religious superstition and dogmatism, hidebound social traditions and repressive morality. They wished to use science and reason to understand nature, solve social problems and advance human progress. In politics they developed social contract theories, defended the secular state and the rights of man and advocated economic liberty. The American Revolution was influenced by their ideals (through Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and Paine). They influenced the French Revolution, too, though some of them opposed its excesses. They wished to reform the penal code and end cruel punishments. They were anticlerical, castigating the corruption and hypocrisy of the churches. Most were deists; some were atheists. The Enlightenment defended a humanist outlook that drew its values from the Renaissance and Greco-Romanic Hellenic culture, which has also extolled the use of reason.

According to Karl Popper, “It was this idea of self-liberation through knowledge that was central to the Enlightenment.” “Dare to be free,” added Immanuel Kant, “and respect the freedom and autonomy of others…” He felt that it is only through the growth of knowledge that a person can be liberated “from enslavement by prejudices, idols and avoidable errors.” The Enlightenment inspired numerous scientists, philosophers and poets and continues to inspire research on the frontiers of scientific knowledge, which have produced new breakthroughs that have contributed to the betterment of humankind.

However, Paul Kurtz, in an article, “Re-Enchantment: A New Enlightenment,” laments that “Unfortunately, there has been has been a massive retreat from Enlightenment ideals in recent years, a return to pre-modern mythologies…” There has been a resurgence of fundamentalist religions worldwide–Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism. There are occult-paranormal claims, which allegedly transcend the existing scientific paradigm. In the U.S. the preeminent scientific-technological-military superpower in the world–significant numbers of Americans have embraced primitive forms of biblical religion. These focus on salvation, the Rapture, and the Second Coming of Jesus. Evangelical Protestant Christians have made alliances with conservative Roman Catholics and neo-conservative Jews and have captured political power, which they have used to oppose secular humanism and naturalism. The Bush administration has rejected stem-cell research based on the questionable theological-moral doctrine of “ensoulment.” Even discarded cells that have begun to divide are held to have “souls.” There is “evangelical capitalism,” allied with a triumphalist imperial foreign policy convinced that “God blesses” America in military adventures abroad.

“But,” Kurtz goes on, “certain irreconcilable underlying cultural conflicts…must not be overlooked, for we are confronted by powerful forces eager to overthrow the basic premises of the Enlightenment. I submit that we need to awaken re-enchantment with the Enlightenment; there is a pressing need for a New Enlightenment, not only for America but for the global community.”

What are the characteristics of the New Enlightenment? First we must extend the methods of science and reason to all areas of human interest. The methods of science serve us as powerful tools in unlocking the secrets of nature and solving human problems. Scientific principles are always open to change in the light of new discoveries or more powerful theories; hence, science is fallible and self-correcting. Since the Enlightenment, science has expanded rapidly, entering into fields never before imagined possible, such as understanding consciousness, the brain, the biological world and the genome, and the micro- and macro-dimensions of the universe. We should be prepared in the future to extend the methods of scientific inquiry still further to all areas of human interest. In many areas the best term to describe this process is critical thinking, which provides a normative model for appraising claims to truth.

Second we need to respond to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Many theists believe that, without a belief in a supernatural deity, life would be meaningless. People are unable to face death, they say; only belief in life beyond the grave would console them. Science has disabused us of such primitive concepts of God and immortality, though such skepticism has not always penetrated to a wider public. We can no longer accept the ancient metaphysical-theological interpretations of reality in the light of naturalistic accounts of cosmology. Moreover, scientific and scholarly criticisms of biblical and Qur’anic texts lack confirmation or corroboration by any reliable empirical evidence.

It is possible to live a full and meaningful life in a naturalistic universe, informed by knowledge and devoid of supernatural illusions. Democratic societies afford a wider range of opportunities for free expression than do authoritarian ones. All human beings live out their lives in a universe of order and disorder, causality and contingency, regularity and chance. It is hoped that individuals can learn from experience and modify their choices in the light of consequences.

Third is the question of ethical values. Principles and values should be tested by their consequences in practice. First there are excellences intrinsic to the good life of the individual where freedom and autonomy, self-determination, and the right of privacy are respected, as well as the values of creativity, aesthetic appreciation, self-respect, self-control and rationality. The ultimate goal is human happiness and joyful exuberance. Second are the principles of virtue and responsibility as they relate to other people in communities of transaction. These include the common moral decencies of integrity, trustworthiness, benevolence and fairness. Objective rational criteria can be applied to the comparative evaluation of moral choices.

Fourth, and perhaps the most important, is the realization that The New Enlightenment is planetary in scope and that it entails a doctrine of universal human rights. It considers all members of the human family to be equal in dignity and value. Planetary ethics emphasize our mutual responsibility to protect our common habitat, to guard against ecological damage and pollution. It recognizes the need to support international laws, a world court to interpret and support them, and to encourage the growth of transnational democratic institutions.

It is important, says Kurtz, that humanists take the lead in pointing the way forward to the new planetary civilization that is emerging.

About Religion

Early in November I was invited by the Three R’s Project to participate in a panel discussion about religions for a Jordan School District teachers conference. In addition to my representing humanism, there were six other panelists representing Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Mormonism. Each panelist was asked to present the highlights of their religious beliefs and practices. I was surprised when the spokesperson for Judaism said after my presentation, “Every time I hear Flo speak I think humanism sounds like Judasim without rituals!”

At the conclusion of the seven formal presentations each panelist was asked to respond to questions from the moderator. One of the most interesting requests she made was, “describe how Utah would be if 70% of the population were members of your conviction.” For the first time in my humanist experience I had the chance to visualize what a dramatic difference society would be if humanism was the dominant culture.

I want to explore this fantasy with you at our December Holiday Season Social. Think about the challenge and let us create a rewarding delusion together December 9th.

Here is the script of my conference presentation.

Thank you for this opportunity to discuss and endorse teaching about religions in public schools. Some people are still opposed to this for a variety of reasons. In the humanist community which I represent here today there is strong disagreement as well. Many of our local and national members and officers are divided on the question. Humanists fear that teaching about religions in the public classroom will lead to evangelizing for the particular religion of the teacher.

I don’t share their fears. I recognize it is possible but I am confident that with adequate training and your professional teaching skills, your students will gain a greater understanding of the various religious beliefs and a much deeper knowledge of the different ways people respond to the basic questions of life:

  • From whence we came,
  • Why we are here,
  • What happens when we die.

Understanding that the human race has found a variety of answers to these questions will eventually result in a more tolerant, acceptable community. Hopefully your students will become adults who can discuss religious difference in a civil manner recognizing that religion is a very personal matter and that we don’t need to agree on the answers to religious questions to be cooperative friends and neighbors.

I was pleased this past week when President Bush at his election victory press conference, responding to a reporter’s question regarding the influence of the religious right, said, in very strong language, that Americans of all faiths, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Theists, Agnostics, and Atheists, are all good citizens, that the believer and the non-believer, the religious and the non-religious all enjoy equality in this nation.

That’s why I support the program of the Three R’s Project and why I appreciate being a humanist member of their advisory council.

Humanism officially represents a very small minority of the U.S. population, numbering only about ten-thousand members. Philosophically we probably speak for ten times that number, perhaps around one-hundred thousand people. In the classrooms of our nation there very few children from humanist homes but hopefully those numbers will change significantly when students are made aware that humanism is an acceptable alternative to orthodox religions.

Regarding the three basic questions about life that religions ponder here are the humanist answers:

  • We believe life in general began through a natural process of the universe.
  • Our individual lives began when a male sperm and female ovum united.
  • Each person determines the purpose of their life.
  • Our individual life ceases at death.

Our philosophy of life is based on confidence that each person has the capacity for goodness, even greatness, that everyone can learn to think critically and reasonably well, that the chaos and uncertainty are acceptable and we learn to deal with life’s problems by the consequences of our actions in the various situations of living.

We recognize that life is sometimes unfair, that nature is not concerned with our individual destiny, that we receive rewards and punishments for our actions while we are alive, not after we die.

Socially and politically we are progressives. We believe we have an individual responsibility for the welfare of the community. We encourage sharing equitably the burdens and the rewards of community building, help ensure justice, equality, and a good life for everyone. The roots of humanism are connected to the European Enlightenment period that sought an end to religious authoritarianism and promoted critical thinking to solve human problems. The philosopher Immanuel Kant coined the battle cry of the Enlightenment: “Dare to use your own intelligence!”

We believe this nation was founded on the Enlightenment principles of individual rights, worth, and responsibilities and we cite the 6th article of the U.S. Constitution to substantiate this assertion. It reads: “….no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

While humanism does not profess a belief in supernatural powers nor practice rituals seeking non-human intervention in life, we do consider ourselves “religious beings” with a strong conviction that cooperatively we can solve the problems of existence.

–Flo Wineriter