Recently, with some reference to “weak theology” lurking beneath the surface, I’ve been hearing a lot of folks defending religion on the grounds that it’s really some form of mytho-poetic thought and not to be taken as a set of ontological statements about the world. The idea seems to be that those who reject religion get it entirely wrong because religion is not a theory of reality, causation, the self, the afterlife, and why things are, but rather religion is really just a set of very powerful stories that help us interpret and understand the world around us. In one recent discussion about these issues, a friend accused me of being unimaginative and overly literal for failing to understand that these are just potent stories through which we interpret the world, and instead treating them as a theory of our selves, being, the world, and the origin of things.
Before responding to these claims, it’s first important to get clear on some points. The ontological nihilist like me doesn’t deny that we experience all sorts of meaning in the world. The idea that we would think this is one of the oddest ideas to ever sprout from anyone’s mind. We’re wired to find meanings, purposes, and motives in everything that takes place in the world? Why? As Alex Rosenberg suggests, probably because being able to predict the behavior of others, how they would respond to this or that, was a life or death matter when we were back on the savannah. You had to have some reliable way of deciding who would help you, who wouldn’t, who was a potential enemy, who might be a friend, who was a potential mate, and all the rest. Of course, the blind watch maker of natural selection, random variation, and heritability doesn’t do such a good job at being distinguishing. It gave us the capacity for thinking in terms of narratives, motives, and purposes, but didn’t restrict the use of this capacity to speculations about other humans and animals. As a consequence, we would inevitably come to see faces in clouds, anger in storms, and favor when something surprising and good happens to us. So it goes. That’s how our lizard brains are wired. Fortunately we’ve begun to develop techniques for getting around this in the last few centuries or so.
Nihilist that I am, I’m no different in this respect. When something randomly bad happens to me, the thought flits through my mind that perhaps I’m being punished. When a nice thunder storm happens as I was wishing for a couple days ago, the thought flits through my mind that perhaps I pleased the divinities in some way and they answered my prayers. When I look at the barks of trees, I sometimes think I see faces or animals. Us nihilists are wired the same way as everyone else and thus have the same fleeting thought. The only difference is that we don’t take these speculations about motives that occur to us when we think about nature as veridical statements about the natural world. We say “that’s a trick of my cognition, not something that’s really there.” It’s the same with a nicotine fit. Once you become aware that the absence of nicotine changes your brain chemistry, you no longer say “that person is being a bastard!”, but instead say “my brain chemistry is a mess at this moment leading me to think this person is being a bastard.” Sure, we still experience the other person as driving like an asshole, but we know this is coming from us not them. We consequently moderate our response to the other driver because we recognize this is a peculiarity of our cognition of the other person, not a motive on the part of the other person.
So back to the “religion as mytho-poetic thought” line of argument. Here are my problems with this line of argument:
1) It’s simply not true that belief is experienced in this way for 99% of the people that have it. Folks don’t say “the story of Job is a potent story that teaches me a valuable lesson about life”. No. They say this is a theory of reality that explains why this or that happens. I’ll never forget a discussion with an evangelical friend of mine. A few years ago there was a string of bizarre weather events here in Texas. We were talking about this and I alluded to climate change. She chuckled knowingly and said “I don’t worry about such things because I know how the world will end” (alluding to end times theology). For her– and I’ve heard this countless times since —Revelation is not merely a potent set of poetic stories, but is something like an insurance man’s actuarial table. It’s a real prediction about what will happen. It’s a theory of reality and causation and why events are happening. This effects her entire politics and attitude towards things like climate change. Outside of the United States, I’m sure there are a lot of folks have a hard time understanding US foreign policy concerning Israel. What they don’t understand– and don’t believe when they hear it –is that there is a huge voting block that relates the Jews returning to Israel with Biblical prophecy and that any policy that interferes with that means a tremendous loss of votes and campaign donations. Ergo, certain issues just can’t be discussed here. I kid you not. And don’t even get me started on the impact of these beliefs on science education and embodied politics here in the States.
I loves me some John Caputo, but I just can’t share his view that these myths are potent stories that help us to make sense of the world. They’re full blown theories that make truth claims about the nature of reality, what will happen, why what has happened has happened, and what sorts of policy and practices we should adopt. These are theories that have had a profound effect on our ability to respond to climate change, science in the states, as well as all sorts of gender politics. It’s hard to escape the mytho-poetic theory of religious belief is a lot of hand waving by well meaning academics and enlightened people who just can’t bring themselves to believe that their neighbors really believe these things, that have sentimental feelings about the ritual they grew up with in their churches, and that have the misguided view that they can somehow persuade these people if they just talk about their beliefs in a nice way. They don’t seem to realize that the lay will always bristle at the thought that their theory of reality is just a set of potent myths to be interpreted after the fashion of Levi-Strauss or, gag, Joseph Campbell.
2) If the mytho-poetic theorists are right, then they’re saying nothing different than the social constructivists and literary critics have been saying all along. They’re saying that these things aren’t representations of reality or the way things are, but are social constructions, effects of the play of the signifier, creations of cognition, and all the like. In other words, they’re rejecting the referential dimension of these things and giving culturalist explanations. But this is what secular-naturalistic orientations have argued all along. One then wonders why the mytho-poeticists continue to defend religion if they really believe all these stories are referentially false as theories of reality. Why aren’t they busily deconstructing them?
3) If it is true that these stories or theories of reality are just potent literature, why do they still continue to privilege sacred texts which have historically caused so much mayhem. If religion was really just great literary works all along, why not instead find mytho-poetic meaning in great literature like Kafka, comic books, television shows, films, paintings, music, and so on? Why hang on to these particular stories that were written by sheep herders that barely understood anything of the universe 6000+ years ago. It’s bizarre that one would hold the theory that these things are just a way in which people create meaning in the world through narrative and then not consider just abandoning those particular stories that have been taken as theories of reality for so long. After all, no one ever burned a witch, stoned a woman, or sacrificed a daughter over Kafka, but they certain did over these stories and have justified slavery and a variety of other egregious things to boot based on this particular literature. Let’s make a clean break
4) The mytho-poetic theory of religion just muddies the waters. As I said, the vast majority of believers don’t advocate this theory. Women, GLBT folks, scientists, etc., are all oppressed in very real ways by these things, and they affect American climate policy, scientific research (evolution, stem cell research, etc), and a variety of other things too. The mytho-poetic theorist comes along and says “but that’s not really what they mean, these are just powerful stories that give life meaning!” In doing so they provide cover for the worst manifestations of mytho-poetic thought (even though that’s not their intention). These folks should be looking to what the lay believes, not what they read in their sophisticated journals and by theologians.
Yes, I too find the story of Jesus very potent and inspiring (as I do with Buddha and a lot of Greek and Roman mythology as well; especially the story of Apollo and Daphne). Moreso, however, his life and not his death. I’m also all for reading the Bible in exactly the same way as we read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, and in the way ehtnographers interpret the religious beliefs of other cultures.