4 Tutorials that teach Religion as Myth
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Religion as Myth

Religion as Myth


This lesson discusses both the myths that can be found at the base of many religions, as well as the view that contemporary religious practice is in fact just a vestige of older, non-rational modes of thought.

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Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Much of the subject matter of religion concerns myth, a word that we often associate with outdated, backwards ideas, and simply synonymous with the word false. But when scholars of religion use the word myth, they use it to describe a narrative that gives meaning and purpose to the world.

Philosopher Mary Midgley in her book, Evolution as a Religion, uses the word myth to explain the theory of evolution. Among other functions, the theory of evolution gives meaning and purpose to the every day somewhat mundane research of scientists. It helps to place the small points of data into a larger framework that doesn't merely situate the many small pinpoints of information but also give scientists a greater purpose and sense of meaning to govern their work.

In the same way, religious ideas help people to make sense out of their lives, to help them feel part of something bigger than themselves. Myth is a claim or narrative that is psychologically, anthropologically, or sociologically true even in the absence of empirical data or other rational support for it. Psychoanalysis might be an example of a secular myth that can neither be proven true nor false.

Myth can either be said to be rational or irrational. It can be employed in those gray areas where other modes of inquiry have failed, situating people in a relationship to each other, to the natural world, and to higher powers. Myth can be viewed as non-rational or even extra-rational as it often gives rational inquiry impetus to act. Modern day myths, like a belief in democracy or human rights, have their roots in religious stories, like the revelation of the Ten Commandments to Moses.

We've said so far that much of what constitutes religion can be reasonably described as myth. We don't necessarily mean that myth means something false or fantastical but rather something that we hold to be true despite the absence of empirical data.

So myth is a claim that could be psychologically, anthropologically, or sociologically true, that is something that fits with human experience. Note the difference here between the terms rational, non-rational, and irrational. Something can be non-rational without necessarily being irrational. It could be extra-rational, that is beyond the limits of human logic or cognition.

So we also want to stress that because the majority of the world's inhabitants are practitioners or believers in some religious system, and religious views inform-- sometimes profoundly inform-- individual beliefs, as well as our historical circumstances. Much of what we hold to be entirely rational, at some point, had its roots in religious myth. So myth is with us wherever we go whether or not we necessarily realize it or acknowledge it.

Notes on "Religion as Myth"

Source: Intro. music and images by David Dillard-Wright

  • Myth

    A claim or narrative that is psychologically, anthropologically, or sociologically ‘true’ despite the absence of empirical data or other rational support for it.

  • Rational

    Based in logical cognition and reason; calculating.

  • Non-rational

    Making little to no use of logic, cognition, or reason.

  • Irrational

    Violating known and accepted rules and standards of logic, cognition, or reason.

  • Extra-rational

    Beyond the limits of human logic, cognition, or reason—typical of the divine.