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Religion as Myth

Religion as Myth

Author: Ted Fairchild

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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Hello and welcome. In this tutorial today we're going to look at the idea of myth and what role it plays in religion and religious life, and how myth might inform our understanding of religious and/or secular life today. You may have heard the term myth used, or you might use it yourself, to refer to something that's just not true, something that's fantastical. Oh, it's just a myth, you might say. In other words, it's not really true.

Maybe like Groundhog Day, for example. If it's a sunny day and the groundhog emerges from his hole and he sees his shadow he heads back down into the hole for a month or five, six weeks or so until winter is over. Well, this is an example of folklore as myth. And it's understood as a commonly held belief that has little rational justification, not provable with empirical data. So it's neither rational nor irrational.

Well, there are many believes that are considered to be part of the spiritual and the religious realm that are not provable in the usual empirical scientific sense. And they have more to do with collective knowledge and collective wisdom based on traditions and stories. Non-rational or even extra-rational beliefs of the sort often form the ground and the justification for engaging with myth.

So how are these justified then? Well, by tradition. By common agreements among cultures and religious groups and by the experience of their value in the lives of these groups and their individuals.

Let's use the example of one of the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. There's a story among Zen Buddhists that is linked back to, and attributed as, the origin of Zen Buddhism itself. It's called the Flower Sermon. The story goes that, having gathered everyone silently together and after sitting for a short time in further silence, the Buddha simply held up a white flower. A disciple named Mahakasyapa, he gazed at the flower and simply smiled. Well, no one else except for Mahakasyapa understood the message of this deep wisdom, or prajna, something that was directly communicated without words.

From that day forward Zen Buddhism carried with it this story, or myth. And it is a powerful story and myth because it links each adherent of Zen Buddhism and each sentient human being, in fact, to the possibility and potentiality of inhabiting wisdom if it's not already present in the form of Buddha nature, which is another belief in Buddhism.

Science cannot prove the wisdom that was present and transmitted in the exchange between the Buddha, the flower, and the disciple. Modern science might be able to pick up on some activity in a functional MRI, but the point is that this wisdom functions in a collective human consciousness as an archetype, as a conscious and unconscious image of something essential, something universally true and present and given value.

Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychoanalyst, identified scores of archetypes that are active in the unconscious realms of individuals and societies- essential truths like death and power and motherhood, the sun, and rings. These archetypes exist as pure forms to be filled or inhabited with stories, with experiences, to be filled with life. This is the project of religion, you could say, to link the conscious realm of experience and sensation with the deep forms of these essential truths.

So many of these archetypes, when they are linked together, they become myths. Foundational stories with metaphorical references all guiding the religious adherent through the maze of conscious and the maze of unconscious truths. And while these truths are, in the usual sense, not provable they are nevertheless true from an anthropological and a sociological and a psychological perspective.

And finally, many of our commonly held beliefs, things we might consider to be rational without too much question or doubt, could be said to have originated from certain myths of religion and myths of religious belief system. Maybe the most obvious one is time. And religious traditions have accounts and stories and myths about the beginning of time. And many have myths and explanations about how to be in time, present with responsibility and obedience, et cetera.

And some traditions have myths involving the end of time. The myth of time then, as an archetypal extra-rational truth might function to link it essentially to the divine and transcendent realm. What we do then is we adapt it to our conscious experience and use of time. And religions do this with things like holidays and feasts, rituals and sacred objects. Things like fire, ashes. You might think of water for a holy Christian baptism, for example.

So we started out by acknowledging that many of us probably use the term myth occasionally to refer to the idea that something is untrue, or something that's outdated, or some kind of folklore that doesn't really have a lot of relevance.

And then we used the example from Buddhism and the story of the flower sermon to demonstrate that there are certain archetypes in our unconscious that become manifested through stories and through myths as a way of linking the conscious experience of time, for example, with this sort of unconscious understanding of time. Which is something, is not provable, is something that's not empirical, but nevertheless has relevance in the lives of individuals and groups, and certainly has validation among certain academic disciplines like anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

Terms to Know

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


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


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


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


Based in logical cognition and reason; calculating.