In the coming posts, I will be making repeated reference to the word ‘myth’. Among a group of atheists and anti-theists, the word ‘myth’ has taken on a decidedly derogatory meaning. Religious myths are used in the place of facts to justify deplorable and immoral actions and policies. Indeed, the primacy of the ‘Adam and Eve’ myth alone has been used as the basis for everything from extorting money from people under threat of ‘original sin’ to the most absurd and yet powerfully harmful anti-gay sentiment. The entire young earth creationism movement, motivated by a flood myth, is working tirelessly to undermine science education. Myths about the proper role of women (and their role in the fall) are used to subjugate women and pigeonhole men into restrictive gender roles.
Without wishing to excuse the harms done by mythology, I do want to recognize that supernatural and religious myths are, in fact, only one particular subtype of myth. Indeed, our idiomatic language would be severely weakened in the absence of mythology – one might even say it is our Achilles’ Heel. And again, beyond the value of myth as a common point of cultural reference, we also use myth to explain the world around us.
I wish to draw my first example from Thomas King, author of The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. We have all heard the story of Christopher Columbus – the intrepid European explorer who set out on a mission to India at the behest of Queen Isabella of Spain, but who ran smack dab into the North American continent itself, bringing back news of its riches and people to Europe and sparking colonial interest in ‘the New World’. Now there is no doubt that Christopher Columbus existed, and did travel to North America a number of times, but we’re all historically savvy enough at this point to know that he didn’t “discover America” – he wasn’t even the first European to arrive on the continent. His story is largely mythologized, but serves as a useful proxy starting point when teaching the history of colonialism.
More recently, we can look at the myth of the civil right movement in the United States, sparked as it was by the brave refusal of a woman named Rosa Parks to sit in the segregated section of a bus. Emboldened by her example, black people across the country joined with sympathetic whites to demand voting right and anti-discrimination legislation, which they eventually achieved in 1965. Again, a useful reduction of a story to digestible length, but utterly false. Rosa Parks’ passive resistance was a large event indeed, but black groups had been organizing for decades beforehand. The civil rights movement was one facet of a much larger push for racial equality, and it definitely didn’t end with any piece of legislation.
Maybe one more.
We all remember how the ‘Arab Spring’ was an uprising of people across multiple African, Middle Eastern and Arab countries, demanding accountability and political reform. They ousted dictators, and through the power of social media, toppled regimes that were decades old, ushering in an era of self-determination and western-style democracy. Now of course it’s far too recent for the Arab Spring to get mythologized so completely, but this narrative popped up repeatedly when people were trying to make sense of what was going on. We know that the ‘uprising’ is not over, and in some cases went in the opposite direction of what many of the reformers had been advocating for.
History is a messy thing, and most of the stories we tell about it are necessarily run through with myth. It’s almost inescapable.
For the purposes of this discussion, I want to lean heavily on a more secular, non-supernatural definition of myth. Myths, in this particular context, should be thought of as stories that we tell about the relationship between ourselves and the world. They have the luxury of being able to be casual with the truth, because they are myths. Parts of them, or in fact all of the parts of them, may in fact be completely true, but the way in which we connect and describe those parts tell a revealing story about who we are, how the world is, and where we find our place in it.
The reason I choose ‘myth’ rather than ‘narrative’ (or some other synonym) in this particular case is because ‘myth’ uniquely places claims outside the realm of truth or falsehood. Those empiricists reading this can take some comfort in the fact that I fully intend to return this discussion to a place where truth can be adjudicated, but for now I would ask that we put temporarily put aside that question in order to adequately frame the issue.
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