December 31, 1993

The Power of Myth

Whereas in tales told for entertainment such mythical themes are taken lightly --in a spirit, obviously, of play-- they appear also in religious contexts, where they are accepted not only as factually true but even as revelations of the verities to which the whole culture is a living witness and from which it derives its spiritual authority and its temporal power.

Joseph Campbell, 1968

Joseph Campbell devoted his life to the study of mythology. By mythology, he did not refer solely to the stories told to children, but to the very principles that people live by, live for, and are often willing to defend to their death. He studied them all over the world and delved into the myths of ancient cultures which were discovered by archaeologists. He also studied the works of psychologists, with a view toward discovering the origins of myths in the growing child. He was more than a little successful. He concluded that all mythologies had elements in common and that these relate to how thought develops in children.

Campbell's work is prodigious, and I am not equal to the task of wading though more than a very small part of it. As a consequence, I spent most of my time looking into the myths of my own culture, with which I was already familiar.

What I had never done is to look at those myths with the eyes of a scientist. It is very difficult to look at the fabric of one's own beliefs; sort of like removing your own appendix. What is interesting is that even if a person is raised without a formal religion, the fabric of the myths can't help but permeate one's being, simply by the process of living within a culture. Thus the Germanic myths were absorbed by the Christians and Jews who lived in Germany. One consequence was world wars one and two. A Jew in America absorbs much of the mythology of Christianity merely by growing up in a predominantly Christian country.

While we all, whether we want to or not, absorb the myths of the culture that we are brought up in, the study of myth involves something very different. The scientist tries to separate himself from his subject. This is much easier to do when studying cultures other than his own. Thus Campbell found it much easier to study primitive mythology and oriental mythology, returning to compare them with those of his own culture.

It remains to be seen whether our television culture might create a new and pervasive mythology that will direct the lives of people. I see the possibility of a Star Trek or a Jurassic Park culture, where the myths of those shows become the myths of a culture.

Which brings me to the point of this essay: that science and religion are two subjects that are best kept separated. Gregor Mendel, who was an Augustinian monk and abbott as well as one of our greatest scientists, was able to separate his life as a priest and as a scientist. When he thought as a scientist, he thought one way; when he was a priest he thought in another. This was probably true of a number of scientist-priests of the last century.

It is when people try to deal with both simultaneously that they get into trouble. Religion deals with people and their feelings and its method is the faith of the child within each of us; whereas science deals with the physical world and its tools are skepticism and reason.

In their wisdom, the founding fathers of this country decreed the separation of church and state. Some saw that if religion intruded on government, it would cause trouble. When it has intruded, the results have been a tyranny over the mind as well as the body. Others wished to protect religion from government.

There is an intrusion of science, as a political body, on government that can itself impose a tyranny over people --but that is a subject for another day.

Next column

Return to the Race, Class, Culture, Religion Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page