Mythos Week, Day 5

by stephenpalmersf

What are myths? The great author on religion Karen Armstrong said that (i) they’re concerned with death, (ii) they’re accompanied by ritual, (iii) they’re concerned with extreme experiences and the unknown, (iv) they tell us how to behave ethically, and (v) they’re concerned with non-earthly realms. In Mythos Week – preparing for the publication of Woodland Revolution on 31st March – I’m going to write about these five aspects.

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Non-earthly realms is always a tricky one for atheists. I remember, many years ago now, Waterstones (whom I used to work for) publishing a magazine called Insight, and we booksellers were asked to frame questions for Philip Pullman, who at the time was promoting The Amber Spyglass. My question – which was published – was along the lines of: As an atheist, do you think using the tropes and images of religion and spirituality in your work taints atheism? Summarised, his reply was: Interesting question, but, on balance, no.

I respectfully disagree with the excellent Mr Pullman. I think using such metaphors and ideas does damage the cause of atheism and humanism. Why? Because, at whatever subliminal level it might be, if we pretend there are spirits and souls travelling to an afterlife we accede to the prophets of narcissism and Dualism: narcissism because the notion of spirit is a triumph of conjecture over evidence (not to mention Darwinian common sense), and Dualism because Descartes’ idea simply made no sense when in due course it was examined.

Therefore, in Woodland Revolution, when Wolfy and Houndie come to the first climax of their epic journey the environment they encounter, while appearing to be a spiritual realm, is presented as a hallucination. As regular readers of my blog will know, the evolution of human consciousness is a topic of particular interest to me, so in Woodland Revolution, although Karen Armstrong’s exceptional A Short History Of Myth was a prime influence, I was also influenced by David Lewis-Smith’s description of experiences inside Palaeolithic caves. His marvellous book The Mind Inside The Cave hypothesises that ancient human beings experienced stone walls as a kind of liminal barrier, behind which they believed existed all sorts of non-earthly realms. But in Woodland Revolution, such thoughts are presented as hallucination.

I don’t think this reduces the impact of the section at all. The wonder of cave art, as described by the brilliant Jean Clottes for instance, or as depicted in Werner Herzog’s remarkable film Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, is a human thing not a spiritual thing. Such wonder speaks of sensitivity to the natural environment, of visual creativity, of a profound link to the land which most of us modern people have lost. I took great care with my caves, and with the underworld environment which followed…

Five thousand years ago the world began to change, from cultures infused with mythos to those of logos. At the same time, male thought, along with men themselves, began to dominate. Religious tracts lauded the value of the word, placing it at the beginning of their ideas of creation.

The Ancient Greeks considered visual, emotional knowledge inferior to that of the rational word because they deemed the word able to describe deeper concepts and philosophies. But their bias was illusory. In embracing logos and losing mythos, human culture took a step into facts, technical practice, pragmatism and efficiency. Was this a gain or a loss?

Critics of atheism complain that removing gods and the supernatural from our lives cheapens it by divesting it of transcendent meaning. But human life and human consciousness are already radiant with meaning – our own meaning, rooted in an understanding of consciousness and the human condition. We can and should devise our own new myths, based on understanding, not on trite and spurious invention.

We lost mythos in gaining the modern world. We lost a lot of the meaning of life in our search for pragmatism, efficiency, and doctrine based on the word. Yet, it is also true to say that facts are essential for meaningful life.

So we need to weave again a mythos of humanity. This time, however, it has to be based in understanding, not invention.

WoodRev 150 cover