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Mythbusters: The Effect of Demythologization in Religion
Losing My Virginity
I had transitioned across several different churches over the years. Though all of them preached Jesus as lord and savior, they also had different takes on the message as well. Different interpretations of what it meant to be the Son of God, Holy Scripture, sin and grace. Before I stopped going, the last church I went to was a charismatic one, a place where they believed-or at least claimed to-believe the Bible to be literally word for word: Demons, miracles, angels, and all. The idea that the supernatural was an active participant in the past and still is, was a comforting factor in life, especially when you think it’s on your side.
And I had seen my fair share of some fairly weird things there. Events I could not easily write off as tricks of the mind or delusions. As I studied for my Masters degree however, I found there was also a good portion of reason and logic that applied to religion as well. I don’t mean this in the comfortable sense where you believe Jesus walked on water two thousand years ago but don’t now you don’t.
I mean the natural, human tendencies that accompanied the growth of a religion. Tendencies like the amount of time it takes for information to get from one part of the world to another and not be changed. Or external powers influencing church elders’ decisions when deciding what was canon and what was not, and just the natural desire to want to believe something because it makes you feel good.
As I tackled these and tried to reconcile them to my religious position, I encountered very heavy resistance to my search for truth. People, good people, whom I had known for years and trusted, suddenly did not want to engage me in conversations about more terrestrial factors showing their hand in their beliefs. Even if it was not talked about, the mere thought of such a possibility was a threat to their faith, and presumably, mine.
There was a term that I remembered hearing in college to describe this effect and fear: demythologyization.
From Capital to Lower Case
De-mytholgization is not the idea of science disproving religious faith. It can come close and I’m sure many would presume it to be just that, but it is different. De-mytholigzing doesn’t try to refute or reject faith, looks at it through known facts and historical events rather than supernatural elements of religion. What ends up happening is that slowly a tangible reason appears for the miraculous event or persons, and though still miraculous, it no longer seems special. Its almost like castrating God in a way.
The parting of the Red Sea goes from towering walls of water on either side of the escaping Israelites, to rare and unusual shallow tides that kicked in from a distant volcanic eruption. Raising the dead goes from the immediately miraculous, to reviving the person in a near-death state before biological death, when the bodily functions completely cease.
The event is still real, but it has lost its magnificent and splendor, like a child who discovers the truth behind Santa Claus, but still enjoys presents. The wonder is gone. I found that many people of faith, across many religions, did not want to have their faith watered down to something any other than mind-blowing. Some take this a step further, becoming hostile to any kind of information or faith that was open or fully embraced this lack of faith. Within Christianity, it is well known that there is a simmering prejudice from basic-faith believers towards more educated ones and scholars.
They don’t want anything to do with studying theology because the knowledge is too dangerous. It is literally the tree of knowledge and this time Adam and Eve will not touch it. I have seen a similar effect with Jews and Muslims. The former in that they may protest child mutilation and yet still practice circumcision which objectively speaking does fall into that category. Much of Judaism is rooted in the practice and both it and the religion as much cultural identity as it they are belief.
With Muslims, it was in terms of dealing with the idea that the Quran was not just written in Arabic as a single, unchanging language, but several other languages or variations of Arabic. A dangerous concept because for devout believers, the miracle is that the divine language has stayed pure and untainted throughout the centuries. It is free of the corruptions from humanity’s imperfections, and this even extends to the prophets themselves.
So essentially, demythologizing religion takes God from a big ‘G’ to a little ‘g’.
"The security is not completely gone, but becomes brittle. "
One of the benefits of religious belief is the mental affect it has on its adherents. Faith to a god who is in completely control allows one the benefit of comfort in hard times. Or if someone dies r is facing death, the comfort extends to giving purpose to that person’s life or death and the idea that something else awaiting them on the other side. This strength is completely reliant on a capital “G” god or gods.
If someone has built their whole world and identity around this, demythologizing the faith can be devastating. The security is not completely gone, but becomes brittle. Many who attack religious communities for being willfully ignorant often point to this reaction as a sign of faith’s fallacy. Yet, they are just as vulnerable to it as well.
I have seen people take the facts of science, reason, and logic, and do the same with them as religious people do with faith. They become intractable tenants that are absolutes, based on the hard facts of what is testable and tangible. Many do not acknowledge that these facts are also susceptible to imperfect interpretation as well and can be proven wrong. What’s more, science and reason are treated as medicines deliberately designed to kill superstition and faith.
Thing is, science and facts have no such agenda or any agenda to speak of for that matter. They are the mechanisms of nature as it plays out, the recording of hard data of peoples’ choices and the paths they can logically lead to. It is we who add the extension of conclusions and make the presumptions in the name of ultimate truth. Demythologizing the absoluteness of these tenants can have the same effect: a sudden lack of something, in this case control and unclassified, intrusive unknowns.
Breaking the speed of light can throw decades of calculations and theories out of whack (which did almost happen by the way). Ghosts can represent the possibility of an afterlife or a realm beyond the laws of the natural world and our understanding: which by effect some say could mean that there is a god. A fully used brain capable of supernatural, X-men-like feats can break our presumptions of just how unbreakable the laws of nature truly are. Black holes being so dense that at their center that all the laws of the universe cease is unimaginable.
All that said, de-mythologization isn’t another candidate making a play for ultimate truth. It is a tool used by people and as such is just as vulnerable to less than-honest reasons for its applications. However, at the same time it can challenge the mind and spirit in ways that pushes them and tests the truths they believe to be absolute.
Like religion, science, and reason, de-mythologization can further illuminate the way to real, unbiased truth. A mentor once said to asked me what right does one have to take away the comfort that their faith provides, even if it is full of holes? This is challenge demythologization presents.
The silent question and elephant in the room of if we really desire to know the truth, or just want something to make life easier to live with?