Home > Ideology, Metaphysics, religion > Social Necessity without Metaphysical Necessity: Why Mythology and Religion Interest us, but Shouldn’t

Social Necessity without Metaphysical Necessity: Why Mythology and Religion Interest us, but Shouldn’t

In the relationship of mankind to nature, there is absolutely no place in it for religion or mythology, just as there is no place for any other false metaphysical statements. As one of my favorite quotes goes (best uttered in a booming voice): “Nature, to be commanded, MUST BE OBEYED.” It turns out that the world has issued us no commands for us to obey relating to worship or ritual, as evidenced by the fact that nature is just so bafflingly indifferent to our commands in dances, sacrifices, very focused thoughts with clasped hands, shuffling processions, and organized flames in front of an idol. Yet lots of people, even those free of myth’s delusions, spend an inordinate amount of time discussing it with great intellectual furor. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are two of many scholars who have made a fortune crusading against Christ. Why? What could the intense study of imaginative, but false stories offer? We can certainly watch the Star Wars films, play its games, and read it books. That’s plenty fun. But are there thousands of Star Wars scholars engaged in constant debate? Put aside the forum geeks for a moment, and focus solely on those in the respected intellectual institutions of society: how many people care about the force, Death Stars, and X-wings?

The difference between Star Wars and religion is their number of followers who hold their realism. Many people believe in the latter, so those of us who disbelieve should take pause at this, especially considering that these beliefs often have political implications. In light of that, what good does studying religion serve?

Mythological Particularities: Not so useful?

As I suggested in a discussion of Plato’s Republic, the study of falsehood is only useful in as much as it leads us to truth. If you know that you’ve either got a muscle cramp or just have to go to the bathroom, and disprove the latter by trying and failing, then you can validly believe that you’ve got stomach cramps. The wider in scope that a given theory is, the more likely it is that any of the propositions entailed by its negation are true.  Thus, the best argument that states, “There is a world of the supernatural where things occur, and this is why,” is useful to us, for if it can be defeated, then we can know that we now must explain everything in the world naturalistically.

In this regard the scholarly pursuit of many different belief systems can yield insight into truth. However, utilizing the insights gleaned from ruling out random possibilities of unicorns and leperchauns does not always work, since we are not logical super-computers that can piece together every known proposition of the universe and make deductions from them, and find the sum total of valid human knowledge all at once. Deduction by negation sharply decreases in value as the scope of a proposition “A” shrinks, its referents become more specific, and the number of possibilities lying inside the region of “not A” vastly grows. OK, maybe that wasn’t so clear. In short, it’s that an overwhelming majority of the propositions considered under religious belief systems are extremely specific, low-scope assertions and thus, if debated, tell us little to nothing relevant about reality.

Point in case: what difference does it make to those of us who are scientifically questioning the validity of basic religious claims if there are in fact FOUR horsemen of the apocalypse as opposed to three? Or seven Imams instead of twelve? Or that there are no billiards tables in heaven? Suppose one side were proven to not be the case. What now? What can we conclude about the universe, besides that it is not the case? If it is a proposition that is used as justification for other beliefs, there are millions of other possibilities that can reconcile any problems caused by the refutation of a single detail, if any such problems arise. If two verses in some holy text are in conflict, I can guarantee that some other verse or interpretation is going to fly out of a professional religious advocate’s mouth to fix everything up.

When arguing with religious propagandists, keep that in mind: they can taunt you into pursuing them into the depths of their twisted and humid jungles and ambush you with an arbitrary verse here, a unicorn there, and maybe a flaming sword somewhere. Yet if fundamental analysis points to the fact that their story about reality is in fact a fantastical human construction, why would any rational person opt to talk about what’s “true” in the endlessly deep human imagination, as opposed to talking about truth in the reality to which everyone has sensory access? Furthermore, think of the other side: if someone were committed to defending a position whose fundamental assumptions were false or unprovable, why would he even go near discussing those assumptions? Clearly, if he’s committed to a position rather than a methodology, he’s interested in passing off what he has arbitrarily chosen as truth; why would he allow questionable premises to come under scrutiny?

To help illustrate how skipping past fundamental claims about reality and instead delving into religious mythology is a huge waste of time for the human condition, let’s revisit Star Wars. If someone asserted, as a matter of fact, that the story detailed in Star Wars movies was actually a historical occurrence, would your objection be that it couldn’t be the case because there was no way that the Rebel fleet could have survived the onslaught of the imperial fleet at the Battle of Endor, which by all calculations, would have laid 350 imperial turbolaser batteries for every rebel one, and 200 TIE Fighters for every rebel starfighter, not including the firepower of the Death Star? Surely, you could, and then spend another few hours, years, or centuries answering the counter-objection that “the force” played a major role, and then question why the force perhaps didn’t decide to intervene earlier in the war, then argue about midichlorians and how the rebels had more of them on their side, etc. Or, you could just ask, “What’s your proof that it is the case and not just some fictional story someone made up? Why is Star Wars history and The Lord of the Rings not?” Surely you can not dare to challenge the Star Wars geek’s vast “knowledge” of a human-constructed universe, but you can adequately point out that it’s human fiction, not reality. The difference in effort is gigantic.

But before we proceed, avast, hardy theoreticians: I do not mean to deny the validity of demonstrating internal inconsistency as evidence against any belief in addition to external criteria. Internal consistency is an excellent starting point, because if it can be defeated easily, it is the simplest route to disproof one can find since it speaks purely in terms of what the defender of a theory already believes. Internal contradiction makes a theory disprove itself.

By the same token, however, it is a home-field advantage for mythology-peddlers: they would much rather prefer to argue you in circles about nit-picky details about how some word actually means something other than something else and the translation screwed it up, instead of defend the fundamental presuppositions upon which their entire belief system rests. Islam, for example, has an uncanny knack for running around inside its secret cave-tunnel network of Arabic linguistic ambiguity and pop out tactically to suit its P.R. needs. If the propositions under consideration were those which played a fundamental role – for example, that there is some world which exists which lies beyond the senses, the supernatural – then proving that they’re false would end the religion debate altogether.

Religious advocates know this, and hence they would prefer to prop up the legitimacy of their belief system by spending a majority of their time and resources on what amounts to a gigantic non-sequitur argument: “we debate and discuss fervently about the content of [insert holy text], we are charitable, we create a community where children play together and do fun and creative things, therefore we are right.” Theologians spend their time trying to prove the existence of God in convoluted and complicated ways, but does the average churchgoer or clergyman ever delve so deeply into the validity of accepting God as a premise?

No, of course not! That would be a direct threat to the illusions upon which they power their lives; for the clergyman, it would be his job at risk. For a parent, it would be the possibility of having to tell his child that he was teaching him something false all along – and that would challenge the illusion that the parent can order the child around because he is right, not just because he is stronger. For that parent and for anyone else who would be religious, it would be this same realization about their own parents, which causes a devastating loss of such a critical fantasy. Erasing that fantasy leads to other questions: what else was I taught arbitrarily? Is the rest of my family like this?… and so forth. It’s not a fun proposition.

Understanding the gravity of the consequences of approaching religion from a truth-seeking angle is key to understanding the ages-old evasion technique of dotting i’s and crossing t’s instead of searching for logic and coherence. Truth seeking methodology – logic and empiricism – have the answers, and these methodologies tell us to justify our premises and adhere to the demands of parsimony. To avoid challenging their fundamental illusions, some people simply prefer the mere facade of methodology in order to pretend to themselves and others that they are truth seekers.

Quite predictably, 99% of religious activity and resources are spent on treating this problematic God-assumption as though it were true. In other words, the vast majority of publicly revealed religious activities are not designed to address fundamental arguments (indeed very few are). They are instead designed to utilize this implicit non-sequitur argument, that “we are so honest and giving and great and happy, there’s no way our religion can be wrong!” These things clearly can exist without god existing or even a belief in god (this is why it is a non-sequitur). It is true that they are nice and good things, community and sharing and loving and solidarity and charity and kumbaya around the fire. When one finds that he can substitute many different mythologies in a particular religion’s place, though, he is forced to acknowledge that those things are not an argument after all- they are predicates of value systems, not justifications thereof.

For anyone who has the patience to sit through some sociopath’s erratic fairy tale in order to successfully defeat falsehood, I have the utmost respect. By no means am I implying that myth does not need to be studied in the context of its social necessity. My conclusion has two main parts: first, that the study of mythology and religion would not be necessary if it were not the case that people hinged their personal lives upon them, particularly with regards to how they treat others; and second, that even in the context of our social necessity, far too much time is spent (at least by non-specialists) delving into the tiny inconsequential details, the turbolaser batteries and TIE fighters, of religion rather than arguing the fundamentals that serve as the basis for its rational acceptance.

If someone related to you their long and convoluted fantasy, emphasizing distinctions among details like some unicorns actually being green instead of white, you typically wouldn’t dive into it as academic study and write your dissertation on it. If everyone believed in this fantasy though, and you were being treated differently on the basis of this fantasy, or even had violence used against you as a product of it, you would have no choice but to figure out what the hell it was all about.

By the same token, if you’re busy making a living and working hard, you don’t have time for a dissertation on unicorns. Lucky for you, you are not totally in the dark or at the mercy of academics. All that is required of you is to analyze the basic foundations of a theory and see if they are sufficient for continuing discussion of the theory, and working from there. Even if you don’t succeed at reaching conclusive evidence, it’s always better than the course of action that never leads to knowledge: to delve into only a limited amount of mythological minutiae as your only thought on the subject, which will only inevitably result in your choosing of the side of the debate with the most effective propaganda apparatus. Searching “bible quotes” is NOT going to give you answers about religion. Posting on forums and arguing about the meaning of a particular line in a religious text is not only not going to give you answers, it’s going to waste your time and perhaps confer upon you the illusion of answers, which is the worst possible outcome.

One last thing to note is that, beyond the religion-bashing on my part, both religious and non-religious persons of the kind who hold that beliefs should be formed by something a bit more consistent than random impulse should take heed. Intellectual honesty on both sides of the debate is an absolute necessity; if one refuses to attain conclusive answers in the realm of a theory’s foundations and instead proceeds to just delve into the internal details, then he’s really doing nothing for truth. Doing this with a theory is like carefully calibrating to perfection a ship’s navigation system while it has a gaping hole in the hull. It is an outright denial of reality – an insane bout of wishful thinking – promoted by many reasons which I shall not address here. Its consequences are quite clear, though: the less we understand reality, the less our interactions with it produce the positive results we need. This behavior can not be good for the person who does it, nor for the people he will interact with.

Any avid debater of religious issues should keep all of that in mind. Don’t just tell me that the answer is on page 33. Tell me why page 33, or any page, has the answer. Don’t make my bunk, stock the fridge, clean the showerheads, feed the cats, or swab the decks. Please, just fix the damn hole in the ship.

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  1. September 8th, 2008 at 16:24 | #1

    well-written ending to your second to last paragraph.

    Overall a good article

  2. September 10th, 2008 at 08:18 | #2

    Thanks, Stephen. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  1. August 30th, 2008 at 17:16 | #1

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