Thoughts on ritual and mythology

I’ve been having a  discussion with a Christian family member about my atheism and trying to give them a clearer picture of what led me away from Christianity in particular, and then away from religion in general.

A lot of topics came up from this discussion and I plan to blog about a few of them that I have extended thoughts on. The first is the role of ritual in religion.

Relationship vs. religion

One common explanation from Christians about why their faith stands out is that Christianity is not about religion. It’s about a “relationship” with Christ. I used to think that made sense. But now, looking back, I think it’s a way to make your brand of Christianity stand out from other religions or denominations. It’s also a tacit acknowledgement that something is “off” with the rituals, rules and rigidness of traditional Christianity. This blog post from 3-D Christianity talks a little about that. In it, the writer points out that this viewpoint creates a false dichotomy that is made to point a judgmental finger at other denominations (particularly Catholics).

But what is most interesting, is an essay the 3-D Christianity blogger cites that talks about what that writer, John Suk, believes are the secular roots of the “relationship with Christ” viewpoint (read that essay here). He is very understanding on why people talk this way, but asserts that there is no Biblical basis for the idea of a “personal relationship” with Christ and that the phrasing actually causes confusion with both believers (who may feel they are not having as authentic an experience as their peers and suffer anguish over it) and non-believers (who won’t find any difference between this “relationship” with Jesus and spirit channeling) alike. Ironically, he blames “the pervasive influence of the language of secularity” on the metaphors comparing Jesus/God to a friend, parent or lover.

However, he says what causes the creation of these metaphors are the reality of feeling the absence of God and realizing, if just briefly, that the experience is not at all like when you spend time with a person you can see, touch, hear and feel. He suggests not ignoring that reality, but confronting it by seeing oneself as part of a larger whole and not focusing on the “personal” aspect. I am paraphrasing here, but be sure to read his essay to get the full picture of his points.

Myths and ritual

I think it’s a true observation that Catholicism is very heavy on ritual and rules, but that is hardly something that is  indicative of Catholics. All religions have had and still have certain ways in which they choose to worship and express themselves, largely based on tradition. However, it is a tradition that is very, very old, and often from a culture that is no longer with us or that has changed drastically. So is ritual and myth empty? I think the answer is both yes and no. Rituals, stories, myths and traditions start to feel inauthentic after a while when (after the emotional high has ceased) those things are not relevant to your life or culture. So trying to adhere to rules and norms created by people that lived many thousands of years ago is, to say the least, awkward.

James Campbell talks a lot about the role of myths, rituals and traditions. In this interview, he says “mythology is a validation of experience.” He offers the Jesus story as an example: he was crucified, buried for three days, rose from the dead and then rose back to heaven. Campbell points out:

“[We] know that going at the speed of light they would not be out of the galaxy yet. And you know what it means for a physical body to go up into the stratosphere.”

Of this, he says that image does not fit the contemporary mind, because of what we now know about the universe, saying:

You’ve got to translate these things into contemporary life and experience. Mythology is a validation of experience, giving it its spiritual or psychological dimension. And if you have a lot of things that you can’t correlate with contemporary nature, you can’t handle it.”

Campbell suggests “mythologizing” what we know today scientifically, so we can “validate our experience”. Part of the problem, as he saw it, are that humans need new myths. They need to be able to relate to a tradition or story. The superheroes of comic books and cult phenomenons like Star Trek might seem trite, but they are no different than the stories about Zeus or Poseidon. What is different, is that we can relate much better to the adventures of Captain Kirk or the X-Men, than we can to some ancient Greek (or Hebrew) god. These contemporary stories reflect our knowledge of the universe and what we can imagine being possible with space travel and natural explanations for extraordinary abilities (e.g., a genetic mutation).

So, I think stories, myths and rituals are good for us. The challenge, is taking what is useful and educational, without a belief in the stories being literally true, especially where there is every indication that it is not. Also, we need to resist the urge to go overboard in systemizing beliefs.

 

Christianity and Star Trek

I’ve always been a huge fan of Star Trek (ST). On the surface, it appears to be just a fun science fiction series. And it is. However, as any serious Trek fan knows, there is much more beneath the surface.

ST creator Gene Roddenberry’s secular philosophy is obvious. And lately, I’ve started wondering how avid fans, that also happened to consider themselves strong Christians, viewed the series.

Speaking for myself, while still a Christian, I remember watching an episode of the original series and thinking, “Where does God fit into ST’s vision of the future?” The people of Earth have finally created the means to venture far out into space. They’ve met beings from other worlds who have never heard of any of the religions on our blue orb, much less Christianity in particular.

If that kind of progress became a reality, how does it fit into God’s plan?

The answer was simple. God does not fit into ST’s vision of the future. Both alien and human cultures/religions exist. Rituals and beliefs about how things came to be exist.

But belief in God, as a literal entity, an intelligent, omnipotent, omniscient being that controls our fates and the world around us, that punishes or rewards based on obedience to specific laws or commands, had largely vanished.

Even after realizing that, it never stopped me from enjoying the series and movies for what they were. Now, as a secular humanist, I appreciate Roddenberry’s creative, hopeful vision for the future even more. But some Christian Trek fans think otherwise.

After a Google search, I found that many Christian Trek fans lamented the absence of a “Bibical message” and Christian characters (as a side-note, I found it amusing that they were not terribly concerned about Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism getting the same treatment).

Others, however, see what they believe to be many parallels between Christianity and Trek. They seemed almost willfully ignorant of the true philosophy behind the series.

So, I guess it’s a mixed bag. I think when religious-minded people really like something, they find a way to fit it into their worldview. But why does it have to fit into anything at all? Especially when we’re talking about something as benign as a TV series. If you like it, just enjoy it without guilt. If you don’t, it’s not “evil”; just don’t watch it.

ITYC podcast interview

Michelle McCrary, from Is That Your Child Radio, interviewed me a few weeks ago and it was posted on July 6. I loved it! I had so much fun talking with Michelle about raising mixed kids, interracial relationships, natural hair and being a brown nerd. You can listen to the interview here.

Time was limited, so we didn’t get to talk about nerd stuff as much as I wanted to. As an African-American woman, I don’t fit the usual mold in a lot of areas; for instance I am not religious (I am, in fact, an atheist and secular humanist). And I have always loved science-fiction in any form (books/television/movies) and comics. I can’t think of one girlfriend during my childhood/teen years that shared my interest in any of these things.

Speaking of sci-fi, now that my religious/philosophical leanings have evolved, I’ve come to appreciate even more the creative genius of Gene Roddenberry and the future he imagined in Star Trek. I’m thinking that will be the subject of a future post!

Now, on friendships…

In my previous post, I got that NYT link from this blog post on BlogHer about the BFF phenom and how some girls, in her observation, use it to control their friendships.

She’s got an interesting point here, and makes me think about how some people have a need to control the relationships (and by extension the other person) in their life. We’re told over and over to beware of relationships with partners that might become controlling and dysfunctional but I would enlarge that to encompass friends, too. Or parents. Whoever.

When you think about it, the whole “best friend” thing, as the BlogHer writer mentioned, is pretty immature. It’s okay if you are in grade school (although that could be debatable), but as you get older, you should begin to see that there is a whole big world out there with lots of people to meet, and not limit yourself to just a small group of friends.

Or, worse, one friend.

No one person can meet all of your emotional, social and intellectual needs. Even introverts, whose friendship circle may be much smaller compared to extroverts, can have diversity in their friendships. Diversity is having friends that don’t necessarily think like or have all the same interests as you do. There is nothing wrong with connecting with someone on one thing, and nothing else.

And believe me, commonality has it’s place; I can talk for a long time with my brother about some random aspect on Star Trek or Batman or which X-Men movie sucked (it was The Last Stand, of course). With my spouse? Not so much. But there are plenty of other things we can talk about; he is not required to like Star Wars (although I did require that he see Revenge of the Sith with me and bro).

Bottomline: in my opinion, diversity in friendships contributes to maturity and makes life much more interesting.