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.