An atheist speaks out.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Mythos vs. Logos

The reading this week for my Scholar's Seminar is the introduction of the book The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong. In this book she studies and attempts to analyze fundamentalist movements in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

She emphasizes in the introduction the difference between what scholars call mythos and logos. She says, "Both were essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence."

"Myth was ... concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life ... and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning."

" Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world ... Logos is practical ... logos forges ahead and tries to find something new..."

For millennia there had been a balance of power between mythos and logos, each of which had its own important role to play in our lives. In the modern age however, logos has become greatly overpowering, as we yield to and rely more and more on science. Armstrong proposes that since we have discounted mythos in favor of logos, the fundamentalists have "tried to turn the mythos of their faith into logos."

This is an interesting dilemma. By disturbing the balance of mythos and logos in the development of a science oriented culture, we have discounted the true and noble purpose of mythos in society. Mythos has recently regained much of its power, but in a distorted way.

Speaking about mythos, Armstrong says they "were not intended to be taken literally." I think there are many religious stories, and other stories from mythology, that are worth reading because they convey important ideas and can promote moral behavior. While perhaps not mythology, Aesop's fables comes to mind as an example.

It scares me a lot that in my country the fundamentalists who take their religious mythos as logos are growing more and more powerful politically. Most disturbing, I think, is the simple fact that while the majority of Americans may share the beliefs of the fundamentalists to some extent, there are many people whose beliefs are completely different, and even contradictory. I would understand the creation of laws and policies based on religious beliefs if all citizens shared these views, but it seems terribly undemocratic and perhaps immoral to do so in a country which was founded upon the principle of liberty and operates under the principle of separation of church and state.

This is how to make everyone, or at least most people, happy: Let's go back to the old balance between mythos and logos. We will venerate mythological traditions of all religions and these will help us grow morally and philosophically. What we learn from these traditions is learned on a personal level, and will guide us in our spiritual lives, and in our interactions with other people and with our environment. We will also value very highly the pursuit of logos, and the logos is what would lead us in our practical lives. The government's laws and policies will be based on the logos, and the logos will increase the quality of our physical lives.


Blogger catso said...

Karen Armstrong wants people to read religious texts as poetry, and poetry that provides ancient and moving insight into the mystery of existence, as myth and poetry does. So does science obviously but in a different way. Where science is concerned with data, poetry tries to lay grasp on the ungraspable, on those aspects of the subjective experience from which there is no definitive data to speak of. (There is always something abysmally clinical i think in psychiatrists speaking of "data" in regard to the fleeting impressions and feelings of human emotion and thought.)

I think that engaging the fundamentalists on a textual level is much more constructive than saying" "all religion is meaningless and those who pay attention to it are idiots." After all, what would the history of western thought be without biblical or mythological references?

Let's read religious texts as poetry, not with the belief that they represent history accurately, all the while accepting that poetry is not marginal but a means, like science, to elucidate the unknowable mystery of the human experience.

9:20 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home