This article is the latest in a series — for links to the earlier ones, please see under Mythology on the Blog Index Page.
My theme is the search for a new mythology to inspire and unite humanity. People obviously have a need for such unifying stories, because even materialist, atheistic Enlightenment scientists, who would obviously consider the ancient myths with which we are familiar to be false beliefs belonging to a bygone, pre-scientific age, have recognised their importance, and try to create such stories from what they perceive to be scientific truths.
Some of the stories (myths) they tell are Darwinian evolutionary theory (now known as the neo-Darwinian Synthesis), the belief that consciousness is a by-product (epiphenomenon) of the brain, and the Big Bang, which is definitely a creation myth (whether it is true or not is debatable). I believe that the first two are false, and that the third, even if it is true, was arrived at following some fallacious scientific thinking, and has therefore been embraced too enthusiastically1.
Here are some examples of scientists and scientific writers who use these probably false ideas to create a modern mythology:
Edward Wilson, the American pioneer of sociobiology and prominent atheist, who “argued that evolution both explained why humans needed religion, and supplied the best religion achievable in a secular world. In the late 1970s, in On Human Nature, he told how scientific materialism ‘presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion. Its narrative form is the epic, the evolution of the universe from the big bang’. Twenty years later, in Consilience, he came back to the idea that ‘people need a sacred narrative… If the sacred narrative cannot be in the form of a religious cosmology, it will be taken from the material history of the human species’ ”2.
biologist Ursula Goodenough who said: “The big bang, the formation of stars and planets, the advent of human consciousness and the resultant evolution of cultures — this is the story, the one story, that has the potential to unite us, because it happens to be true”3.
science writer John Horgan, who believes that we are coming to the end of science in that we have discovered just about everything important, talks about the impressive narrative of how we came to be: the big bang, DNA, natural selection, Darwinian evolution. He says: “My guess is that this narrative that scientists have woven from their knowledge, this modern myth of creation, will be as viable 100 or even 1,000 years from now as it is today. Why? Because it is true”4.
David Christian, who wants to create a human family, and believes that we need a unifying story based on science. In his book Origin Story5 he tells the orthodox scientific myth, as outlined above.
Steven Pinker, whose book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress6, tells the same story. His myth is that the vision he offers is the answer to humanity’s problems.
Julian Huxley, who in Essays of a Humanist7 builds a philosophy of ‘Evolutionary Humanism’ upon a foundation of Darwinian evolutionary theory, “affirming the unity of mind and body… affirming the continuity of man with the rest of life, and of life with the rest of the universe; naturalistic instead of supernaturalist, affirming the unity of the spiritual and the material; and global instead of divisive, affirming the unity of all mankind” (p77). The last idea sounds quite spiritual, although it is hard to see how he arrives at this conclusion, given what he believes.
If this story is as true as these writers believe, why has it not already united humanity? The things that they say are true (the big bang, Darwinian evolution, the advent of consciousness) are all arguably, and probably, false. Perhaps we need a new mythology based upon a better, true science, and the myths of ancient times.
Also, even if all these ideas are true, there is still nothing really inspiring about them. How can scientific ‘facts’ fulfill Joseph Campbell’s first function of mythology, the mystical or metaphysical: “to waken and maintain in individuals a sense of fascination, awe and gratitude in relation to the mystery dimension of the universe, so that they recognize that they participate in it, since the mystery of being is the mystery of their own deep being as well; to open the heart and mind to the divine mystery that underlies all forms, the experience of life as a tremendous mystery”8.
Seemingly in agreement, Goodenough says that “a cosmology works as a religious cosmology only if it resonates, only if it makes the listener feel religious” (also Pxvi). She says that the purpose of her book is “to present an accessible account of our scientific understanding of Nature and then suggest ways that this account can call forth appealing and abiding religious responses” (Pxvii). How can Enlightenment science do this, since its avowed purpose is to find naturalistic, rational explanations for the perceived mysteries of life, and is therefore actually opposed to this function?
At the beginning of his book Steven Pinker tells an interesting story. He had just given a talk in which he had “explained the commonplace among scientists that mental life consists of patterns of activity in the tissues of the brain. A student in the audience raised her hand and asked me: ‘Why should I live?’ ”(p3). This could be interpreted as, “If what you say is true, I might as well commit suicide”, which shows just how inspiring scientific ‘truth’ can be. Pinker says that the student was not actually suicidal, rather that she was suggesting that life is pointless, if the modern scientific worldview is true (therefore equally uninspiring). He says: “I mustered a reasonably creditable answer”, obviously in line with his belief in the Enlightenment, Reason, Science, and Humanism. It would be interesting to know how impressed the student was.
In the next articles in the series I’ll be offering critiques of some of the books mentioned above. Click here for the next article.
1. I’ve written a series of articles on this theme. For the most relevant to my current point, click here.
2. I haven’t read these books. This is a quote from a chapter by Jon Turney called “What is Life About?” in Big Questions in Science, ed. Harriet Swain, Jonathan Cape, 2002, p223.
3. The Sacred Depths of Nature, OUP, 1998, Introduction, Pxvi
4. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, Jonathan Cape, 2002, p16
5. Allen Lane 2018
6. Penguin Books, 2019
7. Pelican Books, 1966
8. Here I’m quoting the second article of this series.