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Myth And Religion

Myth approached from the field of religious studies naturally subsumes myth under religion and thereby directly exposes myth to the challenge to religion from science. Twentieth-century theories from religious studies sought to reconcile myth with science by reconciling religion with science.

There have been two main strategies for doing so. One tactic has been the recharacterization of the subject matter of religion and therefore of myth. Here religion is not about the physical world, in which case it is safe from any encroachment by science. The myths considered under this approach to religion are traditional myths such as biblical and classical ones, but they are now read symbolically rather than literally. Myth, it is claimed, has been taken to be at odds with science because it has been misread—by those who, like Tylor, read myth literally.

The other tactic for retaining myth in the wake of science has been the elevation of seemingly secular phenomena to religious ones. Here myth is no longer confined to explicitly religious ancient tales. There are now overtly secular modern myths as well. For example, stories about heroes are at face value about mere human beings, but the humans are raised so high above ordinary mortals as to become virtual gods. This approach retains a literal reading of myth but recategorizes the literal status of the agents in myth.

The grandest exponents of a symbolic rendition of traditional religious myths were Bultmann and Jonas. Taken literally, myth for Bultmann is exactly what it is for Tylor and should be rejected as uncompromisingly as Tylor rejects it. But unlike Tylor, Bultmann reads myth symbolically. In his celebrated, if excruciatingly confusing, phrase, he "demythologizes" myth, which means not eliminating, or "demythicizing," the mythology but instead extricating its true, symbolic meaning. To seek evidence of an actual worldwide flood, while dismissing the miraculous notion of an ark containing all species, would be to demythicize the Noah myth. To interpret the flood as a symbolic statement about the precariousness of human life would be to demythologize the myth.

Demythologized, myth ceases to be about the world and turns out to be about the human experience of the world. Demythologized, myth ceases to be an explanation at all and becomes an expression, an expression of what it feels like to live in the world. The New Testament, when demythologized, contrasts the alienation from the world felt by those who have not yet found God to the at-home-ness in the world felt by those who have found God. Myth ceases to be merely primitive and becomes universal. It ceases to be false and becomes true. It depicts the human condition.

Taken literally, myth, as a personalistic explanation of the physical world, is incompatible with science and is therefore unacceptable to moderns. Once demythologized, however, myth is compatible with science because it now refers at once to the transcendent, nonphysical world and, even more, to humans' experience of the physical one. But to say that myth is acceptable to scientifically minded moderns is not to say why it should be accepted. In providing a modern subject matter of myth, Bultmann provides no modern function.

Jonas argues that ancient Gnosticism presents the same fundamental view of the human condition as modern existentialism—but of atheistic rather than, as for Bultmann, of religious existentialism. Both Gnosticism and existentialism stress the radical alienation of human beings from the world. Unlike Bultmann, who strives to bridge the gap between Christianity and modernity, Jonas acknowledges the divide between Gnosticism and modernity. Yet for Jonas, Gnostic mythology can still speak to moderns, and not to modern believers, as for Bultmann, but to modern skeptics. Like Bultmann, Jonas seeks to reconcile myth with science by recharacterizing the subject matter of myth. Yet no more than Bultmann does he offer any function of myth for moderns.

Hagiographical biographies of celebrated figures transform them into near-gods and their sagas into myths. For example, immediately after the First Gulf War, biographies of the American commander-in-chief, "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf (b. 1934), touted him as the smartest and bravest soldier in the world—so much smarter and braver than anyone else as to make him almost more than human.

The chief theorist here is the Romanian-born historian of religions Mircea Eliade (1907–1986), who spent the last three decades of his life in the United States. Unlike Bultmann and Jonas, Eliade does not seek to reconcile myth with science by interpreting myth symbolically. He reads myth as literally as Tylor does. Unlike Bultmann and Jonas, Eliade does not try to update traditional myths. But rather than, like Tylor, sticking to traditional, explicitly religious myths, he turns to modern, seemingly nonreligious ones. Yet instead of trying to reconcile those myths with science, as Bultmann and Jonas would, he appeals to the sheer presence of them to argue for their compatibility with science: if moderns, who for Eliade no less than for the others have science, also have myth, then myth simply must be compatible with science. Where Bultmann and Jonas argue meekly that moderns can have myth, Eliade argues boldly that they do. Where Tylor and Frazer assume that myth is the victim of the process of secularization, Eliade argues that only a superficial secularization has occurred.

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