MYTHS EXIST SO THAT WE CAN CHOOSE NOT TO BELIEVE THEM
In common parlance, “myth” means something that’s untrue, like healthcare misinformation, or the suggestion that Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve has any social value.
But words like “myth” and “mythology” also refer to the foundations of almost every major religion. Which adds up well enough for us, but you would imagine might give them some pause.
Modern Satanists of course have our myths too. Indeed, we’ve often said that the only significant difference between traditional religion and atheistic religion is we acknowledge that our myths are myths. Also, our tattoo artists are on average much better.
But this leaves the question hanging: What is myth for? What good does it do? And how do you decide if one myth is better than any others?
Internet atheists commonly refer to holy books like the Bible as “fairy tales,” in the same disgruntled tone usually reserved for phrases like “my boss’ erection.”
The frantically insecure apologetics site Got Questions (which perhaps owes some royalties to Silverstein & Partners) argues that this can’t be so, because the Bible “was god-breathed, and this essentially means god wrote it,” which is an interesting claim considering the Bible is covered with the names of people who supposedly wrote it instead.
Liberal theologian Benjamin Corey instead argues that this is just bad terminology, since fairy tales are a specific, fairly modern genre of European literature adapted from older folklore, and suggests that atheists have a “horribly unsophisticated view of literature,” the kind of talk that qualifies him for a job editing me somewhere.
Instead, the Bible is full of genres like myth, legend, and folk history, as well as things like prophecy and apocalypses–genres that have no modern equivalent outside of the emails certain people send us when the healthcare system fails them.
On one hand, Corey is entirely correct about the use of genre terms. On the other hand…shut up, nerd.
Britannica calls myths “symbolic narratives” that are “usually of unknown origin” and relate supposedly true events that are vital to a religious movement.
Myths usually involve supernatural powers and “extraordinary events,” and occur in settings that are hazily defined and remote from everyday affairs, but presented as pivotal to human life and understanding even if they’re totally disconnected from reality. So, again, pretty much just like The Bell Curve.
“Legend” originally specifically meant tales about saints which were polemical and, ah, obviously not true. But in time it came to refer to collections of folktales unique to a time, place, history, or culture, about popular figures of the past.
So, it’s a myth that the devil was cast out of Heaven for challenging god; it’s a legend that blues guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.
Note that these terms are not universally consistent: Jan Harold Brunvand’s groundbreaking folklore collection The Vanishing Hitchhiker defined a legend as any unverified story believed to be true by at least some people, parameters relevant to most religious myths and nearly all One America News content.
A myth explains the world through storytelling: Why, for example, did the ancient Israelites face violence and persecution as a nation?
The real answer is presumably a number of complicated socioeconomic factors, but the popular explanation came to be that their ancestors got chatty with the wildlife, disobeyed god, and brought both sin and greater vitamin C consumption into the world.
During the Second Temple period this wasn’t good enough for some people, so they popularized a different story about the evil power of Satan, who ruled the gentile world and persecuted them through his human surrogates: Babylon, Rome, apostasy, presumably whoever popularized stuffed miltz, etc.
And then sometimes you need new myths to explain your old myths: If there’s a devil, where did he come from? Why does he have power over the world? And so on, like a snowball of bad epistemology rolling downhill toward unsuspecting future generations.
Myths are not (usually) things we choose; rather, they’re something we’re born into. “Myths from a past period or from a society other than one’s own can usually be seen quite clearly, [but] to recognize the myths that are dominant in one’s own time and society is always difficult,” Britannica editors warn.
This is because mythology, ultimately, is an exercise in power: “A myth has its authority not by proving itself, but by presenting itself.”
I did not choose to be born into a society where most people believe Jesus Christ died on a cross and rose from the dead three confusingly calculated days later; believe me, I had no say in this matter.
All I have is the power to reject this myth: As obviously untrue, as inadequately source, as actually quite ghoulish, as not really relevant to the topic most of the time people bring it up, etc.
That’s one thing myths are good for to me as a Modern Satanist: They are things I can say no to, and thus in a small way exercise power over larger social forces.
They’re also good for one other thing: To say, “No, but…” to.
Just like the Jesus myth, I did not create, choose, or in any way verify the Satan myth; it’s something that happened to me owing to the specific circumstances of my birth, much like those first couple of post-uterine minutes when I refused to breathe and turned blue.
(I relented eventually, although certain parties are still debating whether this was a sound move.)
To this myth I also say no: No, this didn’t actually happen, no, it doesn’t exert power over my life.
In this case, though, I add a “but”: No, it’s not true, but…I like it anyway. I’ll entertain it. I’ll even identify with it. Because that’s my choice.
Myths are exercises in power. Sometimes they hold power over believers, and that’s tragic; other times, disbelievers hold power over them, and that’s liberating.
Ironically, it’s the Satan myth itself that taught me that: All the power in the world is summed up simply in the word “no.”