November 29, 2010
The myth of Christmas
So the group American Atheists has put up this billboard outside the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey:
I’m not even going to get started on the billboard’s implications that faith and reason are mutually exclusive conditions of being. Or that only atheists are reasonable people. Or that all religious belief is literal and simpleminded. Or its smarmy pretenses to intellectual superiority. Or the fact that–though it’s sadly true that atheists have for many years endured inexcusable insults, abuse, and persecution from believers–lumping all Christian believers together into a stereotype, insulting their intellectual capacity, and spitting on the significance of their holiday is probably not the greatest way to win friends, allies, respect or acceptance.
What I do want to critique is the billboard’s chief assertion–which I hear from some atheists quite frequently–that religious beliefs amount to nothing more than myth, or even fairy tale. (And I say SOME atheists, because most I know do not go around insulting other people’s beliefs just because they don’t share or understand them. Just like most of the religious people I know don’t believe, or go around telling atheists, that they’re amoral devil worshipers who are all going to hell unless they’re saved by Jesus.)
Yes, I know it’s a myth, thanks very much. I’m a Christian, and I know that the Christmas story is a myth.
But atheists who condescendingly call religious stories myths and fairy tales actually aren’t succeeding in insulting religion. They’re showboating their own ignorance and shallowness by belittling the cultural and emotional importance of myth and fairy tale.
When we think of “myths,” most of us probably think first of the Greek and Roman myths, which maybe we learned in school, and were probably told that they were the way that ancient people explained natural phenomena like the seasons because they didn’t have science yet. So we got the impression that myths are simplistic stories that ignorant people make up for themselves to explain what they otherwise can’t.
And “fairy tales” now carry a strong connotation of “Disney” in American culture–sweet and fanciful stories to comfort children with, which always have happy endings.
But neither of these is historically accurate. Most people know by this time that the original fairy tales of medieval Europe were not at all what Disney later made of them; they were dark and frightening and contained more than ample murder, rape, child abuse, grinding poverty, evil, and sorrow and suffering of every kind. And they didn’t sugarcoat or dumb down the reality of these things for children. They weren’t told to distract children from the horrors of their daily existence, but to illustrate, symbolically, how to confront and cope with them.
And to really be familiar with the Greek/Roman, Scandinavian, Celtic, ancient Japanese, or any other culture’s collection of myths, they’re not superficial or simplistic little stories about why we have seasons; they’re incredibly multidimensional, psychologically rich narratives about a culture’s conceptions of its relation to morality, fate, death, nature, birth and renewal, eternity, and love.
And we’re still telling and retelling those stories, every day, in every possible medium–in movies, books, music, theater and dance. In comic books, even. We’re still moved and educated and entertained by them. Not because we think that they’re literally or factually true, but because they have powerful emotional and intuitive resonance with timeless human experiences that can be hard to articulate or accept in literal ways. Not because we unquestioningly believe them, but because they make us question. They are supposed to make us think more deeply about our own lives, not stop thinking.
So it doesn’t offend me when anyone calls religious experiences and stories myths. Because they are, in the best sense of the word. They give common voice to the most difficult and intimate of human experiences. What’s maddening is when people hurl “myth” as an insult, without any apparent understanding of what they’re saying. It reveals much more about their own disdain for what they don’t understand than it does about the significance of religious celebration.