Personal Thoughts on Joseph Campbell's "Myths to Live By" - Ch. 1 "The Impact of Science on Myth"

The Impact of Science on Myth

Campbell, ironically, begins this lecture on the outdated nature of myth with, in my opinion, a myth of his own. It's a story that became common to the new atheists of the latter half of the 20th century. This is the myth of the young scientific martyr showing his parents to be fools for holding onto their "religious fairy tales" in the face of scientific "facts." After all, as he repeats, "we have the bones," the controversy is settled. 

But reading this lecture 60 years later, it has become abundantly clear how overly-stated the argument actually is. It is much easier to see from today's perspective how the fairytale of Scientism (that all things can be reduced to matter and energy and explained by hard sciences) is, itself, absurd. The "we have the bones" mantra should more realistically be translated, "Well, we found a few bones, and then under the guise of objectivity (the brave martyrs for science we are) used our preexisting reductionist assumptions to fill in all of the missing information." 

And so their cry for the downfall of religious faith, and the traditions that have built the civilized world, have turned on them as people realized that such claims are oversold, and that Scientism is just as much a religion of faith as any other. 1 Also a scientific morality which considers us only as bodies is bound to fail miserable at producing human flourishing on a societal level ... and in fact will probably cause mass genocide like the last atheistic worldview takeover with Communism in the 20th century. Now I know some today would counter by saying that the Atheist Humanist Manifesto doesn't necessarily involve communism, and fair enough, but what values is society based around in a purely Materialist world?? We had a taste of that in the early 20th century in America and Europe ... and it produced Social Darwinism. 

Most notably in this lecture by Campbell from 1961, he fails miserably in his attempt to interpret and "debunk" the Biblical stories. It's the same issues I find with Sam Harris, and the other popular atheists today. They read and understand Christianity from other atheists, and never bother to do enough research to understand it as a serious Christian would. For example, I have heard Sam Harris talk about how the essence of Christianity is human sacrifice because we uphold the sacrifice of Jesus, and how humanity needs to evolve past the glorification of human sacrifice ... ummm wut? No practicing Christian I have ever met thought that the essence of being Christian was glorifying human sacrifice. 

All in all, the only really useful part of this chapter I found was the middle part of the importance of spiritual belief, and how society literally stands and depends on these beliefs. 

"Music of the Spheres" - The Cosmology of the Ancients
One interesting thing in this chapter is Campbell's recounting of the cosmology of the Ancient and Medieval world. One of the main views represented in the 12th and 13th centuries was that earth was a sphere inside of six gradually larger transparent spheres. In each of these spheres were the planets. Overall, the universe was a series of harmonies in each of its dimensions, from physical, to spiritual. 

"... the earth was not flat, but a solid stationary sphere in the center of a kind of Chinese box of seven transparent revolving spheres, in each of which there was a visible planet: the moon, Mercury, Venus, and the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, the same seven after which our days of the week are named. The sounding tones of these seven, moreover, made a music, the 'music of the spheres,' to which the notes of our diatonic scale correspond. There was also a metal associated with each: silver, mercury, copper, gold, iron, tin, and lead, in that order. And the soul descending from heaven to be born on earth picked up, as it came down, the qualities of those metals; so that our souls and bodies are compounds of the very elements of the universe and sing, so to say, the same song." 

Musical tones, the essential disciplines of education, etc all mirrored this seven staged design. 2 The spheres were living, being inhabited by angels and ideas. God then was beyond all of it, and in returning to God in death, the soul would pass through all of these spheres, being stripped of its materiality. "Thus in the total view of the medieval thinkers there was a perfect accord between the structure of the universe, the canons of the social order, and the good of the individual." In the Church too, a model of the universe could be demonstrated. When Satan was cast out of Heaven and into the depths of the earth into Hell, the earth displaced from his plummet into the earth formed the mountain of purgatory, leading souls to Heaven. 3 

Campbell, then turns to the explorers and scientists who rewrote the Medieval and Biblical notion of cosmology. (Campbell looks down upon the ancients for their "primitive" understanding of cosmology, but what else did we expect from them? They are describing the world with the vocabulary that they have. The essential truths related to salvation that they are conveying are absolutely still true. Also, in 4,000 years, civilization will look back at our models of the universe and laugh at us as well.) 

Campbell's Syllabus of Juvenile Mistakes with the Bible 
Then Campbell turns to critiquing the idea of Noah's flood, claiming it to be a "theory that could not be 'factualized.'" The smug dismissal doesn't hold up well even just a few decades later. More evidence is emerging that there was something equivalent to Noah's flood. Just recently a documentary, Ancient Apocalypse on Netflix came out showing how there is evidence at the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 BC that there was a massive flood, and how it can be seen recorded in cultures all over the world. Now, whether everything presented in the documentary series is absolutely correct remains to be seen. What is clear, though is that the scientific establishment has a stake in preserving its official Materialist narrative, and so it is going to attack and blacklist anyone who breaks from that narrative. For evidence of this, look at another documentary by Ben Stein, Expelled No Intelligence Allowed. 4 

He then turns to the genesis of man, claiming that the bones and remains of man have been found before the supposed literal dating of Genesis, thereby reducing it to child's fiction. This is such a pathetic interpretation of Genesis because who said that the days of creation or the ages of individuals in Genesis were ever meant to be interpreted as absolutely literal? He also points out the Biblical verse which refers to Cain as a farmer and city builder already, being only the second generation ever created. Therefore, Genesis must be inaccurate. Again, hilarious, because that is very point. Adam and Eve aren't mentioned having any daughters either, and so what Campbell is doing is something equivalent to saying, "HA, they had no daughters, and humans cannot reproduce without women, therefore Genesis is false!". Obviously, Genesis is mentioning key points which are selectively chosen for the point of the story (which at this point in Genesis is about the holy lineage and genealogy). Genesis is not meant to be a complete and scientific account of life at that time. Genesis is a religious and theological history

There is no conflict for Catholics in saying that there were others humanoid creatures at the time of Adam and Eve. Genesis even makes some type of reference to the descendants of Adam and Eve through Seth mating with creatures they weren't supposed to, producing a race of giants called "the fallen". "There were giants upon the earth at this time, as well as afterward. They were the children of the sons of God who married the daughters of men. These were the heroes of times past, men of renown." Who were these other creatures, maybe creatures like Neanderthals? What Catholics believe is that God gave Adam and Eve a human soul with reason which those other creatures did not have. If they did mate with them, may have passed on to them, but that all humans have still descended from Adam and Eve (something which I believe is shown in our X (X chromosome Adam) and Y (Y chromosome Eve) chromosomes). For more on what Catholics must believe about Genesis, see the encyclical Humani Generis by Pope Pius XII. 

There is no conflict between authentic science and authentic Biblical interpretation. What people like Campbell do is to create a strawman out of the Bible by using "literalist" interpretations to easily knock down. By literalist I mean interpreting the text without any context of what the author intended to convey to the reader. If God created in seven days, that to Campbell means seven 24 hour days, rather than being symbolic or having anything to do with the fact that the number 7 in Hebrew is also their same word for "to make a covenant with," and creation is completed with God making a family covenant with humanity. ... How short sighted for someone who is supposed to be a scholar of religion. Again, the Catholic belief is that since God is the author of all truth, authentic science and correct Biblical interpretation actually compliment one another and create a larger picture of truth, and thus can never be at odds. The problem enters in when we either have faulty science, or incorrect interpretation of Scripture.

He repeats this over and over, turning next to Exodus, claiming that there is only record of the Hebrews in an earlier period of Egyptian history. Well, the dates themselves are disputed, that doesn't mean they weren't there. He then claims that everything in the Old Testament wasn't written until after the Babylonian Exile, that it was impossible for Noah to take all animals onto the Ark, and that Genesis has two creation stories right next to one another. All of which are supposed to be problems. 

First, the ancient world had a powerful tradition of oral history, and one which has been shown to have been very accurate and stable over long generations of time. Second, the dating of all these OT books and documents is highly disputed. Often people like Campbell, and other atheist scholars, choose their preferred dating based on ideologically driven beliefs, such as a non-belief that prophecy is possible. For example, they would say, God doesn't exist; therefore prophecy cannot happen; therefore if there is a reference to an event happening which claims to be before the event and foretelling it, it cannot be. Therefore, the work must have been written after the event. Sometimes, that is literally all the thought that is put into the "dating." It very well may be the case that there were generations and generations of written versions, but were decayed and lost to history. Sometimes it is catastrophes which cause civilizations or groups to write down and consciously save their history because of the fear of being wiped out. This doesn't have anything to do with their original date. 

Third, in what world are we supposed to read that Noah took, literally, every single animal on the Ark? Does that mean he didn't take any, though? Clearly, not. And as far as the two Genesis creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 respectively, these have been shown by Catholic Biblical scholar, Scott Hahn to be a common literary device in the Ancient Near East where a story is told from a larger bird's eye perspective, and then retold from a more detailed first person-like perspective. Lastly, Campbell critiques the ordering of the days of creation and what each one entails, claiming its a view of the "fourth century B.C.". Well, again, try to consider the passage, and its meaning, as coming from an ancient Jewish author. For example, the work of Dr. John Bergsma has added a great depth to this. Bergsma points out that the first line in Genesis is with the cosmos being "formless and void." Then days one through three give a form to everything - light, dark, sky, sea, and land - and then days four through six fill the void with inhabitants - sun, moon, birds, fish, land animals. Again, a symbolic ordering of the cosmos is represented in the text, not an attempted "scientific" account. 

I am not doing justice to fully debunking these ridiculous claims that Campbell is parroting because that is beyond the scope of this post, but hopefully you can at least see that there is way more to the story, and if many of these atheist scholars stopped and actually talked to a real theologian, they would get a much different perspective than their strawman version of Christianity. 5

Campbell continues claiming that one can find all the same elements of Christian doctrine in the mythologies of the world, thus reducing it from the revelation of God to something natural. First, we all share a human nature, and so of course there are going to be universal themes and archetypes which are comparable. And if God were to reveal himself to humanity, to become incarnate, would it not happen along the lines of those realities which are must fundamental to being human? (Secondly, in what Darwinian and Materialist world are eternal archetypes real? This in and of itself is an ironic part of Campbell's work, but too much to get into within this post.)

There are also beliefs to Judaism and Christianity which are not found in other cultures, it just so happens that Christianity has so formed Western Civilization that even the atheist doesn't realize how incredible it is that Christianity has generated a culture in which the individual is given dignity through having the image of God, a culture which has elevated every class and race of people. Likewise, the order and design of the universe has evoked in all men a sense that there is a higher intelligence to the world, thereby causing him to search for God. All men have searched for the creator of the universe because the universe has called him into that search. If there was nothing reflecting a higher transcendent order, then no one would ask, or have asked, the question. 6

The Social Foundations of Belief
Finally, Campbell gets to an interesting topic in this lecture. He mentions how the literal interpretation of religious belief is the social and moral foundation of society, and when these beliefs are lost civilization will implode into nihilism. "For not only has it always been the way of multitudes to interpret their own symbols literally, but such literally read symbolic forms have always been - and still are, in fact - the supports of their civilizations, the supports of their moral orders, their cohesion, vitality, and creative powers. With the loss of them there follows uncertainty, and with uncertainty, disequilibrium ..." 

(I know that Campbell, and certain Harris, would say that, therefore, beliefs are "useful lies" because their worldview of Materialism has already decided that nothing can exist except matter and energy. "Lie are what the world lives on," Campbell says". BUT, if society will literally collapse if abstract moral beliefs are destroyed ... then aren't those realities more real than material things? How do we judge that which is most real to us? Wouldn't a good criteria be that which impacts human life the most? And so the spiritual side of humanity is that which we all believe to be most real because that is how we live. We live as though the most intangible beliefs we have are the most real in our lives. Dostoyevsky shows this in Crime and Punishment, murder is not simply a physical act, or a utilitarian act, it is a spiritual act of the destruction of another human being with dignity. Now, not all beliefs are the same, or equally valuable. But the most true beliefs are most in accord with the nature of the universe and the nature of man, and thus produce the best society. 

In so many words, what makes something a "lie" versus the "truth"? I think people would agree, it is their accordance with reality. If society, and humans, cannot live properly or well without religious belief, then by the definition we gave, wouldn't it be more truth than the physical world? ) 7

To continue Campbell's words: "With our old mythologically founded taboos unsettled by our own modern sciences, there is everywhere in the civilized world a rapidly rising incidence of vice and crime, mental disorders, suicides and dope addictions, shattered homes, impudent children, violence, murder, and despair. These are facts; I am not inventing them." Again, if this is the case ... what is really the myth, Christian belief, or the belief that sciences explains everything? Again, implicit in a statement like this is the fairytale of Scientism. 8

In Search for a Scientific Savior
Campbell's solution is to search for a "scientized" mythology, a psychological understanding of the need for belief, though he never even reaches a semblance of an answer in this lecture, or even suggests anything coherent that might be an answer. "... we must not ask whether it is not possible to arrive scientifically at such an understanding of the life-supporting nature of myths, that in criticizing their archaic features, we do not misinterpret and disqualify their necessity- ..." He flirts with the idea of psychologizing the wisdom based in Judaism and Christianity in order to use it without any necessity of belief in metaphysical truths. He says to "evolve techniques of retaining these in health...", whatever that means. This launches him into a discussion of certain psychologists of the 20th century. 9

First, he turns to Sir James G Frazer and his book The Golden Baugh. His essential thesis was that in an attempt to understand the outside, natural world, and control it, man resorted to myth and religion. Religion, for Frazer, was equivalent to magic. We do an act and associate it with its desired effect, then believing it has real power in the world. 10 

Then Campbells turns to Sigmund Freud, which I will present here in Campbell's words: "Myths, according to Freud's view, are of the psychological order of dream. Myths, so to say, are public dreams; dreams are private myths. Both, in his opinion, are symptomatic of repressions of infantile incest wishes, the only essential difference between a religion and neurosis being that the former is the more public. The person with a neurosis feels ashamed, alone and isolated in his illness, whereas the gods are general projections onto a universal screen. They are equally manifestations of unconscious, compulsive fears and delusions. Moreover, all the arts, and particularly religious arts, are, in Freud's view, similarly pathological; likewise all philosophies. Civilization itself, in fact, is a pathological surrogate for unconscious infantile disappointments." 

Then Campbell turns to Carl Jung who has a much more positive view of religion and myth. In Jung's view, these are archetypal stories which encode wisdom about the human condition, and how bring about a successful existence in the world. And so we must return to them so that we return to the power that lies deep within our consciousness and can renew our ever changing conditions with the outside world. 

"They are telling us in picture language of powers of the psyche to be recognized and integrated in our lives, powers that have been common to the human spirit forever, and which represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the millenniums. Thus they have not been, and can never be, displaced by the findings of science, which relate rather to the outside world than to the depths that we enter in sleep. Through a dialogue conducted with these inwards forces through our dreams and through a study of myths, we can learn to know and come to terms with the greater horizon of our own deeper and wiser, inward self. And analogously, the society that cherishes and keeps its myths alive will be nourished from the soundest, richest strata of the human spirit." 11

Now Jung does recognize that getting stuck in past structures can also hinder progress into the future, in his opinion. And so Campbell continues saying that if only the West had dispensed with Christianity sooner that it would have advanced in science faster and further. 12 Campbell also claims that so many non European cultures remained static in nature, without progress, because they had no conception of modern science as finally developed in Europe. 13 

And so, Campbell abruptly concludes, in this modern age (presumably that is part of the point of his lecturing in 1961, celebrating this claim.) that finally, Science, in the West, has taken the place of mythology in that Science is continually open to new transformation and discovery and is not bogged down by unchanging religious beliefs. "And so, my friends, we don't know a thing, and not even our science can tell us a sooth; for it is no more than, so to say, an eagerness for truths, no matter where their allure may lead." (Again, just as long as you don't question the dogmas of Materialism). 14 Science knows nothing for sure, except that it wants to keep knowing. "There is no 'Thou Shalt!' any more. There is nothing one has to believe, and there is nothing one has to do." And so this is the idea of Science as man's new Savior ... that we have no belief except belief in an ever open changing process of progress. (Again, the problem is ... Science only deals with the physical world, so what about the world or morality and social and political organization in the search for a good life? Well ... Campbell never really addressing those things, but the myth of Scientism continues on.) 15

1 - Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. 3
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