For those who are unaware, I consider myself a bit of a nerd. One of the feathers in the cap of nerd-dom is a wonderful British sci-fi show called Doctor Who – perhaps you’ve heard of it. I bring up Doctor Who because, having recently finished the latest season (which ended in a very satisfying way, in my humble opinion), I have been thinking of late about the importance of mythology to our cultural and personal narratives. There is a tendency for atheists to demean religious traditions as “mere mythologies”, but I think that this is an unhelpful criticism because there is something very human about the love of a mythos. We would be better served to understand that mythologies, both ancient and modern, are powerful narratives that help us describe to ourselves what it is to be human, and that very few of us (if any) are entirely free from them.
As a man who does not ground his worldview in traditional religious mythologies, I could be described as having a sort of mythos-deficiency. However, I have come to realize that there is nothing particularly special about religious mythologies; rather, I believe that the mythologies that I have adopted are as defining – if not more so – than traditional religious narratives. This is in spite of the fact that I am under no illusion that my adopted mythologies are real. I understand completely that they are fictions created by my fellow human beings and are not intended to be taken as anything else. This is, I think, where the power of secular mythologies originates. These are fundamentally human stories (and unapologetically so) created by thoroughly human beings, and through them we come to better understand what it is to be human within our world.
I have always been drawn to old mythologies. I devoured every bit of Greek, Roman, Norse, Christian, Arthurian, and Tolkien myth on which I could put my hands. As you probably noticed, I just moved (rather seamlessly, if you ask me) from a set of admittedly false traditions to a currently revered one, finally ending with a pair of overt fictions. Personally, I have never seen a difference between them other than in the devotion or veracity that others have seen in them. Intrinsically, they are cut from the same cloth. What I find fascinating at this point in my life is the importance that the fictional mythologies hold for me. I can refer to the events of a Doctor Who episode with a sort of reverence or respect that the average story does not hold for me. I identify with certain mythologies more so than others and in a weird way am better able to understand myself in the light of the mythologies that resonate with me.
I think that this is due to a very human impulse towards story-telling, particularly on the cosmic scale. As long as there have been civilization, societies have produced stories that have defined their worldviews. A mythos is a way of providing context and meaning for people and, as someone who was not unquestioningly gifted such a system by my parents, I have drifted towards ones that resonate with me. I imagine most people do the same, whether consciously or not. What I find fascinating is the way that my adopted mythologies anchor my real-world values, particularly within the realm of morality and ethics.
Given the scientifically informed worldview that I hold, I have little need for a mythological explanation for the universe, the world, and humanity. Whether rightly or no, I am intellectually satisfied in that regard. What I still crave, however, is something that both reflects and defines my moral compass. I think this is why I can drop the traditional mythological archetypes of monsters and gods from a mythology while retaining the hero figures. It is with this hero that we “normal” humans are able to relate. As idealized or grandiose versions of ourselves, these heroic figures are totally bounded by the parameters of the human condition, yet they simultaneously define the boundaries of our collective human experience.
For those unfamiliar with the Doctor, he is the last member of the alien race known as the Time Lords. They were masters of time and space until they were ultimately destroyed by the Doctor himself in a bid to end a war that was tearing apart the fabric of reality. The Doctor now (if one can even use temporal indicators when describing an active time traveler) spends his time flitting across various points in time and space, nearly always with a human companion (or two) by his side. Based on the description I have given, it may be hard to understand how someone so alien could possibly act as a fundamentally human hero.
Well, ignoring the fact that the Doctor is a character created by humans for humans, the simple fact is that the Doctor acts as a foil to human nature. He is both relatable and completely alien, with a knowledge and power that borders on the divine. Yet it is through his judgment and reflection on humanity – with all of its short-comings, weaknesses, grandeur, and glory – that we come to better understand ourselves. This is the same mechanism that makes Superman an interesting character. To paraphrase a source I regrettably cannot remember, Superman is, in his person, a critique of human nature. All of his strengths are a sort of inverted reflection of our weaknesses. His moral fortitude and steadfastness work to highlight our imperfections. He is a hero that better helps us understand ourselves even though he himself is “human” in appearance only.
I connect with the heroes from these stories as surely as others empathize with the trials and tribulations of Jesus, Muhammad, or the Lord Krishna. The fact that these stories are known to me to be fictions makes no difference. I revel in their triumphs and feel the pain of their losses as surely as I would another real-life human. I come to better understand myself by witnessing their actions because my moral compass is often ever-so-slightly calibrated by the choices they make. There is value to be had in any mythos that helps us better understand ourselves and our place in the world, and I think for someone like me – a confirmed atheist – finding and adopting secular mythologies is as important as understanding Christianity is to a Christian. Understanding this very human impulse is an important step in undermining the allure of traditional religious mythologies without unfairly criticizing people for holding to them.
It is, after all, only human to do so.
(On a side note, I was recently exposed to the long-completed comic book series The Sandman, which also got me thinking about the importance of mythologies. I highly recommend both Doctor Who – in its current incarnation – and The Sandman.)