A Myth Is Not A Lie?

I went to visit my folks over the fathers day weekend.  And as usual, my dad and I got into a variety of debates about life, religion, etc.

Our conversations often surround some aspect of religion that leave him adamantly articulating a textbook religious position, and me grasping for other possibilities.

David Eagleman argues for what he calls possibilianism, which rejects many of the claims of traditional theism, and also the certainty expressed by atheist, leaving way for a middle ground of possibilities. And in some ways…my dad and I nibble on this concept through our conversations. Or maybe better put, I attempt to spearhead this effort.

Although my dad often leans towards seeing the world through a more traditionally religious understanding of God, I attribute much of my questioning posture today…to him.

It’s not uncommon for him to ideate about quantum physics…string theory…and a number of much more nuanced ways of seeing reality. It’s the scientist in him I guess. And it’s this commitment to critical thinking that may have been inherited somehow.

But when the subject turns to religion…there always seems to be this momentous bedrock of a traditional religious worldview that directs his life. And sometimes I can sense the battle between that desire to explore, and the comfort of what he has always known.

And me? At this point in my life…I tend to lean away from organized religion, but not to the extent that I discontinue to challenge myself on this question of God.

On The Subject of Myth

One of our conversations settled on how it could be possible that there was only one way to God, or one religion that was the key to mans salvation, when history, and present day, are full of cultures who never heard a specific literal church doctrine?

Is it possible that truth is somehow bigger than the idea that one organized religion can monopolize?

Enter Joseph Campbell.

Author, thinker, and American Mythologist.  I’ve been reading some of his work lately.  And the conversations between my father and I, made me think of this subject of myth, and how Campbell entertains the possibility that a non literal take on many of the religious stories, reveal something universal.

The gist of his work is similar to David Eaglemans Possibilianism. Only in the sense that both offer a middle ground, or another way of looking at reality, that go beyond your traditional theism vs atheism debate.

Here, Joseph Campbell tackles the misconception that a myth is a lie.  He stresses that it is metaphor…and then goes on to clarify what a metaphor is.

This is how the interviewer in Campbell’s story defines a metaphor.

“So and so runs very fast…people say he runs like a deer.”

Campbell disagrees, and says no.

The metaphor is…he is a deer.

Campbell goes on to state that…

“God is a metaphor for  a mystery that transcends all categories of thought.  Even the categories of being and non being…whether its doing you any good…if its not…then its a lie.”

“Half of the people in the world are religious people who think their metaphors are facts..those are what we call theist…the other half are people who know that those metaphors are not fact, and so think they are lies…and those are the atheist.”

What do you think?  


  • I don’t know that you can have a hierarchy of mythology… When you have a metaphor you are pointing to a truth and the tool with which you are pointing is not the point. If something contains the truth via metaphor then there is little use in attaching yourself to a metaphor that was only a vehicle for bringing you to that truth. I think the only measure of the value of a metaphor is the way in which it conveys the message and there are likely to be numerous ways. 

    For example if I said, “I am a butterfly” you may determine that I am feeling beautiful, and carefree…feeling sunny and peaceful. Unless, of course, a butterfly conjures images of pinned wings to presentation boards or something like that; in which case that metaphor wouldn’t work for you. To convey the ideas of beautiful, carefree, sunny, and peaceful, I’d have to try something else. Can we afford to throw any away?

    I don’t think so. I personally shy away from any hierarchy and try to find value in them all. Then again, there may be some in existence which are actually intended to be detrimental… In that case I suppose we do need some universal moral theme to guide us. I found one in the most ironic place some years ago, in the very often vilified Wiccan religion: “An ye harm none, do what ye will.”   

  • Anonymous says:

    I appreciate your reply Connie!!!!  I needed some reinforcements on this one.  Definitely some off the cuff thinking on my part.  

    I agree with you…I’m not suggesting any be thrown away.  
    My question was how then do we determine what this “universal moral theme” should be?  (Which you touched on in your last paragraph.)

    What does the landscape of mythology truly represent?  I’m speaking as one who is just beginning to sense this idea of a grand narrative/monomyth.  

    How can one claim, without some sort of statistical analysis or…ahh…something…..that there is a monomyth that follows some sort of universal moral theme, and that this reveals some innate, or God/universal message for mankind…? And are there other themes in mythology that some may choose to guide them?  It’s the hierarch of moral themes that I’m mulling over…Is this a purely subjective thing?  Or can we point to some evidence…wether external, internal/instinctive…that says…here is the universal theme…live this.

  • Hey Veron!

    Your response was quite the challenge and I really had to think about it… I’m not sure I’m even addressing your questions with this response but… I love this whole idea of a monomyth because it is, for me, a kind of confirmation of a suspicion that I had for a long time. My suspicion arose not from exposure to myths but to the various non-fiction books I read over the years. Within the pages of those books, time after time again, all I got was confirmation… Confirmation of what, to steal a line from Oprah, “I knew for sure.” While it wouldn’t be correct to say that the books were technically “about” the same thing (or that I didn’t find any “new” information), it did (and does) often feel that way. There was a universal theme present within those books (even when their statements were contradictory) and when I read fiction I find the same theme(s) there as well. 

    When I consider “universal” moral themes or truths, I tend to think of them in the sense of a process of discovery in which a person is constantly being enriched. So I guess in some sense my belief is that the process itself could be said to be that “universal” theme… The sense of familiarity and kinship one feels to the author of a book or the characters in a story that allows us to recognize ourselves as being on the same journey.

    For the most part I hold the belief that the role of the myth is not to guide me but rather to aid in my awareness of the themes which do. I think it has to be subjective in order to be real (because all action/living begins with an intrinsic desire and intention). 

    One of my favorite quotes: “Those who meekly obey laws and rules imposed from the outside – including religious laws – are not moral human beings. The fulfillment of an imposed law is morally neutral. The truly educated make their own wills serve the higher call of justice, empathy and reason.” ~ Chris Hedges

    And another: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become universal law.” ~ Immanuel Kant 

    So… A universal theme we can point to and say…”live this”? The journey to what we “know for sure”. 

    Then again, I’m as curious as you are about the whole thing (without the benefit of exposure to the same materials for the sake of discussion) so I can’t wait to start reading this months book and digging into the subject some more.

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