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Saturday, March 26, 2016

From Being “Real” to Mythic: Do Religions have Lifespans?

Thousands of years ago, Greeks acted out narratives from what we now refer to as myths. The word myth connotes a religious narrative that has long-ago expired from being believed to be actual. Of course, no Christian in modern times would refer to the Passion as a myth; to refer to the crucifixion and resurrection as mythic would be insulting. Yet as a society increasingly secularizes, the events in the religious story gradually give up their all-embracing signature. As Good Friday or Easter becomes “just another day” for more and more people in the increasingly secular West in particular, the respective events lose their hegemony in defining for people in their daily lives what the Friday and Sunday are about. That is, the events "deflate" from being perceived as all-embracing in the sense of defining the significance of the days. If sufficiently relegated, the story itself can more easily be viewed as myth, rather than real. Notice religion’s appeal here to history or at least empiricism as a validator. Without such a basis intact, religious events are somehow less real in a religious sense of meaning.[1]

In fact, a religion’s situs in a society can go from default-status to ultimately being replaced. Nietzsche’s “God is dead” in the late nineteenth-century prefigured the rise of secularization—the discrediting of the reigning concept of the deity by ascribing the vice of vengeance to it inexorably deflating the Abrahamic religions. Particularly astonishing is not the fact that religions have lifespans, but, rather, that any given religion in decline can endure an incredible amount of time at that stage. This phenomenon can prompt a person to wonder whether the religions are not human, all too human.
The full essay is at "Religion and Myth."

1. Here I’m relying on ch. 12 of my book, “God’s Gold.” In that chapter, I contend that religion overreaches in claiming history for itself. For a religion to use history as a sort of anchor is to make a category mistake.