Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta


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Ancient History

|Interdisciplinary Prudence

On Myth, de Vries and Freud: Losing Our Religion

This week’s thought-provoking interdisciplinary topics: mythology and religion.

In my reading today, this passage criticizing a mythology theory by Max Müller, who deemed mythology a “disease of language,”* spoke to me:

Nomina, not numina! [Mere names, not divine powers!] How could one say such a thing about the gods of pagan polytheism, who move us time and again exactly because of their strong personal character? Indeed, were Zeus and Wodan, Indra and Donar [Thor] no more than empty names? They were true gods—-one could almost say of flesh and blood–so human were they in their imagery, so persuasive in their doings. They demanded veneration because of their powerful intervention in life; awe and confidence, fear and love were felt for them in accordance with their power and character. Mythology is not a disease of language; it is a reality immediately apparent to man; it has its being in all that is limitless and enigmatic in nature or in himself.

Max Müller’s theory demonstrates once more the gap that lay between nineteenth-century man and the sundry faiths he knew existed. To the extent that modern man’s soul detached itself from Christianity, to the extent that Christianity was allowed to deteriorate into a mere moral lore as the core was taken out of its dogma and the sense for its mystery got lost, to that extent also man’s understanding for other religions disappeared. It seemed to him that these religions were so naïve that they could not have any connection with deep human experience. Max Müller’s theory makes abundantly clear that he never fathomed belief.”

— Jan de Vries, “Theories Concerning ‘Nature Myths'” from Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, edited by Alan Dundes

The Dutch folklorist Jan de Vries wrote this back in 1961 in his book The Study of Religion. Moving from his European vantage point, we now advance 50 years to today. American atheist activists have spent the intervening years fighting and shrieking and clawing to remove any inklings of Christianity from the public square so as to not have their rigid, ideological, intolerant sensibilities offended. They’ve been remarkably successful, replacing Christianity with their religion: an utter absence of any sense of spirituality in the public arena.

They’ve been so successful that many children who grow up in areligious homes (ones not necessarily opposed to religion or spirituality, but not practicing any themselves) have little chance to come in contact with religious opportunities or to even know how much of it still survives in private realms.

I may no longer be a believer myself, but I worked at educating myself on the various religions, both as a child and an adult. I’m thankful for the religious training I received as a child, as it gave me a foundation in morals. Most of all, it gave me an ability to respect others’ religious beliefs—even when they seem far from my own. When others mock or belittle someone for their faith, my religious education makes me irritated, if not indignant (almost as if I were being attacked too) at the intolerance.

And so to read de Vries saying that when one has no religion, one loses the ability to understand those with religion, I can’t help but agree. The evidence is all around us. Hostility towards religious persons (or even those that just believe in a religion) is rampant in media, entertainment and academia.

I also can’t help but wonder if de Vries had Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontentsin the back of his mind as he wrote this as well, seeing as how Freud began the book marveling over and misunderstanding a friend’s comment that religion is based in a feeling of being eternally connected to the whole universe—an “oceanic” feeling. Freud then proceeds to try to figure out this feeling he says he has never experienced and cannot understand. He ultimately concludes that it’s not him that’s deficient, that well-adjusted psychologically fit people would not have this feeling, and therefore it proves that religious people are just really screwed-up neurotics.

This is an all-too-brief summary of the screwed-up Freud that I should expound on later. I bring it up here because it so fits with de Vries criticism of Müller; Sigmund Freud himself said he could not fathom belief, and we have gotten the same result de Vries explained above.

“Intellectuals” have long used pseudo-science devoid of any proof beyond the hypothesizing of a pompous cokehead to actually deny something to which billions of people can attest (even non-believers such as myself) to then claim those billions are just all intellectually and psychologically inferior and must conform to the “intellectual” view or be forever ridiculed and derided.

Tolerance doesn’t necessarily require respect for someone else’s beliefs. To respect someone’s beliefs requires understanding someone’s beliefs.

From there, it’s courtesy, not tolerance, that tells one it’s impolite to make fun of another’s beliefs. Tolerance merely requires us to not try to force our superior beliefs down someone else’s throat.

* I’ve not yet personally read the writings of Max Müller, a 19th-century philologist who was instrumental in creating the field of comparative religious studies. Therefore, I take at face value de Vries assessment of Müller’s theory and familiarity with faith, primarily because my launching point is not Müller’s thoughts, but de Vries’ take on them.