Myths, or epic stories, have been traditionally important in human society. They reflect a shared concern for values. They address moral dilemmas. They celebrate virtue and hope, and they counsel against vice and despair. The American philosopher Joseph Campbell wrote extensively of the important role of myth, documenting the panoply of myths in European, Asian, and Oriental societies. In his books ‘The Power of Myth’ and ‘The Masks of God’, he saw myth having four important functions : metaphysical to awaken a sense of awe ; cosmological to explain the shape of the universe ; sociological to validate and enable the social order ; and psychological to guide the individual through the phases of life. So myths were of core importance.
Campbell suggested that in modernity, artists, poets, and philosophers have taken on the role of mythology, previously mediated by religion. Even in the apparently fully secularised society of the Soviet Union, society treasured its myths : it came as a surprise to discover that the taxi driver in Chelyabinsk knew Tatyana’s love letter to Pushkin’s Evgenny Onegin off by heart, and could recite it joyfully and rumbustiously, as could his friends and colleagues. It enabled them to embrace and nurture a very precious view of love.
Contemporary secular society has lost its myths. We are grown up. We have demythologised. We think that everything is ultimately physical, so that we need no metaphysics, and so we’ve lost our sense of awe. We have a scientific explanation for the cosmological order, so we need no myth here. Reason and hard won freedom, rather than myth, have given us the structures of political society, and enable us to live our lives free of any hocus pocus. Religion has declined alongside the decline in myth. We no longer believe its claims. We do not apprehend its God. Its doctrines are mumbo jumbo to our modern ear.
But in rejecting religion as truth, we have lost its contribution as myth. The poetry of the psalms is unknown to us ; we have no concept of what a life characterised daily by goodness and mercy feels like, or what it might be for. We have rarely if ever reflected on the virtues celebrated in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, or been deeply moved by Paul’s ode to love in his letter to Corinth. We have baulked against doctrinal belief, and well we may, as its formulations answer no question, and generate endless controversy. But we don’t need belief to appreciate myth. Parables, myths, metaphors and sayings are religion’s contribution to our human experience, to our dilemmas and struggles, as well as to our joys. Atheists, agnostics as well as religious believers have equal access.