The Wisdom and Dangers of Religious Myths

At 8 a.m. on a Monday morning in late August of 1984, I did what every fundamentalist Christian minister wishes their young parishioners would never do. As a first year student in college. I walked into my first class of my first semester at Oklahoma City University, and that class was titled “Introduction to Biblical Literature” taught Rev. Dr. Robert Jones, not to be confused with the racist fundamentalist Bob Jones who founded Bob Jones University. No, the Rev Dr. Robert Jones was the Anti-Bob Jones. He was compassionate, open-minded, a true scholar, and someone who cared deeply about his students and about cultivating their capacity to think for themselves. And at 8 a.m. on that Monday morning on my first day of college, Dr. Jones walked up to the lecture podium and said something that blew my 17 year old fundamentalist mind. Dr. Jones used the word “myth” to describe many of the stories of the Bible.

Dr. Jones was not trying to blow my mind, but he was trying to open it. He was trying to open our minds to the truth and power of religious mythology when it is not mistakenly interpreted in a literal way. I was not completely surprised that Dr. Jones would say such a thing about the Bible. My fundamentalist mentors in high school who had encouraged me to attend Oral Roberts University rather than Oklahoma City University had warned me about all the heresies I would encounter in the school of religion at OCU, and they encouraged me to hold fast to their literal interpretations of the Bible and the infallibility of the scriptures, but it didn’t take long for me to recognize that a literal interpretation of the Bible and a belief in the Bible’s infallibility diminish the truth that can be found within its pages.

I came to learn that the scriptures of the world’s religions contain great wisdom for humanity, but they are products of their context, and when we attempt to take them literally and apply them without critical interpretation, they can be used in unhealthy, dangerous, and even deadly ways. Very few things are more dangerous than mistaking our myths about the Ultimate as being the Ultimate themselves.

It is natural for humans to tell stories to make sense of the world and to cultivate meaning in our lives, but it is dangerous when we attempt to make everyone else be a character in our stories instead of allowing them to create their own.

The problem with most forms of religious fundamentalism is not that they take some of their religious scriptures literally. It is that they take literally the scriptures that ought to be taken metaphorically, and they take metaphorically the scriptures that ought to be taken literally. There is nothing wrong about taking literally the admonitions to love others, do justice, practice mercy, and care for the vulnerable; but when we attempt to view religious mythology as scientific and historical truth, it can very quickly take us into dangerous territory.

The Bible is not a history book. It is religious mythology that expresses the religious experiences of many communities in particular times and particular places. At times the Bible engages and reflects upon historical events, but it is not helpful to read it as a literal account of history. And while the authors of the Bible often ponder and write poetically about the wonders and the meaning of the cosmos as they experienced it, the Bible should never be mistaken as a science book or an authority on scientific matters. The Bible and other forms of religious mythology should also not be taken as a prediction or foretelling of future events. The future is open and not determined by the authors of religious mythology.

The dangers of seeing religious mythology as history, science, and a predictor of the future can be seen clearly here in the United States. According to a Pew Research poll in 2010, 41% is the percentage of persons in the United States who believe that Jesus Christ will return before the year 2050. 23% think this will definitely happen and 18% think that it will probably happen. (For more on the numbers and the survey see Pew Research Poll.)

Another significant number for the political landscape of the United States is 42%. According to a Gallop poll in 2014, this is the percentage number of persons in the United States who believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. This is a statistic that has held steady for the past three decades. (For more detailed information see Gallup Poll).

41% and 42% – these are perhaps the two most important numbers in understanding politics in the United States. Views on climate change, international affairs (especially our relationship to Israel), science in general, women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and long term sustainability are all influenced by where one stands in relation to the questions about the return of Christ and evolutionary theory.

Why be concerned about climate change and sustainability if one truly believes that Christ will return by 2050? Why have any coherent international agenda other than supporting Israel if one truly believes Christ will return by 2050? Why develop any policies for long term sustainability if one truly believes that Christ will return by 2050? Why would persons listen to climate scientists and environmental scientists when they already have a bias against science that is telling them their views about creation are wrong? Why work for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights when the worldview that makes you believe that Christ will return by 2050 and humans have only existed for 10,000 years also tells you that women should submit and LGBTQ persons are sinners. If one believes that the earth as we know it will end by 2050 and that we have only been here for about 10,000 years, this has a profound effect on one’s worldview and political outlook.

One of the most important things humanity can do to ensure the creation of a sane, just, peaceful, and sustainable future is to give up our attachment to religious mythology as literal truth and begin to see the deeper truths and meaning to which it is pointing. Religious myths are not inherently false, but they do become false and they often become dangerous and deadly when we take them literally. May we not diminish their power, truth, and meaning by doing so.


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