Sunday, May 22, 2011

Myth and Religion

I was recently reminded that there is absolutely no evidence that the Exodus took place or for that matter that the Jews were ever in Egypt in large numbers. And Egypt is a place where history is fairly well preserved because of the climate.

So what does this say about the religion I signed onto some 35 years ago? What if one of the main story lines in this religion is just that, a myth that never happened in actuality? How can I in good conscience go on attending a seder each year where we say things like, “We were once slaves in the land of Egypt and now we are free” or “Next year in Jerusalem”?

From the first time I had been shocked by the no evidence claim, I opted to hold onto the fact that there is no DEFINITIVE evidence and just maybe it did happen.

This got me started thinking about religious beliefs in general. Every religion has stories that make it unique, most of which cannot be substantiated. For Christians, it’s the virgin birth and Jesus story culminating in his crucifixion. For Moslems, it’s the story of Mohammad on a winged horse being taken up to heaven. For Mormons, it’s Joseph Smith discovering a buried set of golden plates that became the Book of Mormon.

The question I am struggling with is whether one can in good faith practice a religion without believing the myths that define it. In fact, being a Jew doesn’t really require much in the way of beliefs. The majority of Jews are simply born into the religion and never choose it at all. But what about someone like me who converts? Is it enough for me to say I think I believe in God, but not necessarily the angry God of the Torah who goes around smiting people indiscriminately? But that I have serious doubts about the creation story and much of the Bible in general.

Which brings me back to the question of why all these stories are necessary. I picture a bunch of ancient Jews sitting around one day discussing which of the current most popular stories to choose as their own, to tell to their children and their children’s children, to eventually write down for posterity. Why did they settle on being slaves in Egypt and then being lead to freedom by their God, who would continue to call them “chosen”? Oh to have been a fly on that wall and witnessed this process. Or maybe they tried out some stories which didn’t work and then turned to others. We will never know.

One thing that is clear is how uncomplicated this is for someone like my son who is a confirmed atheist. He never has to struggle with what to believe because he has rejected it all.

The line between myth and history is sometimes blurry. Maybe there is no harm in simply acknowledging that and continuing to tell the stories.


Blogger Merle Sneed said...

I think that the Exodus story is the story of the Jews throughout history. Whether or not it happened is kind of beside the point.

These stories and myths have life lessons and they are valuable so long as we reserve the right to evaluate them in light of modern understanding.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

When it comes to established religion, what we all believe in is someone else's story. Often times the story has been handed down from generation to generation, originating in the time where there were only oral traditions. Sometimes the story's veracity is held up by recent discoveries, sometimes it's refuted. But it's still a secondhand story. We're loathe to discover what we believe on our own but at some point, that's how it all started -an idea that became popular either by agreement or force, got passed on as truth and cemented with time. Rarely do we ask why we believe what we believe...

7:13 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I think you can believe in the message of the story without believing the literal facts. For example, the virgin birth makes no sense at all. But if you look at it as an allegory that says merely that Jesus was an exceptional man, it's not too hard to swallow. I have trouble with literalism in religion in general -- I think many of these stories are more symbolic than anything.

7:15 AM  
Blogger Angela said...

I agree with Steve. I consider myself a Christian, but I cannot believe most of the myths as true happenings. But I don`t care. Thinking about the idea behind all that - the wish of us humans to connect with God, to lead a meaningful life, maybe be "rewarded" afterwards - doesn`t that make us stick to a religion, however incongruent it may seem?

1:36 PM  
Blogger bulletholes said...

These are really good thoughts Barbara, I appreciate them. I've tried to give Christianity a chance over the years, thinking I'll accept what I can for now, and let the rest go. But it always seems to come down to accepting the whole thing or none at all. Maybe that has more to do with me than Christianity. I don't know.

10:47 AM  

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