Ancient myths and rituals were humanity's first, fumbling attempt at understanding the world. But now we can tell the true stories.
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Do you know what amazes me? It’s that we know what wild plants and fungi are good to eat.
Just imagine what it must have taken to figure this out. There must have been thousands of hungry people over the span of centuries who picked strange plants or mushrooms: sniffing them, nibbling at them, and when they’d worked up the courage, eating them to see if it made them ill.
And consider: Some plants are only safe to eat when they’re cooked correctly. Some poisonous plants look similar to ones that are harmless. Sometimes, it’s only the leaves of a plant that are edible, or only the stalks, or only the roots, or only the fruit when it reaches the right stage of ripeness. Imagine the untold numbers of people who must have sickened or killed themselves to build up this body of knowledge.
This is even truer for more complex discoveries. Bald’s Leechbook, a thousand-year-old Anglo-Saxon medical text, prescribes a treatment for skin infections: a salve made from garlic, leeks, wine and cow bile, aged in a brass vessel for nine days. Modern scientists tested this… and it worked!
Imagine all the trial and error it must have taken to develop this recipe. Imagine generations of people groping in the darkness, trying out every combination of herbs and substances they could dream up, until they stumbled across a procedure that seemed to be effective.
Our ancestors knew the how, but not the why
The point is that ancient people weren’t stupid. On the contrary, they possessed a huge amount of painstakingly acquired practical knowledge. But they didn’t have an understanding of the reasons: how diseases spread from one person to another, why to let fields lie fallow between harvests, what causes seasons and weather. Despite all they knew, the universe was still a deeply mysterious place to them.
It’s no surprise that their knowledge grew intertwined with rituals, myths and magical formulae. That was humanity’s first, fumbling stab at uncovering the invisible laws that govern the world. Indeed, that’s what ancient religion was: not a list of abstract theological propositions, but a thoroughly practical attempt to figure out what the gods and other supernatural beings wanted, so we could ward off the bad ones and bestir the good ones to act on our behalf. In that sense, religion was the precursor to science.
Historian Bret Devereaux gives this example of the role of religion in the ancient world:
Let’s say we are a farming community. It is very important that our crops grow, but the methods and variations in how well they grow are deep and mysterious and we do not fully understand them; clearly that growth is governed by some unseen forces we might seek the aid of. So we put together a ritual – perhaps an offering of a bit of last year’s harvest – to try to get that favor. And then the harvest is great – excellent, we have found a formula that works. So we do it next year, and the year after that.
Sometimes the harvest is good (well performed ritual there) and sometimes it is bad (someone must have made an error), but our community survives. And that very survival becomes the proof of the effectiveness of our ritual. We know it works because we are still here.(source)
The rituals predate the creeds
This is the reverse of how religious proselytizers typically present the origin of their faith. In the usual telling, God speaks to the prophets, identifies himself to humanity, and then explains the rituals which he wants devotees to perform.
In reality, the rituals came first, arising from humanity’s collective trial-and-error attempts to understand the world. We inferred the gods’ identities and desires based on which rituals seemed to yield the desired result. (For example, a deity who prefers bloody animal sacrifices over offerings of plants must be violent and warlike. It’s possible this passage reflects a real historical event – it would explain the Old Testament!)
The creeds, texts and other elaborations developed later, building on the ideas that developed from these rituals. The Christian story of the resurrection of Jesus, to name another instance, is an agricultural metaphor given flesh: a seed is buried in the earth, “dies,” and then returns to life. It’s a classic example of people mythologizing information that was crucial for survival.
The power that science gives us
The writers of the Bible and other religious texts saw through a glass, darkly; but we have the clarity of vision they lacked. We can tell the whole story, which they glimpsed hazily at best, and often not at all.
With the power that science gives us, we can tell better stories. We can tell stories that capture the extent and majesty of the universe in which we live.
We can say, truthfully, that humans are all one race. Genes flow back and forth, and populations mingle, interbreed and assimilate, but there are no major, consistent genetic differences between ethnic groups. Armed with that knowledge, we can expose the pathetic ignorance and narrow-mindedness of racism and other forms of prejudice. All people belong to the banner of humanity, and we’re all alike under the skin.
We can say, truthfully, that humans are one branch of evolution’s family tree, related by common descent to all other life on earth. This should inspire a powerful impulse to cherish and preserve the world we live on and the diversity of life it supports – because all living things are part of our family, as diverse and wonderful as we ourselves are.
We can say, truthfully, that humans are children of the cosmos. The atoms of our bodies were forged in supernova explosions, and they’re briefly passing through us as part of their endless Democritean dance of forms. We’re not above or apart from nature, as some have arrogantly imagined – we are nature, one pattern amidst its infinite diversity and beauty.
We can say, truthfully, what causes earthquakes and storms and plagues. Whereas primitive people cowered at these disasters, believing them to be punishments sent by the gods, we can recognize them for what they are: blind forces of nature which threaten all of us alike, but which we can outwit and overcome when we heed the wisdom of experts and pull together to help each other. Believers who try to control nature with prayer are as pitifully foolish as the legendary king who tried to give commands to the sea.
Most of all, we can put ourselves in our true context. Many religious myths and folktales are strikingly small. They postulate a tiny universe, centered on humanity, no more than a few thousand years old. They assume that the most important events in history all happened to a single tribe or even a single person in one specific region of the earth. They assume that all knowledge worth knowing was revealed to a small, insular group of people a few centuries or millennia ago, or that one particular set of tribal customs should be the model for all humanity.
With science, we can tell grander stories, stories that reflect the true inconceivable immensity of the cosmos, and our small but precious place within it. We’re not restricted to a small repertoire of endlessly repeated parables. We can draw on the best stories from across all of culture and history.
Or we can come up with our own, brand-new stories to impart the lessons we want to teach. Once we sail past the confining shoals of religion, an open horizon of limitless creativity awaits – so let’s get started!