The two convey knowledge in completely different ways. To begin, “myth” doesn’t mean “lie.” It simply means that knowledge is conveyed indirectly through narrative, and that’s exactly why the stories of religion have lasted so long and impacted so many people.
Let’s think about this: Can doing enough science teach you the importance of saving?
Go ahead, think about it. I’m sure someone really clever might come up with a good anecdote, but really there is little in science that would teach us the importance of self-sacrifice of goods we could use right now, on the hope that we will have some reward later on. Science would never have come up with the question.
Religion did, though.
Let’s look at the story of Abraham and Isaac.
Atheists love this Biblical tale because it captures all the barbarity of belief, that a distant, maniacal, and very vain God commands Abraham to sacrifice the beloved son God gifted him, just to show God how much Abraham loved him. If that’s what the story was, it would be barbaric, but there isn’t much chance that it would have lasted long.
Let’s also ask this, if that was the lesson, why is there no tradition of human sacrifice in Abrahamic culture? It was rather quite common throughout the world at the time, but not with the Hebrew or those that came after, even with this story where God asks specifically for it. Why is that not a thing?
A better answer is looking at the meaning of all these elements and what it says about the culture that gave us the story.
I really want you, the reader with an open mind and a willingness to see the world differently, to take yourself back to a time before our modern civilization, before civilization at all, and think about what it was like for our cavemen ancestors. In fact, even earlier than that. Think back to a time where our species lived on the margins in the strictest of means. Every day they could die from nothing more than starvation. Now, you ask how could our more ape than man ancestor be convinced to hunt some food and not eat it right then and there, when their entire life, the universe told them very clearly to take whatever you could right now or you will surely die. You couldn’t, but that is what we did some 20,000 years ago when we started taking these ideas necessary for the evolution of man and putting them in a narrative.
We looked around and said, “You know, if I eat this now, I will live well, but if I save it, then I can live longer with less risk.” How profound is that? How monumental was it that the first person who said this somehow transcended some plane of existence that apes before him never could. They didn’t even have words for such ideas, but still managed to become more than simple beasts with a few thoughts we today would think trivial, but to them, may have been the equivalent of single-handedly inventing the Saturn V rocket, which took man to the moon (which we’ve lost the technology to build today.)
That’s important – that knowledge is gained, but also lost, as well. We aren’t all descendants of that first guy who thought of saving his fruit or the first people who thought to share resources. I’d say that even if he did have that great idea, there was still a 99% chance a lion got him, or maybe some disease. It was probably tens of thousands of people who had the idea before one survived long enough to teach others who would survive long enough to have an actual behavioral advantage from the epiphany. Just as such, the first guy who thought to share probably got clubbed to death by some jerk who stole the rest of his food. That probably happened to thousands more who had the notion. Probably, many thousands more who did learn to get along were slowed down by the effort, as are all who are first learning to be friends, to say nothing of those who invented the concept. One of them died or was a drag on the relationship, and the better off of the two bailed. How many eons passed before a stable tribe could form based on the concept of sharing?
Why am I telling you all this? Because I’m telling you a story, and that’s what turned everything around for these people.
When people started telling how to survive, how to treat people, and how to view the world in the form of a story, we became something profoundly different than what we were. For two million years we wandered aimlessly, always on the brink of extinction, but then, 20,000 years ago everything started moving much faster. Our transfer of knowledge accelerated exponentially. People need to think about the fact that 6,000 years ago, there were no words. No one had any form of written language, but today we have our footsteps on the moon and people seriously believe we can have a colony on Mars within my lifetime. How amazing have the last 20,000 years been?
Now, we need to realize something. Religion did this. We saw our world and experienced what lessons it had to teach us. Then we crafted those lessons into narratives that gave us the guide by which to live our lives. The stories that impact people on deep, deep levels is what religion is and why we aren’t still living in caves.
Think back to Isaac and Abraham. Why isn’t there a human sacrifice cult in Hebrew tradition? Because that isn’t the moral of the story. It is the story about the willingness to sacrifice what you have to the unknown if you want better, and that that sacrifice has to be one of great meaning, to give up your food or your wealth, or your land to a risky future that you don’t know for sure will ever reward you back. This idea is the premise of everything from farming, where people could take seeds they could grind or eat and plant food, and even more so when they gave up their best crops for the seeds they bore, evolving the food we eat today. Just as much, this idea of sacrifice is the premise of modern-day saving, investing, and finance. Imagine the culture that could encapsulate that idea in metaphor, to pass on in a moving enough way to their descendants thousands of years later. Our students in school can barely sit through a Sciclassroom room they are paid to go to. Ask them if they remember any of it 10 years later. Good luck, but here we are 6,000 years later still wired for doing the wise thing of saving what we can, investing it in the unknown in a hope of future returns, talking about a culture that… for some reason… is still impacting our lives today.
Think about the original stories, the first stories of religion even beyond the Judeo/Christian tradition. Go back as far as we have records, to the time of the Ancient Sumerians, where the hero god-king slays a mighty dragon which was born from the sea to create the land and all the people. You think there is no significance to those metaphors?
The God-King, Marduk, born of gods, possessed many eyes and spoke magic words. He was born a powerful man from a powerful family, literally gods, and from this, we see that we obviously knew that children are greatly influenced by their families and that if you are a bad parent, your children and your line will also fail. He also had many eyes, which has long been narratively synonymous with wisdom, that someone with great vision is one who can see far off into the future, meaning that Marduk didn’t simply have many eyes, but that he was wise and knew many things. He also didn’t speak magical incantations but could say things that moved people in ways that others couldn’t. Sound familiar?
Or the dragon born from the sea. Do you think there is any reason why so many myths from the world feature the great evil as resembling a snake? Don’t you think that there is something deep-seated in our mind about the innate evil of serpents that is captured in these metaphors? Go back 80 million years and ask our rodent ancestors what they thought of snakes and you’ll find a very ancient and very primitive part of our brain that still fears them long after we became the master of slithering things. Now make it huge, give it wings, and make it spit fire. The dragon is pure and unadulterated fear, hardwired into our minds.
But even more amazing is what neuroscientists discovered later, that the part of your brain that is triggered by fear of snakes is the same part which is wired to ignore things we know we need to do, things that begin as something simple, but then grow into these overwhelming beasts that devour our lives. So every story you’ve ever heard about dragons since the beginning wasn’t some imaginative tale, but a deep, almost innately, understood strictly human narrative urging us to acknowledge our deepest fears and conquer them.
But why the sea? Long ago in narrative the sea symbolized chaos, not the type of chaos of high stress, but the unknown from whence everything came. It was a place of great creation, but also fear, because no one could know how far it went or how deep it went down. It was to them endless and unknowable, which made it terrifying. It was at the same time a source of endless potential and endless calamity and destruction.
So what does the hero do? He slays the dragon from the sea, creates from the corpse of the dragon that which makes all of our lives possible — the land. He creates order.
So the first story wasn’t just about a cool quest or even a creation myth to explain a universe in possibly the weirdest way imaginable. Let’s look at these metaphors, so complex that people of the age couldn’t have possibly understood why they felt the way they did, but they knew how they felt, and knew what needed to be taught, and through the power of narrative, told a story. It was a creation story, but quite honestly, no one then cared about that. They wanted to teach something far more important to the lives they lived then.
The story of Marduk was a story to teach men how to behave.
The story of Marduk is not a creation myth, but one of a wise and charismatic leader who confronts his fears, and defeats the chaos in the world around him and creates order for himself and for others. This is the quintessential text of how to be a man. So important, that the Sumerians kings had to always compare themselves to Marduk and ask if they were good. It’s also no surprise that once myths like these became widespread, the Sumerians rose up to become one of the first civilizations spanning multiple cities and lasting for centuries.
There is a reason that myths work as well as they do. They are stories built on many layers of understanding from the conscience to the subconscious, to the instinctual to teach lessons in ways that make them necessary for new people to survive. Science can’t do that. It can titillate our senses with the grandeur of new insights, but science doesn’t affect us in the way these old stories do. It doesn’t convey meaning to the world, give us direction as people, or in any way tell us who we are, what we were, who we are going to be.
And no, no it doesn’t. The moment you try to make science do these things, you’re personifying that which isn’t human. You’re giving character to data. You’re building layers of meaning above raw facts. To make people care about Science, you have to do it by telling stories, and conveying knowledge through narrative. You don’t believe me? Consider the apocalyptic overtones attributed to climate change, the gravitas and mystery of the black hole, or the vast and unknowable scope of the universe, both immense and small. Take Carl Sagan, one of the most famous scientists of not so long ago. He wowed the world with explorations of the universe and then terrified us with omens of “nuclear winter”, where dust and fallout from nuclear war would blot out the sun and lead us to a new extinction event. It’s odd this was so compelling, no? This image of nuclear winter combines the burning of the world by the fire of Biblical Revelation and also the freezing of the planet not unlike the religion of the Norse. Powerful themes, so powerful we still believe in this idea of nuclear winter even though it was proven that all the bombs in the world couldn’t cause the types of years of devastation Sagan predicted. Even in the 80’s, we knew that in the worst case scenario we could have a Nuclear Autumn, of the world a few degrees cooler for a few years. Still, the idea of Nuclear Winter remains to bring fear to children, to teach them how to live, and to guide our leaders.
While real scientists do their work well, the ambassadors of Science are little more than great clerics of a mythology that doesn’t look backward, but forward.
This isn’t a complete dismissal of Science. Good scientists even agree with the sentiment. Just ask them how hard it is to get published, especially when scientific journals only really want to publish findings that are “groundbreaking”, “revolutionary”, or “highly controversial”. If we are playing the work of good scientists, then most of what you do is boring and what is to be expected, however try to get a paper published that proves something no one cares about or one which has no political incentive to anyone, and the big one, one which disproves another discovery. There are whole journals which exist to doing nothing but provide a venue for scientific works which are examining the findings of other scientists, the fundamental act of Scientific research… because no one would read them. The problem of bad science becoming social norms is even worse and explored at length by one of my favorite scientific YouTube channels, Veritasium. Is Most Published Research Wrong?
And have you ever tried to request funding for a research grant? Better bring the wow factor there too.
But while we continue with our P-hacked essays self-selected for their ability to wow the readership of science journals more than their ability to inform us on the nature of our world, and when only the most terrifying or awe-inspiring of this break out to touch us in the broader culture, usually through some post-apocalyptic thriller marketing itself as a “warning of a possible future”, rather than a “warning of science-based horror fiction run amok”, I have to ask… why are people so critical of religion for being the misleading institution?
And that’s also something worth noting. Science is progress, no? Science marches on, but can science alone predict the destruction of those who wield it carelessly? Don’t forget about the creation of narratives. Science can’t do that alone. Science only records things we see. That’s it, that’s all it does. The moment you try to make a story out of it… you’ve just created a work of fiction.
But religion does this quite well, giving us lessons against our own destruction and a caution against recklessness. Or do you think it coincidence that every great civilization has a Flood myth? It isn’t just the Abrahamic religions that believe in something like an ark. It’s interesting, don’t you think, that every religion has this same story, one which is perhaps 10,000 years old. I believe even India has a myth of the entire planet covered with water, and all the good people escaping to canoes to survive the waters and rebuild the world. Let’s not forget what waters mean, the chaos and the unknown. Did these civilizations experience some great war, famine, disease? Who knows, but they knew to be afraid of losing themselves. It is a story of caution, not just as individuals, but of whole societies from the disaster of losing their way; too much progress, as it were.
At the heart of this question, is a controversy — Creationism vs Science.
It picked out one of the most extreme cases in religion to justify a belief of all religions. The above image is, therefore, somehow representative of Religion, as in religion with a capital “R”. Literally every religious person on the entire planet falls under that description. Now, normally the creationist people are matched with evangelical Christians. Well, here I am a guy who argues for evolution, the Big Bang, carbon dating, and can probably explain most of these better than your average person who just loves their science. But I am also as Southern Baptist as they come.
So why is that such an extreme minority of extreme people are allowed become representatives of a much broader culture, even billions of people? We’re willing to call that out when other people do it. Look, you can point to creationists and say they represent all of us. I can point to Stalin and say that represents the other guy. If we are claiming the moral high ground here, I win with the guy who believes man and raptors hunted side by side rather than the guy who hunted down Christians and murdered tens of millions of people.
That’s because there are many people who know nothing of the sciences they preach. They don’t care. To them, “Scientism” is just the religion they choose because on some level they simply hate religion. This is especially true of Christianity. Anything which can make it easier to belittle the other rather than acknowledge what they bring to the table is much easier than respecting the fact that they survived and evolved civilization for thousands of years, even created the Scientific Method, not in spite of their beliefs, but because of them.
Don’t believe me? Ask yourself to explain the fine-tuning argument.
As science allowed us to rid ourselves of the creation myths and “God of the Gaps” explanation for why things happened, we started to see that throughout our universe, the whole universe, every part of it followed certain laws which did not change and which the universe itself required to remain so that it could exist. Some of these constants were things like C, the speed of light. The speed of light through a vacuum is always 299,792,458 m/s, never more, never less. It isn’t like throwing a baseball on a train, you can’t add the velocity of one to the other. C is always C and nothing else. But there are others.
- N, the ratio of the strength of electromagnetism to the strength of gravity for a pair of protons, is approximately 1036.
- Epsilon (ε), a measure of the nuclear efficiency of fusion from hydrogen to helium, is 0.007: when four nucleons fuse into helium, 0.007 (0.7%) of their mass is converted to energy. The value of ε is in part determined by the strength of the strong nuclear force.
- Omega (Ω) is the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the Universe. It is the ratio of the mass density of the Universe to the “critical density” and is approximately 1.
- Lambda (λ) describes the ratio of the density of dark energy to the critical energy density of the universe, given certain reasonable assumptions such as positing that dark energy density is a constant. In terms of Planck units, and as a natural dimensionless value, the cosmological constant, λ, is on the order of 10−122.
- Q, the ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a large galaxy apart to the energy equivalent of its mass, is around 10−5.
None of these sound like big deals but imagine a world where the electron rested some distance farther from its proton core, where the speed of light was different, where gravity itself was more, or less powerful. It wouldn’t just be that we would float away. Our universe would cease to exist as we know it. More importantly, the Universe would never have come to be at all.
- If N were significantly smaller, only a small and short-lived universe could exist.
- If ε were 0.006, only hydrogen could exist, and complex chemistry would be impossible. If it were above 0.008, no hydrogen would exist, as all the hydrogen would have been fused shortly after the big bang.
- If gravity were too strong compared with dark energy and the initial metric expansion, the universe would have collapsed before life could have evolved. On the other side, if gravity were too weak, no stars would have formed.
- Lambda (λ) is so small that it has no significant effect on cosmic structures that are smaller than a billion light-years across. If the cosmological constant were not extremely small, stars and other astronomical structures would not be able to form.
- If Q is too small, no stars can form. If it is too large, no stars can survive because the universe is too violent.
Virtually every fundamental law of the universe is one which cannot change or else life itself would not be possible, much less a life where you and I could sit around debating if it happened at all. This is the Anthropic principle or the argument for a Fine-tuned Universe. It suggests that (not a scientific theory) the level of complexity, interrelatedness, and overwhelming chance required to create a universe where the evolution of a thinking sapient entity was not a chance event, but a foregone conclusion that would definitely eventually happen, suggests something greater than the Universe itself. It suggests that some thinking, planning entity structured those laws to allow such a universe to be created. To put it another way, when Sir Issac Newton began studying astronomy, he suggested that the uniformity of the planetary system is proof that someone chose to make it that way.
This isn’t science, but it does shake up many of the notions that science disproves God, however, atheism offered its own anti-scientific notion to counter it.
This is where multiple universes come in. The concept of the multiple universes theory suggests that our Universe is nothing special, but one of many universes, an infinite number of universes actually, in which the laws so happen to work for us to live as we do. The other universes are out there, but they function under different laws and are outside of our view, as any means we have to study them would be built instruments of this universe, and could never be made which could experience anything outside of it, nor especially something of a different universe with laws fundamentally different than our own in every way.
Simply put, let’s review why we have a hard time proving God.
We have no means to observe or measure something which exists beyond our physical universe and which functions under different laws than our universe, or as Christopher Hitchens, one of the “Four Horsemen of Atheism” said:
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
Exactly the same argument can be levied against this idea that beyond our own is an infinite number of other universes that just so happen to not be so nice and which we can never detect nor disprove. So it isn’t that I don’t think the Multiverse is cool, especially when my favorite superheroes do it, but it isn’t in the slightest what good scientists would call Science. I mean, you can continue to believe it, but I just don’t have that kind of faith.
Here’s the bottom line, religion is not about disproving science. It isn’t about proving anything. Religious texts are not scientific texts meant to explain the universe as it is. They are moral texts created to help people lead better lives. Maybe they are divinely inspired guides by an all-knowing benefactor, or maybe they are simply the wises meditations of countless generations filtered to such a fine degree that they impact on us on deeply profound levels. Either way, science and religion are not at odds, and once the science and religion camps accept this truth, then both will lead happier and more productive lives. Furthermore, religion will no longer feel the need to be something it isn’t, while Science can finally deal with the reality that it simply doesn’t have all the answers, and maybe shed a bit of the arrogance when it starts accepting how many of the answers it does have are simply wrong.
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