The function of mythology is to illustrate principles and make them easy to remember. Find out how to use these stories to develop a pathway beyond religion.
“What myth does for you is to point (you) beyond the phenomenal field toward the transcendent. A mythic figure is like a compass, with one leg in the field of time and the other in the eternal. The image of a god may look like a human or animal form, but its reference is transcendent of that.” ― Joseph Campbell
What is The Function of Mythology?
Does myth have a purpose in your life? Most people would say they do not believe in myths or legends, but if you ask those same people if they have religious beliefs, they will say yes. Do you think these people misunderstood the first question? Or perhaps they don’t realize most religions have their basis in myths?
“One man’s myth is another man’s religion.” ― Joseph Campbell
“Some people spend their entire lives devoted to a religion that claims to be the right religion… they often deny the scientific evidence that contradicts their archaic holy books, they sometimes oppress those who disagree with them, and they always do what they do in the name of an unknowable deity… but sometimes, they wake up. Occasionally, they realize that all religions are man made and that none of them are right. And when they do, they can live happy and fulfilling lives without dogma and without anticipating or fearing an afterlife.” — David G. McAfee
“You can’t use reason to convince anyone out of an argument that they didn’t use reason to get into.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson
The stories of Buddha, Mohamed, and Jesus are myths that became religions. If you read their stories, you will see a common thread. They condemn organized religion. Many influential teachers tell us to forge our path, not to follow popular teachers or organized religions.
Jesus of the modern Bible was a Jewish scholar. However, Jesus was not a Christian. Although a scholar of Judaism, his spiritual awakening happened in the wilderness alone. The wilderness is where Jesus found enlightenment. He admonished all those who followed organized religion to leave it behind. Many scholars don’t recognize Buddhism as a religion. It encourages people to avoid self-indulgence and denial.
Buddha’s most essential teachings are known as The Four Noble Truths; the First is acknowledging that suffering is non-discriminatory; the second relates to the various causes of suffering. The third truth is that our suffering will end, and the fourth is the path of truth will take us to the end of suffering. We need to find it. However, the way to do this is not abundantly clear. These truths provide hope that suffering is an element of life, but it is temporary.
“The wisdom we find in the stories of the great avatars and sages can help us if we understand the legends of God as metaphors and analogies. Many stories contain directions pointing us to the transcendent. Apollo, Jesus, Mohammad, Mithra, and Zeus mirror the same Hero’s Journey in different ways.” — Guru Tua
It makes you wonder. Do Christians and Muslims believe God gave them their holy texts by divine inspiration? Similarly, those who follow Mormonism believe an angel gave Joseph Smith the Book of Mormon. Crazy stuff.
All holy texts are self-validating. If a leader of a religion says God inspired their texts, then their believers must accept it. Since religious leaders speak for God, you cannot question this assertion. They explain away the errors and inconsistencies in their texts as our inability to understand the divine.
Spiritual Pathway Test
There is an easy way to determine if you are in a spiritual spider web. If you join a religion and stay there, you fail the test. It’s as simple as that. Organized religions are a trap. You can investigate and learn about them and see them for yourself.
All the great sages, from Buddha to Jesus, talk about rebellion from the orthodox path of religion. Religions were created in their names and missed the central point of their life stories.
Where did the great teachers come to their realizations? They went out into the wilderness and communed with nature. In meditation, they sought enlightenment with the old gods under a tree. They all went on a journey of spiritual exploration. Their spiritual pathway test was leaving behind doctrine and dogma.
Understanding The Function of Myth
The Fringe Group
The people in this group account for the largest part of the membership but are the least devout. They are the least affected by the negative social programming of the sect. They identify as members of the religion out of tradition. Most are not aware of the historical origins of their religion.
Many fringe members were indoctrinated as children. Children do not join because they are making informed decisions. Children often have no choice. After gaining independence, they distance themselves from religion as much as possible. They remain members out of social obligation.
If they are unlucky enough to live in an overtly religious community, they learn how to project the appearance of membership early. They take part in rituals to the extent necessary to stay off the radar of those who police the society for unbelievers. Some cultures have harsh penalties for those who do not fully accept the religion.
Moderates attend meetings regularly and are the backbone of financial support for the organization. Their frequent exposure to groupthink manipulation techniques makes them susceptible to more extreme ideologies. They give precedence to the authority of their religious leadership over any external source. They do not believe their religion is an extension of mythology and superstition.
Similar to those in the fringe group, many are indoctrinated at an early age. It also includes a large population of disadvantaged and those in financial and health crises. People in these groups are vulnerable to the tactics of groupthink manipulation. It is common for them to accept religion as their identity, and they will defend the religion with violence if necessary.
Although fewer in numbers, extremists are the most vocal and most potent. Unfortunately, they are often the leaders of organized religion. They learn how to use groupthink hypnosis to manipulate and get members to accept anything they suggest. For the extremist, religion becomes the all-consuming focus of their identity. They cannot pass the spiritual pathways test. Their path is the narrowly defined partition of the sect.
“If you are religious, you believe that your religion is the ‘right’ one and, in many cases, all others will be sent to hell. Similarly, a nationalist believes his or her nation is better or more advanced , and a racist believes that an inherent difference between each race makes his or her ethnicity superior. All of these ideologies spawn the hate, philosophical disagreements, and prejudices that have been the catalysts for various atrocious acts throughout history.” — David G. McAfee
It is difficult to change someone’s mindset when they degenerate into extremist ideologies. You cannot confront them with facts. The need to believe negates almost every attempt to persuade using logic, science, or evidence.
However, they are not lost entirely. Almost anyone can awaken to the absurdity of their flawed ideology. If you can develop a relationship and become accepted as “safe,” you can present them with questions that lead them out of their self-delusion. It’s a process that takes a considerable amount of effort and time. We call this the unconventional approach to save a believer.
You step on sacred ground when you speak of religion as a myth. If you call someone’s religion a myth, it’s likely to cause a conflict. These are “fighting words” for most believers. So tread with caution. You can approach the function of mythology in another way. Use another worldview as an example. You’ll have better success using a more non-threatening manner. It leads us to a scientific process-based research model, comparative analysis.
Comparative Analysis — A Pathway Beyond Religion
It is an excellent method to help someone escape deeply held religious beliefs. First, start with another religion other than theirs. People are more likely to accept the process because they won’t feel under attack. For example, if they are Christian, start with Eastern traditions. Buddhism and Confucianism are systems for comparison.
Now answer the following questions. Use resources from outside of their belief system. When possible, use scientific archeological and historical records.
- Does this system use sacred texts as a basis for authority? If so, what are they? When were they created, and by whom?
- Is this belief system based on a Supreme Being? Use external sources to find out as much as you can.
- Find any critics of this worldview and the resources they cite for their opinions.
- What does it take to become a follower of this system? Does it have rules for behavior? If so, what are they?
- Does this belief use and align with common sense or logic? If not, what are the logical flaws?
- Does this worldview impose its values on others?
- What are the sources of their tradition or mythology?
Benefits of Comparative Analysis
Suppose you are successful in taking them on this research journey. Now see if you can get your new friend to use the comparative analysis process. In my experience, most will agree, although reluctantly. Share the following benefits of this research process on your own beliefs.
Slowly but reluctantly, they will see the function of mythology is to lead them somewhere beyond superstition. When the lights come on, they will realize myth equals faith. And myths could be a pathway beyond religion.
- This process deepens your understanding of your beliefs.
- It helps you to become more compassionate toward others with differing worldviews.
- Research exercises my critical thinking skills, which enables me to make better choices.
- Increases your line of sight, providing a greater perspective
Religion as a Popular Myth
“The study of religion rests on the basic distinction between studying about religion as a field of inquiry and being a religious practitioner.” — U.S. Supreme Court case Abington vs. Schempp (1963).
There is a similar philosophical distinction between a cult and a religion. A cult is an unpopular religion, and religion is a popular cult. Or, as Joseph Campbell stated, “One man’s myth is another man’s religion.”
Tradition isn’t without purpose. The function of myth is to show how to forge a pathway beyond religion. The imagery of the stories in most religions is an excellent mnemonic memory device. These stories are memorable because of their unique themes and characters. It helps us remember key points and lessons within the legend.
Myths are used to preserve and communicate lessons. They can help us discover our spiritual truth. Myths can also influence the direction of the cultural narrative. Religion promotes myth and superstition to law. Many people disagree and think we should base society’s rules on facts and science.
The Hero’s Journey
Many popular spiritual stories have the same elements with different names. However, it’s the same pattern. It is this pattern Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey. It’s our innate desire to explore the unknown. We have researched and conquered most of the planet. Many cultures also turned this need to explore inward.
It’s a typical pattern for stories that resonate with us spiritually. It is the call to forge a pathway beyond religion. You find this formula at the heart of the Bible or in movies like Star Wars. Creating a path of your design is the only way to spiritual freedom.
The purpose of myth is to illustrate a principle using a story and imagery. We need to use these stories as roadmaps to create our path. Otherwise, it remains someone else’s story. And the function of myth is to show us a path that leads beyond religion. Please don’t mistake the metaphors of myth for facts. Learn to use legends to move beyond the boundaries of religious dogma. Can you pass the spiritual pathway test?
(1) Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.