The world is awash with myths and fake news. The gut consensus among university-educated, post-Enlightenment minds appears to be that we should do away with myths altogether. But what about the positive role that myths play in underwriting shared action? My book, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division, sheds light on this positive role and how groups are facilitating the inclusive sharing of myths in diverse spaces. The following is a short introduction to that book.
‘Myth’ is a term widely used but rarely defined. It’s employed regularly among journalists and politicians as a euphemism for ‘lies,’ such as in the New Yorker’s recent headline, “Mueller’s Indictment Ends Trump Myth of the Russia ‘Hoax’.” Just as commonly, myth is used to denote not outright lies, but the basing of broader narratives in prominent, but not statistically significant, events. This usage is employed by social progressives and conservatives alike, such as the myth of the Muslim terrorist or the myth of white privilege. In these cases, the use of myth is associated with the rise of grassroots media. Yet another usage of myth regards religious narratives: in this case, it is the events themselves, rather than their statistical significance that is called into question. Here myth is cast as an age-old problem yet to be removed from the modern psyche. Ill-defined as they are, these usages share a common thread: myths are dangerous, sometimes pernicious things that go against key principles on which modernity is founded.
But what about the potentially positive employment of myth to serve constructive social ends? Not least, for the proponents of this anti-myth argument, the myth of Western rationality? The premise of my recently released book, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division is that myth is everywhere a lens through which people make sense of the world and mobilize one another to act. The notion of trying to construct a society shorn of myth is counterproductive. Far from liberating people from the shackles of myth, the result is to leave people unreflective about the way their actions are shaped by myths: perhaps myths of eventual liberation from all oppressive social and economic structures, or of the self-autonomous, self-reliant individual. Instead, our aim in creating empowered, critically aware citizens should be to demonstrate the many ways, positive and negative, that myths operate in people’s lives, and to empower people to play a role in the process of reproducing, reshaping or challenging those myths.
I think of myths as the stories of great events and characters through which we bring our ideals to life. Rather than treating events as evidence that the world is a particular way, myths draw on events as hopeful possibilities that the world could be different. Some of the myths with which we are most familiar in the Western world are Christian myths of the flood or of Jesus and his crucifixion. Many of us are also aware of the mythic quality of communism, which draws on stories of momentous revolution to inspire hope in an authentically reciprocal society. Some, too, are quite ready to point to the myths of capitalism. We might, for example, see the connection between the American revolution, a film like The Pursuit of Happiness, and the everyday belief that there is a connection between hard work and social and economic success. Yet, adept as we are at identifying the most powerful myths in the contemporary landscape, we rarely think about the ethics of myth-making; that is, about how and by whom myths are and should be constructed. In an increasingly divided society, critically questioning this process is fundamental.
Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World is a small contribution to this process. Drawing on theology, philosophy, and the sociology and anthropology of religion, politics and capitalism, it offers reflections on and tentative answers to the question of how to construct myths of solidarity in a divided world. It does not seek to offer a new myth that can speak to people across religious, political and economic differences. Instead, it asks, if myths are ubiquitous, how should we prepare people to democratically partake in their development?
By way of an example, the book explores four case studies: Christian, secular, multi-faith and post-secular. The latter, a grassroots political organising group known as London Citizens, provides some positive insights into how we might prepare people to democratically partake in the development of myth. London Citizens host training sessions for new organisers in which they deliberately bring people of all religions and none into shared spaces. One exercise in these training sessions is to ask people to shout out some words they associate with the world as it should be. As people of various backgrounds see one another calling out similar words, they come to realise a shared passion for what they come to call “the common good”. Later, over months and years of working together, these ideals of how the world should be are slowly fleshed out: in the stories, songs, and practices of various religious and nonreligious institutions, and in the stories, some of hope and some of suffering, of individuals that have been touched by the organisation. Because the shared focus is never one god or tradition, but rather “the common good”, each individual is able to see counterproductive narratives within their own tradition, and likewise the positive aspects of each tradition is weaved into this common thread. In this way, in an organization like London Citizens, it can be utterly unremarkable for self-identifying atheists to draw on stories of Christ and Mohammed in seeking to convey their political message.
The book’s key contribution to the study of nonreligion and secularity is to offer myth as a framework for understanding the parallels between religious and nonreligious ways of relating to the world and other people. I see myth as an additional category alongside ‘the sacred’ and ‘ritual’ in a toolbox of terms for understanding nonreligious motivation and experience. If the sacred represents ideas that have achieved a non-negotiable status and which must be protected from foreign influence, myths are the stories which bring the sacred to life; they are the stories by which it is filled with content and passed on. And the moments in which these stories are shared may be thought of as story-telling rituals. So for example, if freedom of speech is sacred, then the stories of people like Spinoza, Salman Rushdie, or Malala are some of the myths by which the ideal is illuminated, and political speeches act as some of the rituals in which these stories are shared.
Myth in particular is able to bring to light the subjunctive, as-if, or imaginative quality of nonreligious experiences of the world. The point is not to bring nonreligious ways of being down to the level of the religious, as if to offer a lesson of the ilk, “whose house is of glass, must not throw stones at another.” Rather, the point is to identify a key aspect of human motivation that is often ignored when undertaking studies in purportedly nonreligious settings. This includes the deliberate exploration of nonreligious identity. But it also has a much broader target; namely, implicitly secular research which pays little or no attention to questions of religion or nonreligion, but where these factors may be of great import. By seeking to flesh out the role of myth in shaping political identity and motivation, I hope that I am giving people a language for thinking about these factors in a range of settings beyond the study of (non)religion.
In turn, it is my ambition that such studies will inflect back on the study of nonreligion, providing new ways of thinking about identity and motivation. My current research in Vancouver, Canada is seeking to do just this: exploring the myths of secular citizens partaking in social and economic justice activism, with the aim of contributing to the understanding of how political commitments shape our beliefs.
Tim Stacey is working on a postdoc for the Religion and Diversity Project in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at University of Ottawa. Tim explores the role of religion and belief in renewing a sense of solidarity in culturally and economically fragmented spaces. In particular, he explores what he calls ‘myths’, that is, the stories of great events and characters that point towards an ideal way of living. He uses the term myth to highlight the parity between religious and secular ways of inhabiting the world. Seeing research as a means of changing rather than only exploring the world, Tim pays particular attention to the implications of his work for politics, policy and professional practice. Tim has experience in numerous methods, but prefers ethnography, and in particular employs a lot of auto-ethnographic reflection as he seeks to adopt the myths and practices of his research participants. Tim is also a member of several research and policy networks. He is the co-founder of LivedReligionProject.com, an online campaign that challenges prejudiced understandings of religion as dogma by highlighting the complexity and humour with which randomly selected individuals navigate their religious and nonreligious lives. Tim is currently living in Vancouver, where he is undertaking ethnographic research into the values that motivate secular citizens (those for whom religion is no more than a secondary concern) to campaign for social and economic justice.