Myth (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
Civilization cannot exist without stories. Every culture in recorded history has created its own narratives to cope with what was fearful, incomprehensible, or uncontrollable, from volcanic eruptions and comets to illnesses and death. These stories, called myths, are often, but not exclusively, deeply related to the religious beliefs of a given culture. Myths give order and meaning to the uncertainties of life, whether they are caused by physical or by emotional factors.
Humanity's first attempt to understand nature
Throughout history, different cultures have perceived nature as having a dual role: sometimes the giver of life, the provider of warmth and food, and sometimes the ruthless killer. This was as true to a hunter-gatherer tribe living ten thousand years ago as it is today. In order to appease the unpredictability of nature, it was necessary to somehow interact with it. This was originally achieved through the attribution of god-like status to nature and to the objects of the world that had some relevance to people's lives. In some cultures, Earth itself was a god, the mother goddess, and so were the sun and other celestial objects. Other cultures populated their forests, rivers, and mountains with gods and spirits. Through ritual and sacrifice it was possible to communicate with these gods, and, thus, to plead for their clemency and generosity. The existence and actions of these many gods, and their interactions with human figures, were told through myths. Thus, mythical narratives translated what was feared and unknown into a language that was readily understandable by people, establishing a bridge between human existence and that which was perceived to be beyond its realm.
The power of a myth is not in its reality but in its persuasiveness. A tragic example is the myth of Aryan supremacy espoused by Nazism, which led to the murdering of Jews, Gypsies, and others during the Second World War. It is a common mistake to interpret a given myth in the light of one's culture and not within its own. The belief system of a Yanonami Indian from the Amazon Basin is quite different from that of a Dutch Calvinist or a Chinese Buddhist. Religious entrenchment, based on specific mythic narratives, often leads to disastrous social and political consequences.
Myths can be understood as humanity's first attempt to interpret and understand natural phenomena. As such, they can legitimately be considered as science's ancestors. In particular, there is an all-pervasive, cross-cultural need to understand the origin of human beings and of the world. These myths, called creation myths, are part of every culture, past and present. In the West, the most familiar is that narrated in the biblical book of Genesis, which attributes the origin of the world and of its beings to God. The vast majority of creation myths follow similar lines, in that they credit the existence of the world to the action of a god, goddess, or several gods. These myths fall in a category where time had a specific start in the past, the moment of creation. Still within this category, there are myths that claim the universe originated spontaneously out of chaos, without divine intervention, while others, such as the Maoris of New Zealand, claim it appeared out of nothing. Other creation myths, such as those from the Jains of India, say the universe has always existed and will always exist, while others, like the Hindus, believe the universe is created and destroyed in an eternal succession of cycles.
The transition from myth to science
The same basic concerns with nature and its impact on human existence that are addressed by mythic narratives play a crucial role in the development of science. Questions that were once the exclusive province of religion, such as the origin of the world, the origin of life, and the origin of mind, are now subjects of intensive scientific research. It is possible to trace a gradual, albeit not continuous, transition from the mythic to the scientific discourse. The first rupture with a purely religious description of nature is attributed to the pre-Socratic philosophers, who flourished in Greece during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. For the first time, it is possible to identify an effort to answer questions about nature through natural causation mechanisms, as opposed to supernatural ones.
This tendency continued with Plato and Aristotle, although both included supernatural elements in their schemes of the world. The Demiurge, for Plato, was a cosmic intelligence, responsible for the rational design of the world; the Unmoved Mover, for Aristotle, was the first cause of motion, the world's primal dynamic impulse. As we move on to the Renaissance and the development of modern science, influences from Greek thought, combined with Christian theology, are clearly present in the works of several natural philosophers, including Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. Their task was to translate God's natural creations to humanity, using reason as the common language. The oral and verbal narratives of myths were increasingly substituted by mathematical descriptions of natural phenomena. The very success of the physical sciences served to distance the scientist from the theologian; as humanity learned more about nature through reason, a smaller role was attributed to God and the supernatural in the workings of the world.
Today, science is widely perceived as the antithesis of religion: In a world of reason, there is no place for God and the supernatural. This polarized view of science and religion leads to much confusion. Although it is often argued that there is no place for religion in the modern scientific discourse, it is also true that science cannot completely distance itself from its mythic roots. One of the strengths of science is its universality: A theory or explanation accepted by the scientific community will be correct for every scientist, irrespective of religious creed, nationality, or political stance. However, science comes from individuals who are often motivated by esthetic values. Concepts such as symmetry, harmony, simplicity, order, or mathematical elegance are a major driving force of the scientific creative process. Their origin can be traced back to the need to decode the workings of nature, as was first done through myths.
See also ARISTOTLE; CREATION; GOD OF THE GAPS; HINDUISM; NEWTON, ISAAC; PLATO; SUPERNATURALISM
Freund, Phillip. Myths of Creation. New York: Washington Square Press, 1996.
Gleiser, Marcelo. The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang. New York: Dutton, 1997.
Gleiser, Marcelo. The Prophet and the Astronomer: A Scientific Journey to the End of Time. New York: Norton, 2002.
Greene, Brian. The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. New York: Norton, 1999.
Munitz, Milton K., ed. Theories of the Universe: From Babylonian Myth to Modern Science. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1957.
Pagels, Heinz R. Perfect Symmetry: The Search of the Beginning of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1986.
Sproul, Barbara C. Primal Myths. San Francisco: Harper, 1979.
Zee, Anthony. Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics. New York: Collier, 1986.