In chapters six and seven, Daniel Dennett goes on to speculate on how folk religion developed into organized religion and became institutionalized , or, as he says, “domesticated,” complete with “stewards,” such as shamans, imams, rabbis, clergy, and other leaders who use their power to ensure the perpetuation of belief, religious practices, organizational structures, and, of course, their own positions. These stewards use fear, deception, the promise of rewards, and organizational hierarchy, as well as, appeals to a Higher Power to maintain their positions and sustain the religion. Religions act like corporations, developing a “brand,” competing in the “marketplace,” and selling “goods” to their “customers.” A “God you can talk to,” who offers eternal life, is the ultimate consumer good.
In chapter eight Dennett discusses how “the stewardship of religious ideas creates a powerful phenomenon, belief in belief,” which reinforces the need, even the duty, to believe. This belief in belief serves to deter rational questioning and disinterested investigation. One form that it takes is the redefinition of religious terms to make them ever more resistant to empirical doubt. Thus “God” develops from a supernatural, anthropomorphic being to an abstract concept, a concept, like infinity, which seems compatible with math and science.
To say that Dennett casts religion in a cynical light would not be too strong a statement. Repeatedly, often sarcastically, he inveighs against religious insistence on belief in “fictions.”
As stated in a previous post (Jan., 2014), I continually find myself wondering if Dennett is capable of suspending his disbelief long enough to appreciate the power and, yes, the truth, of imagination.
Can fiction ever tell the truth? Can religious “fictions,” understood figuratively or symbolically, embody an important truth of human experience? Just because a story or belief is literally false, does that mean it cannot be true in a larger sense?
In the 18th century there were a group of literary critics who argued that it was irrational and unrealistic for a play to move freely through time and space. If a play takes three hours to perform, it should take place in three hours. Similarly, since a play can only be performed in one place, the action on the stage should occur in one locale. They also thought the action should be limited to one plot. Otherwise, the spectators would not be able to suspend their disbelief enough to appreciate the performance. Shakespeare, of course, broke all these rules of the “three unities,” as they were called. And Samuel Johnson famously derided these critics, arguing that “the audience is always in its right mind” and can both believe and disbelieve at the same time. That is, the audience is capable of knowing that a dramatic performance is both imaginary and “true” at the same time.
Surely, even an atheist can appreciate the power and truth of religious myth. Let’s take the story of Jesus Christ.
Most Christians probably consider it to be a unique story, but actually it follows the familiar pattern of a hero/quest myth found in almost all, if not all, cultures: (1) mysterious or miraculous origin, (2) hiding, (3) initiation and divine signs or special powers, (4) preparation, meditation, withdrawal, refusal, (5) trial and quest, (6) death and the scapegoat, (7) descent to underworld, (8) resurrection and rebirth, (9) ascension, apotheosis, atonement. Not all hero myths contain every element, but all roughly follow the same outline. (See David Leeming's *Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero,* 2nd ed.)
In the case of Jesus Christ, (1) he is born of a virgin, (2) he is born in a kind of “hidden” place, a manger, (3) he shows a maturity beyond his years during his conversation with religious teachers, (4) he spends forty days and forty nights in the wilderness resisting the temptations of Satan and preparing for his “quest,” (5) he calls his disciples and undertakes his ministry performing miracles and spreading his message, (6) he is crucified and dies as a scapegoat for human sin, (7) he is buried in a tomb, (8) he rises from the dead, and (9) he ascends into heaven and is deified.
So, if we dismiss the story as factually and literally false, on what basis can we affirm its truth value? For one thing, we can affirm that, regardless of time and place, some individuals seem to acquire special status. These individuals perform outstanding acts or make noteworthy contributions to their communities. In turn, their communities elevate them and attribute unusual qualities to them in recognition of their accomplishments. Hero myths thus represent the enduring human truth that some individuals rise above the rest of us and that the rest of us confer upon them a distinctive standing. Likewise, these myths embody the truth that, as humans, we seek role models, mentors, and heroes, who inspire and lead us toward our own higher life.
From a psychological perspective, we can also view these myths as representing the universal story of each individual’s life journey. As we grow, we become conscious of ourselves as having a distinct identity. We often think of ourselves as having a special calling or mission in life. We may face threats to our survival; we look for signs of our “destiny” or our unique goals in life; we seek success in one form or another and we prepare ourselves to achieve it; we encounter obstacles and trials that must be overcome in our life’s “quest.” Not all “heroes” are successful, and we may experience a failed quest, perhaps more than one. Regardless of success or failure, we must face death, but we take comfort that we will live on after death, even if it is only in the form of the memories of the living or the legacy we leave behind. Psychologically, our apotheosis is the mark we leave on the world.
Thus, the literally false myth embodies the symbolic truth of our sense of unique identity, our individual life journey, and our shared human experience of trial and quest, success or failure, suffering, death, and the hope, if not the conviction, that our life was significant.
Stripped of its religious meaning, the story of Jesus Christ is the same story that we each live, and that is perhaps one reason the story can resonate powerfully even for an atheist, assuming the atheist has not rejected imagination along with religion.