further than atheism - moving beyond rejection to find solid ground of our own

Welcome to Further Than Atheism, a weekly column that explores the vast territory that lies beyond the mere disavowal of religion. As atheists, we share practically nothing except for our disbelief. Further Than Atheism explores some of the many possibilities for positive belief that remain when gods are out of the picture.

Can atheists use anything from religion?

Once atheists get over the anger and fear that naturally come as a result of the separation from religions, they may gain something from a second look at the religious traditions. Remembering that atheism is merely the rejection of belief in gods, atheists may be able find small valuables by picking over what remains. Specifically, they may find that a skeleton of mythology underlies a fleshy covering of religious hokum.

Mythology is the symbolic understanding of the deep psychological themes of everyday life. It speaks from the same part of our minds which creates dreams, and sometimes seems just as nonsensical.

For thousands of years, mythology has been bound together with religion, yet it remains separate. Whereas the social structures of religion assert fantastic things to be true, mythology itself possesses describes fantastic things as true while retaining the wisdom to see that they not true in a literal sense. Mythology points to internal psychological truths through untrue yet insightful stories. Mythology is metaphor, and is therefore a perfect subject of study for atheists who are in search of higher meaning but do not want to sully themselves in the base practice of religion.

A guide to understanding mythology -

Mythology is an immense subject for any one person to try to understand. Nonetheless, a few stubborn people have made it their work to understand not just a single mythological system, but mythology of a whole. The first among these was Joseph Campbell. His works are a wonderful introduction into the poetic exploration of deeper truths that underlie the facade of religion.

I have, at times, been skeptical of Campbell. His distinction between civilized and primitive seems outdated, and at times he seems to criticize skepticism. However, as I have exposed myself to more of his works, I have come to understand that Campbell respects the accumulated wisdom of all forms of society and stands with freethinkers in their rejection of religion as belief.

What Campbell stands against is literalism in any form: belief or disbelief. He criticizes atheists who believe that life is merely mechanical, decrying such simplistic materialism as limited and unimaginative.

Campbell also takes a more courageous stand against the simple-mindedness of literal belief in religious teachings. According to Campbell, faith in the historical truth of religious texts such as the Bible misses the point. He asserts that the stories of religions were meant mythologically, as allegories to illuminate deeper truths.

Instead of rejecting religion completely, Campbell separates the greater truths behind religious symbols from the worship of the symbols in themselves. Ernest in his desire to understand the deep understandings covered up by religion, he devoted his life to their excavation. Atheists would do well to follow his example.

A first step -

Don't start your study of Joseph Campbell's ideas with the relatively recent Power of Myth series, created in cooperation with Bill Moyers. That series is as much Moyers gushing as it is Campbell. I suggest a collection of Campbell older lectures instead: Myths to Live By. These essays contain the same broad range of ideas without the celebratory interpretations of Moyers.

The first chapter will be particularly enjoyable for atheists and will help them to understand how his ideas can apply to believers and non-believers alike. In the end, the symbols of mythology have the power to transcend differences, even between theist and atheist.


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