Fact and Fantasy, Demigods and Myths

Image of an open bible.

Image by Aaron Burden.

The ability to imagine is uniquely human. Imagination enabled the invention of our modern world with its bewilderingly complex transportation and communication systems.

But building that world required more than imagination. It required imagination tempered by reason. We imagine and we rationalize. We can explain how the planets revolve around the sun and how birds and airplanes defy gravity. We rely on reason and physical evidence to evidence determine what ideas are useful, and to distinguish fact from fantasy.

Yet many people find it difficult to make that distinction. To a great extent, religion is the cause for religious institutions condition their followers to believe fanciful tales from early childhood – Adam and Eve’s original sin is the cause of all of mankind’s suffering; Jonah and the Whale; Noah and the Ark.

All defy common sense. Yet Christian fundamentalists, of which there are approximately 90 million, accept these fables as absolute truth. Little wonder that belief in QAnon conspiracies or that the last presidential election was rigged, is so widespread.

Throughout history, there are countless stories of gods interacting with humans. This sculpture of “Leda and the Swan,” for example, is a moving depiction of the romantic intimacy shared by the mythical god Zeus, disguised as a swan, and the beautiful Greek woman he had seduced. In this myth, Leda bears twin children, one human the other a god.

Four hundred years later a Christian variation of the Leda fable emerges. The virgin Mary is impregnated by God, the Holy Ghost, disguised as a dove, and she gives birth to a single child with twin natures, half human, half god. Leda is a myth. Mary is Christian doctrine, believed by some 63 percent of Americans.

This willingness to accept myth as fact presents a fundamental problem for our democracy. Rational debate and compromise are essential to our government and judiciary, but rational debate requires that both sides accept basic facts.

Yet far too many politicians, and now court justices, base their arguments on subjective religious belief rather than demonstrable fact. What these people want to be true is placed on an equal footing with what is true. Fantasy equals fact. The result is an obstructed congress and a supreme court without objectivity.

Fables and legends are man-made devices. For virtually all recorded human history various unprovable fables secure power for established classes. And that continues today. The conservative right uses myths as a device to remain a force in American government. Here are three examples. All run counter to our national interest.

The myth of a self-correcting environment

Scientific Papers linking global warming to carbon dioxide concentration were published as early as 1956. Gradually scientists grew concerned and by 1988 the topic had become contentious. Industry, especially oil companies, questioned the data and mathematical models. Their arguments were suspect, but rational.

At the same time Christian fundamentalists took issue citing passages from the bible to support their views, which irrationally claimed that God had created a perfect self-correcting environment in which mankind would flourish until the end-times; all was according to god’s plan. The combined effect of these denials was to delay and reduce investment in programs that could have addressed the climate problem.

Today nearly everyone appreciates that global warming endangers our planet, and something must be done. Yet even now the Freedom Caucus has placed a restriction on climate change funding to poison the defense spending bill.

The myth of two-genders

Christian beliefs are also at the center of controversies concerning gay and transgender members of our society. LGBT people comprise some seven percent of our population.

These groups have existed throughout human history. So, the evidence that God created more than two genders is overwhelming, for surely if God created anyone, God created everyone.

Yet fundamentalists hold that God created only male and female and cannot accept the LGBT community. Christian-dominated state legislatures work overtime writing statutes that marginalize these protected groups. Florida’s “don’t say gay” law and regulation of what children can read and be taught are prime examples.

The myth of a Christian Nation

Christian Nationalists claim that our country was founded as a Christian nation, but the record says something quite different. The words Christ and Christian do not appear in our Constitution or Declaration of Independence. Jefferson used the word God once in the Declaration, but in reference to “Natures God,” the God of Deism.

The founders understood that Christianity was incompatible with the free society they envisioned. They rejected the monarchial-religious power structures of the 18th century and embraced the Secular Humanism of the Enlightenment.

And the fact that the majority of Americans identify as Christian does not make America a Christian Nation, for our Constitution guarantees religions freedom for all faiths. No one religion is favored.

Religious nationalism has profoundly infected our Supreme Court. Six of the nine justices are Catholic, and decisions now reflect the Christian world view. The Dobbs decision is the most egregious example. Written by Justice Alito, his opinion ignored precedent, reason, and evidence to take away a woman’s constitutional right to choose. To give that power to the states, he relied on an “Ordered Liberty” argument, but he skipped over the fact that this woman’s Constitutional right did not interfere with Ordered Liberty.

The consequence of this opinion is that in a Christian-dominated state everyone must abide by the subjective belief of the Christian majority, which violates both separation of church and state and the religious freedom for other faiths. One would think Alito had never read the Bill of Rights, understood the phrase “tyranny of the majority” or realized that the voting majorities in the Confederate States endorsed slavery.

He claims objectivity, but is a conservative Catholic, and his opinion aligns perfectly with the mythical conservative view of society. The National Conservative manifesto states, “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.” That view is, of course, incompatible with the free society Jefferson, Franklin and Madison contemplated.

Leda and the Swan, Mary and the Dove; fact or fantasy? The remarkable thing about America is the right to believe that either one, neither, or both are true. But that right is shared by all citizens.

And along with American citizenship comes an obligation to respect the beliefs of others. Fifty years ago, we had accepted that obligation in both government and law, as our constitution requires, and we used reason to determine what was right and wrong. That was essential to our success as a nation.

America is an embodiment of Enlightenment philosophy, the Age of Reason. That is our true heritage. By honoring that legacy, we ensure our future. One has the right to believe that Leda is a myth and Mary is fact, but we must think our way forward.

I was raised Christian. As much as I may want the story of Mary to be true, this dilemma I cannot reconcile. So, I have come to see biblical stories like Greek mythology, myths that may provide useful and meaningful guidance but not absolute truth. And Christ need not be divine for his message of love and peace to have meaning.

The problems that confront our modern world are real and they require real solutions. They will not be found in ancient scripture, magic, or myths, but by a government and judiciary that respects individual rights and deals in fact.

Bob Topper is a retired engineer and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.