Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Fables from facts

The first book we read for the Nonbelieving Literati was Julian, by Gore Vidal. In my essay I proposed that humanity needs a new mythology. Here’s some of what I said:

What will be the mythology that will replace Christianity, Islam and Judaism?

When the explanation isn’t working, we re-write (or re-tell), the mythological premise. This has happened time and again, since long before we had a written history.

Science is our story – our mythology. It seems that one of the greatest callings of religion has been as an explanation for everything, including what happens to us after death. While science does not explain everything, everything it does explain is elucidated more clearly and accurately than the teaching of any religion that ever existed.

I didn’t have Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino in mind. But it’s a start. It’s certainly great writing – much better than the trash they call The Holy Comics Bible. When it comes to pure prose, I want someone to show me a book of that bible that is better written.

But more importantly, he makes fables out of scientific facts. Bear with me!

Calvino takes facts about the universe – the Big Bang, formulation of the elements, evolution, dinosaurs, etc. and wraps them in various “fables”. The character who just happens to exist prior to and during all of these things is there to reveal universal truths, without claiming to have actually “caused” any of it. You get the science and you get a myth. Again, it’s not exactly what I was talking about in my other essay, but it’s one way of doing it – and a very fun and insightful way to boot!


The Exterminator said...

Yeah, I agree with what you said here. As I wrote in my essay, one of the things I love about Calvino's little folktales is that "no supernatural beings cause things to happen; they just do."

So in a way, jumping off from your point, these stories are both (1) examples of how one could create a mythology based on science and (2) heathen parodies of the world's existing mythologies.

Thanks for the insight. I think you're right.

John Evo said...

Is this a way to get people interested in the beauty of science? I suspect that had a lot to do with Calvino's work here. This just seems like the work of a guy who loves the science and wants to share it in a funny way. Kind of like this guy I know who writes a blog... eh. Never mind.

John Evo said...

By the way (this comment should have been worked into my post),Calvino died back in '85, but someone should do an updated version - staying true to the story but simply updating the science where our knowledge has been expanded over where it was 40 years ago. I was actually shocked (on the science I was familiar with) how much of it would stand up to scrutiny in '08. That said, there are things that we know more about now. That's part of the beauty of science, and I'd bet Calvino would agree.

Anonymous said...

I don't know....

I think it's dangerous to attempt to create a mythology out of science. It is the mythological thinking process that atheists constantly fight against when we argue against religious people.

Following this idea may only lead to a new religion-type-statment. I am opposed to religion because I support reason.


Unknown said...

Evo, mythologies can't be updated. What was and is has always been. ...Unless the pope changes his mind.

Alejandro said...

I don't think we need a new mythology or a mythology based on science or anything else to replace the Judeo-Christian tradition.

What we need is for people to recognize the Judeo-Christian tradition as mythology and not science or historical fact.

Anonymous said...

I'm with the anti-mythology crowd. Trading one set of myths for another is bullshit. Creating entertaining fiction and never losing sight of the fact that it's fiction is one thing. Creating mythology is another thing entirely.

Washington and his cherry tree is an American myth created for the purpose of teaching children not to lie. Of course, the people telling this false story tell it as if it's true and thereby contradict the lesson they're trying to teach. The irony in that is either hilarious or disgusting. Mythology is bullshit. Just call all of it fiction and eliminate the aura of specialness that surrounds mythology.

The Exterminator said...

These comments just go to prove that atheists are too fucking serious AND lack poetry.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with myths that explain things in poetic terms -- as long as one is not expected to believe them literally.

Alejandro said...

I thought that was our point exactly, Ex. Recognize and appreciate the myths we have as myth-- with all their lyricism and poetry-- rather than the need to replace them, although I see the value in updating them too (eg, Star Wars).

John Evo said...

Notice that I said nothing about making science into a religion (which it is not, never could be).

You mythology haters need to get a grip! LOL!

"mythology is a set of stories, traditions, or beliefs associated with a particular group or the history of an event, arising naturally or deliberately fostered"

While Christianity is an example of mythology, so is the story of the American cowboy. So is "America - land of opportunity. Give us your tired, huddled masses. The beacon of freedom". The age of science and reason is, already, a mythology. Like it or not.

Anonymous said...


I have to back Chappy and lifeguard on this one. The definition you gave of mythology is lacking one very important word, Fictional.

And Ex, when you say atheists are taking things way too seriously, understand that little, innocent "mythologies" fed to children, without a proper explanation of their wholy fictional nature, are what lay the psychological groundwork for mental acceptance of superstition and religion.

The progression from santa claus to god is so well understood it is almost a cliche, so when atheists react strongly to any advocation of mythology, it is to the inherrantly irrevocable danger that mythology and superstition present to enlightened thought.

it is serious, very serious.


Spanish Inquisitor said...

I always thought that Mythology acted as place markers for science. They were stories (yes we know them as fiction now, but at the time they were seen as fact)that were devised to explain aspects of experience and reality, that could not be understood at the time until Science came along and explained them. Once that happened, our newly found understanding transformed them from fact to fiction.

The poetry of much of the mythology was incidental to their purpose.

John Evo said...

QE - It's "missing" for good reason. It isn't always true that it's fictional, as in the examples I gave about American mythology.

As for "the children"... we teach them about all kinds of things. We even teach them Greek Mythology. But no one (even Christians) expects them to believe them, while there are many valuable lessons (not to mention great stories).

I hear your complaint and I'm not unsympathetic to it. We don't need the word "mythology" to teach our children to revere reason and science in a way that they have exalted religion in the past.

Great little books like Calvino's can go a long way towards accomplishing that.

The Exterminator said...

Well, obviously you're interpreting "mythology" in a very narrow way. Do the stories of "Cinderella," "Little Red Riding-Hood," or "Rumpelstiltskin" create dangerous belief systems in our kids? Does the Star Wars saga, or the legend of Robin Hood?

Myths are delightful things for a culture to have -- provided that no one tries to pass them off as facts to be believed in. I find the myths of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy mildly offensive, but only mildly. They're aimed at children, who often actually learn to question what they hear from adults specifically by examining incredible little tales like those.

So lighten up. Put down your atheist screeds and turn to some literature. But here's a warning: Don't believe it. There never was a Hamlet, or a Pip, or a Huckleberry Finn. Not everything you read is intended to be taken as fact.

Anonymous said...

It's all in what you're prepared to believe, I think.

When my sons were small they presented themselves to me and petitioned me to tell them where babies come from.

Well, I asked if they'd heard of screwing, seen the drawings in the boy's rooms in their schools.

They said the had, indeed.

I told them that activity was how babies were made.

The oldest said, "C'mon, he isn't going to tell us".

Lynet said...

I have to say, I did find the mixing of science and story a little dangerous, purely because there were places where the story aligned with pervasive but false ideas about what certain scientific facts mean. There are also places where the science is just wrong. Science and myth are both important, and sometimes science can be myth without diminishing the worth of either ("we are stardust"), but you do have to be careful when mixing the two.

John Evo said...

I guess this means Lynet has a book essay up!