One may invent a false, finally unjustified view on oneself as an exceptional phenomenon in the world, not guilty as others are, but justified in one’s own inevitable sinning because one represents the good. Such self-righteousness leads to a misunderstanding, not only of oneself but of the nature of both man and the cosmos. The goal of the myth is to dispel the need for such life ignorance by affecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will. And this is affected through a realization of the true relationship of the passing phenomena of time to the imperishable life that lives and dies in all.
–Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
This is the single most insightful, brilliant observation on the human condition that I have ever read. It’s a bit wordy, and it took me a few times to grasp the meaning behind the words, so I’ll try to explain it (at least in the way that I interpret it). The first sentence is the most important, containing so much psychology and depth. Because we are each individuals, we develop mental simulations and conceptions of the people around us, but they don’t come anywhere near our understanding of ourselves. This almost inevitably leads to a varying degree of egocentricity that governs the way we approach life.
We all make mistakes and we all “sin” (whether or not that word contains religious connotations), but rather than accepting this fault as a fundamental aspect of human identity, we internally justify it with our belief that we are the hero of our story, that we, as Campbell puts it, “represent the good.” We are far more forgiving of our own sins than those of the people around us because of this belief.
What Campbell wants us to realize is that sin and fault is a part of life, and that it needs to be accepted rather than denied. This is the goal of myth – to teach and to expand the mind and to make people aware of our place in the greater scheme of things. This is itself another vitally important idea that Campbell describes in his book: myth and religion isn’t meant to be taken literally. The ancient Greeks and Romans new that the God’s didn’t really exist, but they used them to center themselves and to guide them through the turmoils of life.
I’ve struggled with religion over the years. When I first became old enough to formulate thoughts on the subject, I was an atheist. I didn’t see any evidence of divine creation, much less day-to-day presence or intervention. But as the years passed, and I didn’t really talk about it with anyone, I became more and more exposed to religion, through studies in high school, friends and extended family, and various forms of media. I began to wonder, and my atheist resolve began to waiver. Could all these people really be wrong? Wouldn’t it be nicer to believe that there’s a purpose, that there’s an afterlife, and to have a like-minded, supportive community?
Enter Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion. It was like somebody had come out and said all of the things I had been thinking. Religion is comforting, but it fundamentally doesn’t make sense! I jumped on board with militant atheism, though I wasn’t so bold as to confront most people about it. Senior year of high school, we had to write a 20 page thesis, and I chose to write about religion. My thesis was to be something like, “religion has hid too long under the veil of faith, and now that someone [Dawkins] has had the courage to publicly challenge it, it can no longer stand.” Or something like that. Not that it’s a particularly revolutionary opinion (that’s the bummer about faith, you just can’t fight it with reasoning…). I did it more because I wanted to write and read about religion.
Dawkins’ book incited a flurry of published works on religion, and I read others by philosophers like Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. Through these other readings, I actually gained a profound respect for spiritualism (as contrasted with “religion” by being more about introspective philosophy, still based on reason, like Buddhism), and the thesis of my paper changed from advocating atheism to advocating skeptical agnosticism, or pragmatic spiritualism.
I pretty much left off there, figuring I’d gone about as far into the religious debate as it was possible to go (again, faith just really throws a damper on productive dialogue). But over the summer I read Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, at the suggestion of my godfather, Dennis Evans. I think it was probably the best book I’ve ever read, not in terms of being enjoyable to read (though it is), but for it’s insight and wisdom. Campbell describes myths from around the world and the significance that they have had for their respective cultures. The crux of his argument, as I mentioned already, is that mythology is so widespread and ancient because of the immense cultural and educational significance it has. It isn’t meant to be taken literally, but it is one of the greatest teaching and coping tools humans have. (To an extent, movies, television, and the uncountable works of fiction published each year fill this void, but the do so without meaning to, which makes them poor substitutes for human wisdom imparted across millenia). Once we recognize this, militant atheism seems absurd. The solution isn’t to abolish all mythology and attempt the face the world with only facts and figures. The solution is to put an end to the literalism that has corrupted contemporary religion and return to the parabolic religion that is meant only to nurture and guide us through life. That seems wise to me.
If you can read only one book in the next year, I urge you to read The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I’ve done my best to convey the message, but it’s an extraordinarily difficult one to do justice to. All I’ll say is that I’ve never felt more philosophically and spiritually whole than when I finished this book.