Saving the marriage of science and myth

Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida, by James Barry

The marriage of science and myth, like that of Zeus and Hera, is a struggle.

– by B. T. Newberg

Marriage is hard.  Zeus and Hera were constantly bickering.  Inanna banished her husband Dumuzi to the underworld.  Skadi and Njord couldn’t live together no matter how they tried.  Are all marriages doomed to failure?

Humanistic Paganism bills itself as a naturalistic “marriage” of science and myth.  It would be nice if it were a neat, sweet, picket-fence relationship.  But that’s not how most marriages go, is it?  Marriage is hard work, but it’s worth it.

This metaphor is particularly poignant to me since I’m two and a half months into a marriage of my own.  The honeymoon phase is over.  No one said marriage would be easy, whether it’s between two people or two cultural phenomena like science and myth.

By science I mean that modern method of empirical investigation which has given us everything from toasters to quantum physics, and which takes naturalism as a working principle.  By myth I mean the ancient stories that have given us the likes of Zeus, Thor, and the Morrígan, as well as the rituals, meditations, and other practices that go along with a living tradition of mythology.

Now that we know what we mean by science and myth, what does it take to make their marriage work?

Couples counseling

No marriage has much hope if the couple can’t learn to listen to each other.

It takes courage to hear hard criticism.  Science and myth have plenty of grievances, so they’d better find a way to air them in a safe space.  HP aspires to be just such a safe space.

It also takes patience.  We aren’t necessarily able to express our feelings coherently or all at once.  Each person must discover themselves in the process, while the other waits patiently for them to work out their issues.  On HP, we have folks more science-oriented and folks more myth-oriented, and both need the patience to let the other speak their truth.

Finally, it takes responsiveness.  It’s not enough just to listen, you also have to be willing to be persuaded.  On HP, we’ve been challenged by critical voices, and we have to recognize the value of that process.  Likewise, critics need to be open to having their challenges met.

As with couples counseling, we must find the courage and patience to talk through the tough issues, and the willingness to let the process change us.

The parent trap

It also takes creativity to make a marriage work.

Remember that old movie The Parent Trap?  Two teenage twins conspire to get their divorced parents back together.  Their cutesy antics may make you laugh or vomit, depending on your taste, but the point is they use creativity to re-ignite love.

Theology is a lot like that.  A recent term in religious studies is creative misunderstanding, whereby a tradition changes by re-interpreting the old in a new way.  This enables a community to meet the needs of the present while maintaining continuity with the past.

It may take some creative misunderstanding to keep science and myth together.  Like the twins in The Parent Trap, we may need ingenuity to rekindle their flame.

The languages of love

Gary Chapman has a book for couples called The Five Love Languages, which proposes you have to learn how the other expresses love, and learn to speak that language yourself.  Science and myth speak different languages, and they may need to learn the other’s in order to communicate.

HP is about learning to speak the languages of both science and myth.  Michael Dowd frames these in terms of day language and night language, respectively.  Science speaks of reality in the clear light of day.  Myth also speaks of reality, but in the strange imagery of dreams in the night.  Both have important things to say, and it takes learning the other’s language to achieve understanding.

Awesome make-up sex

Often the best love-making is after a fight.  When couples kiss and make up, they re-affirm they’d rather be together than apart, despite their differences.

Science and myth have had a rocky relationship, and currently stand facing away from each other with crossed arms.  Can HP turn them toward each other again?

If so, we’re looking forward to an awesome make-up.

It’ll be like Psyche and Eros, or Isis after finally recovering her lost husband Osiris.

15 Comments on “Saving the marriage of science and myth

  1. I hate to lead with a correction, but you’ve misspelled her name: it’s Morrígan, with the “fada” accent mark over the i. (There are other ways of spelling it but they all have an accent somewhere.) An Irish word with a missing accent is spelled incorrectly.

    That said, this is just truly a great article. I need to catch up on some HP reading. What catches my attention here is the talk about science-oriented people and myth-oriented people needing to be patient, listen to each other, and learn each other’s languages. That’s of great interest to me.

    In editing HP, have you found ways that work best to encourage that?

  2. Thanks for the Irish tip!

    >What catches my attention here is the talk about science-oriented people and myth-oriented people needing to be patient, listen to each other, and learn each other’s languages… In editing HP, have you found ways that work best to encourage that?

    Hmm… That’s hard. The first thing that comes to mind is advice from Chris Steadman, author of Nonprophet Status, whose Winterviews interview will be coming up here on Jan. 8th. In discussing interfaith strategies, he suggests starting with stories, perhaps because telling your own story is less threatening to the other than a bunch of generalized claims. So, I think starting with stories is the first and maybe the biggest thing about encouraging listening.

    Another thing is terms. We’ve had some turbulence over defining terms here on HP, and I think in the future it might help to have a glossary of some kind that supports a range of definitions, so that everyone is on the same page or at least the same chapter.

    The last thing is education, education, education. Dialogue is very difficult if you don’t have much clue where the other person is coming from. Whenever I’ve talked to people hostile to science, I usually get little indication that they realize what scientific method is or why it might have an advantage over another method in answering certain kinds of questions about the nature of the physical universe. At the same time, whenever I’ve talked to people hostile to myth, it often feels like they haven’t the slightest clue what a person could possibly get out of myth if not answers about the nature of the natural universe (which science can answer better, according to their view). So it seems plain to me that good old-fashioned education about the other’s worldview and its purposes might be just what the doctor ordered.

    Does that kind of answer the question?

  3. Some folks really don’t like to hear any criticism of their religious ideas. I’m trying to remember how I felt as a strongly religious person, and for me it came down to fear that the criticisms may be true or that I’ll be mocked by people who don’t really understand where I’m coming from. I still don’t openly acknowledge any ties to paganism because it is so readily misunderstood. I don’t know if my experience applies to everyone.

    Regarding the first fear, that my beliefs may be unfounded, I try to live according to Yudkowsky’s second virtue of rationality.

    The second virtue is relinquishment. P. C. Hodgell said: “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.” Do not flinch from experiences that might destroy your beliefs. The thought you cannot think controls you more than thoughts you speak aloud. Submit yourself to ordeals and test yourself in fire. Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm. Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.” Beware lest you become attached to beliefs you may not want.

    For the second fear, the fear of being misunderstood, I try to explain my beliefs rather than toss out labels like “pagan” and hope that everyone will understand what I mean. I also try to work on my communication skills so that I can understand and be understood.

    • Thanks for introducing us to these virtues of rationality. I thought they were brilliant at first, and wondered if they might be adapted to HP purposes. As I thought about it, though, I began to realize that these virtues seem to have a very specific unspoken context in mind, which seems to be the relationship of an individual to the attempt at explaining the natural universe. What’s missing, if these virtues were to be applied more broadly, are virtues that work well in a social context. For example, the second virtue of relinquishment, summed up by the quote “That which can be destroyed by the truth should be”, seems to need some kind of compassion- or empathy-type virtue to complement it in a social context. Yes, in the end truth ought to prevail, but it needs to be done sensitively and responsibly otherwise no one’s gonna listen to you and you’ll just come off as an ass. 🙂

      • “Yes, in the end truth ought to prevail, but it needs to be done sensitively and responsibly otherwise no one’s gonna listen to you and you’ll just come off as an ass.”

        Been there, done that. Didn’t work, came off as an ass :S
        It is a very different thing when communicating in person with me, as there is a lot said through body language and tone, which can’t be passed through text. That is something that takes some practice at getting right – conveying your full meaning and being able to do it sensitively through text. I prefer face to face over text any day, as there is so much potential for miscommunication otherwise. I kind wish they had a chapter, or at least a section on this in high school computer class.

        • Rua, that wasn’t directed at you, just so you know. 🙂

          I’m interested in virtue ethics generally. ADF has generated a list called the Nine Virtues, which is more or less a revision of the Nine Noble Virtues of Asatru, and all of which come out of the ancient world’s virtue traditions. Virtue ethics seems to work better in the contemporary world than the “thou shalt” ethics of Classical Monotheist traditions. They only prescribe character goals while trusting situational decisions to your best judgment. That seems more consistent with democratic ideals. So I would love to see development in this direction, but as with any engagement of ethics it is highly controversial.

        • Maybe the next Thing on Thursday, can be a poll on this subject and be discussed? I’m certainly interested as you’ve seen that Ehoah has incorporated a virtue system as well. And I agree that it works more with our societal structure, being democratic. I think its worth investigating. 🙂

        • Also, I knew that it wasn’t directed to me. Was just backing up the point that it does happen. Even with the best intentions.

      • Agreed. Yudkowsky and the LessWrong crowd tend to emphasize the individual pretty heavily, and his list of virtues while insightful could use some communitarian virtues to balance it out, as you say.

        I think I’ve said it here before, but I am interested in discussions in examining virtue ethics. I believe an emphasis on ethics helps protect a philosophical naturalist from descending into nihilism and decadence. I’d like to be able to pass on an ethical worldview to my children.

  4. Can we skip to the make up part? That sounds like fun 😛 lol

    I’ve already learned a lot and am sure to learn more. A fair bit has been through Jonathan Blake’s way of explaining and taking the time to make sure there is no misunderstanding. Even if involves rephrasing it a few times. And I agree that story telling helps a great deal, instead of just claims. This I’ll be sure to put into practice 🙂

    I don’t doubt that a marriage between science and myth can work. “As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and the sky.”

  5. For anyone interested, there is a great essay entitled, “Paganism and Humanism: Can This Marriage be Saved?” by Rev. Kendyl Gibbons here:

    It’s a wonderful expression of how this “marriage” might work. Actually, you can hear Kendyl’s essay and other takes on the same question offered at the UU General Assembly in 2010 here:

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