Myths versus Facts

Let us start by clarifying the modern perception of a ‘myth’ as opposed to a ‘fact’. At a basic level, we might consider a myth as a possibly widely held but false belief or fictional idea, which might be rooted in earlier beliefs or traditional stories. In contrast, a fact is something we now believe to be true based on some degree of empirical verification, which may be scientific in scope or possibly supported by multiple independent historical sources. Of course, we might also recognise a degree of ambiguity between myth and fact, when myth is rooted in known historical events and some facts are only subject to limited verification. As a consequence, it might be argued that all human perspective is subjective, i.e. it is based on limited senses, intelligence and factual information, such that we might only have a partial understanding of the full complexity of everything taking place within the total universe, i.e. infinitely small to the infinitely large.

But does this imply that myth and fact have to be given equal weighting?

While most people might accept that believing in too many fanciful myths, without any substantiated fact, is possibly not necessarily a ‘ good thing’ for an individual, the issue of an entire society believing in a myth is literally a completely different story. This issue might be put into perspective by one of the main arguments of William Clifford in his 1877 essay entitled ‘The Ethics of Belief’

"The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them, for then it must sink back into savagery. It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat."

While Clifford’s quote above highlights a danger to the individual, he is clearly concerned that society, as a whole, will be adversely affected if it simply believes in things without inquiry or testing in as much as it is possible. Therefore, while the previous discussion of the ‘ History of the Zodiac’ might provide some evidence of a common theme underpinning many earlier religious beliefs, which found their way into today’s monotheistic faiths, we also need to distinguish between anecdotal and verifiable evidence. For a wider discussion of this issue - see link to Comparative Mythology.

Note: The fact that earlier astrology was founded on a mixture of mythical stories and astronomical facts is probably accepted by most. However, it is not always obvious when myth might have originated in historical fact. Likewise, care is needed when accepting any Internet source as having the necessary ‘weight of authority’ for what may be little more than conjecture, e.g. the parallels between the life of Horus and the life of Jesus, as previously suggested in the links provided in the opening discussion.

Therefore, this discussion will consider more basic arguments. The first is linked to the issue that many religious myths appear to be predicated on miracles, which transcend any known science. The second is linked to the absence of substantive historical evidence to support the ‘miraculous’ claims being made. In part, we might reference a quote by Carl Sagan to summarise the approach being considered:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”

In the context of the Carl Sagan quote, the responsibility for providing proof for the many, and often conflicting, religious beliefs lies with those who believe in extraordinary claims, not with those who do not. If so, countering religious belief with possibly equally speculative theories about historical similarities between other characters in astrological mythology, which cannot necessarily be fully substantiated, may not be the best approach.

Note: Again, it will be reiterated that from an agnostic position, all religious beliefs are open to critical questioning and may be rejected on the grounds of a lack of scientific or historic evidence, while leaving the door open to the larger issue of whether there is purpose in the universe. However, this position does not pre-suppose that a purpose exists, simply that it cannot necessarily be proved or disproved at this stage.

While this discussion is arguing that all religious belief is open to logical questioning, where each claim might then be analysed in terms of verifiable evidence and even statistical probability, the rationale of humanity cannot always be defined in terms of this type of logic in isolation. So while there may be aspects of religious belief that may be questionable in terms of known science and verifiable history, it is possibly too one-dimensional to ignore the obvious need for some people to believe in something that puts our unlikely, precarious and finite existence into some larger perspective. We might attempt to illustrate this need in a hypothetical example, albeit one that many unfortunate parents have had to confront throughout history.

A child is dying and asks what is going to happen when they die?

Logical truth alone may point to the probability that the child may simply cease to exist as a self-aware sentient being and their physical remains disposed of in accordance to local health and safety regulations. While this may be a stark truth, it is unlikely that many people, even committed atheists, would share this ‘stark truth’ with the child, but rather opt for an explanation that might bring some degree of comfort to a dying child, irrespective of truth or logic. However, while accepting a possible emotional necessity in this case, if humanity as a collective whole is to continue to seek truthful answers, in as much as they might exist and be understood by the world at large, then the emotional dilemma cited above cannot be forwarded as evidence for the existence of God, only of an emotional need to believe in one. So, as outlined, the separation of ‘myths’ and ‘facts’ may not always be black and white, such that it might be accepted that there are many ‘grey areas’ within this debate, which might then be subject to much philosophic conjecture as possibly illustrated in the next question.

Will some aspects of religious belief always transcend the ability of science to verify or contradict?

In part, we might consider the question as encompassing a philosophical issue, especially if we accept that all human knowledge may be limited and fallible. In this context, it has to be conceded that science does not have all the answers and possibly fewer than most scientists are necessarily willing to admit. However, again, this does not mean that, in terms of historical facts and scientific probability, we cannot make some valued judgement about specific tenets of any given religion. Therefore, an examination of the historical evidence contained within religious scriptures is both legitimate and open to critical examination, as is the probability of miracles that defy all the accepted laws of physics. However, as outlined above, an aspect of religious belief may be necessary for some because it fulfils a very human emotional need.