"And sometimes he's so nameless"

Debunking A Modern Myth: the Conflict of Religion & Science – Part Two

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Religion, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on March 7, 2009

OK, another extract from the ongoing debate! Part One can be found here –


and an earlier post on a very common part of the myth, that of the Evangelical opposition to Charles Darwin and evolution can be found here–


Frazer and his Myths on Mythology

Sir James Frazer in his monumental work The Golden Bough managed to pollute the intellectual atmosphere of the world in a way few have rivaled; he did to history what Henry Ford did to our lungs. Within months of Frazer publishing his work was torn apart by serious anthropologists, but it was popular, and went through edition after edition. Frazer’s kooky ideas are with us in many ways today – Tim O’ Neil and I often note their prevalence in Christ Myther circles (as someone asked — a Christ Myther is a person who denies there was a historical Jesus, claiming Christ is a fiction) and other pseudo-historical nonsense, but I’ll briefly explain the relevance here.

Frazer postulated that religion was primitive science, and that as scientific knowledge grew it usurped the role of earlier religious knowledge. His idea, which one can still find similarities with in Gebser, Wilber and some of the transpersonalists, sees Magic as the most primitive level of human interaction with the environment. From Magic develops mythology and Religion, and these fall victim to Science. It’s a historicist, approach, deeply teleological, in which history has an onward momentum, culminating in the White Anglo-Saxon Victorian civilization of Frazer. It’s also b*****ks.

Sir James Frazer, popular, intelligent, well meaning, and author of myths that have corrupted our reading of myths!

Sir James Frazer, popular, intelligent, well meaning, and author of myths that have corrupted our reading of myths!

The idea is superficially attractive. Knowledge does by and large increase through history, as does technology, taken globally. Individual cultures rise and fall, and there are fits and starts, but generally we see progress through history towards greater scientific and technological achievement. That certain cultures (with their religions) favour science more than others is pretty obvious – I’ll talk about that later. Frazer however saw everything was his own position, as the logical end point of the whole progress caboodle, as do his disciples. An Inuit animist was a “primitive”, being trapped in magical thinking, a Catholic Spaniard to him “a superstitious papist, trapped in the Religion phase” and the Frazer and friends reflected the epitome of rationality and “the high point”. I think we can all see the flaw in this. Compared with what?  It’s arrogant and wrong. Quite an achievement.
Still, that is not the real problem. The problem is Frazer failed to note that religion is NOT primitive science. While we may have difficulties defining science, we can all agree that science serves an explanatory function in relation to the natural world – and this was by and large not the role of magic or religion. Just as very few people really believe “thunder is angels bowling”, so generally religion has not concerned itself with explaining nature.

Confronting the errors: “what everybody knows”

“Everyone knows” that Religion is Primitive Science. My opponent in the debate has implied it. But it’s not true, as a few minutes research will establish definitively for yourself. I’m going to ask you you to think through your own assumptions here, and test them againts the empirical evidence.

Religion does not explain the natural world. Let us look at the Christian Bible, how much of it represents “primitive science”? I set this challenge at the end of my introductory post. You get off to a good start with Genesis and Creation – which I will discuss the meaning of in a future post, and show it is clearly theological NOT scientific, but for now let us accept it is “scientific”. What follows? What explanatory purpose in terms of physical phenomena do the story of the Patriarchs serve? The Exodus? What of the endless law codes of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers? Kings and Chronicles are history – any science in there? Nope. Esther and Ruth lack any explanatory purpose in terms of the physical world. Ditto the Prophets. Judaism generally is certainly not supportive of “religion is primitive science”. The claim is clearly nonsense – Judaism is not interested in explaining physical phenomena, instead Creation is invoked to support the claims of Judaism – not Judaism invoked to explain the natural world. When we move in to the Gospels we find no “explanation” material – Jesus does not, the best efforts of astrotheology kooks notwithstanding, appear to tell us anything about the natural world. You can read the Gospels, Epistles and Revelation in search of “primitive science” – but you look in vain.

Turn to the Qu’ran. Does this book purport to teach you physics, chemistry, biology? I don’t think that is the message in any way. To assert that the revelation of God, or any religious text is primitive science is to completely misrepresent most religion. In fact the natural world is large a mystery to the religious mind, but one that can be explored, and understood, because it functions by rational laws, set by God.

Now let us be fair on Frazer. Frazer was talking about what he saw of Primitive Religion, which he believed reflected a kind of mythic set of archetypes about vegetation gods and reaping, sowing, etc. Unsurprisingly he found agricultural motifs and images in many religions – because naturally enough in an agriculturally based economy these motifs will be central! Frazer saw the great monotheisms as having surpassed this stage – but ever in Greek mythology, his favourite topic, it fails. He gives the story of Proserpine and the seasons as an exemplar – the myth explains the changing of the seasons. Er, quite. Is this really an explanation? As countless students of mythology have pointed out since, Greek, Roman and Norse myth are not explanatory in this way. Not all lightning came from Zeus – he was not the embodiment of the lightning, he was a God who used lightning bolts as a weapon. How does Cerberus, Orpheus, the Titanomachy, Semele and Hera, explain anything in nature? What of Loki, what does he tell us of the physical world? What “scientific” explanation did he give us? Or Jorgumand? Fenrir? What physical principle is reflected in Mjolnir?

If you have read this far, and please do say something about this in the comment thread, please examine what you have taught and your cultural beliefs about mythology. Have you been taught to think of the Gods in this mechanistic way, with deities associated with a particular realm? We often think of “X as God of Y”, and apply this across all pantheons, as if Gods represented natural forces – “Surt was a fire demon/giant”, “Flora goddess of vegetation”, and do forth. Nope, it does nto work like that. It’s a shorthand, to explain things the Gods are associated with, but most pantheons for not follow these neat (X=”corn god”) categories – while it made the old  D&D book Deities and Demigods much easier to use, it doe not reflect real mythology. Classicists (and I hope some are reading this and will jump in to tell me if i am seriously wrong!) can point out that they “unlearn” these associations early. The Gods, and religions, were never “primitive science”, and if you think they were, who is the Sun God in Norse religion? Who embodies Rain? And who embodies the Wind? Not so easy is it?

Religion is not superseded primitive science. Once you realise this, you realise that a great deal of the Dawkinite assault rests upon this thoroughly mistaken assumption, as does much of the Conflict Myth.

Please do comment if you have read this far!

cj x


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