The persistence of myth in sophisticated society is a quandary. It is, of course, the basis of all religions, except Taoism and Buddhism. Even the later has been mystified by its followers. One would have thought Modern Persons would have escaped the bonds of mysticism, but it has not occurred. The chameleon has only changed its colors.
Webster defines myth as “a traditional or legendary story, usually concerned with deities or demigods and the creation of the world and its inhabitants.”
Webster gives two definitions of mysticism. “The beliefs, ideas, or mode of thought of mystics in the doctrine of an immediate spiritual intuition of truths believes to transcend ordinary understanding, or of a direct, intimate union of the soul with God through contemplation and love. Obscure thought or speculation.”
Webster defines faith as “confidence or trust in a person or thing, belief that is not based on proof, belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion.”
A quick Google of religious populations indicate the following:
Although acquainted with most of these, my study has centered around Abrahamaic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The same fallacies apply to each, but here, I shall use Christianity as an example.
Christian teachers, preachers, evangelists and priests teach that the Bible is the true word of God, that its words came straight from God through divine writing of those individuals who have scribed within the book.
For centuries and as the Books of the Bible were being written, accumulated and selected, the Roman Catholic Church out of Rome controlled and secreted the process. The later Protestant evolution had no choice but to rely upon what the Roman church had selected and does so to this day. Until 1500 years after the death of Christ, what was in the Bible, as selected by Rome, was secreted and parceled out in mystic symbolism to masses of believers. The Latin language was used for this purpose primarily because it had become a dead language not used or understood by the masses. It added to the mysticism that there was a Divine Spirit behind what was being performed and said in ritual worship.
The seminal moment of union of power and control of the masses came when the emperor of Rome, Constantine, converted to Christianity. A new formula was instantly created for centralization of power by uniting religion and government into one. Though bifurcated between the church of Rome and the emperor of Rome, a theocracy was formed. The centralized power and control of the citizen mass came from deifying the government. It worked well then. It works well now. The average citizen in many nation/states throughout the world base their faith in their religion.
What was this Bible, this direct word of God that the Roman church was so secretive and protective of? This Book that united power dually in Popes, Kings and Caesars? In the first century of the common era, when the books of the New Testament were being written, Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire understood in particular that God had given direction to his people in the writings of Moses, referred to collectively as the Torah, which literally means something like “law” or “guidance”. The Torah consists of five books, sometimes called the Pentateuch (the “five scrolls”), the beginning of the Jewish Bible, (the Christian Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These are accounts of how we as humans got here, the making of Israel solely significant without reference to another part of the world and the Jewish people as the chosen and representative of God on Earth , the stories of Israel’s patriarchs and matriarchs and God’s involvement with them, and ultimately and most importantly, the laws that God gave Moses indicating how his people were to worship him and behave toward one another.
Christianity began, of course, with Jesus, who was himself a Jewish rabbi (teacher) who accepted the authority of the Torah, and possibly other sacred Jewish books, and taught his interpretation of those books to his disciples. His followers were, from the beginning, Jews who placed a high premium on the books of their tradition.
Christianity survived as a religion because it was bookish, while many other religions in the Roman Empire were not. They were mainly sacrificial and procedural. Of course, the Torah was sacrificial and procedural as well, but it was both philosophical and had specialized people, scribes, to commit its beliefs to writing.
A bit of a puzzlement is that in a society that relied so heavily on religious leaders that could read and write, Jesus wrote nothing. It would seem that he did not know how to write. If he ever did commit a thought or teaching to writing, it must have been secreted or destroyed, perhaps by one who had a different agenda for him. Through the course of evolving the Bible, as we know it today, there were numerous ecclesiastical power plays and clandestine usurping, destruction and altering of writings.
In Jesus’ time the historians were scribes, a limited number. Most people could neither read nor write. It is interesting that as well organized as Jesus apparently was with his disciples, he did not appoint one as a scribe. Through hearsay his words came to be written, and you have to believe, if you are a believer, that they were written down correctly and with perfection in the century following his death.
Many different kinds of writing were significant for the burgeoning Christian communities of the first century after Jesus’ death. Letters written by early Christian leaders were the first communications. How many survived? We don’t know. How many authors are either not known about or just didn’t make it into the Book? We don’t know.
It was important to the scattered and distant Christian communities throughout the vast Roman Empire to stay in contact with each other through letters that Christian leaders wrote. Of course, there was no postal service.
The Apostle Paul is our earliest example. He established churches throughout the eastern Mediterranean. He might be characterized as the first evangelist and perhaps the first Christian scribe. He had a message and went from town to town preaching his message. He believed in organizing what might be called churches, groups of people, who would come to believe as he did. He would then leave for the next town but sporadically stayed in touch with letters. He would try to convince pagans (i.e., adherents of anyone of the empire’s many polytheistic religions) that the Jewish God was the only one to be worshipped, that the rabbi who had been Jesus was God’s son, his only son, indeed his only off-spring, and he was to be worshipped. This son of God was returning soon to render judgment on Earth for the wrongs done to him, as well as for all people who believed that he was the Messiah. Paul correlated the events of Christ’s death and resurrection with his interpretation of key passages of the Jewish Bible, which he as a highly educated Jew could read for himself and which he interpreted for his hearers who could not read or write in an often successful attempt to convert them. After Paul had converted a number of people in a given locale, he would move to another and try, usually with some success to convert people there as well. He was controlling and actually paranoid about “false teachers,” and he spent much of his time writing letters to churches to keep them in line with his thinking.
If it were not called “Christianity,” no doubt it would be called something like “Paulianity”. However, as we all know, it is much easier to acclaim and sell someone else than it is to sell ourselves and yet the same agenda can be served.
In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, usually dated to about 49 C.E., some twenty years after Jesus’ death and some twenty years before the gospel accounts of his life, Paul ends the letter with . . . “I strongly adjure you in the name of the Lord that you have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters” (1 Thess. 5:26-27).
This was the way it was done. Cohesion was maintained by letters. Upon receipt of a letter, the one or two people who could read or write read the letters to the rest. Then a scribe would recopy the letter and send it to the next town. No original letters of Paul exist. We have only copies of copies. These letters were secreted by Rome for centuries. How many times scribes made mistakes in copying or in their lack of education to translate, no one knows. How many letters were written that do not exist, no one knows. How were letters changed, if at all, in Rome’s ecclesiastical intrigues, no one knows. Were there counter-letters to Paul’s Christianic interpretations, no one knows.
If this were taking place in the modern day world you would have these categories of problems. The writing itself. In other words, what you want to communicate and how it must be written to communicate that thought. Editing once it is written. Publishing. That is, copying the writings enough times that it can be distributed. Copying without mistakes or misinterpretations and then acquiring a distribution system so that the same writing, without alteration, slip and paste, hacking or some other intrigue, relates the same thing that you’ve written to various and sundry audiences. Beyond this, in today’s world the issue of credibility would arise. If you are writing an authoritative document, what is your data? What are your sources? If you are relying only upon your recollections of words said or past events is their room for error? How do we know what you say you heard was in fact what was said?
What concepts, philosophies did not get into the New Testament. Paradigms expressed but not prescribed. Just because there had been mystic beliefs before Christ of virgin births, messiahs and life hereafter, did Paul’s plagiarism and incorporation of these mystic beliefs into Christianity create a certain authenticity?
Scribes changed their texts because they thought the text contained factual error. On occasion the “error” that a scribe attempted to correct was not factual but interpretive. In other cases scribes changed a text not because they thought it contained a mistake but because they wanted to circumvent a misunderstanding. This is a heady decision if you are dealing with words that are supposed to be straight from the Messiah. Sometimes scribes changed their text for more patently theological reasons. Sometimes scribes altered their texts to ensure that a favorite doctrine was duly emphasized. On occasion scribes modified their texts not because of theology but for liturgical reasons, and then sometimes scribes were influenced not by parallel passages but by oral traditions then in circulation about Jesus and stories told about him.
Christianity was poorly organized, and Christians were often disrupted by persecution in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death. However, in the 4th Century the Caesar Constantine, whose mother was a Christian, came to power. He reversed the history of persecution of Christians in favor of religious tolerance of Christians. It wasn’t long before if you were anybody in politics, whether Rome or Constantinople (the “new Rome”) you had to be a Christian. That was the only religion that was politically correct.
Christianity became the state religion with Constantine initiating a series of ecumenical councils to standardize what was then a disorganized religion, uniquely orthodox Catholic. In Rome, the Pope and Bishop organization with Papal primacy was established. Nevertheless, there was immediately a schism between Apostasy and orthodoxy. On February 27, 380, Apostasy as a violation of orthodoxy was established in Rome by Theodosius I, the touchstone of orthodoxy nevertheless on the doctrine of the Trinity, a belief not specified in the New Testament but interpreted through religious interpretative doctrine.
This union of church and state, as mentioned before, brought together a power and control over the masses with unique flexibility. You may not like your ruler, but you dare not dislike God, and the ruler was blessed by the Pope as the representative of God. Rulers may battle for territory or booty between themselves, each claiming that God was on their side, but no one questioned the churches beatification or the will of its representatives, political or ecclesiastical.
There was no such thing as free thinking. The church, in particular, described any independent thinking as heretical, and if one persisted, they could be and often were executed. As long as thought could be limited to ecclesiastical rules, mandates and procedures, the church and therefore the government could maintain control of the mass. Control equated to power and wealth. Before 1500, the well-being of the average human being was stagnant. Independent thought outside of the approved paradigm of Christian control was thwarted.
The roots of human stagnation are obvious. First, there was no incentive to create wealth, since it was not safe from the depredations of the feudal aristocracy, the state, the church, or common criminals. Second, no European dares to think creatively or scientifically, since original thoughts often condemned their creator to oblivion both in this world and the next. Third, even had wealth-creating inventions and services been conceived, the capital necessary for their development was unavailable. Finally, even had such inventions been produced in large number, their inventors could not have advertised and inexpensively transported their wares to consumers in distant cities. So, the masses waddled in feudal poverty, and that is exactly where Christianity and feudal and state controllers wanted them.
We now know that to establish per capita economic growth for the betterment of mankind four elements must become viable:
There was, however, a sleeping giant at rest during this period. That was the reasoning intellect of the common person. The church, as did the state, fought intellectual questioning at every turn. It was the church of “No.” No questioning. Everything must remain status quo.
It was difficult not to have questions, and this was never more so than when looking to the sky. Even the mythical virgin birth told of a special star in the night sky. Mankind combats ignorance and fear by devising belief systems. “Belief” is defined as confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof. “Faith” is defined as a belief that is not based on proof. Thus, we have what we call “faith based religions.”
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam succeeded not only because they offered a satisfying monotheistic explanation for the calamities that befell mankind, but also because they consoled those suffering the misery of Earthly existence with the promise of a more agreeable hereafter. Until four hundred years ago, the natural world was a terrifying place without explanation. It was incomprehensible. There was disease, drought, flood, earthquake and fire. There had to be something otherworldly controlling this. Even benign astronomical events, such as comets and eclipses, were frightening occurrences, fraught with superstitious and religious import.
But pioneers of modern astronomy such as Copernicus and Kepler were beginning to think independently, albeit astrologically. The slumbering giant was slowly beginning to awaken. Copernicus and Kepler were able to walk the tightrope between controlled thinking mandated by church and state and independent thinking by prostituting themselves with both church and state. Because they studied the heavens and noticed certain consistencies, they could anticipate certain astrological events, which could be used as knowledge of a higher power by both church and state.
But try as the church may, it could not control the awakening of knowledge of the heavens. The skies were too public and could not be secreted in favor of ignorance. This pre-modern concern with the skies means that confirmation of many of the predictions of the new astronomical theories was instantly, publicly, and demonstrable at least throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. But the clutches of medieval superstition so heavily seeded by the church did not release quickly. The evolution of mathematics and mathematical theories along with the birth of reasoning processes such as Aristotle’s syllogistic form of reasoning that forms one of the foundations of Western thought was the beginning of the awakening.
Pre-modern man looking up at the night sky saw that the stars moved around the polestar, but their positions relative to one another seemed to be fixed. This produced constellations for familiarity. The constellations seemed to be attached to the inside of a perfect sphere that had Earth as its center. Once a day this sphere revolved around the Earth.
Aristotle and other Greek philosophers including Apollonius and Aristarchus entertained the idea of a heliocentric system, in which the sun is the center of the celestial system.
In the 2nd Century A.D., an astronomer we now call Ptolemy corrected the earlier thought. The seven bodies rotated around the Earth with two circular motions, not one. There was an epicycle in the movement. Ptolemy had developed what we now call a theoretical model that can be tested with empirical observation. The Ptolemaic system predicted planetary motion almost perfectly. Over the millennium following, the church eventually adopted the model and blessed it with divine authority. Always slow to move and violently resistant to change, the church seeks to own knowledge.
But as astronomers accumulated more data over the centuries, their empiricism identified weaknesses in the Aristolian/Ptolemaic system and model. By 1650, the findings spewing from Tyco Brake’s Danish observatory and Galileo’s telescopes mandated no less than fifty-five concentric Ptolemaic spheres. Earth being the innermost. This became increasingly absurd and this venerated model finally collapsed under its own weight.
Though intellectual free thinking may have been a sleeping giant, asleep while church states suppressed independent thought, its slow awakening involved a mistake/correction evolution. The Greeks and Romans worked from deductive reasoning, which often led them astray in how the world worked. It served well in philosophical debates, but when applied to how the universe works, it was easily misapplied. It shaped the universe in a determined natural law from so-called first principles, i.e., the premise or hypothesis. These were facts assumed to be true, never questioned, and used as the basis for further reasoning. The artificial precepts were then followed logically to conclusion that was at least partially incorrect. This constituted a Ptolemaic/Aristotelian belief system so flawed that it precluded the possibility of scientific progress. It assumed that everything that could be known about the universe was already known.
By the 1500s there had been no real scientific advance for a thousand years. Then Francis Bacon came along. He was mathematically precocious, stubborn and willing to think outside the box.
His genius lay in realizing three things:
Between 1603 and 1620 A.D. he completed drafts of what came to be called Book One of The New Oregon and Book Two of The Oregon, respectively.
These were great intellectual calls to arms. Bacon saw the problem with intellectual advancement to be that sterile theorizing, detached from experimental data, did not rise to the task of describing the real world. Scientists needed to use methods and machinery that yielded identical data in the hands of different observers.
It was during this 16th Century that Tyco Brake, the Danish astronomer, independently and previous to Bacon centered on methodically painstaking observation and measurement to discover a “new star” in the constellation Cassiopeia. He published his observations in his pamphlet De Nova Stella in 1573 A.D.
In this same century, Johannes Keller, aware of the Copernican heliocentric hypothesis, set about to unravel the complexities of planetary motion. His early academic career was centered around the southern German university town of Tubingen but was thwarted and buffeted by the religious conflicts of the region. Eventually, he took shelter in Prague as Brake’s assistant. Kepler discarded the epicycles that were superimposed upon circular orbits of both earlier systems, the Aristotelian heliocentric system and the Ptolemaic epicycle model, and replaced them with an elliptical model. He also believed in Bacon’s observation-based system. He believed that when theory collides with reliable data, theory must go. Perhaps his greatest contribution in advancing observational astronomy was his mathematical questioning and questioning again.
Finally, it was left to Galileo with the aid of the telescope and then to Newton and Haley who would round out man’s understanding of the motions of the heavenly bodies. These towering contributions freed scientific inquiry from the smothering grasp of church dogma. Isaac Newton remarked:
“religion and philosophy are to be preserved distinct. We are not to introduce divine revelations into philosophy, nor philosophical opinions into religion.”
The process of separating science and religion had begun, to the benefit of the common man who might desire to think independently.
Galileo Galilei, born 1564 in Florence was in the epicenter of the conflict between church and science. He was a superb mathematician. In 1608, a Dutch optician invented a crude telescope. The following year Galileo produced his own design with greater magnification and sold them all over Europe. He discovered that Jupiter had moons of its own, and with his telescope it was easy to see that these new objects revolved around another heavenly body, a direct contradiction of the Ptolemaic universe. He saw that Venus had phases that were completely different from those predicted by Ptolemy’s model. The navigation error of the time was that longitude could not be calculated. By understanding that the planets had regular motions he solved this problem by designing an accurate astronomical clock, thus, the computation of longitude.
In 1605, Galileo researched and taught at a University in Padua, a protectorate of Venice. A religious conflict arose between Pope Paul V of Rose and Venice. Venice had been independent of church authority for some time, and therefore, her university offered one of the world’s freest intellectual environments. The cause of the conflict seemed minor. Two Venetian clerics were accused of attempted seduction and mayhem. Venice wanted them tried in a civil court, but the pope insisted that only the church could pass judgment on clergymen. When the men were not handed over to Rose, the pope issued an “interdict,” which effectively excommunicated the entire Republic. This was fearful stuff if you wanted to make it to the hereafter and be happy there. In direct violation of the interdict Venetian priests continued to celebrate Mass.
The Medici family was wealthy and powerful and lived in Florence which was under Papal rule. They were also the patron of Galileo. In other words, his livelihood depended upon them. He was lured back to Florence for financial reasons, which proved to be a horrible mistake.
The Venetian Republic had called the Pope’s bluff. The hand of God did not strike down the Most Serene Republic, and its audacity revealed Rome’s theological impotence to the world. Ultimately, the pope backed down.
Copernicus disguised his conflict with scripture as a hypothetical construct, but Galileo’s discoveries baldly challenged church doctrine. Galileo’s impetus and caustic personality on top of his discoveries would challenge the very source of Christian power.
Though he took the fight to the church, it began calmly enough, as if it were simply a debate. In his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (the mother of his patron, Cosimo II dé Medici), Galileo argued that the Copernican system was actually consistent with scripture. The church hierarchy had not taken kindly to Galileo’s support of the heliocentric system. They certainly didn’t like being told how to interpret scripture. Galileo’s attempt to couch his argument in a Copernican style didn’t work. By early 1615 the Vatican summoned Galileo to Ro and laid the matter before the Inquisition.
From here, we all know the story. The prosecutor was Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the most influential member of the College of Cardinals and Galileo’s personal friend. The inquisitors did not directly punish Galileo; they simply suspended teaching of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus since its matter was merely “theoretical”. The inquisitors ordered Galileo not to “hold, teach or defend” the forbidden doctrine. He gladly submitted to their wishes; in return, Bellarmine furnished him with a certificate stating that the Inquisition had not censured or punished him in any way.
Believing that he had escaped severe retribution, Galileo returned to Florence, where he remained silent for seven years. When Maffeo Barberini, Galileo’s strongest supporter in the College of Cardinals, was elected pope in 1624, Galileo returned to Rome in triumph. He was feted by the greatest of the church’s princes and had no fewer than six private audiences with the new pope, now known as Urban VIII. On each occasion Galileo sought revocation of the 1615 prohibitions. On each occasion, Urban rebuffed him.
Galileo did not take the hint. He convinced himself in the years following his 1624 visit to Rome that the pope, in reality, was giving him a wink and a nod to teach as before. In 1630 he received a letter from a monk that said the Holy Father had expressed dissatisfaction with the injunction placed on Galileo by the church. This was all Galileo needed, in his mind, to move forward. He began work on his Dialogue dei due masimi sistemi del mondo – Dialogue of Two Great Systems of the World – the two systems being the Aristotelian and Copernican universes.
The dialogue involved three characters. The first was a patient and methodical teacher named Salviati, represented Galileo himself; the second, an intelligent, sympathetic friend and sounding board, was named Sagredo; and the third was a cretinous scholastic named Simplicio. To maximize its impact, Dialogo was written in Italian, not Latin, so that the common man could not read it. Dialogo flaunted the evidence that by itself disproved the Ptolemaic model of the universe, the church approved explanation of how the heavens worked. It emphasized the phases of Venus, now visible to all with Galileo’s new telescope. What made things even worse for Galileo was a rumor that started that the character Simplicio was none other than the pope. The play on words simplicio or simpleton did not help. If it were meant as an allegory, it failed.
Published in January 1632, Dialogo created an immediate furor. The church prohibited its sale that August, and in October Galileo was once again summoned before the Inquisition. Pleading old age and illness, he finally arrived in Rome in February 1633 and was shuttled between the residential “apartments” of the Inquisition and the houses of friends. During this time, he was shown instruments of torture. When he finally appeared before the tribunal in June, he maintained that he never really believed in heliocentricity. He publicly recanted, was subsequently condemned as “vehemently suspected of heresy” (one step below heresy itself, which mandated burning at the stake), and was assigned an innocuous penance. Yes, it was a heretical thought that the Earth was not the center of the universe, that instead it circulated around the sun.
Although Galileo had lost the battle, he won the war. Just as Venice had earlier exposed the church’s lack of theological clout, Galileo’s trial exposed the lack of intellectual honesty at the core of its teachings. The trial of Galileo cleared an enormous roadblock from the path of mankind’s progress. The Sleeping Giant of Intellect was awakening.
Newton was born the year of Galileo’s death. In so many ways at so many times throughout history, religion has stifled man’s intellect in order to control him. As brilliant as Galileo was in mathematics and its application to astronomy, he could not make the intellectual leap necessary to imagine the nature of gravitational force, only dimly perceiving the great force holding Earth in its orbit around the sun might be the same one that binds the moon to Earth and Jupiter’s moons to it. Like Brake, Galileo’s signal strength was his skill in observation and mechanics. It would take Isaac Newton’s unparalleled genius, building upon the blocks laid down by Galileo, to unlock the final secrets of heavenly motion.
My point in relating this ecclesiastical and astronomical history is that the historical evolution of man is a continuing story myths, falsehoods, a battle for control of the masses. The sleeping giant that occasionally awakens in the activation of independent thought. As here, in this brief history related, minds escaped theological dominance just long enough to learn the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning, how deductive reasoning could be misused by starting from a false premise and then finally the development of the scientific method to the betterment of the human condition.
There seems to be an ebb and flow between intellectual awakening and the regrasp of control by regressive ecclesiastical and evangelical mythical dominance. It seems always that independent thinkers must pay the heavy price of social rejection and isolation. Galileo recanted the elliptical model of the Earth revolving around the sun after the pope gave him a tour of the church’s art of torture. In more modern times, the logician and trial lawyer Clarence Darrow defeated creationist theory to the support of Darwinism in the Scopes trial only to die later in life penniless and without a friend.
Many are the examples of those who have dared to think freely, to escape being smothered by one doctrine or another. Coming out of the Dark Ages took a thousand years and huge human suffering. It easily could have taken another thousand years had not the night sky been so attractive and pulsating to the common man. Religion could control many things to prohibit or stifle the questioning mind but in the end, it could not control the curiosity that man had for the constellations.
All religions are myth based, faith based and seek to control those who have the faith. Humans have a great propensity to control not only theirself but others. One need only to look around to see that almost everyone wants to control everyone else, yet they are incapable of controlling their own destiny. From a President to the next door neighbor, from the preacher or the priest to the farmer or business man, this primordial urge persists. Early on in a person’s life they find that they can’t control all of the variables in life, so there must be some outside or higher force controlling good events as well as bad. That outside force must be a deity.
Then there is the primordial desire for immortality. In the tribal sense, we all have families, yet we all must die. There must be some system, some way, to keep on living and to be with our family and our tribe after death. There is nothing on earth to explain how this might be, so we develop myths of virgin births and resurrections to comfort this insatiable urge for immortality. But what happens next is the advent of those who would claim control of the methodology for our own urge to control others as well as our urge for immortality. We develop religions and debate theological philosophies based upon mythical premises, and we feel better because we have allowed our minds to go to sleep and rest upon faiths to which there is no logic but instead intense verbiage to maintain mental control.
Indeed, looking at the history from say a few centuries before Christ to this the 21st Century after Christ, it is difficult to understand how the masses still fall under the slumber of mind freezing religion, but they do. I suppose the alternatives are just too painful to take for our Freudian characters. To reason that when you’re dead you’re dead is not an alternative that we want to face, regardless of logic. To reason to conclusion that there is no hereafter is not a conclusion that we want to face. We had rather hovel together in mysticism and live in restrictive thinking so that we may continue to try to control others, while still wondering how to control ourselves. Free thinking and logical insight does not, of itself, offer the comfort zone we desire.