My post on fake myths has generated some good discussion, and our future podcast guest Daniel Horne pointed me to a nice concise New York Times review by Ross Douthat of Karen Armstrong's The Case for God, which prompted my line of thought about myth.
Douthat's review presents a much better summary to the book than my preliminary attempt, and makes the overall point, which I agree with, that her argument ultimately doesn't save the what the average Joe considers religion to be.
In short, she thinks what's valuable about religion is its fulfillment of a spiritual need, and that fulfilling this need doesn't require making specific metaphysical assertions. So, we should read scriptures allegorically and should be pluralist and open-minded about the many historical attempts to reach the divine, which is essentially inexpressible though not on that account entirely unknowable.
What's sticky is that she makes this point as a historical thesis: she reads old texts and their commentaries and looks for evidence of this enlightened view in ancient thinkers. Now, we've seen in Rousseau and Nietzsche at least that trying to support a philosophical point through historical survey doesn't necessarily require a particularly good historical survey; that's almost beside the point.
Still, there's something very interesting to me in the fact that historically, cultures were pretty bundled affairs, in that within a given (small) social group -- say, a tribe -- there wasn't a clear distinction made between the political system, the belief system, customs of living, language, and aesthetics, whereas now these have grown apart to a great degree, but not all the way. Religion is, I think, one of those unresolved parts of this trend whose ultimate cultural fate is not yet at all clear, in which cultural practices and metaphysical claims are still curiously bundled together.
Part of this bundling is a result of the lack of conceptual tools to separate legends from well-established historical facts or scientific theories or metaphysical claims. So you can claim either that ancient people were just plain ignorant and naive, or more charitably, you can try to decipher what purposes the various beliefs and practices (and, importantly, we should remember that beliefs and practices were not distinguished from each other) were serving.
Armstrong's claim is that a history of religion that looks solely at the evolution of belief is missing crucial changes in the evolution of our conception of belief itself, which with the advent of methodological advances in science, history, and other intellectual realms. Does it make sense to ask if ancient beliefs in creation stories were literal or allegorical when the believers didn't even have that distinction themselves? Did participants in Shamanic rituals belief that they actually became animals during their Shamanic dances (this is part of her account in Chapter 1)? As strange as it us for us to hear, the answer is neither yes nor no; it was not a question they appeared to ask.
As an early Jew, you had to be on the Hebrew side and would observe their ordinances. Worshiping a golden calf to try to get rain isn’t an error of belief in that society; it’s an act of political treason. There’s an interesting ambiguity in the Old Testament between proclamations that there’s only one God whom you should worship (a metaphysical claim) and proclamations that the God Yahweh beats the hell out of all the other crappy gods (a political claim). Now, I don’t want to seriously argue that the the political claim was the whole point of the Old Testament rules and that their adherents were simply neutral on the metaphysical claim. But you could argue that their underdeveloped sense of metaphysics means that we shouldn’t take their metaphysical commitments seriously or think that the benefits that they got out of religion were particularly tied to those metaphysical claims.
So Armstrong as historian is trying to correct our tendency to read our modern rationalism (which she thinks is at the root of both modern scientific and religious viewpoints) back into ancient times. We do things because they fulfill some need, or because we're bullied into them, or simply out of habit. The pursuit of truth (Nietzschean point here) should be seen historically not as a goal in itself, but a by-product of these human tendencies. So when ancient people are talking about unverifiable things, so that the pragmatic upshot of the statement doesn't come in the form of some practical verification (e.g. "there's a predator approaching!"), then we should not assume that they are making metaphysical claims, but should look at the non-denotive functions of the claims, as in what a claim is supposed to achieve politically or psychologically.
She examines intellectual history to figure out what did and did not fulfill still-existent human needs. While I'm not totally convinced that the project of extricating the various bundled elements in traditional religion is worth the effort, she thinks it foolish to throw out the wisdom of the ages because elements of it contradict modern science. Even Freud, an atheist dismissive of the "illusions of religion," which he regarded as pathetically juvenile, understood that we have to see what needs religion was meeting and determine what other methods are at our disposal to fill the gaps when the more obvious metaphysical absurdities are discarded.