Dr Johnson: Legend, Myth, and More

Jesus, God, and all thatLet’s straighten out some of the terms used in the study of religion, the supernatural, and related topics.  I know I’ve not always used the terms precisely, so this is a chance to make amends.

We’ll begin with the big category, folklore.  This is the traditional knowledge or forms of expression of a culture passed on from person to person.  Folklore can be material (quilts, traditional costumes, recipes, the hex signs on Amish barns, etc.), behavioral (customs such as throwing rice at a wedding, what constitutes good manners, superstitions, etc.), or traditional stories.

Traditional stories is itself a large category, containing music, anecdotes, ghost stories, parables, popular misconceptions, and other things you might not think of.

Now on to the kinds of traditional stories that are most interesting to apologetics.  These terms can overlap quite a bit, so consider these definitions approximations.  First, let’s consider stories seen as true (or plausibly so) by their hearers.

  • Legends are grounded in history and can change over time.  They can include miracles.  Urban legends are a modern category of legends that don’t include miracles, are set in or near the present day, and take the form of a cautionary tale.
  • Myths are sacred narratives that explain some aspect of reality (for example: the myth of Prometheus explains why we have fire and the Genesis creation myth explains where everything came from).  Epic poems such as Beowulf and the Odyssey are one kind of myth.

The difference between legends and myths is that a legend is set in a more recent time and generally features human characters, while myths are set in the distant past and have supernatural characters.  Some stories are mixtures of the two—the Iliad tells the story of a real city, and the characters include gods, humans with supernatural powers, and ordinary humans.

Lady Godiva, King Arthur, William Tell, and Atlantis are examples of legends—the stories have human characters and are set in a historic past.  Myths include the stories of Hercules and Zeus, Hindu mythology, the Noah story, and the creation stories of dozens of cultures—they have gods as characters and are set in a distant or undefined past.

Let’s take a brief detour to look at a few relevant terms that are not part of the category of traditional stories.

  • Religion starts with the sacred narratives of mythology and adds beliefs and practices.  Myth and scripture are both sacred, but scripture is the writings themselves.  Doctrine is codified teaching, and dogma is that mandatory subset of the doctrine that must be believed for one to be a member.
  • Superstition is any belief that relies on a supernatural (instead of natural) cause like astrology, omens to predict the future, magic, or witchcraft.  It can also be defined as the unfounded supernatural beliefs of the other guy’s religion (not your own, of course).  Merriam-Webster defines it as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Finally, let’s consider stories understood by their hearers to not be true.

  • Fables have a particular kind of character: nonhumans such as animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature that have human-like qualities.  Fables end with a moral.
  • Fairy tales also have particular characters: fantasy characters such as fairies, goblins, and elves.  Magic is also an element.  There is no connection with historic time (it begins “Once upon a time …”).
  • Parables are plausible stories with plausible characters (no talking rocks, no magic) that are not presented as true.  Parables illustrate a moral or religious principle.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Dr Johnson: The Angel of Mons

Did you see the 1971 Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks starring Angela Lansbury?  Set in World War II, the Germans invade a peaceful British town, but a ghostly and invulnerable battalion of animated suits of armor from the local museum fights off this modern force.

This wasn’t just an active imagination on the part of the screenwriters.  No, this came from history.

It was August of 1914, near Mons in Belgium. The German army was making its sweep into France in the opening stages of World War I. Heavily outnumbered units of the British Expeditionary Force came under vastly superior German fire, and their destruction seemed assured. But in perhaps the strangest tale in modern warfare, the British were saved at the last moment by an inexplicable heavenly presence: a brigade of warrior angels appeared and wrought destruction upon the Germans, handing the day and the victory to the British.

This is an excerpt from Skeptoid.com.  The episode goes on to expose the myth, noting that the origin of the supernatural part comes the short story “The Bowmen” by Arthur Machen, published five weeks after the battle.  Machen was inspired by the Battle of Agincourt, the miraculous and overwhelming English victory that took place almost exactly 500 years before the Battle of Mons.  He imagined the ghosts of those English and Welsh archers using their fabled longbows to annihilate the Germans like they had done to the French cavalry when they were living.

Archers became angels with an article of supposed battlefield remembrances some months later, and the angelic story was solidified by several books years later.  The story inspired Mary Norton, author of the two books from which Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks was adapted.

Granted, the horde of angels was never part of any official account of the battle, and even within the British public during the war this was probably a minority belief.  But similarly, the historical resurrection of Jesus was never part of any modern consensus view of history, and Christianity is a minority of worldwide belief (to cite just two groups, Roman Catholics are 16.8% and Protestants are 6.1% [2009 estimates]).

If some combination of outright fiction, selective memory, and wishful thinking can make it into the history of our well-educated modern era, shouldn’t this natural explanation win out over the supernatural Jesus story?

Photo credit: Lichfield District Council

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  • “Angels of Mons,” Wikipedia.
  • Brian Dunning, “The Angel of Mons,” Skeptoid, 1/20/09.

Word of the Day: Russell’s Teapot

does god exist?A couple posts ago, we talked about unicorns.  There are other things that we pretty much know don’t exist.  Some of these were deliberately invented—for example, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, sacred to Pastafarians worldwide, or the Invisible Pink Unicorn, or the new church of Kopimism.

But before those was Bertrand Russell’s teapot.

Bertrand Russell proposed the idea of a teapot orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars in 1952.  The teapot is too small to detect with any instrument, so it’s impossible to prove this claim wrong.

Russell pushes the teapot contention to the limit:

But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

How valid is the comparison of God with an orbiting teapot?  We know that there are teapots, and we know how to put things into solar orbits.  It’s just technology, and an orbiting teapot violates no scientific laws.  But the God hypothesis is far bolder because it demands a new category, that of supernatural beings.  They may exist, but science acknowledges no examples.

Is there such a teapot?  Maybe, but why live as if there is?  We can’t invalidate the teapot hypothesis, but that’s not the same as proving it true or even showing that it’s worthy of consideration.

We don’t give equal time to the orbiting teapot hypothesis, so why give equal time to similar claims that are equally poorly evidenced, like God?

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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Word of the Day: Shibboleth

existence of GodThe Hebrew word shibboleth literally means “torrent of water” or “ear of corn.”  But its use in English comes from a clever wartime trick from the Bible.

Chapter 12 of the book of Judges records intertribal warfare between the tribe of Ephraim (on the west of the Jordan River) and the territory of Gilead (on the east side).  At the end of the battle, the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan.  To identify the Ephraimites, they demanded that everyone wanting to cross into Ephraim say the word, “shibboleth.”  The Ephraimite dialect of Hebrew had no “sh” sound, and for them it came out as “sibboleth.”  The Gileadites identified and killed 42,000 Ephraimites with this trick.

The word shibboleth can mean a truism or widely held belief, but the more interesting definition is an identity test or litmus test or test of belonging.

For example, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).  Circumcision becomes a shibboleth.

The Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a public promise to never raise taxes, has become a shibboleth for Republican politicians.

Tattoos might be a shibboleth for a motorcycle gang, and a style of clothing or makeup might be a shibboleth for a high school clique.

The atheist community has shibboleths as well.  Like any such test, they can be too quickly used to dismiss potential members.  For example, the typical American atheist is in favor of same-sex marriage, is pro-choice, is liberal, and is a Democrat.  But I know atheists who don’t fit each of these labels, and I’d hate to see them shunned or have their (different) voices and ideas shut down.

Consider the case of Bill Maher, the writer of the documentary Religulous (2008).  He was the winner of the Atheist Alliance International’s 2009 Richard Dawkins award.  This caused a stir within the atheist community because, while his popular film was a powerful credential, Maher has rejected vaccinations in some circumstances.  His atheist credentials were in doubt because he had fallen victim to some of the biases that atheists dislike in those who accept superstitions or religion.

Shibboleths have their place, but make sure they don’t replace a thoughtful and reasoned analysis with a knee-jerk response.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Word of the Day: Cottlingley Fairies

In 1917, two girls spent much of their summer playing by a stream.  Repeatedly scolded for returning home wet and muddy, they said that they were playing with fairies.  To prove it, they borrowed a camera and returned claiming that they had proof.  That photo is shown here.

A total of five photos were taken over several years.  The fairies were called the Cottingley fairies after Cottingley, England, the town where the girls lived.

A relative showed two of the photos at a 1919 public meeting of the Theosophical Society, a spiritualist organization.  From there, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a devotee of spiritualism, took the baton.  He wrote a 1920 article in The Strand Magazine that made the photos famous.  To his credit, Conan Doyle asked experts to critique the photos.  The opinions were mixed, but he decided to go with the story anyway.

Spiritualism, the popular belief that we can communicate with the spirits of the dead, was waning at the time of the article.  Magician Harry Houdini, annoyed by fakers using tricks to defraud the gullible, devoted much time to debunking psychics and mediums in the 1920s until his death in 1926.

Houdini and Conan Doyle had been friends, but the friendship failed because of their opposite views on spiritualism.  Conan Doyle believed that Houdini himself had supernatural powers and was using them to suppress the powers of the psychics that he debunked.

Research in 1983 exposed details of the Cottingley hoax, and the two principles finally admitted that they had faked the fairies by using cardboard cutouts of drawings copied from a book.

I learned of a modern parallel to this hoax at The Amazing Meeting in 2004.  James Randi told the story of Project Alpha, during which he planted two fake psychics (Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards, actually talented amateur magicians) in the McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in 1979.  Randi contacted the researchers before planting his fakes to caution them how to avoid being deceived.  The advice was thorough and genuine, and if they’d followed it, they would have uncovered the trickery.

Two years later, after the lab’s successes were well known within the psychic community and the fake psychics were celebrities, the deception was made public.  The press was so bad that the McDonnell laboratory shut down.

The moral of the story: unless you’re a magician, don’t pretend that you can expose a magician.  Said another way, just because you’re smart (and let’s assume both that the researchers were smart and most skeptics are smart), don’t think that you can’t be duped.  This was Conan Doyle’s failing.

Magician Ricky Jay said, “The ideal audience would be Nobel Prize winners. …  They often have an ego with them that says, ‘I am really smart so I can’t be fooled.’  No one is easier to fool.”

If you believe in the existence of fairies at the bottom of the garden,
you are deemed fit for the [loony] bin.
If you believe in parthenogenesis, ascension, transubstantiation and all the rest of it,
you are deemed fit to govern the country.
— Jonathan Meades

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Related links:

  • Paul Hoffman, “Why Are Smart People Some of the Most Gullible People Around?” Discover, 2/10/11.
  • “Cottingley Fairies,” Wikipedia.
  • “The Derbyshire Fairy,” Museum of Hoaxes.
  • Emma Clayton, “Photographic expert uncovered hoax after testing cameras used by Cottingley cousins,” Telegraph & Argus, 11/17/10.

Word of the Day: Public Square

Remember John F. Kennedy’s famous speech assuring the public that his Catholicism would not affect his decisions as president?  While Rick Santorum was still a candidate for president, he said about Kennedy’s speech:

Earlier in my political career, I had the opportunity to read the [Kennedy] speech, and I almost threw up.  You should read the speech.

Hold on to your lunch, because we’re going to do just that.  Here’s the central theme in what JFK said to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote—where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

Santorum, who, like JFK, is Catholic, critiques this thinking as follows:

Kennedy for the first time articulated the vision saying, “No, faith is not allowed in the public square. I will keep it separate.”  Go on and read the speech.

When asked about the throwing up bit, he elaborated:

To say that people of faith have no role in the public square?  You bet that makes you throw up.  What kind of country do we live that says only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case?  That makes me throw up.

Huh?  The guy is a lawyer, a two-time U.S. Representative, and a two-time U.S. Senator.  Does he really not get it?  I suppose the most charitable assumption is that he’s just playing to his electorate.

There are two meanings to “public square,” and Santorum confuses (or deliberately conflates) them here.  The First Amendment establishes our free speech rights and, with some exceptions, we can say whatever we want in the literal public square.  Hand out religious leaflets on a street corner.  Stand on a soap box and preach like they do in Hyde ParkWear a sign proclaiming the end of the world.  Everyone agrees that the right that allows people of faith to speak in the public square is important.  It is not under attack, and atheists defend Christians’ right to speak as strongly as Christians do.

The other public square is the government-supported public square—schools, courthouses, government buildings.  The rules are different here.  The First Amendment constrains government when it says, in part, “Congress [that is: government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Government must stay out of religion.  No prayers or religiously motivated science in public schools.  No Moses holding the Ten Commandments glaring down at you in a courtroom (as a collection of historic lawmakers, this is okay).  No “In God We Trust” as a motto behind the city council (yeah, I know that we have that, but it’s still unconstitutional).

And isn’t this best for the Christian as well?  No Wiccan or Satanist prayers in public schools.  No Hindu god of jurisprudence glaring down from the courtroom wall.  No “Allahu Akbar” in Arabic script behind the city council.

Keeping government out of the public square helps the Christian as much as it does the atheist.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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