Religion, Mythology, Ideology

Richard G. Calo (rgcalo@EDEN.RUTGERS.EDU)
Thu, 11 Apr 1996 18:14:38 EDT

On Wednesday, Daniel Foss wrote:

> The discussion of religion seems to have bypassed the massive fact that,
> prior to the rise of Christianity and, to a somewhat lesser degree,Mahayana
> Buddhism, our taken-for-granted preconception as of today of religion did
> not exist. That is, we posit some body of tenets or beliefs (in addition to
> rituals, ceremonies, deities, formulas of adoration or worship public and
> domestic) whereto the believer subscribes.The faith is *portable*,that is,
> it can be transferred from one cultural context to another, where for the
> people of the latter, the possibility of *conversion* exists. Not merely
> the possibility, but established procedures for transforming pagans,infidels,
> gentiles, heathen, or other unbelievers targeted for missionary effort,into
> *true believers*.
> Prior to Christianity in the Roman Empire, there was no such thing as a
> religion to which conversion was possible,...."

[Large slice of historical narrative deleted]

> By 379, when Theodosius formally decreed Christianity the State Religion,
> and even more, by 392, when paganism was officially persecuted, most inhabi-
> tants of the Roman Empire had been *converted* from *something else*, an
> *unprecedented situation* historically.
> Daniel A. Foss
> <who waited a week for someone else to do it>

Thank you for pointing out the historical dimension of the discussion. It
is a fact. It is important. It is not massive, although it has been by-passed
on and off. First, that it was by-passed should be enough to make us take
note-- why by-pass it unless we assume that the sort of 'truths' we're
discussing, and the language and body of concepts in which we frame
them, is already a part of some Truth which has the quality and
characteristics of The Eternal: that which is beyond reproach, inaccessible
to disputation (following D.Read's preliminary definition of
belief:'... the assumptions about the nature of things that I take as
true and not open to dispute"). As Daniel Foss has tried to show,
these 'truths,' this talk about what we implicitly regard as the
nature of religion (and, no doubt, much of cultural and social life),
has its historical basis.

Second, I put out an initial post to start up a thread, and since then we
have rambled on to the nature of beliefs and all sorts of other things
(though I have probably been doing a good deal of the rambling myself).
At that time I wrote:

"my concern for the moment, is with the role of ideology in the above, and
in Justine's thinking. I believe that she is calling ideological, and in the
same way, what was once called mythological-- I have in mind among
others, Andrew Lang's relegation to the mythological of all that which he
found offensive in 'primitive' religions, or even Durkheim's use of Spencer
& Gillen's ethnographic material on the assumption that the latter had
documented the most conceptually primitive race of humans.

In Justine's case, then, the notion of ideology plays a role parallel to
the notion of mythology. On her own admission, however, not only are
ideology and mythology the same thing, but ideology perhaps belongs
more appropriately to our present world than does a mythology on the
order of the Greeks, Norse, or contemporary indigenous peoples. To me,
this seems to argue for a historical change: we have replaced the use of
mythology by ideology, at least where it concerns our immediate world
and environment. Levi-Strauss had written about this somewhere (I can't
recall the reference right now), stating that in our contemporary world,
'mythic thought' had not only receded into the background, but had been
replaced largely by political thought.

I am of course wondering if this is in fact the case. We have been in the
habit of assigning to the realm of mythology those religious truths which
were not our own. Perhaps we are still doing exactly the same thing, only
now, we assign these truths to the ideological. This, it seems, may be a
function of our 'secularized' environment. The mental operations that
govern this function, however, have not changed."

Now let me add a historical dimension to this, and ask for corroboration
or refutation on it.
Simultaneous with the rise of Christianity (and its conversion practices,
and body of beliefs that went along with this) there must have arisen all
that which was not Christianity, and which, for the Christians, represented
whatever required converting. Whatever required converting, from the
Christian point of view, would do so because it had acquired the
characteristics of 'untrue,' 'misguided', or otherwise wrong such that
bringing it into the fold of the one true church would be necessary. To
put it another way, the practice of conversion stipulated that henceforth,
'we' would have 'truth,' while 'they' would have 'myths.' The objective
then, was to convert 'they' into 'more of us.' Unfortunately, I do not know
the history of the period well enough to present a convincing historical
argument demonstrating how, as the early church began to elaborate its
initial offical doctrine, so it must have begun to cast aside and denounce
all that which did not fit into its purview. Doty, for instance, writes how
euhemeristic practices (i.e., the process of rationalizing from 'God' to mere
man taken as God, following Euhemeros) "became an important apologetic
tool in the hands of early Christian writers, who used euhemeristic analysis
to demonstrate the secondary nature of the Greek pantheon and to
contrast Greek deities with Jesus Christ, who was regarded as a non-
legendary, non-mythological figure of history."

What I'm trying to say here, is that the historical process of establishing
religious truth(for the Christians at this point),along with its practices,its
core stories-- such as the historical advent of Christ (but then, this is no
different from the historical advent of Tjenterama for Gurra)-- and eventual
body of doctrine, simultaneously generated for these Christians the
category of 'mythology', along with its content. This gave the West (big
generalization, I know) two things, its conception of itself as Christian,
and its conception of those who were not Christian and subject to
non-Christian beliefs (i.e., wrong, misguided, primitive, and
therefore in need of conversion in order to attain salvation, etc).

My question, at this time, is the same as that in my original post,
namely,is what we call today an 'ideology', the same as what we used to call a
'mythology.' And, as I noted in the Justine post, "to me, this seems to
argue for a historical change."

Here is a bit of schematic history. Its progression is, away from 'strictly'
religious thought and practice, and into 'secular' thought and
practice: a) from a belief that all are equal in the eyes of god (up in
heaven), to b) a belief that all humans are created equal (down on earth),
to c) a means for institutionalizing this belief, to d) its ratification in a
system of practices (exactly as the Christian church had earlier
institutionalized and ratified the belief that all are equal in the
eyes of God):

I cite from the American Encyclopedia:

"By 1763 the 13 colonies had gained a greater measure of self-
government than was to be found in the major countries of the
Continent or in Britain. Several influences contributed to this result.
First, the Americans were heirs of the Christian religion and of its
Scriptures, which taught the worth of individual man. During the
middle ages the Catholic Church had kept alive and disseminated
the idea that all people are spiritual beings, potentially equal in the
sight of God. The Protestant reformers, especially the Calvinists, had
popularized the ideas that government originates in the people and
that rulers are subject to a contract embodying a fundamental law that
protects certain natural rights of the citizens (life, liberty, and property)
and that confers upon them the privilege of choosing their rulers."

A little further on:

"Religion also fostered self-government. Churches were then subjected
to and regulated by numerous civil laws. The 13 colonies were notable
for the prominence and importance of about a dozen religious sects, each
of which found it necessary to engage actively in politics,either to ward
off persecution or to secure laws favorable to itself. In the end, religious
diversity promoted both religious toleration (which confers the right to
worship as one pleases) and religious freedom (which recognizes that
all churches are equal before law). Rhode Island granted complete religious
freedom to all its inhabitants. Maryland adopted a Toleration Act in 1649
guaranteeing religious toleration to Christians who respected the rights of
the proprietor. Government in the Carolinas was so weak that the settlers
were free to worship as they chose. New Jersey and Pennsylvania both
reflected the liberal ideas of the Quakers." And so on.

Then there are the justly famous opening words of the Declaration of

"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one
people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with
another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate
and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle
them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they
should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.-- We
hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that
they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that
among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.-- That to
secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving
their just powers from the consent of the governed."

And finally, the words of the First Amendment:

"Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting free exercise thereof; or abrdiging the freedom of speech,
or of the press; or the right of the people peacably to assemble, and to
petition the Governent for a redress of grievances."

The shift infocus from God to Humans, the separation of church from
state that is a part of this historical progression, and the
transference of power from the one to the other, may have something to
do with the historical change from the mythological to the ideological
(for us).

Richard G. Calo