Mythical Thinking

Even before the time of Christ, there were philosophers who criticized the thinking going on around them as mythical. By this, they meant that such thought had no reference to reality. It had its own kind of universe that satisfied certain people, allowed them to express their emotions sufficiently, and gave them a sense of power. This phenomenon applied particularly to religious myths, but it was also related to myths about the world in general because the two areas of meaning are tightly interrelated. Some philosophers such as Socrates were even killed because they pointed out problems with mythical thinking.

Yet these myths wove themselves into the fabric of millions of people’s lives. It was from them that many people drew meaning: kill this bull; pour oil on that pillar; give a gift at this temple. These actions were a way of participating in the political-religious world of the time. They drew their power from the numbers who believed despite their lack of connection with reality. At the time of Jesus, the Church realized that the critical philosophers were on to something important. In Joseph Ratzinger’s words: “The early Church resolutely put aside the whole cosmos of the ancient religions, regarding the whole of it as deceit and illusion.” (Introduction to Christianity)

A millennium or so later, we come upon another example of mythical thinking, and there are thousands! Consider the widespread medical procedure known as “‘bleeding,” for example. Over several hundred years in the west, people thought they knew that it was a necessary part of medical treatment to bleed the patient, even though it is now clear that it has no positive effects at all (George Washington likely died from the aggressive use of this misguided therapy.). But the myth gave people the illusion of doing something to help the sick. Mythical thinking seems to be a constant feature of human history and it carries a deeply anti-human element within it.

Recently we had – I will not say celebrated – the fiftieth anniversary of the development of the birth-control pill, an anti-human feast day if ever there was one. Bishop Margot Käßmann, at the time the head of Germany’s Lutherans, paid the birth control pill deep reverence and tribute. She said that the pill is “God’s gift, for it is about the preservation of life, of freedom, which doesn’t have to immediately degenerate into pornography, as much as the sexualization of our society is, of course, a problem.” This attitude is so bizarre, so oblivious to a reality you have to be blind not to see all around us, that it is difficult to know where to begin in reply. But it’s clear that when an intelligent person in a position of responsibility can utter such patent nonsense, something like mythical thinking is in play.

At the most superficial level, we see a blind faith in the myths about the glories of technology, here in the form of the pill. Again, Joseph Ratzinger: “Technological civilization is not in fact religiously and morally neutral, even if it believes it is. It changes people’s standards and their attitudes and behavior. It changes the way people interpret the world, from the very bottom up.” (Truth and Tolerance) So thanks to the technology of the pill, the respect for the deeply human mystery of sexual intercourse – what it means in terms of real human intimacy and permanent human relationships – can simply be swept aside. Those old human things, if you are under the spell of the myth, appear no longer demanded by sexual intercourse as it exists in a brave new world. The myth hides the reality.

Ratzinger went on to explain: “What takes place with increasing frequency . . . is that the Christian faith is shaken off for the sake of people’s own authenticity, and in the realm of religion the pagan religions are restored . . . while the element that is . . . magical . . . everything that offers people some power over the world, is preserved and becomes really decisive in people’s lives.” The authenticity he is referring to here is an imagined one – people imagine that they know more about authentic behavior than the Church does from revelation and natural law. Mythical thinking about birth control is just the start, one example of many that have insinuated themselves into things we have come to take for granted.

There are myths about Catholicism (my Catholicism is valid, but only when I select out the bits that I like); there are myths in politics (there are no spiritual values only material ones); there are myths about economics (profit is all); there are myths about human beings (humans are just another species of animal); and so on. These myths make Christianity’s constant, almost pedantic reference to reality, (in natural law, in the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church) look strange, so much so that it constitutes an offense against the mythical thinking that is the real oddity in our world.

The Church has always looked strange, but perhaps more so now than ever. The Church and other Christian have themselves been accused in the past of mythical thinking, but – in a sense – Christianity exists precisely to combat mythical thinking. So Catholics who want really to be Catholic today have to accept that they cannot easily just get along with friends, co-workers, the culture as a whole. When delusions rule the public square, we must find ways to refute them, but we must also create truly Catholic spaces where the destructive myths of our confused age can be kept at bay.