I Don’t Need to Know This: Mythology and the Protection of World Views20 September, 2009
Over at the Spanish Inquisitor, SI brought into the discussion about the recent study showing that religiosity and teen pregnancy are closely linked a view into the willful ignorance of faith. Faith, the willingness to believe something despite no or contrary evidence, requires ignoring certain aspects of the world around us. And to protect the worldview of the faithful, almost anything — the beliefs of other religions and cultures, any contrary world view, even the findings of scientists — can be relegated to myth. The thing of it is, though, every religion teaches that their mythology is fact, and all others are myth. Maybe they are all correct.
When I was in elementary school in Arizona, we had a wonderfully diverse class. In fifth grade, there were sixteen students in my class: two white Mormons, one white naturalistic universal deist (me (and no, I didn’t know the term at the time but, by the time I was in fifth grade it would not have been a bad description of my worldview)), two white fundamentalist Protestants, two relaxed Protestants (no idea the actual brand), and a non-observant Catholic, four Hispanic Catholics (one strong, three non-observant), one Hopi, two Navajos, and one Havasu. Like I said, diverse.
I clearly remember on day, in the depths of winter (foot of snow on the ground, getting dark just after we got home from school, cold (yes, Arizona)), when our teacher was out of the room. The four Native Americans (or (as a friend of mine puts it) Initial Immigrants) began discussing their various creation myths.
The Havasu and Hopi myths are similar, both seeing man, after the third world was destroyed, emerging into earth through a hole (the sipapu) located in the Grand Canyon. The first three worlds were destroyed because of promiscuity, warring and failure to live in harmony. The myth tradition teaches how to live in harmony. And are, despite regional (and even clan) differences, quite similar and present a coherent whole. (This is a serious simplification; Wikipedia gives an understandable and pretty good synopsis of the Hopi mythos.)
The Navajo creation myth also deals with living in harmony. The insect peoples were asked to leave the first world because they were fighting each other. Same for the second and third worlds. They were transformed to humans because they succeeded in not fighting with each other or the people they found there, the Hopis. First woman and first man were created from corn. (Again, this is seriously simplified. And, again, Wikipedia does the mythos justice.)
As they talked, comparing the ins and outs of the children’s stories through which they learned their people’s history and how to live in harmony, we all began listening. I was fascinated. I had been exposed to bits an pieces of it before, but the compare and contrast was enjoyable. In retrospect, I am also intrigued in that all four of them, in fifth grade, knew that these were myths; they knew that this was how their ancestors tried to understand the world and, more important (and far more valuable) how they taught the next generation how to live.
Then, one of our fundamentalist Christians laughed. He laughed out loud. He told them that their myths were nonsense. They were, in his words, lies inspired by Satan. So the Havasu girl asked him to explain his creation myth.
He, very quickly, got angry. In rather terse language, he told her that the bible tells how god created the earth, the moon, the stars, the sun, the animals, the plants, and the land. He gave a quick rundown of the Old Testament creation myth (with corrections from all of us (including the Native Americans who appear to have understood his creation myth better than he did (there are shitloads of missionaries in the reservations))).
One of the Navajo boys asked what the lesson was. Fundie boy answered that there is no lesson, it is the real history of the earth. I fought back my laughter. The Native Americans didn’t. They laughed in his face.
Luckily our teacher arrived at this time. He asked what we had been talking about and one of the Mormon kids told him. He decided that this was a ‘teachable moment’ and we all trooped up to the library (the librarian was unhappy that we were there when we weren’t scheduled, but with only 240 kids k=12, it wasn’t that big of a deal) and each of us checked out a different book on mythology (I checked out a book on Norse mythology (don’t remember the title, but it had great artwork)), wrote up a short report on the creation myth, and presented it in class.
There were sixteen fifth graders in that class. Four boys, twelve girls. The only two who had a problem with this assignment were the two Christian fundamentalists. Both expressed the opinion that studying the myths of other religions and cultures was studying the work of the devil. Both were sure that learning the wrong thing would endanger their souls.
Which brings us back to willful ignorance. Very little of Christianity is really new. Arguably, the only new thing in Christianity was heresy — the obdurate and willful attachment to wrong belief. Spending eternity in heaven with Jesus and god and all the saints (or not, depends on the version of Christianity) and angels depends partly on living right and obeying rules, but mostly on believing exactly the right things about exactly the right things.
By refusing to learn new things, by remaining willfully ignorant, a fundamentalist or literalist Christian (yes, I am painting with a broad brush here, I know that there are exceptions) protects himself (or herself). They protect themselves from learning the wrong thing and endangering their place in heaven. By viewing everything other than the specific teachings of the particular version of Christianity to which the person is attached as mythology, unwanted knowledge can be dismissed as mythology. Evolution, human reproduction, astronomy, geology, genetics, even medicine can be treated as a myth, a creation of Satan. And can be relegated to the mental folder labelled: “I Don’t Need To Know This”.