Myth and Cult: How Atheists Misunderstand Religion

Commentlog was a blog dedicated to preserving and centralizing the most thoughtful comments left on other people's blogs. Sadly, the editor has let his hosting account expire. I say "sadly" because I need a particular post of his for a future piece, and hardly a week goes by that I don't want to recommend it to someone.

I managed to find it through the magic of Google cache. So to save myself trouble, I repost it here in its entirety.

Because the rest of this post is just a verbatim quote, I forgo using any special formatting to delineate it:

"Deep in a comment thread on Unqualified Reservations, Michael S. provides the best apologia of traditional religion that I have ever read. Years ago I stopped believing in the Christian God and left the church. Had there been anyone of Michael's intellectual caliber still left in the Catholic church, perhaps things would have gone differently. Below I have reproduced Michael's key comments from thread, so that others may read them easily:


There are at least two components to any religion, namely myth and cult. Under the heading of myth are comprised all of the just-so stories of ancient or primitive peoples. An example is the Greek myth which explained the daily rising and setting of the sun as the passage of Apollo riding his fiery chariot across the sky.The Greeks became good astronomers and by the classical period had developed better ideas about the nature of the heavenly bodies than that myth implied. Nonetheless, they did not give up the cult of Apollo, which persisted right up until the suppression of paganism. Literal belief in the myth was not necessary to the cult. The myth could be understood as symbolism and poetry.

A case in point of the distinction between myth and cult is seen in the life of Cicero, a hard-headed politician and lawyer whose surviving writings indicate that he was a follower of the New Academy of Carneades, which held that certain knowledge was impossible, and that practical assumptions based on probability were as much as could be achieved. Yet this practical and skeptical man also prized his initiation into the mysteries of Eleusis, which he claimed was the best and most divine gift of Athens to the world. One cannot imagine that Cicero took the myth as literal truth, but he was an enthusiastic participant in the cult.

Because the Abrahamic religions are scriptural, and a substantial number of their believers insist on the literal truth of scripture, it is more difficult to distinguish myth and cult in them than it is in ancient religions. Nonetheless the distinction can still be made.

Consider the example of the prophet Daniel, who, as told in the apocryphal book Bel and the Dragon, acted as a sort of spiritual detective. Scattering ashes on the floor of the temple of Bel, he revealed that the offerings said to be eaten by the idol were actually removed by Bel's fraudulent priests; feeding an unpalatable meal to a 'dragon' worshipped by the Babylonians, he caused it to burst and die. This narrative is the antecedent of Black Sea's scenario in which a primitive's supposition that a little man must be talking inside the transistor radio is refuted by opening it.

When Dawkins and other proselytizing atheists point out the errors, inconsistencies, and crudities of the Bible, they hope to be the doughty Daniels of their own True Faith. But by showing that there is a great deal of myth in scripture, all they are doing is to fault the people of two or three millennia ago for not being aware of current scientific theory and for using the means available to them to describe natural phenomena.

Serious adherents of the cults of Judaism or Christianity are not at all disturbed by this news. They are already aware of it. The theory of evolution, to cite one example, does not per se disturb any Christian who is not a literalist. What disturbs him is the neo-Epicureanism that frequently accompanies it (and for which there is no more empirical basis than there is for the idea of intelligent design).

The ultimate vindication of the truth of Daniel's faith, we may recall, came after his exposure of Bel and the Dragon. It was then that his enemies caused him to be thrown into the lions' den. It is unfortunate that Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. have so far, in their attacks on fundamentalism/salvationism, chosen to face only a few malnourished alley cats. They need to withstand sharper and bigger claws and teeth before their testimony is credible. Although I'm not a Roman Catholic, my suggestion is that they be thrown to the Jesuits.

Some years ago I read a transcript of an interview of the great scientific cosmologist Stephen Hawking. I do not recall who conducted the interview. At its conclusion the interviewer asked Hawking, did he believe that the universe had a creator? Hawking said that he did not. Why? the interviewer asked. Hawking responded, "Because I find it more aesthetic." There spoke both an honest atheist and one with a much better philosophical footing than Dawkins and his ilk.


Black Sea, I did not say that you exemplified the type of proselytizing atheist I meant. I said that you and Aaron Davies illustrated the problem such people face. They think their task is as simple as breaking open the transistor radio to show the Amazon tribesman there is no little man inside. In representing the belief of theists as based in ignorance, and proposing themselves as instructors having the knowledge to remedy that ignorance, they both misrepresent the basis of religious belief and condescend to the believer, while expressing an undue confidence in their own intellectual superiority.

Of course there are simple and unsophisticated believers who are literalists. They understand their religion according to their capacity, and it is unlikely they would understand science any better.
There seems to be no appreciation amongst atheists of the Dawkins type that organized religion has always had to contend with excessivley credulous believers, and in many cases has served to restrain superstition rather than to encourage it. Chesterton is supposed to have observed (though no one seems to be able to find the source) that when men no longer believe in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything.

The wisdom of this observation is seen in the recent popularity of accounts of flying saucers, alien abductions, and similar uncanny experiences. It is evident to anyone who is familiar with their history that people have been seeing strange apparitions since time immemorial. It is also evident that they always see these things in culturally appropriate ways. The pagans of classical antiquity saw the gods, nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, sylphs, and so forth. Christians saw angels, demons, the Blessed Virgin, the saints, etc. Mohammedans saw djinn, efreets, and the other marvels related in the Arabian Nights. People began to see flying saucers and little green men in the late 1940s - after they had been culturally conditioned for several decades by the work of H.G. Wells and the pulps published by Hugo Gernsback. Enthusiasts of the extraterrestrial commonly explain the experiences of past visionaries with angels, demons, etc. as being 'close encounters' with aliens. They would no doubt bristle with indignation if it were suggested to them that the aliens they thought they saw were in fact messengers from God or the Devil, djinn, or the elementals described by the abbé Montfaucon de Villars in his "Comte de Gabalis."

Such credulous folk, who believe in anything, really ought not to be fair game for Dawkins and crew. They will always be among us even if atheism becomes the state religion. Under the former Soviet Union there was a widespread literature devoted to supposed extraterrestrial visitations. Since the press in that country was under the complete control of the state, one can only conclude that the powers-that-were wished to encourage belief in these manifestations, as a means of undermining the Christianity they had failed to supplant amongst ordinary people with the bald and unconvincing narrative of their Marxist atheism.

Let me make my own point of view clear - it is that the only position tenable from a viewpoint of strict empiricism is that the existence or non-existence of God are equally un-disprovable. Pointing to one or another scriptural absurdity iluustrates only that the man who wrote it long ago failed to understand matters properly; pointing out that many people still believe that absurdity, in the face of evidence to the contrary, proves only that there are still many simple and unsophisticated people. On the other hand, all the arguments customarily advanced by religious believers, such as the argument by design, are such as to be convincing only to people who already believe.

Yet all these things being taken into consideration, two points remain. The first is anthropological: there is no society known to history in which there is not some sort of spiritual belief. This coincides with the ancient Christian doctrine that all people are inherently aware of God even if they have not the knowledge of the Gospel. Physical explanations of instinctive spirituality ("the God gene") are not persuasive, because they run afoul of the mind-body problem. One is left with the nagging suspicion that there might be something to the spiritual, though just what is the great question.

The second point is aesthetic. Arguably, the highest achievements of the human species have been motivated by that instinctive spirituality just mentioned. The great cathedrals, the precious heritage of religious art and music, are not only monuments to religious belief, but more persuasive testimonies to and arguments for faith than the disputations of theology. Have you ever read the story of the conversion of St. Vladimir, the founder of the Russian Orthodox Church? He was, as the account goes, a pagan prince of the line of Rurik; and an enthusiastic pagan, having built several temples. Yet he was not quite satisfied with his religion, and agreed to hear deputations of Muslims, Jews, and Christians each deliver their respective sales pitches. The presentations of the first two were rather arid, but the Christians (who had come from Byzantium) put on by far the best show, high mass with all the smells and bells, rich vestments, singing, the whole nine yards. Vladimir was convinced - any religion that was so beautiful had to be the right one (it also didn't hurt that it had the least restrictive dietary rules, and no ban on booze). Accordingly, Russia became Christian, and Vladimir a saint - all on the basis of his aesthetic judgment.

I suppose these anthropological and aesthetic reasons explain why many people remain culturally Christian despite an abundance of doubts and discontents. They aren't willing to dismiss the spiritual out of hand; they see more benefit than detriment accruing to society from religion in spite of their doubts (as did Jefferson and Franklin); and they find Christianity aesthetically appealing (as did St. Vladimir). They are therefore unwilling to discard it in favor of the barren and austere horizon offered by the crusading atheism of a Dawkins. For my part, I'll wait to see whether Dawkinsianity produces anything equivalent to Chartres, Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requiem, the Pietà or the Sistine ceiling. When it does we may re-evaluate it to see if it offers anything worthwhile.


Mr. Davies, I suspect that Ayn Rand's 'proof' of the non-existence of God is a mirror-image of the mediæval scholastic proofs of the existence of God; both are persuasive only to people who already believe. Also, is the omniscient, omnipotent Abrahamic God really "modern"? Deists like Lord Herbert of Cherbury were beginning to move away from that concept nearly four centuries ago. Newton and Locke followed in his footsteps. Washington, an outwardly observant Anglican but also a Freemason, always couched his utterances with regard to deity in terms more reminiscent of Masonic ritual than of the Anglican service. Yet such deists were not atheists of the Dawkinsian stripe. They believed the universe had its Great Architect and that his handiwork was made manifest in the order and symmetry of nature. They further believed that Christianity brought great benefits to society, and tried in some cases to 'reform' it in ways that eliminated those parts they considered superstitious and backward. Examples of these efforts are the Jefferson Bible and the Franklin/Dashwood Prayer Book. Are these not more 'modern' strains of belief than the caricature presented by Rand?

And has not Randism been almost from the start yet another illustration of the Chestertonian axiom? Maybe it is not quite as outlandish as flying saucers but it is assuredly a cult of the type that substitutes itself for more conventional religion. Ayn Rand herself was almost the model of the autocratic prophet, excommunicating from the fellowship of the faithful any who dared (however meekly) to question her pronouncements. In this respect she belongs amongst the ranks of such charlatans as Freud, Jung, Crowley, or Hubbard.

As for Randy's observation about what it means to be an atheist, I suspect it means different things to each atheist in the same way that being a Jew or a Christian means differing things to each Jew or each Christian. We can only evaluate the belief of such people based on their own testimony. But what we must note is that many of these disputants come in an odd way to resemble all they deplore about their adversaries. We need only contemplate the example of Christopher Hitchens, who is every bit as obnoxious in his own way as Pat Robertson is, or the late Jerry Falwell was, in theirs respectively. The fervency of the undoubting atheist is no less troubling than the fervency of the undoubting Christian, Muslim, etc.; both have been, and still are, rationales for the most appalling cruelties."

Share this

Dawkins etc are well aware

Dawkins etc are well aware that many Christians do not believe in most of the myths in the Bible. What they're doing is working at the margin, whacking the most easily whackable beliefs. More than 50% of American people believe in ghosts. Wake up. Your deistic Christians are nothing more than a bunch of wuss smart enough to realize that most of it is bullshit, but too afraid to admit that there's nothing to be salvaged in their beliefs. You can't be a deist and a Christian by the way, there are specific myth in Christianity which make up christian faith. If you don't believe in the resurrection, it's hard to call yourself a Christian. Now *that's* in the same league as Helios in his cart. Once all theists are merely deist who believe in an universal sentient force, then atheist can focus on debunking that belief. For now, 99% of believers are hardly more sophisticated than the one believing in Appolo's cart.

Tenuously Related

Christopher Hitchens apparently got his ass beat in Lebanon.

And all he got was this lousy T-shirt.

Even More Tenuously Related

Yeah, but Hitchen's did whoop Mother Teresa's ass. ;)

Not sure that his run in with those truly facist SSNP was more about bravery, stupidity, drunkenness, or all three.


A tiresome repetition of many long refuted arguments, all wrapped up with the Cortisians Reply.

” I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk.

Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.

Personally, I suspect that perhaps the Emperor might not be fully clothed — how else to explain the apparent sloth of the staff at the palace laundry — but, well, everyone else does seem to go on about his clothes, and this Dawkins fellow is such a rude upstart who lacks the wit of my elegant circumlocutions, that, while unable to deal with the substance of his accusations, I should at least chide him for his very bad form.

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.”

I’ll address a couple more comments but the article has so many mistakes that I would have to spend a whole day to refute them all.

“The theory of evolution, to cite one example, does not per se disturb any Christian who is not a literalist. What disturbs him is the neo-Epicureanism that frequently accompanies it (and for which there is no more empirical basis than there is for the idea of intelligent design).”

This is a pointless point if ever there was one. Sentence one says that non-literalist Christians are not disturbed by the theory of natural selection. Does anyone find that to be a big surprise? His second sentence is not necessarily true. I know plenty of non-literalist Christians who are disturbed by neither.

What he fails to realize is that many atheists were raised as Christians, and have the inside scoop. It’s not as simple as he makes it out. There are entire sects of Christians from priests on down that have in effect been abandoned by him wholesale.

His argument has been dealt with before by many a trained philosopher and it doesn’t hold up. The god you are left with when you abandon all the nonsense is hollow and unsatisfying. That’s precisely why the less literalist denominations tend to loose members. They are a dying breed.

“They need to withstand sharper and bigger claws and teeth before their testimony is credible.”

This is directly the Cortesian’s reply. I’ve got much finer arguments (garments) but you just can’t see them [here in my article].

This is a very old argument that has been addressed many times by atheists.

“At its conclusion the interviewer asked Hawking, did he believe that the universe had a creator? Hawking said that he did not. ‘Why?’, the interviewer asked. Hawking responded, ‘Because I find it more aesthetic.’ There spoke both an honest atheist and one with a much better philosophical footing than Dawkins and his ilk.”

These sentences are obnoxious. First it’s an unattributed source, so it’s like a deathbed conversion story. Secondly, it’s quote mining if true because I’m sure Hawking had more to say than that. Third it claims that if atheists differ in their reasons for non-belief then they are dishonest. In this third example he is doing exactly what he is falsely accusing Dawkin’s of, how ironic.

“Chesterton is supposed to have observed (though no one seems to be able to find the source) that when men no longer believe in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything. ”

I find this quote by Chesterton offensive. It's a bigoted and false cliché about non-believers. People who don't believe in God absolutely do not believe in "anything", nor nothing.
In fact, it's just the opposite. The conscience of many non-believers, their inability to believe in just "anything", is exactly what lead them to reject a belief in God. This rejection is done both on a moral and an evidential basis.
Nor did non-believers ever claim to "believe in nothing", as the cliché states. We merely don't believe in particular claims for which there is no credible evidence and plenty of evidence against, both empirically, and logically.
Furthermore there are plenty of Christians who have now or in the past believed in aliens, leprechauns, and the like. For example, Carl McIntire. I’m sure there are some mystic atheists who believe in UFOs but they are probably in the minority. It’s very likely that the kind of atheist being decried in this article, the rational atheists, have a much lower incident of UFO belief than the average Christian.

The author makes a valuable

The author makes a valuable point: religion derives its strength from its existence as a social phenomena rather than its dogma. The cult, not the myth. Atheists misunderstand that, badly. And repeatedly.

I had an interesting experience over the holidays that made this piece leap out at me when I read it. I spent the winter break from school by myself in San Diego. My family lives 3,000 miles away in North Carolina. My friends all flew home to be with their families. My girlfriend broke up with me and moved back to the midwest to take a job there.

On Christmas Eve, I decided to go to a church in the area to take in the holiday spirit, instead of another evening of drinking whatever liquor was lying around the house and watching Hulu. Google helped me find an episcopal congregation downtown with a competent choir and an ambitious carol program. It was an excellent choice.

But as I sat in the wooden pew and breathed the scent of incense, I was struck by something besides the wonderful music: there were old people there. And children. And people of all sorts of ages in between.

I felt weird. And then I thought it was weird that I should feel weird. That's when I realized that I spend over 90% of my time with people between the ages of 23 and 30. My usual experiences with people outside that age range involve lectures from professors or passing older people in the grocery store. Talking with some of the members of the congregation afterwards, I found out that the older folks help the younger look after their children, and the younger help the elderly when they were sick. Near the end of the service, the priest prayed by name for members of the congregation undergoing tough times, in the military overseas, or who had recently lost a loved one.

There's a word for such a collection of people: community.

And that's what Dawkins doesn't address. Maybe those people kneeling at the alter believe that the wafer they are eating is the body and the blood of Christ. Maybe they don't. But the reason they come back doesn't involve that at all. They come back because the community is a part of their lives.

"Social cohesion" is such a vague concept, but in that church you will see a concrete example of it.

At one point in my life I was as militant an atheist as Dawkins ever was. But I didn't realize the true meaning of religion and its role in society. It is not just some false or unprovable doctrine. It is not just superstitions and a Holy Book. It is not even mostly that. The author is right: atheists are missing the point.

More importantly, secular society doesn't have a good substitute for what religion does. This is probably why so many secular people become leftists, they seek the social cohesion that they are missing through the state.

More on this over Spring break.


You must have been some isolated "militant" atheist.

You think that atheists like Ayn Rand don't understand the value of cult and community, and the old getting together with the young. I guess you haven't heard of her little club and Nataniel Brandon. She believes the old should get real close to the young. ;)

I think Dawkins gets a whole hell of a lot more than you give him credit for. In fact in my opinion his position would be exactly opposite than what you are claiming he holds. I'm sure he understands perfectly well the things you think he does not.

In fact I've been to lectures by him and he does understand, and in fact participates in the cult-secular.

You can get the feel for this from an article in the NYT titled, An Atheist Can Believe in Christmas.
It includes info on that other "militant" atheist Sam Harris.

“Presumably your reason for asking me is that ‘The God Delusion’ is an atheistic book, and you still think of Christmas as a religious festival,” Mr. Dawkins wrote, in a reply printed here in its entirety. “But of course it has long since ceased to be a religious festival. I participate for family reasons, with a reluctance that owes more to aesthetics than atheistics. I detest Jingle Bells, White Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and the obscene spending bonanza that nowadays seems to occupy not just December, but November and much of October, too.”

He added: “So divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as happy holiday season. In the same way as many of my friends call themselves Jewish atheists, I acknowledge that I come from Christian cultural roots. I am a post-Christian atheist. So, understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.”


Besides, he admitted, “I do like to go to the parties.”

I would like to know how you define "militant" in this context. Is a militant atheist someone who doesn't keep his mouth shut while the religious keep theirs going non-stop?

I happen to be an atheist who doesn't keep his mouth shut when the subject of religion is breached by the religious. I wouldn't call that militant however.

Your title was about atheists, not militant atheists. But I think you don't properly understand either stripe if you think that they don't get that religion is in part about community. You're wrong however if you think it is solely about community.

You claim to be an atheist but the question is, "What kind of atheist?" as there are many different types. Each atheist has his own way of arriving there and own personal understanding of the world. Don't confused your particular brand with other peoples. You are not a mind reader. You have to actually ask them to find out their positions.

I'm sure Dawkins has no problem with secular church goers who like to sing in the choir and hang out with the old and the young.

I think Dawkins gets a whole

I think Dawkins gets a whole hell of a lot more than you give him credit for.

Agreed. He "gets it" alright. I'm not with him on the "child abuse" accusations though.

Dawkins Child Abuse Claims - Yes and No

I'm not with him on the "child abuse" accusations though.

I'm yes and no on this. What some Palestinians do to their kids is child abuse. Most religious indoctrination is innocuous no matter how stupid, or fearful it makes the kid.

Dawkins is lecturing here in

Dawkins is lecturing here in MN, March 4th.

"The purpose of purpose"

For crying out cornflakes!

You Should Go

He might give you some new insights into purpose.