The Leap of Belief
In the modern West, belief has effectively become a synonym for opinion or judgment – a space of autonomy rather than a prescription for its exercise. And, because opinion or judgment is so essential to modern societies, to ask ‘What do you mean by believe?’ would abdicate the right of people to decide for themselves what belief is. Beliefs locate us in the world – they identify us as consumers, voters, and voluntary participants in civil society, identifying us in a vast, multidimensional matrix of free choice.
To demand criteria for belief, to challenge the notion that all kinds of judgment and opinion are basically commensurate, would threaten an important mechanism by which modern people engage in the world. Modern belief is the sense that belief is synonymous with private judgment, and therefore modern people believe or disbelieve according to their own conception of whether a given proposition is credible.
Belief in Practice
As a matter of practice, some version of rationalism is at the heart of how many people claim to make their judgments, about religion as well as other things – they consider the evidence for or against a claim. And yet, while ‘reason’ may be a conventional component of modern belief, people are sovereign over the criteria of judgment as well as judgment itself, and their reasons are answerable to no one.
People who believe whatever a charismatic leader tells them, for instance, or who refuse to listen to new evidence that might change their minds, are not acting in accordance with most understandings of rationalism – but they would still claim to be using their judgment as independent finders of fact.
The Birth of Modern Belief
Ethan H. Shagan
Most of the spirits and deities of foraging and hunter-gatherer societies did not have moral concerns. Such gods may have wanted to be appeased with sacrifices and rituals, but they were typically unconcerned with moral transgressions, which preoccupy the Big Gods of major world religions.
Many of the local gods and spirits were not even fully omniscient to be good monitors of moral behavior – they perceived things within village boundaries and not beyond, and they could be manipulated by other rival gods. Religion’s early roots did not have a wide moral scope. Nevertheless, despite their relative infrequency in the supernatural scope of hunter-gatherer societies, powerful, omniscient, interventionist, morally concerned gods – Big Gods – managed to proliferate over time through cultural diffusion, population expansions, and conquest.
Advent of Big Gods
Prosocial religions, together with their Big Gods who watch, intervene, and demand hard-to-fake loyalty displays, facilitated the rise of cooperation in large groups of anonymous strangers. In turn, these expanding groups took their prosocial religious beliefs and practices with them, further enhancing large-scale cooperation in a runaway process of cultural evolution.
Religious intuitions developed (for example: mind and body separation, and the continued existence of mind after the body perishes), which support widely held religious beliefs and related practices, such as gods, spirits, and souls of various types and characteristics. Once that happened, the stage was set for rapid cultural evolution – nongenetic, socially transmitted changes in beliefs and behaviors – that eventually led to large societies with Big Gods.
Eight Principles of Big Gods
- Watched people are nice people.
- Religion is more in the situation that in the person.
- Hell is stronger than heaven.
- Trust people who trust in God.
- Religious actions speak louder than words.
- Unworshipped Gods are impotent Gods.
- Big Gods for Big Groups.
- Religious groups cooperate in order to compete.
Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict
Half Rome’s budget at end 4th century went to feeding & paying the army of about ½ million.
Logistics of army supply was the single most important element that linked the imperial provinces together, along with the need to feed the imperial capitals.
Imperial Tax System
Underpinning all these structures, and making them possible, was the imperial tax system, which was based above all on a land tax, assessed on acreage, through buttressed by a much lighter tax on merchants and artisans.
High taxes were needed for several reasons:
- To pay the salaries of soldiers, bureaucrats and messengers.
- To feed the capitals of the empire.
- To fund the enormous scale of Roman public buildings and state wealth.
- To connect the different parts of the empire together physically, as grain in ships moved northwards from Africa, Sicily and Egypt, and olive oil moved out of Africa, the Aegean and Syria. The movement of goods was essentially Mediterranean-based, as it was far easier and cheaper to transport in bulk by water than by land.
Myths, legends, and folktales are narratives in prose – referred to as prose narratives. This distinguishes them from proverbs, riddles, ballads, poems, and other verbal forms.
Myths are prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past.
Characteristics of Myths
- Accepted on faith, taught to be believed, and can be cited as authority in answer to ignorance, doubt, or disbelief.
- Embodiment of dogma, usually sacred, and often associated with theology and ritual.
- Main characters are usually not humans, but they often have human attributes – they are animals, deities, or cultural heroes, whose actions are set in an earlier world, when the earth was different than it is today.
- Account for the origin of the world, of mankind, of death, or for characteristics of birds, geographic features, and phenomena of nature.
- Recount the activities of deities – including their love affairs, family relationships, their friendships and enemies, their victories and defeats.
Legends are prose narratives which, like myths, are regarded as true by the narrator and his audience, but they are set in a period considered less remote, when the world was much as it is today.
Characteristics of Legends
- More often secular than sacred.
- Principal characters are human.
- Tell of migrations, wars and victories, deeds of past heroes, chiefs, and kings, and succession in ruling dynasties.
- Include local tales of buried treasure, ghosts, fairies, and saints.
Folktales are prose narratives which are regarded as fiction.
Characteristics of Folktales
- Not considered as dogma or history, may or may not have happened, and are not to be taken seriously.
- Though they are often told only for amusement, they may present moral truths.
- May be set in any time and any place, and in this sense they are almost timeless and placeless.
- Fairies, ogres, and even deities may appear, but folktales usually recount the adventures of animal or human characters.
- Have been called “nursery tales” or “fairy tales.”
Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth
Edited by Alan Dundes
“In the beginning” is how many myths start their story. And, simply put, a myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form. That myths are sacred means that all forms of religion incorporate myths of some kind. There is nothing disparaging about the term myth. The term mythos means word or story. It is only the modern usage of the word myth as “error” that has led to the notion of myth as something negative.
In common parlance, the term myth is often used as a mere synonym for error or fallacy. “That’s just a myth!” one may exclaim to label a statement or assertion as untrue. But untrue statements are not myths in the formal sense – nor are myths necessarily untrue statements. For myth may constitute the highest form of truth, albeit in metaphorical guise. If one keeps in mind that a myth must refer minimally to a narrative, then one can easily eliminate most of the books and articles employing myth in their titles.
Study of Myth
The study of myth is an international and an interdisciplinary venture. Scholars from around the world have contributed to the analysis of myth, and this includes scholars of anthropology, classics, comparative religion, folklore, psychology, and theology, among others areas of specialization.
Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth
Edited by Alan Dundes