The Line Between Myth and History

“When Washington was six years old he received a hatchet as a gift and damaged his father’s cherry tree. When his father discovered what he had done, he became angry and confronted him. Young George bravely said, ‘I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.’ Washington’s father embraced him and rejoiced that his son’s honesty was worth more than a thousand trees.”

This is a well-known story many of us were taught in grade school. We also later learned it was completely made up, a myth. Nevertheless, it has become an iconic piece of American history which our culture enjoys remembering.

For my undergrad I studied ancient history. In the various stories I learned, the line between historical fact and myth were frequently blurred. This was often acknowledged, but, like the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree, were told for fun anyway.

The danger comes when the lack of absolute historical certainty is not acknowledged, and even blatantly refuted.

It is easy for modern people to forget that ancient people did not always perceive history in the same way we do. They did not frequently write records with the intention of being “historical” accurate. Rather, they wrote for various other reasons – passing on oral tradition, propaganda, creating a good story. These methods were often blended with elements that we have now confirmed are historical fact, via archaeology and primary documents. However, just because part of an ancient writing contains historical truth, that does not make everything in it true.

The university club I’m involved with recently hosted the historian Richard Carrier. Carrier is best known for his position that Jesus of Nazareth is a myth. He asserts that when you analyze the origins of the New Testament, it is fabricated (aka not made with the intent of being historical accurate). There is no external attestation of Jesus’ existence. There is, however, ample evidence of other cults of the time that had stories, beliefs, and figures similar to those found in the New Testament. The Jesus-like figures of those cults are generally viewed as myths by current scholars, so why should Jesus be any different? Now the present scholarly consensus is that Jesus did exist and was some Messianic, end of days cult leader, one among many other similar leaders and movements of the time. However, that is beside the point.

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I was raised in a Christian religion that explicitly taught the stories from the Bible as truth. When I got older, a new trend had begun to emerge of perceiving some of the stories – those mainly from the Old Testament – as allegories. However, the story of Jesus was still 100% truth. After I left the religion of my childhood, I had to decide whether I still considered myself Christian. So, taking what I’d learned during my undergrad and doing further research, I analyzed the origins of the Bible as well as other ancient Mesopotamian people and their myths/beliefs/text. I concluded that Judaism/ Christianity stemmed from other religious cults/beliefs of the time and was therefore not ‘true’.

Ultimately, I feel dumbfounded that so many people are willing to base their lives on false information, on myths. They fall into the trap of accepting something as historical truth if it is told to them by an authority figure they trust, and then they don’t feel the need to research the claims on their own. Yes, there are some parts of history that we will never know for sure are accurate or false unless further evidence is ever found. In this instance, however, I think it best to err on the side of caution. Therefore, I encourage people to research historical stories (religious and from history class) they were taught as truth, look at the existing evidence, read perspectives from both sides, etc. Then I hope they can determine for themselves where the lines between historical fact and myth lies.

Critical Thought, Contradictions, & Conclusions

I recently participated in a Q&A panel with representatives from different viewpoints: Muslim, Non-denominational Christian, Mormon, and Secular (me).

One of the audience questions asked whether the religious representatives found their religion stifled their ability to think critically.
Another question asked how they felt if they encountered contradictions to their religious teachings while in a university class.
I was surprised by their responses. All said that they did not feel like their religion prevented them from thinking critically. The Muslim considered it propaganda that there are conflicts between science and religion. The Non-denominational Christian felt that science (such as evolution) was guided by God. The Mormon believed that we don’t know everything now, but that eventually all would be revealed and ultimately science and religion would be in harmony.

 

I responded that for me, since I am not part of an organized religion or dogmatic tradition, I felt completely free to research on my own and come to my own conclusions.
As for conflicts in the classroom, I emphasized that the point of going to a university is to have your beliefs/assumptions challenged and to learn to think critically about them. I also pointed out how religion and science followed different methods of logic. Religion starts with a truth claim and then tries to back it up with ‘evidence’. It will even amend these claims as contradictory scientific evidence comes to light. Science, on the other hand, starts with a question and a hypothesis as a possible solution. It then conducts tests to see if it proves the hypothesis wrong, then conduct further tests either way.
Years before this, when I had finally arrived at atheism, I found these two conclusions amazingly refreshing:
1) I was finally free to be able to think for myself
2) I was finally able to base my opinions on empirical scientific evidence
So my ending impression of the panel is where I began. Surprise. Astonishment that these panel members had rationalized away the possibility of contradiction. And I guess that’s what it takes to a large degree to remain in an organized religion. Otherwise, you may just end up like me, running to atheism.
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