Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 1

Troubled Times   

 
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A short summary of the cultural problems faced by the modern world.

When you have an open debate between conflicting points of view, the defenders of each viewpoint are pressured into presenting their best possible arguments. But those who cannot defend their beliefs have nothing to gain from an open debate. Their best strategy is to silence any opposition whenever their point of view is challenged.

Our world has a long history of political and religious extremists using violence to force their beliefs upon others. Even in the modern democratic world where freedom of speech has become an almost sacred right, this freedom is far from assured when it comes to matters of religion.

The reason why freedom of speech is so important is because the truth is more likely to be discovered if people have an opportunity to listen to every argument and decide for themselves. The only kind of truth that is really worth defending is the kind that can withstand criticism, and the kind that we can believe in without being forced to.

The following may not be true for everybody, but why should we let the truth stand in the way of a good story.

Ancient mythmakers

There was a time in the dark past when peace and prosperity were regularly interrupted by conquest and destruction. Invading armies and bandits raided towns and villages, slaughtering the inhabitants, and sometimes carrying the survivors away as slaves. Revenge was the prevailing form of justice in a world where human life had little value.

Peasant farmers and villagers struggled through hardship to raise their families. They shared stories around the fire at night and sang songs about the adventures of legendary heroes. Their priests held sacrifices and prayed to the gods for plentiful harvests and good fortune in war. Myths about the gods and legends about heroes helped to inspire a common sense of honesty, loyalty, and bravery.

A detailed recording of history began in some parts of the world around three thousand years ago as the development of alphabetic writing allowed written words to flow as freely and with almost as much meaning and emotion as spoken words. The first significant works of literature began to appear in the emerging civilizations of Israel, Greece, Persia, and India.

Alphabetic writing gave innovative scribes an opportunity to rework the best of their old myths and legends and weave them together to form long and detailed national histories and other stories about the origins of humankind and our relationship to the gods.

The great responsibility that weighed upon these ancient scribes was to convince their people to have faith in universal ideas of right and wrong, and to develop in them a commitment to social justice, and a sense of duty to work towards the welfare and survival of the community.

Greek poets wrote that the gods would favor the good while raining misfortune down upon the wicked. Jewish prophets wrote that the god of creation would punish sinners and bring about the destruction of wicked nations. They believed that messengers would continue to be sent to teach them right from wrong.

Persian prophets described the final day at the end of time when the dead would rise up from their graves to be judged for their deeds. The righteous would rest comfortably in heaven and the wicked would be cast into hell to burn for eternity. Hindu scribes demanded obedience by threatening reincarnation as a slave or a farm animal.

In the absence of anything better, these writings offered believable explanations. They gave the struggling farmers and villagers a reason for wholesome living and hope for a better future. The best of these writings survived the hostility of ancient priests and gained the favor of kings. As they were handed down through the generations, they grew in authority to become sacred scriptures.

Religions helped to hold kingdoms and empires together under a common understanding of existence. Those who believed in the myths and embraced the moral lessons would be less motivated by selfishness and more committed to community and family values. Empires might fall into decline, but the minds of the masses would continue to be united by their ancient religious scriptures.

As the centuries passed, corrupt priesthoods maintained an iron grip on power by silencing any ideas that were contradictory to their teachings. Tyrants used religion as an excuse to enslave and destroy. But many common folk were strengthened by their faith, resisting the temptation to descend into savagery. They were inspired to remain honest and caring in an otherwise cruel and deceptive world.

Scientific discovery

Before the year 1450, books were rare and few people knew how to read. Many received their understanding of the world through the teachings of priests. Things suddenly changed with the invention of the printing press in Europe. Writers could now share their ideas with people who previously could not afford to read because they could not afford the price of a hand copied book. Common knowledge grew rapidly as books were made available on a growing range of subjects.

Modern science began in the 1600s with the invention of the telescope and the idea of gravity to explain the motion of the planets around the sun. People were able to see for the first time that the earth was not the center of the universe. Religious explanations would now be increasingly replaced by scientific ones. Some writers began to openly criticize religious beliefs.

Traditional religion suffered its most serious blow in the 1860s with the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution. Skeptics could now prove that the creation stories contained in the old religious scriptures were nothing more than ancient myths. But not everybody was convinced by evolution. Many supporters of religion feared that if people lost faith in religious myths then they might also lose interest in community and family values.

Science has seriously weakened religion, and now some people claim that only science can show us the truth. But science by itself has nothing inspiring to say about important human values like love, justice, compassion, or goodness. According to a purely scientific view of the world, our loved ones are little more than sacks of protein, and our love for them is just an electro-chemical impulse in our brain.

Science can demonstrate the relative advantage of some types of behavior, but it cannot judge any behavior to be either right or wrong. If we depended only on science to guide our thoughts and actions, then we would have no reason to be caring, sharing, or honest unless we had something to gain. Many of those who believe only in science say that life has no purpose, and that our existence is nothing more than an accident of nature.

Industrial revolution

By the mid 1800s, consumer goods were being mass produced in steam powered factories and shipped around the world by steam powered trains and ships. Steam power was soon replaced by petrol engines and electric motors. A new age of modern conveniences and technological wizardry had begun.

In only a few hundred years, industry has grown to become the most powerful force on the planet, and now the market economy dictates human behavior. Greed and ambition are the driving forces behind success in the business world.

The winners are the corporate raiders who take over the boardrooms of public companies, plundering the assets and pocketing millions at the expense of company employees and small shareholders. The losers are the poor working class families who struggle to buy bread. The least fortunate become victims of debt, unemployment, poverty, relationship breakdown, loneliness, drug and alcohol abuse, and crime. Many workers around the world struggle to earn barely enough to buy food and shelter while they raise the next generation of industrial slaves.

The market economy creates its own set of values. Many of us now judge our progress through life not by the growth of our character or by the maturity of our understanding, but rather by our possessions; by the cars, houses, and luxury items that we obtain. Under increasing pressure to succeed, many workers now sacrifice friendships and family relationships, seeing them as obstacles to the pursuit of a career.

Modern democratic culture

The emergence of democracy around the world has given people the power to protest against oppression. Progressive governments are continually reforming the laws to satisfy the changing needs of the people and provide a fairer system of justice. A new culture has emerged in the democratic world that promotes freedom of choice, equal opportunity, and respect for human rights. And this new way of thinking has resulted in a more caring and tolerant society.

Newspapers, television networks, and other forms of mass media have embraced these new values. And by comparison, some of the old religious morals now seem oppressive and backwards. And while some people, especially the older generations, cling to the old ways of thinking, their children are now learning new ideas about right and wrong from watching commercial television and listening to popular music.

But the entertainment industry is driven by the pursuit of profits without being restrained by any real sense of social responsibility. While celebrating increasing freedom from religious morality, low quality productions compete to stretch the bounds of social acceptability. The mass media has become a reflection of human greed, ego, hatred, and perversity. Some people see the cutting edge of modern culture as being an unashamed glorification of sex and violence.

The Internet provides a powerful alternative to government propaganda and corporate media brainwashing. An unrestricted channel of communication has been opened, and now people have cheap instant access to ideas and information that they could never have discovered before. But much of the Internet is like a digital sewer full of unfiltered misinformation and pornography. Some people see it as being symptomatic of the unhealthy condition of modern thinking.

Confusion

Many of those who live in modern societies are now abandoning their traditional religious beliefs and adopting a more materialistic outlook on life. In the absence of any believable explanation for human existence, many now believe that there is nothing worth believing in. Without any purpose or meaning to their lives, many are descending into despair and depression. Without any clear vision for the future of the world, the nations are continuing to prepare for war.

Amid growing fear and anxiety, religious conservatives are gaining political power around the world. They do not want their children growing up without hope for the future, to become another generation whose only sense of self worth is their physical appearance or their possessions, and whose only purpose is to stimulate the pleasure centers in their brains. They do not want their children growing up to become too selfish, confused, and immature to be able to successfully raise their own families.

But for many people, the old religious myths are no longer believable and the old religious morality is no longer acceptable. And ancient religious rivalries are plunging the world into a new age of war and terror. American forces have launched a campaign to democratize the Middle East, while Islamic extremists are waging a holy war against modern democratic values. We wait for the next attack, possibly the detonation of a nuclear bomb. And we watch helplessly as our politicians bumble their way through one world crisis after the next.

Hope

Most of us are still being confused by beliefs that have long lost their value, and there is now a desperate need to provide clearer explanations of the issues that give meaning to our lives.

Like in the days of the ancient mythmakers, recent discoveries and new technologies have provided an unprecedented opportunity to take the best of our existing historical narratives and scientific explanations and carefully weave them together to craft a more enlightened understanding of our existence that is more suitable for the times in which we live.

In the hope of bringing some clarity into this confused world, this book was written to offer a realistic and convincing explanation of our place in the universe, hopefully crafted well enough to restore the faith of those who believe, and to give faith to those who do not yet believe, that our world may be progressing towards a peaceful, prosperous, and rational future.

Continue to chapter 2 ... The evolution of humankind