Books and Code · A Miscellany

Humanism and the Mythic


On the heels of my review of C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image and the concept of “True Myth” which I mentioned there, I’ve decided to post something I wrote a while back about secular humanism and myth. I doubt this will find much of an audience, but here it is anyway…

(There is a terminology problem that I am choosing to overlook: secularism, humanism, atheism, “science,” skepticism, materialism, etc.– these are related things, but not synonyms.)

There is a common view that secular humanism is not, and possibly cannot be, mythic or transcendent. I reject this on so many grounds, but I want to highlight one that I think is most convincing to fans of speculative fiction. Namely, that a focus on “objective reality” and empiricism is at odds with the mythic. The Inklings themselves, especially Lewis and Tolkien, expressed this view regularly and yet it is refuted on their own terms. Both of these writers talked at length about True Myth. What these men praised most about myth was that they believed it was true. This idea was the heart of Tolkien’s faith and is what converted CS Lewis, so I find it strange that critics of secular humanism poo-poo it on the basis that it can’t be mythic. If Christianity can be both true and mythic there is no reason why secular humanism can’t also be both true and mythic.

Since both these men found the mythic in all sorts of stories and beliefs in which they did not believe themselves, it seems clear to me that they saw “truthiness” and “mythicness” as at least partially independent variables. I would argue that for Tolkien at least, the mythic sprung from the Truth not the other way around. Although the story of CSL’s conversion is the reverse–he came to Truth through myth–I don’t think he would claim post-conversion that the truth claims of Christianity were false. In fact, his whole dissatisfaction with atheism stemmed from his myopic opinion of it as unmythic. From a secular perspective, CSL’s conversion is a tragic loss; he could’ve been a superlative mythic secular humanist under different circumstances. Like Tolkien and Lewis I believe that truth can be mythic, I simply disagree with them about what exactly is true!

In On Fairy-Stories Tolkien wrote that faerie (and myth more generally) offers the reader “recovery, escape, and consolation.” There is nothing about the truth of the secular humanist that rejects these qualities. On the contrary, secular humanism provides forms of recovery, escape, and consolation that are wholly unavailable through various theisms. Let me name a few: escape from the all-seeing eye of an omniscient deity, escape from eternal punishment for a temporal or inherited sin, recovery of our past suppressed by “divine” revelation, recovery of confidence in our own individual reasoning power, consolation that our successes belong to us as much as our failings, consolation in knowing that we choose our own meaning. I could go on.

Here are some True Myths of secular humanism: the interconnectedness of all life as revealed by evolutionary theory, the weirdness of quantum physics, the unfathomable size of the universe, the strange and beautiful cosmos as revealed by astronomy, the spontaneous order of economic exchange and political freedom, the amazing advance of medicine. All these and more exist thanks to secular humanism–either explicitly or as an underlying methodological assumption (in most cases humanity had to reject divine explanations to even get started)–and are thick with mythic potency. If it all seems mundane, it is because secular humanism has truly delivered the mythic goods. All the mythic hopes and prayers of the ages didn’t stop untold millions from dying of smallpox.

Tolkien argues that eucatastrophe–the “hope unlooked-for”–is “[the denial of] (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat.” I assert that he holds himself hostage to a “final defeat” that does not exist, fools himself that the hope is unlooked-for, and is mistaken about its source. Any individual death is neither universal nor final and to assert a horrible cosmic end is certain is to presume too much. Tolkien was right to praise the act of “fighting the long defeat” because it is our own actions which make hope, not God’s. On the contrary, believing that hope is independent of human action is a disincentive to act. If your hope rests in an entity independent of this world, you have no other choice than to look for it to show up. Eucatastrophe should be mundane in a theist world. Only under the random, indifferent universe of secular humanism can eucatastrophe be truly unlooked-for. The real problem for the theist is justifying God’s withholding of temporal hope and the existence of dyscatastrophe. Secular humanism has none of these problems (in what sense is the heat death of the universe a defeat?) and all the benefits. We need only to manifest eucatastrophe through our own actions.