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A long speculation about myths
on 5 July 2015
This book should have been entitled 'Wild speculations about myths, written with an obvious Christian agenda'. I'm sorry to say that it is nothing but Bible-bashing disguised under the pretense of talking about humanity's myths. It is clear from the start that, far from presenting myths and their history, the author is trying to convince us that religion is the sine qua non of any human activity. To this aim, she mixes a lot of completely unfounded speculations with a tiny bit of anthropology, just enough to give her so-called arguments a thin veneer of credibility. But scratch the surface and it soon becomes apparent that it's all very clumsily done. I quickly got fed up with every single assertion being crudely slanted towards religiosity.
First, Armstrong claims we know a great deal about the Neanderthal mind - it definitely had religiousness in it, and we know this for sure because ... we found a handful of graves. Then, the Paleolithic people: 'Everything they did was a sacrament that put them in touch with the gods' (p. 15). Oh, really? May we ask, how do we know all of this, what irrefutable archaeological proof is there? Well, we don't get that answer in this book. Instead of presenting any kind of evidence, Armstrong cites mainly the tomes of Mircea Eliade, who, as well-read as he was, wrote in the 1930s and was a man also given to wild speculations and who, guess what, didn't provide any actual proof for his theses, either. Oh, and she mentions Freud and Jung ... yes, 'cause that's really scientific stuff, isn't it.
Her claims then get more and more unlikely. For example, 'As soon as human beings had completed their evolutionary process, they found that a longing for transcendence was built into their condition.' (p. 27). But just because something sounds fancy, it doesn't make it true. I would ask again: really? Because first, as any fule knows, the evolutionary process is never "completed". Second, assuming (wrongly) that humans did finish evolving at some point in the past, when exactly was that? And exactly what proof do we have? And which type of prehistoric humans did first have concepts such as "longing for transcendence" -- and they didn't just kinda know that it was there, but that it was "built into their condition"? Correct me if I'm wrong, but even we 21st century people would not understand what this means. Ask any reasonably intelligent and well educated person today if they find that a longing for transcendence is built into their condition, and their answer would be 'Huh?' Yet Armstrong breezily purports that prehistoric humans were universally acquainted with this sort of meanings and/or feelings. Wow.
And so it goes on, one preposterous pronouncement after another, with no supporting evidence whatsoever. The book has no bibliography or index. So much for the history part, then. The few books/papers cited are overwhelmingly religious in their preoccupation. And nowhere does the author say that she might be wrong, or that different points of view exist and may be at least as valid. Nowhere does she say that this or that author or researcher thinks differently. Or that divergent interpretations, especially for such hazy topics like myths, might also merit consideration. Furthermore, as the excellent 2-star review here notes, Armstrong's knowledge of at least some of the myths she talks about is wholly unsatisfactory.
By the end, Armstrong completely loses the plot. From bad history, she moves to full-on bad interpretations. So desperate is she to persuade us that without religion the entire human civilization is sure to fail, that she concocts the most incoherent list of examples ever, just because they can conveniently be forced into connections with one form or another of religion or mythology. Thus in the last chapter we are served a bizarre mix of disparate examples such as of Picasso's 'Guernica', Thomas Mann's 'Magic Mountain', Elvis, Princess Diana, and a poem by T.S. Elliot, almost in the same breath, as proof, according to Armstrong, that everything, and everyone worth mentioning in the world, is religious or religion-related. Oh dear.
Of course, throughout the book atheist thinkers, artists, and fiction writers do not get a single look in. So for this author, no work of philosophy, fiction or art has merit unless it is overtly religious or if it can be interpreted as such. I should have researched Armstrong before I bought her book. Knowing what else she has written and that she was (still is?) a Catholic nun would have told me everything I needed to know.
Now, if you are a religious person -- only of the Western Christian persuasion, mind -- then this book will probably be your thing, and then some. If, however, you were fooled by the title and the good reviews, and hoped for a balanced, erudite argument presenting all sides with fairness and an open mind, and if you thought you'd get an informative and thought-provoking book and learn something useful . . . then you will be sorely disappointed.
I will end with another utterly bamboozling quote. On pages 134-135 the author reckons that we've actually regressed since prehistory because we lost our capacity to imagine and believe in myths, but we still crave that kind of spirituality, so 'We try to enter this dimension by means of art, rock music, drugs, .... film'. It isn't the only time in this awful book when Armstrong equates art with drugs. I rest my case.
PS - If you are looking for serious books on the subject, written by real scholars, I warmly recommend anything by the superb Stephanie Dalley.