Myths about religion: Tamara Sonn at TEDxCollegeofWilliam&Mary

Myths about religion: Tamara Sonn at TEDxCollegeofWilliam&Mary


Translator: Robert Tucker
Reviewer: Nart Abaza Thanks so much Kavez and Alex
and Anna and Todd and all of you who worked so hard to bring
TEDx to William & Mary, really more to bring
William & Mary to TEDx. I know you’ve worked for so long and
the program has been so good — so far! Lots of historic innovation, lots of tech, prezis, PowerPoint — None of that with me! (Laughter) It’s just myth and religion. And what could possibly be
historically innovative about myth and religion? Well, I’m glad you asked that question. Actually, we have a lot to learn
from studying myths and how they work in our lives, especially myths about religion. But before we can talk about it,
we have to know what we mean by myth. We usually think of myths
as simply false beliefs, and some myths about religion
really are just false beliefs. Like the belief that the stories
of the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an were uniquely revealed to the prophets. In fact, some of those iconic stories
have precursors in earlier texts, like the story of creation of the world
by a God who tamed the raging seas, and separated the Earth from the skies,
or Earth from the heavens. This story is told in the Book of Genesis
and in the Qur’an, but it’s also told in the Enuma Elish
of ancient Iraq, the homeland of
the biblical patriarch Abraham, and that version probably dates to at least 1,000 years earlier
than the biblical text. Or the belief that the Qur’an teaches
that Muslims will be greeted in heaven by 72 virgins. The Qur’an does describe heaven
as populated with pure and ageless partners, and refers obliquely to
the ancient tradition of psychopomps, one of my favorite words, pure souls serving as guides
for the righteous across the narrow bridge
from Earth to the heavens. But these figures are not defined
as people who have never had sex, and nowhere is the number 72 mentioned. But many scholars don’t use the term myth
to mean false belief. For them myths are stories
that may or may not be true, but that we cherish anyway
as part of our group’s story, because they tell us who our heroes are,
and they highlight our values. Like the story of George Washington —
we’ve mentioned him before — in the cherry tree. In religion, myths are stories about
things in the deep recesses of prehistory, or stories about things
in the far distant future. Stories that are beyond the realm
of science and history, and may even sound a bit fanciful
to scientists and historians, but we cherish them anyway, because they do highlight our values
and tell us about our heroes, and they help us answer the big questions, like why we happen to exist
in the first place, why life is so difficult sometimes, whom can we trust,
what might happen next. And when we hear these stories, we get a sense that we’re in touch
with a higher reality, a transcendent, and we feel a measure of assurance
that things are basically under control, and that there is a reason
for us to carry on. In that sense, in their own way, these myths are true. In that sense, as the 4th century
historian Sallustius put it, “Myths are things that never happened,
but are always true.” Very much like what Picasso
said about art, “A lie that makes us realize the truth.” And in that sense, myths
are not separate from religion; these sacred stories are part of religion. Scholars like Mircea Eliade,
Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong take this approach to myth. But other scholars caution against
such a romantic view of myth, and advocate instead a more critical
approach to matters of belief, because too many people
can’t tell the difference between this special,
or sacred kind of truth, and everyday reality. Too many people can’t tell the difference
between transcendent myth and literal truth, and that can lead
to serious problems in real life. Take that creation story, that a single mighty maker
accomplished the job in 6 days. It’s one thing to find in this story assurance that we don’t
just exist by accident, and quite another to insist
that this story is literally true, and therefore to dismiss the science
that demonstrates otherwise as an attack on a higher
and more unquestionable authority. That is, to insist on choosing
between myth and science, in such a way that science loses. A 2012 Gallup poll indicates
that 46% of Americans believe the Adam and Eve story
is literally true. And that’s up 2% since 1982, perhaps because of the increasing tendency
to teach the creation story, instead of science, and that despite
a 1987 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the teaching
of the creation myth as science. The spread of anti-science
was alarming enough in Europe that the Parliament
of the Council of Europe passed a resolution in 2007 titled:
“The Dangers of Creationism in Education.” The resolution warns that denying
the science behind the theory of evolution in favor of unquestioning belief
in our group stories can undermine the research necessary
to deal with major challenges facing humanity today, including epidemic disease
and environmental disaster. So, that’s one of the major issues
identified by scholars who caution against romanticizing myth; the danger of sacrificing
scientific reasoning even in areas when we need to use it most. There’s another danger involved in confusing sacred myth
with everyday reality though. It’s one thing to believe
that Jesus founded a church with authorities headquartered in Rome, and quite another
to justify killing people who disagree with those authorities. Within 5 years of Christianity being
declared the official religion of Rome in the 4th century, the Church executed someone
for disagreeing about how to worship. In the same century, Augustine
became an authority of that church, claiming that the commandment
forbidding killing was not broken by those who wage wars
at the command of the Church. This paved the way for Christians
to serve in the military, which until then had been considered
a violation of Jesus’ pacifist teaching, and it would ultimately legitimate wars
to expand Christian sovereignty, wars against pagans and heretics. So, this is an example of another danger
involved in valorizing uncritical belief; belief in our own stories to the extent of sacrificing those
who do not fit into them. Need more examples? If you think pagans and heretics
had it bad, what about Jews? After Christianity was politicized
in the 4th century, if you didn’t accept
Trinitarian Christianity, you were at least potentially a traitor, and at best looked upon with suspicion. In times of turmoil, war,
depression, disease, people tried to figure out
why such bad things were happening, and sometimes resorted to just finding
someone to blame. And that’s when stories
about the treachery of Jews went viral. The most common one was that Jews killed
Christian children to drink their blood because of its purity, or to make matzos! I’m not making this up. There’s the famous case
of the English child who was found dead in a well in 1255. 90 Jews were accused
of participating in torturing him, draining his blood and crucifying him
to mock Jesus. 18 were hanged, and King Henry
confiscated their property. Miracles were attributed to the child. He was called a saint and he got a shrine
in Lincoln Cathedral. It took 700 years for the Anglican Church to disavow this story
of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln. And this kind of slander wasn’t limited
to just the ignorant masses. In 1534, Martin Luther wrote a book
titled, “The Jews and their Lies.” In it he said that Jews were nothing
but thieves and robbers who wear and eat only
what they have stolen from us through their accursed usury. They suck the marrow from our bones. “What shall we Christians do
with this rejected and condemned people?” he asked. He suggested burning their synagogues,
schools and houses, forbidding rabbis to teach
on pain of death, and confining Jews to their homes. This, Luther said, is to be done in honor of our Lord and Christendom, so that God might see
that we’re Christians. You see the Jews
didn’t fit into the story. It’s not very difficult to see
a connection between such teaching by one of the founders
of the Protestant Reformation and the horrors of the Holocaust
some 400 years later. A connection that’s been acknowledged by
Lutheran groups in apologies since 1994, and by the Roman Catholic Church
since 1998. Again these two issues, rejecting science and demonizing those
who aren’t a part of our stories, call uncritical belief into question. This does not mean that
there’s no room in our lives for the myths that enrich us, that give shape to the shapeless
mysteries of existence, and that motivate noble behavior
even in our darkest days. But it does point to the importance
of understanding myths, so that we can appreciate
when its unique sacred realm, the realm of life-sustaining paradigms, when the boundaries of that sacred realm
have been breached, and its stories perverted. Some of you may have been watching
the dramatizations of biblical stories that have been showing on TV
for the past couple of weeks as people prepare for Passover and Easter. It’s pretty terrifying stuff. Death and disaster everywhere, confiscation of property
by divine command. What can happen when
people take those stories out of the sacred plane and use them
for political programs? Here’s an example. In 1630, the governor of
Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, declared that God had called
upon the English settlers to build a model Bible Commonwealth. “If we are faithful to our mission,”
Winthrop wrote, “we shall find that the God of Israel
is among us, when tens of us will be able to resist
a thousand of our enemies, we shall be as a city upon the hill,
the eyes of all people upon us.” That biblical allusion became
a powerful motivator for colonial expansion, or exploration
as it’s euphemistically called. In 1845, an article
in The Democratic Review called for Americans to take
more land on this continent, saying that it would be the fulfillment
of our manifest destiny. A destiny that had been allotted
by providence for the free development
of our multiplying millions. How many native Americans
lost life and property in confrontations with zealous
European settlers? Enough for US Congress to pass
a resolution of apology to native peoples, acknowledging “The years
of official depredations, ill-conceived policies,
the breaking of covenants, violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on American Indians
by US citizens.” But that wasn’t until May 2010,
after the damage had been done. The Chief of the Cherokee Nation,
Chad Smith, spoke at the ceremony marking
the congressional apology. He said that apologies
for atrocities are difficult, the past obviously can’t be changed, but we can learn from it. The real question, Chad said, is:
What happens from this day forward? So, what can this study of myths
and religion tell us today? That our sacred stories can be sources
of inspiration and consolation even if they’re not
empirically verifiable, but also that we have to be careful
how our stories are used. Are we responsible for
how other people use our beliefs? And how do we even know if our stories,
if some of our beliefs, are impacting other people
in negative ways? These are the questions raised
by the study of myth and religion. And I have the audacity to hope that asking them could change
the way we look at belief. As President Obama said last week when he visited Yad Vashem
Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, “We see the barbarism that unfolds, when we see other human beings
as less than us.” “We have the choice to ignore
what happens to others,” he said, “but knowing what can happen when we do, it is our obligation to act.” “For us in our time,” the president said, “this means confronting bigotry
and hatred in all of its forms.” The courage to do that, I believe,
can also be found in our sacred stories. Thank you (Applause)

57 Replies to “Myths about religion: Tamara Sonn at TEDxCollegeofWilliam&Mary”

  1. The Jewish reconciliation between science and religion re creationism has been discussed by thinkers such as the physicist Nathan Aviezer.

  2. As always, great words of wisdom from Tamara. In a world in which "creativity" is declining, perhaps fewer people have that "courage" to explore/experience/create the transcendent.

  3. it was ok until the end when she exposed her tell by saying 'The courage to do that is also found in our sacred stories' Sorry no, playing pretend is always an invitation to gullibility. That is silly claptrap and designed to make 'enlightented' religious people believe that somehow their nonsense is different from everyone else's nonsense.

  4. Her talk is strong on "religion past" and a bit weak on "religion contemporary or future", but it highlights the importance of taking a mature and rational or post-rational viewpoint in the contemporary world, and can be helpful in remembering the mistakes of past leaders so as not to repeat them as well as honouring the pioneers of contemporary wisdom such as Joseph Campbell. I would add to the list Swami Vivekananda, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, George Leonard (of Esalen Institute), Huston Smith, Ken Wilber, Deepak Chopra and Marianne Williamson– just to name a few that have brought many socially-engaged updates to our understanding of religion and spirituality.  At the same time science and our understanding of the natural world has not been stagnant either, and religion and science have been like the two strands of the DNA spiralling up towards greater realisations in the (at least) 3 major, irreducible aspects of reality; beauty, goodness and truth in the individual, the collective(s) and the natural world (cosmos). God bless Dr. Sonn and may all beings find their path(s) to fulfilment, purpose and lasting happiness.

  5. What Sonn is actually doing is inventing her own secular religion. Through this lens, this metric, she assesses all spiritual religions. She sets the standard for Truth through science, whereas the spiritual set the standard by revelation.

    Ultimately what Sonn is doing (and she's not alone, there are plenty of other modern westerners doing this) is she is picking and choosing what she likes from spiritual religions. But the authority that dictates which parts she picks is her own secular religion, her own faith in herself.

    This is the darkening of the West. This is the calamity brought on by the so-called "Enlightenment." Everyone is a self-righteous, Scientistic, pope.

    This faith in the self is a type of Antichrist. It is a deadening of spirituality, the rejection of Truth in favor of temporary feelings, and the submission of the soul to human passions.

  6. my nephews don't go to public schools in their own town. The public school in Merino Colorado(k-12 in one building) "teaches only the basic legal theories but glorifies the lord(of my sister). this makes me sad.

  7. Some myths are clearly ridiculous but many have deep scientific meaning and were told as myths so the science could be handed down until we were once again able to understand the science. That time is now. Please watch my videos on Rain and Earthquakes. The reason I made them is to help people. I don't make any money from them.

  8. there are a lot of anti Christian speakers and documentaries and those who are anti Christian like the Muslims, atheists and Jews they will support it

  9. religion is simply another man's belief. Faith is something else and scientists have faith in their own work. Spirituality could be a belief in God without the religious dogma. Awareness, thought, is a true path to understanding, and enlightenment is highly overrated. Just my humble opinion.

  10. I find the lack of imagination in religion one of the main problems. It keeps us locked in the past. And worst of all, by historical accident we've had the most ignorant and bleak desert-religion spread across most of the world. These desert myths have caused so much damage.

  11. Wait? How are the religious myths ever a good thing? She didn't give any examples of that – only of the negatives… perhaps stories told to unite tribes of desert mercenaries aren't really helping modern humans as much as it seems…

  12. good content..religion is good for uniting people with common belief systems, but it should be flexible enough to accept and accommodate other belief systems else it leads to a straight dead end and chaos…exclusivness spoils the whole concept of God and makes to look down on others, create pure/impure, true/false belief concept..
    just live and let live, we just have to respect other humans as humans..

  13. religions have made no real progress in thousands of years. it had a purpose when we could not figure how nature and natural systems worked… now that we can figure things out … slowly or quickly the purpose of religion is being eroded by scientific progress. the explanations of how and why that religious myth use to explain the universe are falling by the way side. they only place that god now exists is in the mind of people and this is through the use of mri images of the brain under many conditions having its mystery stripped away.

  14. I agree mostly with what Ms. Tamara Sonn presents, but I take issue with the inherent limitation of her presentation when she ignores all mention of the preeminent scientific psychologist of the 20th century who studied myth and religion: Carl G. Jung.  Ms. Sonn mentions scholars “like Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, and Karen Armstrong” but she limits their views to sociological contexts and leaves out entirely the primary psychological dimension. As Campbell said, “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” How can we discuss the public dreams without studying the source of dreams as a function of the psyche? That she gives a talk about myth and religion without mentioning the mind, psyche, or how consciousness arises or functions is inexcusable, except from a materialist perspective.   It is of paramount importance to point out as she does that in our culture “we usually think of myth as simply false beliefs.”  And with a nuance that probably goes over most heads, she points out that some myths “about” religions are in fact such false beliefs, and she gives examples. However, those false beliefs about some myths are not the same as the myths themselves, and here she says something good but way too limited. She says myths are stories that go “beyond the realm of science and history, and may even sound a bit fanciful to scientists and historians. but we cherish them anyway, because they do highlight our values and tell us about our heroes, and they help us answer the big questions, like why we happen to exist in the first place, why life is so difficult sometimes, who can we trust, what might happen next.” But more than that, myths use the imagination of poetry to tell us the story of how our own mind functions and how consciousness is even possible.  The primary function of myth is psychological for both the individual and the group that the individual lives within.  When Sallustius says, “Myths are things that never happened but are always true.” and Picasso says myths are “A lie that makes us realize the truth.” they are both using symbolic language not literal language.  Thus Sallustius’ “things that never happened” is itself a “lie” because the truth of myth is that it describing the very events of conscious awareness and the living psyche that is happening in every moment of our lives. Picasso’s “lie” is a poetic license too, because the truth of myth is only a “lie” if the symbol and poetry are overlooked.  Picasso could just have accurately and truthfully said art is “A truth that makes us realize the truth.”  But by using the word “lie” Picasso adds the dimension of myth to the declaration which establishes the realm of the psyche that he is speaking of.Addressing the question of “What can happen with people take those stories out of their sacred plane and use them for political programs?“  Ms. Sonn then gives a few pointed historical examples of how myths, as our sacred stories, have been abused for the purposes of killing in the name of authority, and of deluding ourselves to our own detriment of health and welfare.  We endanger ourselves and others by our ignorance about the distinction between mythic language and literal language about objects.  Exposing this kind of abuse and how we succumb to abusive behaviors around myths (e.g., being consumed by the archetype) was what the lifework of Jung was about.  This is essential knowledge for every citizen of a democracy.   However, Ms. Sonn ends with her conclusion that “our sacred stories can be sources of inspiration and consolation even if they are not empirically verifiable, but also that we have to be careful how our stories are used.”  But when study the empirical psychology of Carl Jung, we learn that myths are empirically verifiable.  This was also the conclusion of Joseph Campbell and was the driving force of his many studies of human myth.  When Campbell said,  “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.” he was pointing the way to the empirically verifiable truth of myth.
    Ms. Sonn asks two questions:  “Are we responsible for how other people use our beliefs?  And how do we even know if our stories, if some of our beliefs, are impacting other people in negative ways?”  I find her closing to be very unsatisfying when she presents a concluding quote from President Obama without applying those very questions to his quote. Here’s the wrap up:
    "As President Obama said last week when he visited the Yad Yashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, “We see the barbarism that unfolds, when we see other human beings as less than us. We have the choice to ignore what happens to others,” he said, “but knowing what can happen when we do, it is our obligation to act.”  “For us in our time,” the president said, “this means confronting bigotry and hatred in all of its forms.”
    "The courage to do that, I believe, can also be found in our sacred stories."  
    However, Ms. Soon apparently lacks the courage of her study of myth to confront the hypocrisy of the President’s quote. If we are to confront the meaning of the Holocaust Museum as myth, then we must confront the barbarism that is unfolding today in Jerusalem, and not ignore what is happening to the Palestinians who are being treated as less than human, because the Israeli settlements and apartheid, within both Israel and the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, are examples of bigotry and hatred in a very definite form. The study of myth as the life of our own mind and psychology will give us the courage to speak truth to power, even if it is a hypocritical president weilding that power.

  15. Her expertise is in Islamic studies, yet she spent the bulk of her talk about how dangerous Christianity is. Why is that?

  16. I always find it interesting that these types of presentations have to reach back into the shades of a 2,000 years of history or more, when the myths of atheist barbarism are available in under a century. Since humanism has been defined as a religion by the U.S. Supreme Court, why not talk about the brutality of atheist myths? They've done far worse in the last century than two millenia of Christianity. I also find it a bit gratuitous that she accepts the earliest date for the Enuma Elish and the latest date for the books of Moses (a.k.a., the first 5 books of the Bible), when there's a whole mountain of evidence for the exact opposite.

  17. I think that she has the logic backwards. I think that economics, technology and human will is what creates and drives religious doctrine. She seems to think that religious doctrine is blindly followed in a vacuum. Why do Christians eat pork when the bible states that it is bad… economics.
    Religious leaders understand what will make their religion popular and politically powerful. They modify their message accordingly.

  18. I like TEDx Talks that are informative. This is persuasive speech cloaked in informative speech. She attacks The Sacred Scriptures with her words, not realizing that the same arguments she uses to undermine God's word in the Bible also undermine hers. If the Bible is a collection of Myths, what keeps her own words from being characterized as myths as well? What makes her words more valid than God's words? She wastes her time bringing forth arguments to support a self-defeating declaration.

  19. How is this supposed educated woman surprised that you would find the earlier writings of the Bible story in ancient Iraq (exactly where the Bible and the old testament tell you these truths came from)

    Its akin to being surprised that trees come from seeds. Its like saying see, these trees can be real, they came from seeds of another tree.

    How does an educated person not readily and easily make such an obvious correlation.She even said that it was the land of Abraham. She is proving the story of the Bible and then calling it false. Its sad to know that so many people are so blind as to not see this uber obvious intellectual sleight of hand.

  20. The question becomes, for me, "Is how do you "fight" bigotry and hatred"?. It was very easy for the Professor, in her Ivory Tower, to address a point of contention.

  21. Thestory we're living is our purpose. Technology has pinpointed our reason for Being. As the wise Buddha esoterically stated "Be with The One". Technology allows The One to be broadcast around the globe for all to Be with. Groovism is the belief that all humans have practiced since the beginning of time!! As One we will cause miracles to begin occurring!!

  22. Sería necesario una verdad suprema fruto de un amor incondicional,de Dios. Todos pensamos muchas y distintas cosas,pero quién tiene la verdad?,lo digo con el máximo respeto.Saludos.

  23. "Confronting bigotry and hatred in all its forms." Who can imagine Trump saying that? How can have let the despoilers of sacred stories run the place?

  24. I don't know why people categorize Catholic Church as christian religion, IT'S NOT. They are the ones who we as Protestants were against. They committed those atrocities in the name of religion and they should be ashamed of themselves as Obama should be bringing ancient history that had nothing to do with Christianity. When people rely on those"facts" they are just showing their ignorance about religion history.
    Anybody can just go into a mall and start killing people and shouting the name of Jesus. And that doesn't mean that they are Christians. People should educate themselves when talking about these topics. It just pisses me off.

  25. I keep come back to ted talks because i see an interesting subject. I keep for getting it is just academic opinion>

  26. Im a student of this stuff with a doctorate and ive never heard of her. I note the penchant for superficiality. Otto snd Jung wouldnt go in for this and as it is Religiongeschichte Schule is intellectually dead.

  27. Isn't it truly amazing that masses of people will voluntarily choose to believe unprovable stories mearlily because they are unprovable and undeniable because they are a hypothesis. Bigfoot, aliens, loch ness monster. ghosts, Holy and unholy. And even after Jonestown. Those same masses carry on as if it didn't happen and brush it under the rug so they can continue .

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