Must We Have Myths To Be Happy? by Mack Tanner


Originally posted on the now-defunct Build Freedom site, this noteworthy piece by one Mack Tanner fell beyond the reach of even the Wayback Machine. Fortunately, I had a printout lying around from way back when, and with a scan here, a conversion there, a bit of help from an online OCR reader after that, and a few paragraphs of typing to cover whatever ground all that failed to, it now has a new home, here at MRDA’s Inferno; happy reading, reprobates!

Must We Have Myths To Be Happy?

By Mack Tanner

Can human beings live happy, contented lives only if they are sustained by religious beliefs? Is reality so depressing that the human intellect can’t function unless it hides itself in mythical structures of paranormal gods, magical controls over nature, or imagined beliefs about human nature? Do myths play an important, perhaps a critical role in achieving a happy, contented personal life? Because myths are such an important part of all historical cultures, must we conclude they may be necessary for successful human survival?

I use the term myth to describe any belief that effects human existence, behavior, or history that can not be demonstrated by empirical evidence. A myth is not necessarily a false belief, it’s a belief that can’t be falsified using the scientific method.

While we generally think in terms of the paranormal when we talk about myths, myths don’t have to be based on the paranormal beliefs to be considered myths. The belief in the superiority of the white race, the inevitable success of communism, or faith in the goodness of democratic government are myths just as much as is a belief in the psychic power of crystals.

Every single human culture is designed around a complicated network of myths that have developed over the eons through an evolutionary process in which the myths often seem to take on a life of their own, much like genes. Cultural myths control human personal behavior in a myriad different ways ranging from toilet and feeding habits to civic duties. It would be an extraordinarily rare event for any child to grow up without collecting a set of mythical beliefs which he or she will accept throughout his or her lifetime as eternal truths.

Even those who renounce paranormal beliefs in gods, souls, and eternal life, often still continue to believe in a collection of cultural and secular myths. They regularly use such non-paranormal myths as basic assumptions in determining what kind of behavior is most likely to produce a happy, well adjusted person and society.

These secular myths include such concepts as natural rights, social justice, equality, altruism, the common good, democratic government, the brotherhood of human kind, and the moral requirement that humans respect the rights, property, and lives of others.

Such secular myths don’t just serve a feel-good purpose but they can have a profound impact on the life of the believer. For example, a young man or woman may decide to go into teaching or join the Peace Corps, a mythical good, rather than accept a lucrative job in business, a selfish, and therefore mythically bad, choice. These secular myths play an important role in a person’s definition of him or herself and his or her position in society.

What we call moral imperatives must either be rules imposed on humanity by some supernatural being or they are nothing but human artifacts. No empirical evidence can be found in nature that provides a justification for why any individual must follow any moral rule. God doesn’t punish the murderer, the thief, the rapist, nor the liar in this life, and neither does nature. We can easily demonstrate that all animals must feed, defecate, maintain certain body temperatures, and escape predators or suffer serious personal consequences. We can not demonstrate that any individual animal, even a human animal, will suffer inevitable serious consequences if it kills and eats its siblings, or steals food from other members of its species.

If our fundamental secular beliefs and values cannot be justified on a rational, scientific bases, then they are mythical beliefs, and all value systems and ideologies which are based on such values and beliefs must be considered mythical systems.

Does the recognition that our fundamental beliefs can not be empirically justified mark the end of reason, or is this where the journey into a world of rational thought must really begin? Does the person who examines and questions the validity of the very basis of his or her moral personality risk stepping off into a chasm of hopeless despair and nihilism, or does that thought process offer a possibility of greater understanding of oneself and one’s relation with humanity as well as the opportunity to achieve true intellectual freedom and maximum mental health?

The plain fact is that the scientific examination of human existence strips away every claim for a special status of humanity that would put us above the rest of nature. We discover that we are just one more animal and every human attribute is nothing but the sum total of a chaotic, purposeless evolution. There is no scientific proof of god, no evidence of special meaning for human existence, no set of eternal moral and ethical values, nothing in nature that can be described as good nor as evil.

Most humans find this a frightening conclusion, so frightening it’s been given a dirty name, nihilism. Having made the inevitable result of a scientific, rational examination of the human condition an obscenity, the conclusion is dismissed as something too dangerous to even consider, and even the philosophers retreat back into the last level of myths. If they are honest enough to admit they are doing so, they justify the retreat with claims that civilization couldn’t survive without belief systems where words like justice, rights, fairness, ethics, morals, good and evil are concepts that require no scientific justification.

With the exception of a few tough-minded philosophers, philosophy since the enlightenment, and especially since Darwin, has cut itself loose from any serious claim to adherence to scientific empiricism, especially when attempting to address the issues of moral behavior. Some philosophers who do dare to recognized the inevitable nihilistic truths of existence, still choose to avoid examining such truths by claiming that the human mind is incapable of dealing with them.

One such author, John F. Schumaker, in his book Wings of Illusion, proposes that paranormal myths are an evolutionary solution the allows human beings to copewith life by avoiding the dismal reality of our own inevitable death and the lack of a transcendental meaning in our lives. Schumaker argues that reality is so distressing that the human propensity for paranormal beliefs is a form of evolved insanity that allows humans to ignore the dismal truths while getting on with the business of living and propagating.

Adopting an intellectual elitism, Schumaker admits the truth of the nihilistic conclusions and seems to have no trouble with his own sanity as a result, but then suggests that the vast majority of humanity is incapable of surviving the same shock of understanding.

Schumaker doesn’t just argue that humans must have myths to survive, he argues that the myths which best serve humanity are paranormal myths. He offers statistical evidence suggesting that people with strong paranormal religious beliefs experience better mental health than those who have no paranormal beliefs. He concludes that most humans can not live mentally healthy lives without their paranormal myths and that although we have reached a stage of technical development in which myths may threaten the very survival of the species, there is little hope that humankind will give up their myths.

Schumaker’s conclusions can be challenged on both his basic assumption and at the strength of his empirical research. His basic assumption that the human mind evolved its myth making ability as a defense against the horrors of rationality is pure conjecture. Schumaker ascribes to evolution a purposefulness that doesn’t exist in nature. Evolution is a chaotic process with no purpose nor plan, nor is there an inevitable specific result for any species. While survival of the fittest is the primary control, it is by no means certain that every attribute of a species was necessary nor critical for survival. For example the ability to create and appreciate art, literature, and music may be nothing but a pleasure freebie we collected as a part of the evolutionary development of a conscious, rational mind.

A simpler explanation than the reality-is-too-horrible-to-contemplate theory might be that myths result from an instinctual need for the human mind to explain the world around us and to gain control over it. The myth-creating ability would have allowed primitive humans to explain things they couldn’t understand, like why the sun comes up every morning, so that they could concentrate on more practical matters, like when the elk herds migrate through the territory and what time of the year the family should plant the corn.

Another alternative, or complementary, explanation of myth making might be that human societies evolved mythologies as effective tools for organizing and controlling the members of a culture and instructing the children in the working traditions of the culture. The proposal that myths were utilized as a form of societal control—the original boogie man—does as much to explain the universality of myths as Schumaker’s argument that humans had to go insane to survive the reality of existence. This theory suggests that myths and the needs for myths are cultural memes, not gene-based instincts.

Myth explanation theories based on a human need to explain and understand nature, or as tools for cultural control, or as a combination of the two needs, would also suggests that it might be much easier for humans to break out of the straight jacket of myth-believing than it would be if myth-believing is instinctual insanity.

Schumaker used a very small number of self-professed atheists in his comparison of the mental health of atheists versus religious believers. The criteria of separation was belief in the paranormal myths, not belief in myths in general. No effort was made to identify as a separate group those who had not just rejected a belief in the paranormal, but who had also rejected popular secular mythologies about human behavior.

If all that Schumaker has done is compare the level of happiness of those who believe in religious myths versus those who believe in non-religious secular myths, he has only established that some kinds of myths have greater utility for mental health than other kinds myths. He hasn’t addressed the possibility of whether or not the person who rejects both paranormal and secular myths is better off for the experience.

Most Christians are probably much happier these days than the atheistic, communist true believer and for good reason, the communist myths have failed on a grand scale. Schumaker himself concludes that the best myths are those that cannot be falsified. He makes that suggestion in comparing the old time religions with modern paganisms and new-age beliefs, but his arguments apply equally well to secular myths. One can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but it’s easy to empirically demonstrate with recent historical evidence that socialism is not the best, nor the inevitable economic system for a human society.

A good argument can be made that it makes no sense to trade the old time religion for a half-way house of secular myths that make promises for this life that are not delivered. One may be better advised to either stick with the proven mythologies or go all the way to myth-free thinking.

While many secular humanists who reject paranormal beliefs correctly argue that religious beliefs have been directly responsible for much of the human misery and blood shed through history, they are seldom willing to examine and recognize the damage and havoc wrought by the secular mythologies and ideologies that they espouse.

The twentieth century stands out as the single bloodiest century in human history in terms of the massive numbers of people who have been killed, maimed, imprisoned, or starved as a direct result of deliberate human action. With only minor exceptions, all of this Twentieth Century misery resulted from attempts to forge societies that would guarantee a collection of secular ideological goals such as social justice, the common good, and economic equality.

As Jean-Francois Revel points out in his book The Flight from Truth: The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information , secular intellectuals passionately defend their liberal, socialists, and Marxist myths despite the overwhelming evidence of the horrendous practical results of such secular mythologies. Revel outlines in considerable detail the way in which intellectuals selectively scorn and ignore historical evidence, always insisting that the ideologies would work if only a few new wrinkles were tried. Such intellectuals demonstrate a cognitive dissonance in defending their mythically based secular ideologies that follows the same irrational thought process of any true believer in the paranormal religions.

These same tendencies continues in America today. While the experience of more than eighty years of attempts at social engineering through the democratic process provides a solid empirical base of evidence of failure, proponents of such things as public education, government welfare systems, and central economic planning continue to refuse to recognize the repeated failures of such ideologies.

This is not to argue that we may not eventually design a human social system that works better than the chaotic system inherited from our ancestors. But we will achieve that future utopia only if we are willing to describe human behavior on a scientific basis that includes the empirical examination of our most basic beliefs and values to determine if they do indeed reflect real human behavior or if they are myths that should be discarded or ignored.

Must the recognition of the nihilistic reality that we are nothing but one more speck of meaningless dust in the universe lead inevitably to self destruction either as an individual or as a whole species?

The popular image of the nihilist is one in which the individual eventually turns to crime or to despair and suicide.

Yet, we all throw out a few myths along the way. No adult claiming to be mentally healthy believes in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, no matter how fervent their belief may have been as a six year old child. Skeptics, agnostics, and atheists often have abandoned beliefs they may have once held in a personal god who cares, life after death, faith-healing, astrology, fortune telling, and the evil of sex outside of marriage, even though they may have been raised by parents who were totally committed to such beliefs.

Those of us who had taken the intellectual journey out of a strong religious belief system (I was once a Mormon missionary), know well how painful the process can be, both in terms of the loss of a psychological anchor, and the sad, often angry, reaction of friends, family, and loved ones who are convinced that we have given up something precious and desirable and that we are lesser, perhaps even evil, creatures for having done so.

Yet, it’s a one-way trip. For those of us who abandoned religion through a scientific thought process, there is no way we could ever go back to belief in abandoned myths.

I find my personal life better and happier for the experience of losing my religious faith. Old friends and family still mired in the beliefs of Mormonism may think they live a happier, more contented life than I do, but my experience has been that I live much happier because the old myths no longer prevent me from doing what I want to do to achieve a happy, contented status. The important question is not, what makes other people happy, but what makes me happy.

Is it enough to simply reject the myths about supernatural beings, or must the rational mind examine all the myths that make up “our fundamental beliefs”? More important, perhaps, do we have any choice, once we have started the journey, other than taking the process to wherever it might lead?

Myths are like placebos. They sometimes work, but only until we learn what they really are. More important, placebos can be extremely dangerous when taken in place of medicine that might cure the illness.

Those of us who have taken the intellectual exploration of human existence to its final, nihilistic conclusion find that the claim that the rejection of all myths is so terrible it can’t be tolerated by the human mind is one more myth that can not be demonstrated by empirical evidence.

Strip away all the myths, and the human mind is still driven by instincts and learning to survive and to engage in pleasurable activities. We are all a chaotic combination of instinctual drives, culturally acquired learned instructions, and individual experiences. The human being is a social animal and our best chances for not just survival but personal contentment and happiness are most effectively enhanced by cooperating with others. Even the most rational of human beings must be constantly evaluating how one can best enlist others in cooperative efforts that will achieve the chosen goals of each individual.

We discover through the continuing experiment of daily living that abiding by the so-called common decencies usually does pay of in terms of our own selfish interests. The large majority of the cultural rules can be explained by examining their potential to contribute to individual survival and self-fulfillment. Many of the cultural myths and moral beliefs reflect what is very probably gene-driven instinct. Other moral myths represent a cultural memory of behaviour rules that help grease the cooperative social effort and teach the young the common rules of behaviour. They may be mythical values, but they work in encouraging cooperative behaviour.

The fact that a rational, empirical examination of the human condition leads to the inevitable conclusion that all our beliefs and basic values are based in myth does not require that we abandon all such rules as guidelines for personal behavior. It does allow us the freedom to examine each rule and to determine whether or not any single social or cultural rule actually contributes to our own personal happiness, well being, and immediate survival, and to discard those which don’t.

If we examine the evidence of results, we find that abiding by the common decencies works very well for us as long as we live in a cultural setting in which there is a general consensus that all will comply with the same decencies. The difficulties occur when we must deal with other cultures which observe a different set of common decencies, or when we deal with individuals who have opted in their own selfish interest to ignore the rules, or to use the rules to manipulate us and maximize their advantage at the expense of ours.

In the complex world in which we live, the latter conditions have become the norm rather than the exception. As a result, rational, mythless individuals must be constantly re-examining their personal set of social responses in order to insure that they achieve their own expectations of a cooperative social effort. The person who is able to make decision’s on the basis of the reality of the situation has a considerable advantage over the individual who must also measure his/her actions against some mythical code of behavior that restricts his/her options. The one-eyed man may be king in the kingdom of the blind, but in the kingdom of the morally honest and altruistic, it’s the selfish liar who ends up with all the wealth and power.

The only way to judge the value of any human artifact is by judging its utility as demonstrated by the evidence of results. But while most secular humanists will readily admit that situational ethics are the only choice for the rational human being, they do not take the next step, addressing in a rational, scientific examination the basic question, the utility of whom?

The philosophical utilitarians always assume that the best behavior must be the behavior that serves the utility of the common good. But there is no empirical evidence that the common good has any value in nature that is greater than, or even equal to, the selfish good. The idea of the common good is another myth, another human artifact. As Richard Dawkins points out in The Selfish Gene, natural evolution is based on individual survival of the fittest, not species survival.

The unresolvable difficulty in choosing between a selfish good and a common good is the question of how one determines what constitutes a common good. Common-good utilitarians tend to ignore this question, and with good reason. In any complicated human cultural situation, it is impossible to determine the common good because so many different conflicts exist between individuals.

Most discussions about common good moral dilemmas revolve around the question of who must sacrifice him or herself for the common good. This is a contradiction in terms. If the common good means the good of all, then it can’t be in the common good if one person must sacrifice an advantage while others benefit from that sacrifice. The lumberman wants logs, the ecologists spotted owl habitat; some want legal abortion financed by public funds, others want to make all abortions illegal; the fundamentalist Christian wants prayer and creationism taught in public schools, the secular humanists science and evolution. These are irreconcilable differences that can not be settled by reason and logic. There is no common ground, no common good, because each side uses a different set of basic assumptions in describing what is good and bad. The only way to finally settle such conflicts is by combat at the ballot box, in the courts, on the streets, or by bargained separation. The end result too often is that the winning side will take advantage of the losing side through force of numbers or strength of arms.

A scientific examination of human behavior demonstrates that human beings always act selfishly, not altruistically. They may claim to act in the common good, but they always describe the common good so that it insures the satisfaction of their own selfish desire.

The same thing also happens when humans claim to be acting in any morally correct manner. Humans have not only developed moral myths, they have developed an uncanny ability of self justification that allows every human to personally convince him or herself that he or she is acting in accordance with their personal moral principles and the common good of all.

Just as the rejection of myth in favor of the scientific method leads to the inevitable conclusion that humans have no special meaning nor purpose, so too must a rational examination of situational ethics lead to the conclusion that the only sound way to judge the value of a given cultural rule is by judging the impact the rule has on one’s own individual survival, happiness, and general contentment.

This is what all people do all the time. No one ever makes any decision regarding relations with anyone else for anything but a selfish reason. Even when someone lays down his life for a friend or an ideology, he or she either initiates the action with the expectation that he will survive to reap the hero’s reward or he does so in expectation of a heavenly reward or a hero’s grave. Give a person enough time to think about it, and he or she won’t do it at all.

Like the recognition of the nihilistic conclusions of existence does not necessarily lead to a state of permanent mental despair, neither does the recognition that all acts are selfish and all claims of selfless behaviour are nothing but self-justifications lead to social breakdown. instead, the recognition of the basic selfish nature of all human beings is the first step toward building more effective and enduring methods of cooperation. Any theory of social organisation which is built on the assumption that people will serve the common good rather than their own selfish interest is doomed to failure. The free enterprise economic system works not only because it is a morally superior system, but because it recognizes the basic selfish nature of human beings.

Human society does work. But it doesn’t work because of religious morality nor because of mythical secular values like altruism, fairness, justice, nor moral excellence. It works only because each individual can best maximise his or her own selfish desires by participating as a member of the society and culture.

Mostly, the driving selfishness that makes society works, occurs on the unconscious level. Our genes make cooperation and socialization a pleasurable activity and loneliness a misery. Our baggage of cultural learning greases the way and makes cooperation and voluntary exchange easy and pleasurable activities.

A rational human who rejects all mythologies, including the popular secular mythologies, can still recognise that it is in his or her own best interest to live and work in a functioning society in which people cooperate with each other, not for the common good, but for mutually identified selfish goals. People who give up faith in all the secular myths don’t have to give up sexual pleasure, family love, the joys of friendship, the economic rewards of cooperative effort, nor any other social pleasure of life. Such a person is seldom disappointed in what other people do, because he or she expects that other people will always act in their own perceived selfish interests.

Because one recognizes that there is no eternal moral imperative that prohibits lying, rape, theft, murder, nor slavery, one is not compelled to commit such acts. Any rational person can very quickly identify empirical evidences that suggest that such acts will not improve one’s long term chances for survival and happiness. Rational people who reject all myths cannot claim to be moral people, but they can claim to be good neighbors.

The human, rational mind has developed into the single most effective survival tool in nature because it allows a human being to overrule both instinct and learning when a changing condition makes any instinct or cultural rule an impediment to personal survival. In the modem, rapidly changing world in which we live, the rational mind becomes a critical tool for survival as we are bombarded by conflicting claims from all sides on how we should live our lives. Myths are the handles which tyrants, politicians, and intellectual ideologues use to manipulate us and enlist us in hopeless social and political causes that feed their egos and purses while stripping us of our personal wealth and happiness, and sometimes our very lives.

All myths eventually fail. The best of the paranormal myths survive because they postpone the promised payoff until after death. The secular myths all promise payoffs in this life. Inevitably we all must discover that justice seldom prevails, that altruism doesn’t always pay back dividends, that life isn’t fair nor can we make it fair, that politicians and government bureaucrats care only for their own selfish interests, that no matter how much we sacrifice for what we call the common good, those who learn to manipulate the common good to their own selfish desires will be the ones who prosper, and that government can not give us an economy that works to the advantage of all.

The myth-free individual has no expectation of such rewards. He or she knows that this is a chaotic world in which we have little control over events, and that our only chance of happiness will result through our use of our intelligence in exercising what control we can over the environment around us so that it serves our own selfish needs.

Whether the process of myth-free living makes one a happier, mentally healthier individual can only be determined by each individual. Most people are so terrified by the reality of existence, they refuse to even consider the possibility that they can live without their myths. Every secular institution from public schools to government bureaucracies do all they can to keep the terror alive because the secular institutions of social control can only survive if people believe the secular myths, just like the churches can only survive if people belief the paranormal myths.

I’ve personally met so few individuals who were consciously trying to live without myths that I can count them on the fingers of one hand. While those few all appear to be dealing better with life than the myth addicts, that’s not enough people to prove the case.

For me there is no choice. I jumped into the brink and found that the rational, scientific, hard-headed, no-nonsense, myth-free living serves me, my wife, and my children much better than all the myths we left behind.

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One Response to Must We Have Myths To Be Happy? by Mack Tanner

  1. I think the reason narratives are so persistent is a combination of factors – people tend to think in terms of intentions and actors, they simplify complex empirical favorites into heuristics, they’re too lazy or stupid to explain things to children, they are gullible and Intellectually lazy, and because some people benefit from having people buy into a week crafted fairy tale.
    I think that myths are unlikely to disappear anytime soon due to these factors but, in modern mass society at least, I do not believe there is any evidence that they’re more useful than dangerous.

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