Mrs. Debra Ronca received an MA in history from Villanova University in 2008. She is currently looking for a teaching position.
Did you ever have what you thought was a new idea—only to discover someone had beaten you to it? Many types of ideas, it turns out, have already been thought of. For example, in science, the atom was first proposed by Indian and Greek philosophers long before chemists provided a physical basis for it. In pop culture, many attribute MTV’s The Real World with birthing the reality TV genre. However, the concept had actually existed in some form since the 1940s.
Today secular naturalism seems like a relatively new worldview, but it has roots in antiquity. Naturalism stems from a worldview of continuity, that is the perspective that the physical world is all that exists and that the laws of nature never change. In his book The Bible among the Myths, Dr. John Oswalt suggests the ancient mythological worldview developed through the worldview of continuity. According to the mythological continuity worldview, there is no distinction between the divine (gods), nature, and humanity; all three share the same essence. In addition, the same forces (or gods) as part of the natural order always operate in the same way (in some cases, cyclically).1
In contrast, the biblical worldview is one of transcendence, which includes unique historical events that occur in linear time. And as science indicates, the universe had a beginning that may have originated from outside the universe. With Oswalt’s definition of mythology in mind, I will compare it to today’s secular naturalism. Comparing the two will show that some ideas never really change and that the biblical worldview of transcendence has always been in opposition to the worldview of continuity and ancient myth.
A Definition of Mythology
Myths are meant to explain the world as it is and to keep it in that order so it does not revert to chaos. Creation myths, in particular, commonly describe a conflict between the forces of construction and chaos. These myths include a low view of humans, who were, in some cases, said to have been created as slaves for the gods. Myths do not share a single ethical standard. Ethics in the ancient Near East (such as the Code of Hammurabi) are not connected to religion. The polytheism common in most myths implies a lack of objective truth and absolute moral standards.
Additionally, myths represent a cyclical existence without progress. (For example, the Greek myth of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, was used to explain the seasons and illustrate the principle of knowledge, where myths’ authors extrapolate experience to ultimate reality.2) Thus, continuity of the established order formed the worldview behind these myths.3
Continuity Worldview Today
Oswalt lists ten consequences of modern continuity thinking similar to those resulting from mythology. They include the loss of internal ethical standards, the loss of objective truth, the meaninglessness of “right” and “wrong,” an upsurge in the use of “black magic,” defense of sexual promiscuity, and the devaluing of individuals. Yet, even stronger parallels exist between ancient and modern continuity thinking.4
For example, polytheism allows the worship of any or all gods. Secular naturalism, with the underlying religious worldview of atheism, equates all religions as false, again making all equivalent. Creation myths of the Middle East assume matter is eternal. In the PBS show Cosmos, Carl Sagan said, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”
In polytheistic societies, morality was not connected to religion. Similarly, in his book Rocks of Ages, late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould advocates morality based on consensus, not religion. Both ancient and modern continuity thinking reject any moral standard or objective truth. In each view, truth originates with man either as a group or individual. As Socrates says in The Last Days of Socrates (in the Euthyphro, 8b), if you have multiple gods they [people] may consider different actions to be morally correct. How, then, does one choose which moral standard is right, or does it matter at all?
Like ancient mythologies, naturalism has a low view of humanity. It says people are basically rational animals no different in kind from other species. Both the ancient and modern continuity worldviews deny human free will, either from fate (the will of the gods) or determinism, either chemical or experiential.
The Biblical Difference
In contrast to the worldview of continuity, both ancient and modern, the Bible declares that both truth and morality find an objective source in God. The biblical God transcends the universe. He, not the universe, is eternally existent. His character sharply contrasts the very humanlike behavior of mythological gods. The God of the Bible is perfect in love and justice; merciful and not capricious; omnipotent and omniscient; and trustworthy. Furthermore, Scripture promotes a high view of man and of the individual. It also recounts unique, non-repeatable events of miraculous intervention, not an endless unchanging cycle.
The worldview underlying mythology and atheism is the same. Mythology’s worldview of continuity does not stem from a “primitive” mindset that eventually progresses to monotheism nor is it the result of insufficient information.5 It results from a choice between transcendence and continuity.6 According to Oswalt, “These two views, transcendence and continuity, are in direct contradiction with each other and are mutually exclusive; neither can exist in the presence of the other.”7
For some, like Gould, choosing transcendence means losing autonomy, a choice too difficult to make.8 Gould writes, “Homo Sapiens also ranks as a ‘thing so small’ in a vast universe, a wildly improbable evolutionary event, and not the nub of universal purpose.”9 He finds this view “exhilarating” with “both freedom [from God and religion] and consequent moral responsibility.”10
But for those who want hope and meaning in their lives, the transcendent God of the biblical worldview is another reason to believe.
1. John N. Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), Kindle edition, chapter 3.
2. According to this story, nothing grows when Demeter mourns during the months Persephone lives with Hades in the underworld (fall and winter), but new vegetation and growth occur when Persephone returns to Demeter (spring and summer).
3. Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths, chapter 3.
4. Ibid., chapter 10.
5. Ibid., chapter 3.
6. Ibid., chapter 10.
9. Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages (Ballantine Books: New York, 1999), 206.
10. Ibid., 207.