The Difference Between Religion and Mythology

(Thanks to Anthony for the image!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    Religion is just mythology that hasn’t died yet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Hikari.Pop Crystal Jenae Hollis

    Kinda. Some modern Pagans actively worship towards the Greek and Roman Gods. 

  • Sailor

    It is not that they are dead. There are plenty of Hindus alive, and we think their gods are myth. No it is just Myth is something that only happens in someone else’s culture. Ours is for real

    • Marguerite

      I totally agree.  Religion is what I believe.  Myth is what YOU believe.

      • Liz

        Irregular noun?
        I follow a religion.
        You believe in myths.
        He/she/it thinks all sorts of crazy stuff is true.

  • http://twitter.com/TPRyan007 TPRyan

    Mythology is interesting, while (current) religion is depressing thanks to its inherently stilting influence!

  • Dave

    I don’t remember where I read it, and I can’t take credit for it but “The difference between superstition and religion? Religion starts wars.”

    • Adam

      Superstition starts bad television (Ghost Hunters).

      • http://twitter.com/FelyxLeiter Emily Joyce

        And badass Stevie Wonder songs!

  • http://heartfout.typepad.com/blog/ Heartfout

    I know someone who worships the Greek Gods…(Aphrodite in particular, I think)

  • http://thegodlessmonster.com/ The Godless Monster

    I’m inclined to think that mythology is what the “others” believe in.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000892067766 Anne Hatzakis

    Sorry, the difference between religion and mythology actually lies in the definitions of the words. Mythology is the STORIES, religion is the PRACTICES.

    I am a worshipper of the Greek Gods, and the fact that I am typing this could be considered empirical proof that SOMEONE is, in fact, existing to do the typing.

    You of course, are just as welcome to not worship the Gods I do as you are welcome to not worship the Christian God. :-)

  • http://profiles.google.com/vic.tanner Vic Tanner

    Any particular Jesus story could be considered mythology, except for the attempts at Christians to label it history. 

  • http://diaryofamessylady.wordpress.com/ Lauren

    Hahahahaha…

  • http://onefuriousllama.com/ onefuriousllama

    Damn, that picture would have worked nicely on a post I just finished.

    Also the god’s own truth (heh).

  • Anonymous

    good point

  • gobsmacked

    Those people currently living who worship the Greek gods or the Roman gods or the Norse gods or whoever do not consider those belief systems to be myths.

    But this is a fun little picture anyway.

    • dauntless

      And those people are more absurd than Christians, because there are no cultural reasons or social pressures for them to believe in those ridiculous myths.

      • http://twitter.com/aldrin_ft Aldrin

        That’s interesting. How many absurd polytheists have you spoken with to make such an adamant judgment?

      • http://ofthespiae.hellenistai.com/ Ruadhán J McElroy

        So you’re a bigot.  Hardly sounds like anything worth proclaiming. 

  • guest

    This could actually be a Christian billboard.  

  • George

    For the people who worship Greek gods — you’re just doing it ironically, right?  I mean Zeus turning into animals so he could seduce young women who I guess are into bestiality, and then somehow impregnate them as animals, yet they are able to give birth…

    I mean, I get that Christianity has just as bizarre stories.  But that just means both are preposterous. Right?? What am I missing?

    • Liz

      It’s hard to be sure at this remove, but there’s no indication that the stories about the various gods were meant to be taken as historical fact. Instead, they were a way of telling people about the nature of the gods, and in the cases of Zeus seducing women in various shapes ( a shower of gold? Really? How was THAT meant to work?) providing a suitably spectacular back story to boost the credibility of ruling families.

      Compare and contrast Chuck Norris Facts (http://www.chucknorrisfacts.com/).
      They aren’t literally true, but they do express just how badass the guy is.

      Also, the relationships between the deities in the stories express the connections between comcepts- the Muses are the daughters of Memory, since you need to be able to remember things in order to create more things. The children of Night are Dream and Sleep.

      Shifting around the Med to Egypt, god were paired up with each other in a variety of combinations in different places, but there’s no indication of any conflict over it- no “This is the one true story!!!!” rantage.

      The stories appear to have been seen as allegorys and metaphors- as was a fair chunk of the Bible until comparatively recently. And still is- many Christians don’t believe that Adam and Eve were real people, poofed into creation some 6,000 years ago- they see it as a metaphor for the development of consciousness and the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and the willingness to do ‘wrong’.
      Unfortunatly, the literalists tend to be louder…..

      • Smeefy

        Not true! There were temples built to honor the specific Gods and Goddesses in Ancient Greece and Rome (and the same is found in other cultures, Egypt, Celt, Native American, etc.) and sacrifices and the like. Socrates was executed for making statements suggesting that the gods and traditional stories based on them were symbolic. Look it up – fascinating stuff.

        • http://ofthespiae.hellenistai.com/ Ruadhán J McElroy

          Actually, if you really have researched Socrates, his execution was for political reasons.  Furthermore, Socrates’ most famous student, Plato, *did* teach that the mythos were symbolic, and this did not negate the existence of the gods. Try actually LEARNING what you’re talking about before talking about it. 

    • http://www.peacockfairy.com Ruadhán J McElroy

      You’re missing an understanding of metaphor, for starters.

  • Dark Jaguar

    The message is clever and rings true, to us, but I think it’s worth acknowledging that to  a faith head, this reads like a promotion of their faith.  I can see this image, without citation (or even knowledge of it’s origins or intended point) being forwarded all over the internet to the guffaws of a happy religious audience thinking this is “proof” their faith is the one true one, because they survived you see.

    It’s the same reasoning that allows a faith head to consider a plane crash with them as the only survivor as “proof” of their faith.

  • http://textsonrevolution.wordpress.com Texts On Revolution

    The greatest revolution would be to start believing in Earth instead of Heaven.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Interesting how Yahweh, the Jewish tribal god, has morphed into God, with a concomitant change in character and modes of behaviour.

  • http://www.spirituality-and-religion.com Andrew Cort

    If you set up a ‘straw man’, by making myth and religion nothing but the blind literal ‘worship of invisible friends’, then of course you win the argument between ‘believers’ and ‘atheists’. But that’s not what myth and religion actually are, so the whole argument is silly.

    • OttawaAnon

      So what is Religion if not a set of practices/beliefs devoted to the supernatural (aka worship of invisible friends)

      • Liz

        It’s a philosophy of life that includes rules and maxims for how to live and behave.
        Buddism and Taoism are both viewed as religions, but don’t involve worship.

  • http://www.spirituality-and-religion.com Andrew Cort

    What interests me, as well as most theologians and most mystics, about religion, is not the ‘history’, or the teachings about morality and social justice, and it certainly isn’t the fantastic claims that defy all scientific logic. What interests me is the symbolism: the symbols, images and metaphors — because they tell an inner psychological story—not about the journey of a nation, but about the journey of a human soul. When taken allegorically (not literally), searching for the inner meaning, myth and scripture bring us face to face with our deepest psychological and spiritual truths, and they can help guide us in inner (the only important) evolution. If all they were were literal stories that I was told to ‘believe’ in blindly, then God knows I’d be an atheist too!

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Andrew, I was following along, seeing that you might have a point about studying various theological systems as a reflection of ourselves, until I stumbled over one word in this:

      When taken allegorically (not literally), searching for the inner meaning, myth and scripture bring us face to face with our deepest psychological and spiritual truths, and they can help guide us in inner (the only important) evolution.

      I’ve never understood modern usage of the word “spiritual.” Its root originally meant “to breathe.” I usually see it used to to refer to something vague, ambiguous, indistinct, amorphous, and evasive of clear understanding. It’s like the French use of “je ne sais quoi,”  a way to refer to something you hope people assume is true, but on which nobody can agree, or on which nobody can speak intelligibly.  Most people in an audience will nod their heads to the term “spiritual,” but the consensus evaporates if everyone actually takes the time to compare their assumptions about the term.

      In your statement, are you differentiating some distinction between deep psychological truths and spiritual truths, and if so, what is it? Or are you simply using those two terms synonymously, appealing both to those who prefer “deep psychological” and to those who prefer “spiritual”?  Or are you attempting some other meaning that I’ve missed?

      • http://www.spirituality-and-religion.com Andrew Cort

        I think you’re trying too hard to corner me into proffering a concrete, singular, technical definition of a word that does, and should, have many shades of meaning. I’m not interested in replacing scientific language, practice, or meaning with spiritual language, practice, or meaning (as an aside, I’m a certified teacher or high school math, physics and chemistry, and I love science dearly). Nonetheless, I will step in just enough to say that by ‘psychological’ I am talking about thoughts, emotions, and reason, at a level that most scientists, atheists, and just about everybody, are quite familiar. When I talk about the word ‘spiritual’, I am speaking (in my opinion) about matters which are beyond the ken of reason. This does not, btw, mean ‘irrational’ or ‘anti-rational’ or anything of that ilk. As the very rational and brilliant mathematician, Pascal, observed long ago, Reason’s last step is to get beyond itself: it’s merely feeble if it doesn’t do that.

        • http://purl.org/NET/JesseW/SundryStuff/ Jesse Weinstein

          Ah, the “beyond reason” claim!  Let’s go into this somewhat, if you’re willing.

          “beyond” implies an ordering — what are the criteria upon which you are doing this ordering? 

          Maybe you didn’t mean “beyond” but merely of matters to which reason “doesn’t apply”.  If so, let’s examine this claimed category of matters; they would have some quite distinctive and unusual properties.  If reason “doesn’t apply” to them, then, I would presume, neither would logic, in which case these matters would have to be both true and false; they would also have to happen only once each, as if they happened repeatedly, it would be possible to reason about their chance of recurrence, in which case reason would “apply” to them.  They would also contradict themselves and each other, always, otherwise reason would apply to them in the areas where they lack contradiction.

          What “matters” are there that would satisfy these conditions?

          And as for the Pascal quote (which is more correctly phrased as: “The last proceeding of reason is to recognise that there is an
          infinity of things which are beyond it. It is but feeble if it
          does not see so far as to know this.” (quoted from the Project Gutenberg E-text of Pascal’s Pensees), Pascal, while he did a lot of good work earlier in his life, wrote the Pensees while he was suffering from severe physical and emotional pain and damage — to claim it as the heir of his valuable, and valid mathematical and scientific work is disingenuous, at best.

          • http://www.spirituality-and-religion.com Andrew Cort

            Ah, this is where communication breaks down. Because “nothing can be above reason”, no statement about spirituality can make sense on its own terms — which are the only terms that matter. Because Pascal spoke about higher matters than reason, excuses must be found to explain it away — sickness, whatever. In  fact, Pensees was his most important work, on a far higher level of truth than his mathematical and scientific work (which was extraordinary) and discounting it or calling me disingenuous is just wordplay, I think it best we simply agree to disagree.

            • http://purl.org/NET/JesseW/SundryStuff/ Jesse Weinstein

              I certainly don’t want to force you to write about this if you don’t want to, but I hope that we might be able to have some discussion over what you mean by “above reason” or “higher level of truth”.  I’m happy to agree to disagree about Pascal. ;-) (I really shouldn’t have gotten into that distraction at all…)

              But, to refocus on the more central issue — you certainly do seem to be applying some kind of ordering between “spiritual matters” and “matters of reason”.  What are your criteria for this ordering?  What are your methods for applying the criteria?  If these are not applicable questions, why not?

              • http://www.spirituality-and-religion.com Andrew Cort

                Yes. The deepest wounds to the human soul have been caused by our modern lack of appreciation for levels of being, the arrogant way we humans have decided that all of Reality must be limited to only that which we can see, touch, weigh and measure. Alas, we are the pathetic heirs of Logical Positivism.

                Tell you what. It’s late, I’m tired, and I’ve written far more on this topic than is appropriate for a ‘comment’. So here’s what I would ask. Go to my blog (www.spirituality-and-religion.com), and read a few of my posts from prior to ten days ago (I’m currently hosting a series of Guest Blogs, but prior to 10 days you can read some of my writings.) If you are still interested, my email address is on the right side of the blog. I’ve written an article which I’d be glad to send you called “The Reconciliation of Science and Religion”. It is precisely about this issue of recognizing higher and lower levels of existence. Then we can talk more, here or privately by email. But I will have really been able to respond to what you’re asking me to describe.

                • http://purl.org/NET/JesseW/SundryStuff/ Jesse Weinstein

                  That’s fair enough.  I’ll see about doing that.  I’ll probably post my responses on the blog (just for the interest of other readers), but I’m happy to discuss them with you via email.

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          I’m not trying to corner you in a hostile way, I just wanted to know if you have a differentiation between the two. You answered that yes you do, and both our descriptions of the modern use of “spiritual” seem to be very similar. I say “vague, ambiguous, indistinct, amorphous, and evasive of clear understanding,” and you say “beyond the ken of reason.”  Thank you. 

          • http://www.spirituality-and-religion.com Andrew Cort

            This is because you are unwilling and perhaps unable to stop assuming that anything  not within the ken of Reason must, necessarily, be Less than Reason – hence derogatory adjectives like  “vague, ambiguous, indistinct, amorphous, and evasive of clear understanding” seem to apply.  Any mystic, and many a good scientist, would tell you from first-hand experience that That which is beyond Reason is far clearer than anything Reason can describe. But I know how impossible it is for you to accept this since the only ‘words’ that can describe higher levels of being  are symbols, music, high art, or silence. You want to hear a rational scientific explanation for what is supra-rational. Since it is impossible to do so, you conclude it must be infra-rational. Not so. But you can’t ‘lose’ the argument of rational words. By sticking to it, however, in my opinion, you lose far more.

            • http://purl.org/NET/JesseW/SundryStuff/ Jesse Weinstein

              You keep using “rational words” (such as your comments here, and much of your blog) to insist on the superiority of the “spiritual” while also insisting that such superiority can’t be supported by “rational words”.  If this so, why do you keep trying to use them?

              • http://www.spirituality-and-religion.com Andrew Cort

                When in Rome…

                • http://purl.org/NET/JesseW/SundryStuff/ Jesse Weinstein

                  … insist, in Latin, that everything important can only be expressed in German?  This is neither respectful, nor productive.  Care to try again?

                • http://www.spirituality-and-religion.com Andrew Cort

                  But Latin and German and all the other languages are on the same level, which is precisely the problem. In the context of what I’m talking about, they’re the ‘same’. No such language can do it. But we HAVE to talk with language, unless we’re prepared to communicate via symbols, art, music, and so forth, and I’m not that talented. So I use words. But I’m not alone, The first line of Lao Tzu’s “Tao Te Ching” perhaps says it best. Here are ten simple, rational, ordinary ‘words’. But they express far more than themselves: “The Tao that can be described is not the Tao!”

            • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

              Gee willikers, Mr. Cort, you sure presume to know a whole lot about what I think. I say this respectfully: Leave the mind reading out of your practice, and I think you’ll keep friends longer, since being told inaccurately what one thinks is annoying.  The adjectives I used weren’t “derogatory,” at least in my mind. I’m sorry if you felt slighted or something, but honestly it was not my intention. I don’t think of them as heavily value-laden, just describing the way I see such things today.

              I didn’t always see such things this way. Actually, I spent many years pursuing with passion and diligence the very things you are describing under the tutelage of well-respected mystics, to see what I could see. And when I reached the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain was all that I could see… Oh… Okay. So I came back.

              Nowadays I enjoy finding better ways to get along with people, help them get along with each other, and to get across the street without being squashed. Reason seems to be working very well for these pursuits. I sincerely hope that you continue to enjoy your pursuits too.

              • http://www.spirituality-and-religion.com Andrew Cort

                I’m sorry if I sounded offended or offensive. I intended neither. Probably just too late at night, too tired, I shouldn’t’ve been writing. I apologize. In my head while writing, anyway, I didn’t mean the personal ‘you’. We are all imbued with modern scientific thinking, contemporary educated westerners see the world through the lens of logical positivistic thought. I know from my own experience, as well as from conversations over the years with others, how difficult it is to change the assumptions of this way-of-thinking. This is, at least in part, why many people who DO turn to religion turn to a Fundamentalist form of religion — it requires the same kind of thinking: “I wasn’t there, but if I HAD been there I could have TOUCHED Jesus and I could have WATCHED him walking on that lake”. (A favorite quote of mine, from a book about Education and Science, by Douglas Sloan, says, “Thus does literalism kill the spirit. In a misconstrued effort to maintain a connection with that mysterious source of meaning and significance, Mystery is destroyed and made banal and pedestrian.”)

            • http://twitter.com/FelyxLeiter Emily Joyce

              Seriously Andrew, Richard is one of the most respectful posters on this board.  If he says he meant no harm, the guy means it.

  • Anonymous

    But why rely on the primitive mechanisms provided by Religion (in its many forms) when we have much better tools at our disposal now? Why aren’t we still writing hieroglyphs on papyrus to communicate? We have better tools available now and we use them.  They allow us to communicate more broadly and more comprehensibly, so they quite naturally have replaced the older systems. 

    I can see the utility of religion to those who choose to study it. It is useful in the same way that a knowledge of ancient languages and writing could be worthwhile to those who choose to study ancient cultures. 

    If religion were as common as modern hieroglyphs, we’d all be better off.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Just going from what I’ve observed, perhaps the difference between religion and mythology is in how the adherents treat atheists.  If they slander us about being immoral and depraved, vandalize our billboards, ostracize our kids, fire us, or execute us under laws their gods decreed, they follow a religion. If they leave us alone, they follow a mythology.

  • Phill

    So the difference is that one has died out (no followers) because it’s not real and one is still alive (1 billion followers) because it is real. Good point.

    • Liz

      So, 2,000 years ago the Christian God wasn’t real but the Greek ones were?
       

  • Aaa111

    Allah is the God !!

    • Jayz_ghosh

      Allah is God…Allah’s another name is Krishna

  • Anonymous

    Why do we feel the need to mock others belief? 
    Why do we need to espouse our view point?
    Is it really just because ours is different?
    Are we all that lame?

    Atheism is a belief, a faith just like any other, when it stops mocking and starts respecting, it might earn some of the same respect in response, until then it is just a bunch of extremists  stirring up tension and trying to convert everyone to their belief.

    • Liz

      Replace ‘Atheism’ with ‘Christianity’ in your second paragraph and it would be just as- if not more- accurate.
      Maybe more so- I’ve never had Atheists knocking on my door asking if I’d ever considered letting science into my life.
      And that’s without going into the matter of ‘Atheism is a belief in the same way that bald is a hair colour’.

      • Anonymous

        The fact that the extreme wing of atheism is almost as bad as that of other faiths did not escape me, it was the point I was making.

        The intrusion of others trying to put their faith on you at the door indicates that you understand how annoying it can be, pushing a faith on someone else is not a good thing. Even if the faith is the one you follow.

        I like your attempts at discrediting the idea that atheism is a faith, however in practice, we have no evidence for the existence of any deity or for the non existence of deity, both are equally invalid.

        We are blind, we know nothing of the hair on our heads, whether there is hair there or not or what style or colour it is is unknown to us. If is a matter of your faith that atheist have “bald” heads. Others may be sure they are blonde with long curls, or short and dark. It doesn’t matter because we do not and probably never will know the facts.

        We know that lots of people hold different things true to us, so we need to respect their belief in order that they can respect ours.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      wiztwas, “atheism is a belief, a faith just like any other” is not your original thought. It’s a canard that you heard somewhere, and you are repeating it without thinking carefully about it.  If you did, and if you took the time to understand  how simple atheism is, you’d realize the canard is absurd.

      If you disapprove of extremism, then clean up your own act first.  Don’t practice broad brush prejudice, which is a favorite pastime of extremists. You say “just a bunch,” which sounds like “all of them.” Of what extremism are all atheists guilty? Of what extremism am I guilty? You don’t know me, and I suspect you don’t closely know many, if any atheists.  Stirring up tension? I’m just trying to keep my own personal freedom to think, and it’s a daily struggle while surrounded by people who are obsessed with getting me to conform to the way they think.  Trying to convert everyone to my belief? The only beliefs I’d like to see change in you are the beliefs you have about atheists.  Believe in whatever gods you like, but stop unthinkingly repeating someone else’s canards about us.

      • Anonymous

        I think you may be trying to suggest that an absence of belief does not constitute a belief. That is the case for agnostics. Atheists have a belief in the non existence of any deity.

        Belief and faith are almost synonymous, the only difference between the words, in my opinion, is that faith is a little less lacking in proof. There is as much proof for the non existence of deity as there is for the existence. So I conclude that my original conjecture is accurate.

        If you want to disagree then do so, but rather than blandly stating something is a falsehood try and substantiate the statement with reasoned argument.

        I think it is clear from the context I am not talking about every atheist, indeed most of them, like most members of any other faith are people who have no interest in denouncing other peoples faith they just want to be free to believe what they believe.

  • Anon

    We all know Cthulu is the only one true god

  • Anonymous

    There is no difference between myth and religion.   Both contain traditional legends, stories or parables that impart some lesson or moral code.  Both embody the ideals of the segment of society that they represent.  Both are unfounded on evidence.  Christian myths about Jesus remain myths even though Christianity is a living religion.  Greek myths about Zeus remain myths despite the few adherents to the Olympian faith.

    I think that it is important to note that “myth” isn’t a pejorative word but a descriptive one.  A myth can exist and remain important to the adherent.  There is no judgement in describing a story as a myth.

  • Michael

    All the heavens and all the hells….all the gods and all the demons…. exist metaphorically within our minds. It is up to us as to which path to take.

  • aleclerc

    myths are/were stories of the wise (to be told and to learn from). Religion is a an application of the mythical stories with added rituals. The problem begin when religion is too near the political powers, than the religion becomes a way to control the masses for political/economical purposes …


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