I think I’ve discussed the meaning of the word “myth” on this blog before. Despite the common contemporary usage of the word “myth” to mean “something that is not true”, as folklorists use the term it kind of means the opposite. We define “myth” roughly as a narrative which is believed a particular group to be sacred and true. And we don’t really go further than that. We don’t get into discussions of whether a particular story actually is true—we leave that to theologists, philosophers and scientists. All we care about is what people believe is true and what that tells us about their culture.
So I teach introductory folklore courses and we do a small unit on myth. The big assignment from this unit consists of giving the students a packet of creation myths and making them analyze two of them in terms of what they suggests about a particular folk group’s worldview. This packet includes, among other myths, the Genesis creation story and a telling of the Big Bang Theory. Every semester I wait for the Christian and Jewish students to freak out about us calling the Genesis creation story a myth. But it’s never happened. Apparently they are actually getting the message that just calling the story a myth is not challenging its validity. Maybe they privately resent it, but they don’t bring that attitude into class and they don’t express it in their papers. It’s a big relief.
Who causes the problems with this assignment? The atheists. First, there’s contention over whether the Big Bang Theory can be classified as a myth. As we discuss in class, I freely admit it doesn’t necessarily fit nicely into the rubric we generally set for myths. On the other hand, it does fit a lot of the characteristics. And if we really believed things could be easily sorted into set categories we’d be anthropologists. We put the Big Bang Theory into the packet of myths deliberately to problematize that rubric. And upon analysis, it becomes immediately clear that it does reveal a lot about contemporary secular worldview in much the same way as myths. At any rate, discussion I’m fine with. Debate I encourage.
Using a person’s lack of religious belief as an excuse to write a crappy analysis? That will result in a crappy grade.
To be fair, I don’t poll my students on their religious affiliations, but I’m sure I have many atheist and agnostic students who write wonderful analyses. But without fail, every semester, I get a handful of analyses from out and proud atheists whose analyses consist of “This myth reveals that the worldview of X people is ignorant. This is clear because believing in myths is stupid.” In what world is this a college level analysis? It’s annoying.
I’ve spent years arguing that religious parents who don’t want their children exposed to concepts such as evolution or the Big Bang Theory in science class should find an alternative to public schools. The job of science classes is to teach science and anyone who is that against learning should simply get out. I suppose perhaps the same is true for courses that cover mythology. If you can’t handle hearing about myths and discussing them in an analytical fashion, perhaps you should find another course to take.
To be fair, I think this is at least as attributable to my students’ age as it is to their religious creed/lack of creed. I do realize that a lot of college aged atheists are either newly out as atheists or have only recently discovered atheism. I do think in some ways this is just a matter of convert’s zeal. It seems new atheists are subject to many of the same foibles as new Christians. And in my class it can be just as detrimental to their grades.