The Myth of Modern Mythlessness

I don’t usually have posts that do nothing but link elsewhere, but I couldn’t resist pointing you over to Ali’s latest, The Group of Twenty and the Mythology of the Market. Ali’s thesis is that myths are not just stories that our ancestors believed back when the human race was young and full of childlike innocence, but are alive and well today.  We don’t recognize them as myths because we think they’re true, and everyone knows that myths are false. Right?…

But if you step back and take a serious look, you can see that there are certain pervasive modern beliefs that have the same structure, function, and emotional punch that the myths of our ancestors did. They provide a meaningful worldview, giving our society a place in the universe, and holding up examples of heroes and villains to guide individuals toward ethical action.  They even have “gods” and “priests” and “prophets” and “blood sacrifices”, though they’re not called that any longer…


  • America the Free.  This one comes complete with Creation Myth (the Revolution, with Washington taking the place of Zeus as he battles the insane Titan-like George III), prophets (Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln), high priests (presidents and other military commanders, pundits and politicians), idols (The Statue of Liberty, the Flag) and even human sacrifice (young people sent off to “die for freedom”).
  • Science the Savior.  Ironically enough, in this Creation Myth, Science the Savior conquers Myth itself to give order to the world and society, just like Zeus vs. the Titans, Odin vs. the Jotuns, and George Washington vs. George III.  Prophets include Alhazen, Bacon, Descartes, and Mill; modern priests include Dawkins and P. Z. Myers.  The Cult of Science does not generally demand human sacrifice, but it does demand animal sacrifice — in laboratories, by the millions.
  • Humanity Rules the Earth.  Read Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit.  No, really — read it.
  • The Omniscient, Omnipotent Market.  But this one is the subject of Ali’s excellent post.  So get on over there and read it already!



  1. Have you read Greer’s A World Full Of Gods? In one of its chapters he asserts (in my opinion truthfully) that modern industrial society’s central myth is the Myth of Progress. It is excellent reading.

  2. It’s not odd at all that Ali would be the one to write this post about how myth has been murdered, and transmuted. She’s a firm christian, despite her pretensions of Druidic aesthetic. It was the historical people that she holds loyalty and troth to that destroyed Pagan myth and reduced it and re-explained it in terms of material, as she has brilliantly done with our modern world. Christians are just good at reducing the myths of others into easily explainable chunks of metaphor, thus excising them of the mystery they originally contained. And she’s read Ishmael? No Christian can read Ishmael and remain Christian. I don’t think she’s really read it.

  3. Hi, Zosimus! It’s me, Ali. 🙂

    Just to correct some apparent misunderstanding or misreading of my recent post over at Meadowsweet & Myrrh (did you read it, or just respond based on Jeff’s description? if you have read it, perhaps you’d care to bring your objections over to the comment thread over there…): I in no way suggested myth had been murdered or transmuted. In fact, I say quite clearly that mythology is alive and well, that we moderns are just as much mythic-minded creatures as our ancestors were–and that the capitalist mythos of the Market is just one example (of many, as Jeff points out in his above list which, by the way, we brainstormed together).

    Also, not only have I read Ishmael, I’ve read it twice (the second time out loud along with Jeff, during which we would often pause for lengthy discussions–so I have at least one witness, and possibly the neighbors on the other side of our bedroom wall as well!). However, I think in any case you overestimate the power of the book to utterly destroy the foundation of Christianity. The interpretations of Old Testament stories found in Genesis, for instance, were ideas that I had come to years ago, while I was still very much a Christian–and I was pleasantly surprised (and rather proud of myself, I’ll admit) when I discovered them in a book I’d never heard of until last year.

    I suppose you’re waiting for me to denounce my “Christian side”… But the truth is, I don’t feel any pressing need to demonize Christians the way you do. I no longer self-identify as Christian for a vast number of reasons that I won’t get into here (among them, that most Christians would reject me calling myself such because they, at least, recognize a non-Christian when they see one). However, I don’t have any real reason to reject, deny or ignore my heritage either. It has shaped me in many ways that have helped me to grow into the person I am today. To try to deny this simple reality would be to practice a kind of self-rejection founded on ignorance and bigotry against an entire culture. Honoring my ancestors means even those who, for the past several centuries, have passed on a flexible, liberal kind of Irish Catholicism that my father inherited and shared with me as a child. I am sorry that you feel such anger and resentment towards Christianity (so much so that you’re willing to attribute to them almost magical powers of deconstruction and mindlessness, as though they don’t have meaningful stories and myths of their own). But I have been lucky enough not to have experienced hatred or repression from anyone in the name of Christianity. Only the kind of awkward misunderstandings that are inevitable among people of diverse ideas and cultures when they try to talk with each other honestly about their experiences.

  4. Kullervo — I haven’t read it, but Ali has, and she says she’ll lend it to me. 🙂 Thanks for the recommendation! As Ali describes it, the Myth of Progress is similar to the myth described in Ishmael, so I look forward to reading it.

    Zosimus — I think Ali defended herself well, so I’ll just attest that we did indeed read Ishmael together; and she’s certainly not Christian in the way I define it (believing that Jesus is, or ought to be, Everyone’s Personal Savior(TM)). She believes in Jesus as a deity among many, but then, so do I, and so do many pagans. As for Christians being good at reducing beliefs to chunks of metaphor: I think you’re giving most of them too much credit. 😉

  5. Jeff – here’s an old blog post from JMG where he talks a bit about “the myth of progress”:

  6. At least one work of fiction very explicitly treats the Myth of the Market as a full-blown, and intriguingly spiritual, mythos — TALES OF THE MALL MASTERS by David Gulbraa.
    Gulbraa’s fictional Utopia (occupying the piece of land we know as California) follows a spiritual system which (as far as I understand it) combines Greek paganism with shopping.
    The temples are shopping malls — a day at the mall is one of the major sacraments (another of their major sacraments is ritual love-making, particularly when performed in specially furnished “arcades” of the malls during certain great holy days) — and the nobility are “mall masters”: the owners of the malls, (The rest of Gulbraa’s Utopians not only revere them, but deem them the most desirable partners for love and marriage.)

    Despite Gulbraa’s almost unbearably cliche’d and turgid literary style, he has a genius for unusual plot-twists — particularly those that involve social/ethical/philosophical conundrums: whether or not you find acceptable his proposed solutions to those conundrums, I think you will enjoy his ingenuity in creating them)
    He seems to like taking his audience’s thoughts in VERY weird directions:
    another of his works (I forget its title) involves a researcher in a near-future theocratic United States, who creates illegal yet life-saving medical treatnments using fetal stem cells. The cells come from her own aborted fetus (her doctor husband aborted her, because abortion is illegal too in that theocacy) — and it turns out she got herself pregnant specifically for the purpose of aborting her fetus and using its stem cells, because she had no other way to get fetal stem cells.
    (This raises the interesting question: if abortion is ethnically unobjectionable, and if saving lives with stem cells is ethically unobjectionable, then is conceiving specifically in order to abort — if that is the only way to save some lives — also ethically unobjectionable?)

  7. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate — fascinating! I’m not sure if you’re recommending the book as one I should read or not. 😉 It sounds very interesting, though.

    As for the question of abortion, there is no arguing with your logic. 🙂 However, I don’t think that abortion is flatly unobjectionable. Personally I feel that aborting even a very new fetus is at least as morally wrong as killing an animal for food (note: I am vegetarian). And as the fetus grows, abortion becomes more and more objectionable. By the time the fetus is able to survive outside the womb, I feel abortion is equivalent to murder.

  8. I was indeed recommending the book TALES OF THE MALL MASTERS, despite its stylistic (and some other) flaws. (If no one recommended any book that he or she didn’t completely love and 100% agree with, very few people would recommend any books to anyone else at all.)

    I have not — yet — read the abortion book, so could not (yet) recommend that. However, once I do read it, I suspect I’ll recommend it too (again, for the sake of the issues considered, the situations raised — and probably *despite* some things that I expect to find irksome or even gruesome: I’ve concluded, like you, that abortion gets more and more difficult to justify as the fetus develops more and more of its eventual “human baby” features and capabilities.)

    Speaking of abortion, human capabilities, and so on — a science fiction writer (Philip K. Dick, I think) has a story somewhere about a future USA which has ruled that human life does not begin until the child develops conceptual thought (Piaget’s “formal operational level”), which the child must demonstrate by passing algebra. The laws and customs of that society regard “pre-conceptual humans” (any children — or adults — who haven’t yet passed algebra) as “postnatally abortable” if their parents so wish: as long as it is done painlessly, and (of course) as long as the parents themselves have demonstrated their own conceptual powers by passing algebra! (So most folks see nothing wrong with taking one or two of their most annoying youngsters to the clinic for a shot, a pill, or a very deep whiff of anesthesia … )

  9. If I understand you correctly:

    you believe that paying a specific amount “X” for a good or a service = making a statement that “This good, this service, means exactly ‘X’ amount to me — no more and no less.,”

    you deem it wrong to make such a statement,


    you believe that replacing other economic systems with philanthropism will eliminate such statements.

    For the moment, I’ll just ask why you believe position /3/ (if indeed you do believe that position).
    If I go into the philanthropist SAME Café and pay some amount for a meal — whether I pay with a twenty-dollar bill, or with a single penny, or with an hour of work in the kitchen (as the SAME Café management asks of those who have no money) — I am saying “That meal was worth *this* much to me” just as much as I say that by paying to eat at the usual kind of restaurant where the seller, not the buyer, sets the price.

    One might also point out that philanthropism (just like any other economic system I’ve ever heard of) relies on some “critical mass” of the participants making and keeping (for some critical percentage of the transactions they carrry out) a commitment not to rip each other off (and probably, also, a commitment not to allow themselves to get ripped off.)
    Among the people who eat at the SAME Café, some pay more and some pay less. We can say that the café (and the people who pay less) ride on the shoulders of the people who pay more. If 99% — or even 50%, possibly even 25% — of the customers pay enough for the others to “ride on,” the place can stay open at its present high level of quality … thanks to that 25% or 50% or 99% (who currently have the resources, and the inner feeling of responsibility, to pay what the other customers cannot pay). But what if that critical mass (of people both able to pay *and* motivated to pay) loses its motivation? — “goes on strike” in a sense? It could conceivably happen that (eventually) people who give (their money, their time, their effort, or whatever) start to lose the motivation for *continued* long-term giving: they hit a point where they figure that what they’ve put into the enterprise exceeds what they get out of it. … so they stop showing up. Most charities, communes, or other voluntary “do-good” organizations eventually suffer from this kind of thing: the donors/volunteers feel “used up” and stop giving. What will stop (or what has stopped) the same thing from happening to the SAME Café?

  10. On a rather different side of the issues I raise:
    An “economics myth” for a world in which philanthropism co-existed with other economies (such as capitalism and the non-capitalist systems) might tell the story of three brothers (or sisters) — Force, Love, and Trade.

    The myth might say that Force and Love were twins, born long before their younger sibling Trade —
    force and love, after all, probably long pre-date humanity, as they appear in non-human species
    (Jane Goodall’s chimps practiced quite a bit of both!).

    Maybe Force bullies Love — bullying Love nearly out of existence, at times —
    so, ever since Trade eventually came along, Trade has tried his best to keep Force within bounds,
    so as to make room in the world for more than Force..

    Trade has done valiant deeds — miracles, in fact — and he has proven himself much more worthy than Force,
    but Trade alone cannot keep Force from taking over everything in sight —
    particularly since Force, over the millennia, has learned cleverness from Trade
    (Force has taken and used, for his own purposes, many inventions created or made possible by Trade —
    why, Force has even infiltrated the ranks of Trade’s own followers,
    until now almost all Trade’s men are secretly or openly working to increase the realm of Force,
    even if they would still describe themselves as following Trade.)

    So Love — wherever he has any room to maneuver — must act in his own behalf
    if he wishes to keep alive:
    Trade may make breathing-room for Love (to the extent of Trade’s powers) by beating back Force,
    but Trade cannot substitute for Love: because Love knows how to do some things that Trade alone cannot do
    (and Love can live, can even flourish, in many places and times where Trade has difficulty even barely surviving).

    And that, I submit, would make a good myth (or the core of a good myth) to replace the worship of the “almighty” Market …

  11. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate, to answer your first comment —
    I don’t think that tearing down Trade and replacing it with philanthropism will eliminate statements like (1). I’m saying that Trade relies on statements like (1) (or, to be exact, a comparison of values) and as such is ultimately unethical. I don’t think Trade (or Theft, for that matter) will ever be completely eliminated, unless people change profoundly. But I think it’s worth working towards shifting the balance toward more philanthropism, and that the shift may indeed happen naturally, eventually.

    When someone leaves a donation at the SAME cafe, they may indeed be thinking “this meal was worth $X to me, and that’s what I’ll leave”. But they may also be thinking, “I want to help this place out, and I’m going to leave $X.” As I pointed out in an earlier “Selling Salvation” article, two instances of parallel giving may look like a trade, but it isn’t really.

    As for people getting tired of giving again and again — definitely. Nevertheless many charities live long, healthy lives. The Red Cross is a good example. 🙂

    Your second comment — the Myth you suggest — is fascinating! It reminds me a little of the ancient, ancient Indo-European myth of the twin brothers, one of whom sacrifices the other to create the world and the Otherworld…

  12. Thanks, Jeff, for your thoughtful comments. I don’t see how to regard “a comparison of values” as unethical — to me, comparing values simply means prioritizing one value over another, either temporarily or permanently. We do this every time we make a choice, whether the choice involves or doesn’t involve money, and no matter who sets the price.
    Money is a way (an admittedly imperfect way, but a very useful one!) of keeping score for at least *some* categories of the choices we have to make.

    “Which is more important to me right now?” — a mother might ask — “buying an ultra-fashionable handbag, or buying enough food for my three children?”
    If she’d pay $75 for a handbag, and she does so every week as soon as she deposits her paycheck — yet refuses to ever shell out more than $15 per week for food, and spends almost all of that measly $15 on bonbons and Cheez Doodles — that says something about her hierarchy of values.
    If she has the reverse priorities — no more than $15 for a handbag, IF she buys one at all, and at least 5 times that amount on *nutritious* food), that says quite a different thing about her hierarchy of values.
    And it would say so whether she bought her food, or her handbags, in a conventionally managed store or in a “pay-what-you-like” store.

    Let’s say that she goes to a “pay-what-you-like” store — handbag store, or grocery, or restaurant. As your own “SAME Café” example points out, part of what she pays in such a store may indicate how much she values the way that the store operates. If she takes her three kids out to the SAME Café for dinner one evening, and chooses to pay $40 for everything, this may mean something like “The food is worth $10 to me, and the way this place operates is worth $30 to me,” or it may mean “The food is worth $35 to me, and the way this place runs is worth $5 to me” or it may mean any other combination of “How much I value the food” & “How much I value the way the place operates” — we can’t tell, just from the transaction, but very probably she knows and she could tell us if we asked. (Whether we get to ask her, or can find out otherwise, or not, what she does with her money expresses her hierarchy of values — and does so as surely in the SAME Café as anywhere else. So I regard SAME-Café-type business practices as a subset of capitalism — admittedly, a very interesting subset with a lot of potential! — and *not* as a replacement for capitalism.

  13. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate, sorry it took so long to get back to you on this matter. It’s an excellent point, and one I’m still working through. As you say, any time one sets priorities, one is — in a crucial sense — setting a comparative value of one thing over another.

    Ali has an interesting take on the situation, and one I’m sympathetic with, in her post here: Money quote:

    “Choice is always about responding to the present, not only choosing ‘the lesser of two evils,’ but choosing to respond creatively to a difficult situation, acting on the freedom to seek out and articulate alternatives.”

    I think what is meant here is that when you seem to be presented with a decision in which you seem to have to make a comparison of value, in which you seem to have to set priorities, it actually indicates a basic disfluency in your relationship to the universe / spirit / all. It means you are not hearing what Spirit is really saying to you. It means, I think, that there is a Third Way which combines the two elements in the most meaningful way for you.

    I think. 🙂 I know I’m probably not making much sense. Still working on it…!

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