Modern heroes don’t slay monsters who roam the world threatening the innocent and the vulnerable. Nor do they rescue damsels in distress. Unlike folk heroes or action figures, the true modern heroes, as the mythographer Joseph Campbell described them, undertake inward journeys, moving beyond their personal limitations to experience some inspiration or vision. In so doing, they gain a different understanding of what it means to live a human life. Such experiences resonate deeply within their own spirits, changing how they think and feel. In effect, the experience is a transformative one. Once a hero has taken such a journey, the next task is to return to the world and tell others about it.
In a new documentary out this week, “The Unbelievers,” scientists Richard Dawkins, professor emeritus of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, and Lawrence Krauss, a cosmologist from Arizona State University, travel from Australia to England—and many places in between—to share the insights they have learned from their lifetimes of academic research and writing. They are just two of the leaders of an emerging group of scientists and other intellectuals known as the “new atheists.” In mythical terms they are on a mission to proclaim that contemporary science, not religion, gives us the better vision about what our universe is like and what the nature of the human condition is within that universe.
Dawkins and Krauss tell their listeners that a universe can arise from nothing, needing neither a god nor some miracle to explain its existence. And, in the general scheme of things, human beings are quite insignificant. The two scientists suggest that instead of turning to a god to give their lives meaning, people should find their own meaning and savor their lifetime. Dawkins in particular suggests that people can look to the scientific discoveries of our time for inspiration about the world around us: “Science is wonderful; science is beautiful,” Dawkins proclaims. "Religion is not wonderful; it is not beautiful. It gets in the way.”
Joseph Campbell also thought that science could indeed offer a “far more marvelous, mind-blowing revelation than anything the pre-scientific world could ever have imagined.” In fact, he said, the discoveries of science make the stories of the Bible and other ancient religions look childlike and tame by comparison. He also thought that the dogma of established religion obscured the true function of religion as a living myth, that is, to give a person a direct experience of the rapture of what it feels like to be alive.
For Campbell, the question was whether science and technology would eventually make religion and magic fade away, or if science may someday help us better understand how the symbolic forms of myth arise from the human
spirit. He speculated that psychology (and no doubt neuroscience should be added to this now) could help us see why our common dreams become public myths, myths that can have positive, life-furthering ends. On the other hand, Campbell thought that it would be artists—fiction writers and poets, painters and sculptors, musicians and architects—who would articulate the contemporary vision. They, not the scientists, would interpret the symbols and create the stories that would help human beings live a good life under any circumstances.
Today, the scientists are making similar claims for their own domain. They say they can help us understand who we are in this universe. And in some senses they can, but there is a difference. Scientists don't deal with symbols, metaphors, and stories. They deal with facts. Facts are processed through the intellect, whereas symbols, metaphors, and stories affect people at a deeper—dare we say spiritual?—level. Paradoxically, though, the unbelievers, the atheists, are more genuinely participating in building a living myth for today’s world than are the proponents of the ancient religions. This is especially true of the ancient Western religions, whose traditional sacred texts reflect far more foreign and primitive views of who we are as human beings and where we stand in this grand universe of ours.