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3. the new mythology: mythological fragments

What Maslow, in the context of Western modernity, calls peak experiences, others, in the context of non-Western traditions, call primal experiences. Traditional societies mediate the effects of vivid primal experiences through the use of rich mythologies that enable individuals to accept and seemingly understand their psychic condition. But modern man suffers from a fragmentation of belief that often leaves those who have primal experiences without any acceptable means of resolving the conflicts associated with primal realities.

In medieval Europe, people who encountered the primal saw visions of saints and the Virgin Mary. Hindus in India see the gods Krishna and Rama, Buddhists meet Bodhisattvas, and Muslims share visions of God. By contrast, in industrial society, people encounter raw experiences without readily available imaginative frameworks to give the experience content and meaning.

Industrial society has no body of shared beliefs, no common mythology. Its members hold onto a collection of disconnected beliefs and are vaguely familiar with fragments of many myths. The advantage that some new religions have in this situation is that they possess powerful integrated mythologies that accommodate primal experiences.

The mythologies of new religious movements are created out of numerous disjointed myths found in society generally. By weaving these unrelated myths into coherent wholes, new religions create a sense of continuity with society. Through the use of traditional myths, they are able to give themselves an apparent historical depth that legitimates their claims to be the carriers of a high culture. If we are to appreciate how myths are manipulated by the new religions, it is important that we reflect on the function of myth in society. In common speech, to call a story "a myth" is to say that it is untrue. This understanding of the meaning of myth dates back to the Greek philosophers of the third century B.C. and was popularized by Enlightenment thinkers in the late eighteenth century. A good example of such a rationalist approach to myths can be found in the works of Plato. In his dialogue Euthyphro, Plato depicts his mentor Socrates discussing the traditional myths of Greek society with a young man who firmly believes they are true. By a series of clever questions and leading arguments, Socrates soon establishes the contradictory nature of the traditional mythology and so casts doubt on the veracity of the myths themselves. The eighteenth-century deist Tom Paine similarly cast doubt on biblical stories in his book The Age of Reason, dismissing them as false myths.

The skeptical understanding of myths as stories that are essentially untrue permeates rationalist thought. People in our culture find it difficult to think of myths as anything other than fairy tales. This dismissal clouds their awareness of the way in which myths color their thoughts and actions. To understand the function of myths in the lives of individuals and in society as a whole we must suspend our skepticism about their truth value.

Myths are stories that serve specific social functions. They enable members of different societies and subgroups within societies to understand themselves and their world. As anthropologist John Middleton puts it, "a myth is a statement about society and man's place in it and in the surrounding universe....Myths and cosmological notions are concerned with the relationship of people with other people, with nature and with the supernatural." (1)

What makes a story a myth is not its content, as the rationalists thought, but the use to which the story is put. The success of the myth depends upon the belief of people in the truth of the story and the relevance of the way it interprets their social reality. Questions of historic, philosophic, or any other verifiable truths are unimportant in the creation of mythologies. What matters is the power of myths to inspire belief and to enable believers to make sense of their experiences.

Once accepted, a myth can be used to ennoble the past, explain the present, and hold out hope for the future. It gives individual and social life meaning and direction. This ability to guide action distinguishes myths from legends, folk tales, and other stories. In short, myths have the power to change lives and shape societies.

The validity of individual myths is enhanced when they are incorporated into larger or related myths. In many societies, myths are officially sanctioned through public recognition. Thus in medieval Christian Europe many myths, such as those about King Arthur and the Holy Grail, were publicly recognized. In Hindu society, myths about Krishna and other deities are given sanction in all areas of life. Christian societies have traditionally given official recognition to Christian mythologies, Islamic societies to Islamic mythologies, Buddhist societies to Buddhist mythologies, pagan societies to pagan mythologies. In other words, the dominant religion in any given society typically provides its members with a powerful mythology that receives full recognition and social sanction.

Christians tend to be reluctant to admit that myths have important functions in society and that Christianity has provided Western society with official myths for almost two thousand years. They tend to feel that Hindu stories about Krishna are clearly ahistorical myths and therefore untrue, whereas Bible stories are historical narratives and therefore true. Such reasoning has nothing to do with the status of the Bible stories as myth, however: the historical truth value of myths derived from biblical stories is not at issue. The point is that in Europe and North America, biblical stories have informed or functioned as myths and thus have had great power to mold society and give it direction.

The questions that trouble many Christians--"Did Jesus rise from the dead?" "Was the tomb of Jesus empty on the first Easter morning?" "Are miracles possible?"--are questions of historic and theological truth and as such are in a completely different category than questions about the role such stories have played as myths in society. The historical truth or falsity of myths has no real bearing on their being able to function as myths. When we talk about biblical stories providing society with powerful myths, we are not discussing their truth claims. We are simply observing that particular stories affect those who believe in them and have important consequences for the quality of social life. Speaking of the power of myth, Northrop Frye has noted that "certain stories seem to have a peculiar significance: they are stories that tell a society what is important for it to know, whether about its gods, its history, its laws, or its class structure." Commenting on modern society, he says, "in Western Europe the Bible stories had a central mythological significance of this kind until at least the eighteenth century." (2) By a "central mythological significance," Frye means the power of certain myths to provide a general mythological framework that incorporates all the other myths to be found in a given society.

From the time of St. Augustine in the fifth century to the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, biblical stories provided the framework of European mythology. Other myths found in different parts of Europe were Christianized and incorporated into this framework. Stories such as that of Beowulf and Islandic, Norse, and Germanic sagas were reinterpreted and given Christian meanings. The legend of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail is a striking example. (3) The thrust of incorporation may take one of two directions. When Christianity is on the advance, pagan myths are Christianized; when it is in retreat, Bible stories are mythologized, sometimes into foreign myths.

Since the end of the eighteenth century, biblical stories have ceased to provide the central mythology of Western society. Owing to the skepticism of the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century freethinking, most Westerners no longer find in Christianity the basic imaginative and mythological framework by which they understand their place in the world. True, many people still profess to be Christians. But on the whole, Christian belief has been reduced to the realm of private spirituality, and as a result Western social mythologies lack a strong Christian content at both their popular and official levels.

Certain subgroups within modern society still retain a strong element of Christian mythology in their understanding of life. It is also true that "Christian values" often inform law and other official elements within different Western societies. But nowhere today do we find biblical mythology providing both the popular and official myths of modern industrial society.

Once we realize that myths play an important role in social life and that modern Western society no longer embraces its traditional Christian mythology, we might well ask whether other mythologies have replaced the biblical framework. The answer seems to be that Western democracies are experiencing a mythological vacuum; they do not seem to have any officially sanctioned central myth. Biblical myths would appear to have been replaced by a large number of fragmented myths circulating among different subgroups without the benefit of an integrative central mythology. We make this observation with some caution, however, because we shall argue later that a central mythology does, in fact, exist, although it has not received official sanction outside of the new religions. But before we describe this emerging mythological framework, we must first identify the major mythological fragments that are currently popular.

types of mythological fragments

We can identify seven types of common mythological fragments: prophetic myths, myths of disembodied intelligences, myths of fortune, neopagan myths, healing myths, pseudoscientific myths, and technological myths. We shall discuss each of these in turn.

Prophetic myths involve beliefs about the ability of individuals, with or without the help of certain devices, to foretell the future. The considerable recent growth in the popularity of this type of myth can be seen in the fact that in 1940 only 200 daily newspapers in America carried horoscopes, whereas today over 1,750 daily newspapers print them. In addition, there are at least 10,000 full-time and 175,000 part-time astrologers presently working in America alone.

One of the most popular of these astrologers is Jeane Dixon, who has successfully manipulated the media to gain a considerable following. Her claims to predict events accurately are regularly reported, but her failures, such as her 1979 prediction that President Carter would "suffer a church-related assassination attempt," are overlooked.

Equally popular and questionable are the writings of the late Edgar Cayce. His predictions were appropriately vague, making it difficult to subject them to the canons of disproof. His prediction in the 1940s that "sometime between 1958 and 1998" San Francisco would be destroyed by an earthquake did little to enhance his reputation except with the most gullible.

Even more difficult to refute and more clearly mythological are the so-called "prophecies" of the medieval mystic and court astrologer Nostradamus. His cryptic writing style and symbolic language allow one to read almost anything into his works, making possible both wild and plausible predictions.

At a more personal level, teacup readings, tarot cards, the I-Ching, and other techniques of divination provide countless individuals with what they take to be experiential confirmation of their belief in prophetic myths. More importantly, the combination of high-profile media prophets like Dixon and the writings of Cayce, Nostradamus, and other "recognized" seers lends credence to the claims of local diviners, while personal divination reinforces belief in the better-known figures. Such positive feedback between local and media prophets mutually reinforces their respective prophecies, making both seem plausible to anyone who is predisposed to believe in them.

Myths of disembodied intelligences include stories about ghosts and poltergeists, spiritualism and belief in incorporeal beings. Some individuals who have primal experiences explain them in terms of such phenomena because ghost stories and the like are familiar to most people in our culture. Press reports of hauntings, poltergeists, and other psychic events increase the climate of belief. Suggestibility is further heightened by such films as Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.

The resistance of many people to explaining primal experiences in terms of the occult is further reduced by exposure science fiction films and television series (e.g., Star Trek) and by science fiction novels generally. When Star Trek first appeared in the 1960s, belief in the occult was at a low ebb. Projecting the story into the far distant future and appealing to an evolutionary and, therefore, scientific justification, enabled the writers of Star Trek to introduce legitimately disembodied intelligences and other strange happenings. If these ideas had been placed within a spiritual framework or made to happen in contemporary society, viewers would have rejected the ideas as ridiculous. But given the futuristic orientation and evolutionary justification, such ideas were accepted as "scientific" and "possible in time."

Once people accepted such things as possible within the framework of Star Trek, it was an easy and logical step to utilize similar ideas in other contemporary stories. It also became easy to make the imaginary shift from extraterrestrial intelligences to spirits and demons. Contemporary occultism owes a good deal of its popularity to pseudoscientific ideas.

In science fiction writing proper, the shift from hard science to fantasy took place in the mid-1960s. The futuristic scientific interests of older writers such as Isaac Asimov gave way to the cultural and intellectual relativism of younger anthropologists such as Ursula LeGuin. LeGuin and other New Wave authors offer us worlds inhabited by spirit beings motivated by magical spells rather than Martians, spaceships, and ray guns.

Myths of fortune are beliefs in luck. More than the other mythological fragments, these myths point to an increasing belief in a magical and occult universe within Western culture. Belief in luck has always existed in Western society of course, but this general belief was Christianized, and it rarely affected a majority in any given society. Luck was more often associated with gamblers and thus was officially scorned by society. But with the growth of the new mythologies, luck has returned to dominate the attitudes of a large number of people.

In her book And I Thought I Was Crazy, Judy Reiser discusses the extent to which belief in luck or in good and bad fortune has become central for many people. (4) In this provocative work, Reiser, a social worker, reports interviews with over six hundred people the majority of whom expressed strong beliefs in common superstitions, good luck charms, and a host of equally irrational ritual actions aimed at fending off evil and misfortune.

Personalized myths of fortune are reinforced by complementary cosmic myths that involve stories about generalized powers. These myths are presented in such movies as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and stories about such things as the supposed curse of the long-dead Egyptian king Tutankhamen. The story of Tutankhamen is typical of how curse myths are generated. When the tomb was excavated in 1922, there was an unexpected delay in the opening of the burial chamber. An overzealous reporter wrote a story saying that this delay was due to the discovery of an "ancient Egyptian inscription" that laid a curse on anyone who entered the tomb. Five months later one of the leaders of the expedition, Lord Carnarvon, died suddenly, and the story of the curse became firmly established in the public mind. In fact no such inscription had been found, and all the other members of the expedition, including those who were the first to enter the main chamber, lived long and successful lives.

A similar and highly popular myth of fortune is that of the so-called Bermuda Triangle, propagated in the mid-1970s. This myth is based on Charles Berlitz's book, which was on the New York best-seller list for twenty-six weeks in 1975 and has sold well over a million copies. Berlitz claims that a triangular area in the Carribean has long been the site of many mysterious events, such as the untraceable disappearance of aircraft and ships. In the wake of this book similar ones appeared, some elaborating the Bermuda Triangle story, others claiming to discover equally mysterious zones in different parts of the world. Once these "mysteries" were discovered, occult and bizarre solutions were proposed to "explain" them, ranging from alien spacecraft lying on the seabed to occult forces and cosmic rays. One author even suggested that the center of the Bermuda Triangle was the site of Hell and that it was the headquarters of the Devil on earth.

Actually the only mystery about the Bermuda Triangle is the phenomenal success of Berlitz's book and the positive reception it has received from a credulous public. But even this is not really mysterious. The truth of the matter is that the public prefers to assign cosmic importance to otherwise mundane fortune myths. To do so helps legitimize actions and beliefs that might otherwise be dismissed as neurotic.

Neopagan myths are centered on beliefs in earth spirits, plant intelligence, talking animals, hobbits, fairies, and other similar creatures. Lyall Watson's book Supernature provides a good example of the ways in which these myths are generated. (5) Writing in a pseudoscientific style and giving apparent "scientific evidence" for his nature mysticism, Watson creates an atmosphere in which belief in a magical world seems plausible.

The book begins with the statement "SCIENCE NO LONGER holds any absolute truth" and goes on to invoke an epistemological relativism that allows anything to seem to be true. The reasoning involved reminds us of the adage "When reason sleeps, monsters are born." Watson's world and that of believers in the new mythology quickly develop into a universe populated by sea serpents, the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, and other creatures that supposedly hide from human beings. Fantastic as these tales may sound, many people believe in them--including anthropologist Carlos Castenada, whose books about Don Juan have an immediacy that is lacking in Watson's dry speculations. Invoking a magical world soon involves the believer in mystical powers, occult forces, and psychic radiations that are said to provide healing powers far in excess of the techniques of modern medicine.

Pseudoscience myths are stories about the nature and power of clairvoyance, E.S.P., and related phenomena. Books such as The Geller Papers, which is supposed to contain factual reports about the psychic abilities of Uri Geller, form the solid basis of these myths. (6) Geller, it will be remembered, is the modern "magician" who claimed to bend spoons and perform other feats through the power of his mind. Counterclaims by other competent magicians, such as James Randi, who has insisted that Geller has abused his skills as an entertainer, are conveniently overlooked by the press and gullible believers.

Another book promoting the mythologies of pseudoscience is Raymond A. Moody, Jr.'s Life after Life. (7) Moody interprets neardeath experiences as phenomena confirming reincarnation and soul travel. Once again, his interpretations hold up only because they are not closely investigated. These and similar myths provide the basis for extravagant claims about the psychic powers of human beings. Professors Eysenck and Sargent, whose book Explaining the Unexplained is a partisan tract propagating belief in E.S.P. and related ideas, seem to lend further scientific respectability to all of these notions. (8)

Myths of technology are the final category of mythological fragments we should consider. These myths include stories about UFOs and lost worlds and civilizations. We call these "myths of technology" because they tell about beings who possess, or at some time in the distant past possessed, a technology far in advance of that of the modern world.

In their contemporary form, these myths seem to date from the publication of George Adamski and Leslie Desmons's bestselling book Flying Saucers Have Landed. (9) All later writings about flying saucers and alien visitors to earth draw heavily on this book for their central ideas. It should be noted that Adamski and Desmons, who told the world that they had actually entered an alien spacecraft, were themselves influenced by theosophical writings. Theosophically inspired thinking is found in other recent works, of which the most successful is probably Eric von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods. (10) However, John Michell's The Flying Saucer Vision (published a year before von Daniken's work) and Brad Steiger's Gods of Aquarius more clearly show the relationship between these tales and the new mythology. (11)

At a different level, but no less significant, are popular fantasy stories such as J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, and Ursula LeGuin's The Wizard of Earthsea. (12) These stories create imaginative worlds in which the fantastic seems possible. Importantly, they do so very often in terms of pseudoscientific speculations about "alternate universes" and "space-time physics" that make the fantasies seem plausible.

As we discuss this complex series of myths, it is worth bearing in mind that most of these ideas were first introduced by science fiction writers. For example, L. Ron Hubbard experimented in his fiction with what was to become Scientology long before he created the organization. "Doc" E. E. Smith suggested that space visitors had influenced the history of the earth, and in his early space opera Triplanetary, he utilized the Atlantis myth and numerous other ideas popular in Theosophy and today's new religions. (13) It is little wonder that we see many flying saucer religions such as George King's Autherius Society, which was inspired by his book You Are Responsible, in which he claims to have "received" his religious message for our age from space "masters." (14)

toward a general mythology

So far we have simply identified various fragmented myths that are found in modern society. In the counterculture of the late 1960s, however, these unrelated fragments began to coalesce into more cohesive mythologies. They did not yet achieve the status of an officially sanctioned central mythology, but they did begin to make more sense than they had as isolated myths. The union of mythic fragments into a more general, self-reinforcing mythology involved three key sets of beliefs: decline beliefs, other civilization beliefs, and New Age beliefs.

Decline beliefs are elements of popular myths that reflect the pessimism of the counterculture concerning modern society. They are generalized stories about the decline of civilization and the end of the world. Essentially they hold that society as we know it is doomed. Ecological disaster and/or atomic war are thought to be imminent. Should we escape these, then a 1984-style dictatorship awaits mankind. Doom or world catastrophe is an essential aspect not only of mythological structure but also of the structure of private visionary or conversion dreams. It is very much part of the mental map of the avant-garde hysteric, as we shall see.

The pessimism of decline beliefs is supported by stories and ideas ranging from those in such books as Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth to those in Howard Ruff's How to Prosper during the Coming Bad Years and Donella Meadows's Limits to Growth. (15) News reports, threats of financial instability, reports of wars and rumors of wars all feed the hunger for vicarious drama that is so central to the West's culture of hysteria. In the early 1970s, the Watergate scandal increased the plausibility of imminent doom. In the late 1970s, it was the oil crisis and inflation.

Vicarious doom provides those who participate in cultural hysteria with a new sense of mission. A new kind of citizen emerged in the form of survivalists. Their journals and specialist shops selling dehydrated foods grew as rapidly as did the mythology. Among the new religions, The Way was particularly influenced by the survivalist mentality. Members of The Way and even some members of the Mormon Church were advised to stockpile at least two years' supply of food in their basements.

As our imagination has reached forward into doom, so it has stretched backward into a glorious past and outward to embrace other planets. The second element of the emerging mythology consists of beliefs in other civilizations, usually civilizations greater than our own. The mythic significance of these ideas is that they form a theoretical bridge between the pessimism of decline beliefs and the optimism of New Age beliefs.

Other-civilization myths bring together a profound mistrust of modern science with a deep respect for science as mythology. Proponents of such myths speak about a golden age, which they project either into the past or onto an extraterrestrial civilization. The latter involves a vision of man's future. The former involves a nostalgic vision of the past that allows people to indulge vicariously in thoughts about prehistoric humans who lived in harmony with nature and possessed vast powers because they cooperated with natural forces to build great and enduring civilizations. Mythologizing science, myth merchants argue that hints of the powers of lost civilizations are found among Filipino psychic healers, South African bushmen, and other native peoples who retain some knowledge of nature spirits and forces. Why humans as a whole lost these wonderful powers and why those who possess them today live in abject poverty is never adequately explained. However, the fall of primal civilizations is typically explained in terms of pride and the misuse of magic. Proponents of such myths maintain that the failure of orthodox archeologists to affirm this romanticization of civilizations simply proves how sterile modern science is and how much in need it is of the "creative" investigations of spiritual people. And so spiritualists conjure up visions of Atlantis, Mu, Lemurin, and other lost civilizations, embellishing them with complex comparisons and apparent erudition.

L. Sprague de Camp's book Lost Continents is important not only because he exposes the absurdity of these beliefs but because he relates these myths to nineteenth-century religious groups. (16) The Book of Mormon is based on the existence of a lost civilization built by North American Indians, and Theosophy appeals to stories about Atlantis. Other groups too invoke the idea of lost or extraterrestrial civilizations to objectify their claims. Hare Krishna believe in the Vedic civilizations of ancient India, while Jehovah's Witnesses have given evidence of a preoccupation with pyramids and sacred measurements. It would seem, in short, that myths of other civilizations perform an apologetic function by weaving observable "evidence," such as the Mayan ruins, into such a web of beliefs as to cloud the believer's doubts in its very complexity. And once the existence, or possibility of the existence, of these civilizations is accepted by the believer, belief in UFOs is confirmed.

Thus, both UFO sightings and other primal experiences receive "scientific" or "historical" confirmation from the general mythology. Without the mythology, many primal experiences would lack context and probably assume little significance in the life of an individual. But through the intervention of myth, primal experiences are seemingly confirmed by procedures that are deceptively like those of orthodox science. The result is a powerful belief system that is both self-confirming and self-authenticating. But the myths do not serve only to authenticate primal experiences; in a more important sense, they encourage people to have primal experiences in the first place, while at the same time amplifying their importance.

New Age beliefs are as optimistic as decline beliefs are pessimistic. And it is essentially the same mentality that conjures up doom that also conjures up bliss--and with the same degree of unreality. Both involve a vision of death followed by rebirth. Proponents of New Age beliefs hold that the night of doom will be followed by the dawn of the New Age of Aquarius. Hippies of the sixties saw themselves as both the children of this new age and the heralders of its coming. Members of some of today's new religions believe that they are fulfilling the hippie vision. Writing about the advent of a new age, which she associates with what she terms "the Aquarian conspiracy," Marilyn Ferguson states that "the emergence of the Aquarian Conspiracy in the late twentieth century is rooted in the myths and metaphors, the prophecy and poetry of the past. Throughout history there were lone individuals here and there, or small bands at the fringes of science or religion who, based on their own experiences, believed that people might someday transcend narrow 'normal' consciousness and reverse the brutality and alienation of the human condition." (17)

The hope for this transformation is, according to Ferguson, "...an attack on the very foundations of Western thought." Thls attack, and the search for a new way of seeing, is the work of likeminded people who, in the mid-seventies, formed the "conspiracy" that she is writing about. Normally conspiracy suggests something sinister. But Ferguson intends it to mean a breathing together of like-minded individuals in the spirit of the age, which she contends is the Age of Aquarius, characterized by the "symbolic power of the pervasive dream in our popular culture: that after a dark, violent age, the Piscean, we are entering a millennium of love and light--in the words of the popular song, 'The Age of Aquarius,' the time of 'the mind's true liberation.'" (18)

Another popularizer of new myths, Lawrence Blair, has suggested that "the first burst of Aquarian enthusiasm experienced by the young in the early 1960s has for many subsided into disenchanted apathy." (19) He goes on to argue, however, that the disenchantment is attributable to the fact that our cultures and individuals are experiencing a metamorphosis that will transform mankind.

The sense of expectancy engendered by a strong belief in the Age of Aquarius is often increased and sustained by talk about the return of Christ. In such a context this orthodox Christian notion is not used in its biblical sense to mean the return of Jesus and the last judgment. Rather it has become a code expressing hope.

For some this hope is to be found in a new religious leader who symbolizes the mission of Jesus and fulfills it in the creation of an ideal world. Such an understanding of Christ's return is found in the Unification Church, which equates the Reverend Sun Myung Moon with Christ through a commonality of purpose. For others, the return of Christ simply means the appearance of a spiritual leader who is Christ-like. Still others talk of Christ's return in terms of a Christ spirit that will permeate the world. Certain fundamentalist biblical groups hold that Jesus will return bodily and fulfill a number of specific prophecies. And various other groups combine elements of all versions of Christ's return in a confident but vague belief that things will someday get miraculously better.

In addition to beliefs about Christ, there are beliefs about the coming of space lords and other aliens who will liberate mankind and save us from the threat of atomic war. Once again, we should note that science fiction has played a key role in propagating and popularizing such views. Novels such as Arthur C. Clarke's Chitdhood's End and his more recent works suggest this theme in powerful ways. (20) While science fiction started the trend, science religions quickly developed and promoted beliefs in a variety of salvations brought about by benevolent space beings.

Other savior figures also feature in the myths of the new age. For many counterculture people in the late 1960s the mythic figure of Gandalf, the white wizard in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, became a symbol of the new age. Others have developed beliefs about King Arthur and similar legendary heroes. We find "Buddhas" and "Krishnas" and such personalized saviors as the "Bhagwans." All are liberators sanctioned by one or another of these major coalescing myths.

Whoever the savior is to be and whatever the terms in which he or she is described, the mythic structure of beliefs surrounding the central figure is essentially the same. The savior is to come to change the world, to make it good and free from the terrors of modern life. Mankind will no longer be alone in a hostile universe but once more live in a personalized context in which human values will ultimately triumph.

The assurance of the final victory of good over evil comes from traditional legends, religious stories, and newly invented myths. But their authenticity within the mythology generally, and in new religions particularly, is always assured by the intervention of what Ferguson calls "human catalysts like the Aquarian Conspirators." More perceptively, we can speak of these agents as shamans or sorcerers who are initiators of change.

One such agent of consciousness is David Spangler of the Findhorn Community, who is described by many writers as one of the foremost leaders of the new age. In his book Emergence: The Rebirth of the Sacred, Spangler gives a coherent account of the new mythology as it is seen by an insider. (21) A similar and more elaborate development of the many aspects of the mythology discussed here can be found in Blair's Rhythms of Vision. Both of these works, and many similar ones, not only articulate the coherence of the fragmented myths of modern society but bring them together in a pattern similar to the one we have outlined. Further, they add the final ingredient that provides these myths with the potential they need to become the central mythology of our society. It is to this question of the overall integration of the myths into a central framework that we now turn.

evolution as central mythology

In many ways the situation we face today in terms of our fragmented collection of disconnected myths is similar to that faced by the inhabitants of New England in the early part of the nineteenth century. Like us, the people of New England experienced rapid social change, including revolutions in transportation and communication. Their society was transient and uprooted. Traditional beliefs were on the wane and new ones vied for acceptance. In 1828 Thomas Dick wrote about the possibility of life on other planets in a book entitled Philosophy of a Future State. Swedenborgians speculated about spiritual "worlds." Ethan Smith pondered the origin of the American Indians in his book A View of the Hebrews (1825). People were fascinated with the Indian mounds that dotted the landscape. Stories about the pyramids of Egypt and lost civilizations were common.

Against this confused and confusing background, Joseph Smith, Jr., claimed to have discovered a book that explained the true facts about many of the puzzles that intrigued his contemporaries. In the Book of Mormon (1830), Smith laid the basis of a powerful mythology that wove together many diverse myths into an integrated whole. In his later "revelations," Smith elaborated these myths so that the developed mythology of Mormonism not only explained the origin of American Indians but also spoke about the significance of their archeological sites and speculated about life on other planets.

Fawn M. Brodie contends that Joseph Smith "was groping for a new metaphysics that would somehow take into account the new world of science. In his primitive and egocentric fashion he was trying to resolve the most troublesome philosophic problem of the nineteenth century." (22) Thomas O'Dea has argued that while Book ot Mormon leaves much to be desired as literature, in its own terms and the context in which it was written, it was a challenging document "concerned fundamentally with the problem of good and evil." (23)

O'Dea cautions us against simply rejecting the Book of Mormon as an unbelievable and therefore unintelligible story. Rather, he maintains, it has an important intellectual element that gives its mythology an appeal far beyond the mere telling of tales. This element consists in the folksy but rational way in which Smith presents different viewpoints and argues for and against them. An important element of Mormon mythology that gives it a continuing appeal is its use of evolutionary ideas. Smith wrote some thirty years before Darwin, but even at this earlier time evolutionary ideas were being hotly debated and widely disseminated in philosophical speculations. The influence of these ideas is especially evident in Smith's later work The Book of Abraham (1842) which, with the Book of Mormon, is regarded as divinely inspired scripture by Mormons.

Even more clear in its use of evolution as a mythological device is the book Key to the Science of Theology (1855), written by the Mormon apostle Parley P. Pratt. (24)

Pratt speculates about mankind visiting other worlds in the future and places Mormon views of human life within the framework of spiritual evolution.

According to Mormon theology, human beings are spiritual beings whose existence predates their physical birth. They believe that our spirit bodies originated in eternity and that we progressed to earth to "gain a body" and undergo a probationary period that determines our future state. This spiritual evolution is covered by the "law of eternal progression." As their early leader Lorenzo Snow said, "As man is, God was; as God is man may become." (25) Evolution gives Mormon theology its essential unity.

Similar views about eternal progression and spiritual evolution are also found in other nineteenth-century new religions. Although different in her emphasis, Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, also used evolution to unity her creed. In the first edition of her fundamental work Science and Health (1875), she states quite clearly that "Mr. Darwin is right with regard to mortal man or matter, but he should have made a distinction between these and the immortal, whose basis is Spirit." (26)

Evolution was even more thoroughly adapted to religious needs by Helen P. Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy. In her book The Secret Doctrine (1888), she speaks of moral development and individual lives in terms of cosmic evolution. Theosophy suggests that the inner, spiritual growth of mankind constitutes the heart and dynamics of the whole evolutionary process. Commenting on this, Bruce F. Campbell, a recent historian of Theosophy, says "a core of Theosophical teachings emerged. They are a synthesis of the idea of evolution with religious concepts chiefly from Hinduism and Buddhism." (27)

All of these movements and many others sought to integrate science, religion, and popular myth into an overall framework of evolutionary mythology that could fill the void left by the decline of traditional Christian views. But none of these attempts to create a new central mythology for society succeeded in capturing the imagination and commitment of most Westerners. In some ways German National Socialism and Italian Fascism proved more successful in meeting this goal. These ideologies also drew on the idea of evolution in such a way as to produce apparently powerful social mythologies.

This link between evolutionary belief as a mythology and fascism has long been recognized by historians of fascist movements. Joachim C. Fest, for example, has noted that "Hitler was influenced above all by the theories of the nineteenth-century social Darwinist school, whose conception of man as biological material was bound up with impulses towards a planned society." The effect of this on Hitler's actions is equally clear, as Fest points out: "Starting from the maxims of Struggle derived from social Darwinism, Hitler could see nothing in law or the institutions of justice but instruments for combating political foes." (28)

Reacting not only to the mythologization and politicization of evolution but more generally to the associated dangers of reductionism, Arthur Koestler has devoted considerable scholarly effort to questioning Darwinian evolution. Reductionism, he says, is "the philosophic belief that all human activities can be 'reduced' to i.e. explained by, the behavioural responses of lower animals. ...and that these responses in turn can be reduced to the physical laws which govern inanimate matter." (29) Koestler considers such reductionism to be dangerous because it leads to the denial of all values. "By its persistent denial of a place for values, meaning and purpose in the interplay of blind forces, the reductionist attitude has cast its shadow beyond the confines of science, affecting our whole culture and even political attitudes." (30) Once traditional moralities are declared obsolete on the basis of evolutionary development, the "higher" ideals of the party, whether fascist or communist, can be promoted regardless of human suffering and cost.

The devotion of fascists, communists, and other totalitarians to evolution as a central mythology explains why it is suspect in the political arena of the West. While it is not politically sanctioned, the myth of evolution nevertheless titillates the imagination. One could even argue that evolution has, in fact, attained the status of an official mythology in much of the public education of the West. It is taught not only in biology classes but as a heuristic framework in history and social studies.

C. S. Lewis expresses our attitude toward the mythologization of evolution when in his provocative essay "The Funeral of a Great Myth" he says, "we must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolution or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth.... In the science, Evolution is a theory about changes: in the Myth it is a fact about improvements. (31)

We have already noted that nineteenth-century religious movements were developed and systematized by way of an evolutionary mythology. The evolutionistic framework has been similarly popular in the twentieth century, as for example in the writings of Roman Catholic scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and British biologist Julian Huxley. (32) More importantly, it is a common theme in the literature of the new religious movements, as in Timothy Leary's seminal work The Politics of Ecstasy. Leary repeatedly links the use of LSD, spiritual evolution, the evolution of consciousness, and the development of new religions. He argues that the popular use of LSD heralds the next great evolutionary step for mankind. In his more recent work Changing My Mind, among Others, Leary develops evolution as a cultural myth by giving the reader a vision of a religious consciousness that will lead to the creation of a new humanity. (33)

Theodore Roszak's Unfinished Animal: The Aquarian Frontier and Evolutionary Consciousness, (34) Spangler's Emergence, and Blair's Rhythms of Vision are other general works that reflect "new age spirituality." All are structured by the mythological framework of evolution that binds together other fragmented myths and provides the basis for a new religious consciousness. Marilyn Ferguson speaks of evolution as "the new paradigm" and expresses faith that mankind is entering a new evolutionary phase during which we will control our evolutionary destinies. Not surprisingly, Ferguson finds in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End an apt "literary metaphor" for what she claims "many serious scientists" actually believe is happening today. (35)

Evolution as myth can be distinguished from evolution as science by the type of question it tries to answer. Scientific evolution explains How; evolutionary myths explain Why. The mythology of evolution provides religious answers to ultimate human questions about meaning and purpose, while evolutionary science is simply meant to help us understand natural processes.

The success with which spiritual writers and pseudoscientists have advanced evolutionary myths reflects poorly on the educational system of Western society. With the development of modern education, the general public has come to believe in rather than understand modern science. Our culture is characterized more by a faith in science than by an appreciation of the scientific method and rational thought. What this means in essence is that we have allowed magic to replace science as knowledge and procedure.

In the literature of the new religions, faith in science has been transformed into a faith in a "new science," which is associated with an "emerging evolutionary consciousness." The shift in language reflects both a popular belief in science and a distrust of science as it is actually practiced by scientists. Modern science is distrusted because it has brought us the atomic bomb and ecological crises. But the faith in science remains. Instead of questioning the use of modern science or learning how science works, many people take the easy route of believing in the trouble-free faith of the new science.

The transition from belief in science to faith in a new science is most clearly made in Theodore Roszak's now classic work The Making of a Counter-Culture. Roszak attacks modern science because of its "objective consciousness" and control by experts. He then advocates the democratization of science by encouraging a return to a holistic vision based upon intuitive feelings, magic, and the way of the shaman. (36)

David Spangler merges popuLar mysticism and faith in science with new age beliefs in a similar fashion, using evolution to make shamanic conversations with nature spirits and disembodied intelligences appear reasonable. (37) William Irwin Thompson takes much the same approach, drawing on Freud's concept of the repressiveness of civilization:

Now that the failure of the Green Revolution has dramatized the failure of the industrialization of agriculture, the underground traditions of animism can surface without any sense of embarrassment....The iron winter of the industrial era is beginning its end....Animism and electronics is the landscape of the New Age....The people of Findhorn understand the place of technology in nature, and if they forget, the elves will soon let them know. (38)

The obvious flaw in this point of view is that the Green Revolution has not failed; to the contrary, it has saved millions of lives and greatly improved living standards throughout the world. Moreover, Thompson ignores the oppressiveness of animistic and magical beliefs and life in kin-based bands and tribes. Perhaps it is only the rich and leisured who can afford to glorify nature, spurn technological advances, and presume to commune with elves and other mythological creatures.

The new mythology is quite simply a return to magic. The Western world once evangelized the Third World. It would now seem that the Third World has in return shamanized the West. The proponents of many new religions are appealing to pseudoscience in their campaign to repudiate the real gains of modern technology and to embrace magic instead. Such a path has an obvious appeal: it offers quick and easy solutions, and it entails neither choice nor responsibility on our part. Maintaining a technological society, on the other hand, involves hard work, discipline, and education.

1. 1 Middleton, in Myth and Cosmos, ed. John Middleton (New York: Natural History Press, 1967), p. x.

2. 2 Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), p. 33.

3. 3 R. F. Treharne shows how this body of pre-Christian stories was successfully incorporated into a Christian framework to produce a powerful medieval mythology; see The Glastonbury Legends (London: Sphere Books, 1971).

4. 4 Reiser, And I Thought I Was Crazy! Quirks, Idiosyncracies and Meshugass That People Are Into (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979).

5. 5 Watson, Supernature (London Hodder & Stoughton, 1974).

6. 6 The Geller Papers, ed. Charles Penati (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976).

7. 7 Moody, Life after Life (New York: Bantam Books, 1976).

8. 8 Hans J. Eysenck and Carl Sargent, Explaining the Unexplained: Mysteries of the Paranonnal (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1982).

9. 9 Adamski and Demons, Flying Saucers Have Landed (London: T. Warner Laurie, 1953).

10. 10 Von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods (London: Souvenir Press, 1968).

11. 11 Michell, The Flying Saucer Vision: The Holy Grail Restored (London: Sphere Books, 1967); Steiger, Gods of Aquarius (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1976).

12. 12 Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London: Allen & Unwin, 1966); Anderson, The Broken Sword (New York: Ballantine, 1981); LeGuin, The Wizard of Earthsea (New York: Bantam, 1975).

13. 13 Smith, Triplanetary (1934; rpt., London: W. H. Allen, 1971).

14. 14 King, You Are Responsible (London: Artherius, 1961).

15. 15 Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (New York: Bantam Books, 1980); Ruff, How to Prosper during the Coming Bad Years, rev. ed. (New York: Warner Books, 1981); and Donella Meadows et al., Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome's Project of the Predicament of Mankind (New York: Universe Books, 1974).

16. 16 De Camp, Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science and Literature (New York: Dover Publications, 1970).

17. 17 Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformations in the 1980s (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1980), p. 45.

18. 18 Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy, p. 19.

19. 19 BIair, Rhythms of Vision: The Changing Patterns of Belief (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), p. 234.

20. 20 CIarke, Childhood's End (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963.

21. 21 Spangler, Emergence: The Rebirth of the Sacred (New York: Delta Books, 1984). See also his Revelation: The Birth of a New Age (Middleton: Lorian Books, 1976).

22. 22 Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 2d rev. ed (New York: Knopf, 1978) p. 172.

23. 23 0'Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 26.

24. 24 Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, 10th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973), pp. 153-59.

25. 25 This well-known saying appears in many Mormon publications; see, for example, Reflections on Mormonism, ed. T. G. Madsen (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 1978), p. 212.

26. 26 See R. Peel, Christian Science: Its Encounter with American Culture (New York: Henry Holt, 1958), p. 91.

27. 27 Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived: A Historv of the Theosophical Movement (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), p. 61.

28. 28 Fest, The Face of the Third Reich: Portraits of the Nazi Leadership, trans. Michael Bullock (New York: Pantheon, 1970), p. 212; cf. p. 28.

29. 29 Koestler, Janus: A Summing Up (New York: London House, 1978), p. 19.

30. 30 Koestler, Janus, p. 25.

31. 31 Lewis, "The Funeral of a Great Myth," in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 83, 85.

32. 32 See Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1955); and Huxley, Essays of a Humanist (London Chatto & Windus, 1965).

33. 33 Leary, The Politics of Ecstasy (London: Paladin, 1970); Changing My Mind,

among Others: Lifetime Writings (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1982).

34. 34 Roszak, Unfinished Animal: The Aquarian Frontier and Evolutionary Consciousness (London: Faber & Faber, 1975).

35. 35 Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy, pp. 157-62.

36. 36 Roszak, The Making of a Counter-Culture (Garden city, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969.

37. 37 Spangler, Revelation: The Birth of a New Age (Middleton: Lorian Press, 1983).

38. 38 Thompson, The Findhorn Garden (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. ix-x.