Myth of Mythopoeic Eras

According to the Pew Research Center, there are 247,000,000 Christians in the United States. In other words, 80% of all Americans identify as Christian.

Pew just released poll showing that nearly half (48%) of these American Christians believe that Jesus will “definitely” (27%) or “probably” (20%) return to earth in the next 40 years. In other words, nearly 119,000,000 million Americans believe that Jesus will return within 40 years.

Jesus-Return-Americans-Pew-PollLet that sink in for a moment and say this out loud: “one-hundred-and-nineteen million (119,000,000) Americans.”

I am in the midst of a reading programme that involves the classification of human history into various epochs or periods. Though these typological schemes come in different shapes and sizes, most of them reduce to a progressive binary along these lines:

Ancient Epoch                                Modern Epoch

Primitive                                            Advanced

Simple                                               Complex

Traditional                                         Rational

Mythic                                                Scientific

The next time I read an anthropologist, sociologist, or historian who tells me that that the Enlightenment worked a revolution in prevailing or characteristic modes of thought and we have passed beyond mythical thinking or a mythopoeic era, my head will almost certainly explode. I’m talking to you Ernst Cassirer, Peter Gay, and Robert Bellah. The ghost of Lucien Levy-Bruhl continues to haunt us.


Addendum: In this April 2, 2013 poll, we learn that 13% of American voters believe that Obama is the Anti-Christ and another 13% are not sure whether he is the Beast. Because there are ~150 million American voters, this means that nearly 20 million Americans believe he is the Anti-Christ and another 20 million consider it possible.

Did you like this? Share it:

8 thoughts on “Myth of Mythopoeic Eras

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Excellent crippling data. And fantastic illustration.
    The next worse thing to those who valorize our evolutionary superiority,
    are those that idealize the past.
    If I read another anthropologist who …..

    May the Lords return, and his Kingdom established soon! 😉

    Great post. Thanx

  2. pain0strumpet

    Cris ~

    My experience of discussions of any other “mythopoeic” culture is that I’m told, “You’re being too modern and Western in your perceptions and assumptions. These people have vibrant stories that are true for them. And maybe erecting a giant statue won’t affect the next hunt or the size of next year’s crops, but that’s not to say that their myths are wrong.”

    I don’t know what to say in such cases. I think there are vastly more ways to be wrong than to be right. I can devise one hundred stories, some more plausible than others, which may resonate for my readers while being nonetheless factually inaccurate, false renderings of the world we live in. My stories might prompt people to approach real world problems in a useful way, or to feel hope when they might otherwise be discouraged, but to argue that my stories aren’t “wrong” on that basis is to be at least condescending.

    Would you say that the large number of millions of Americans who believe that Jesus will return as a living person in the next 40 years are wrong? (“Wrong” in the sense of “Jesus will not achieve the same sort of actual reality that the barrista in the coffee shop I’m sitting in has.”) I would say that they are wrong on this scale, and wrongness to this degree is the sort of thing that leads me to judge the True Believers poorly in other areas.

    – emc

  3. Juggernaut Nihilism

    “I think there are vastly more ways to be wrong than to be right.”

    The conceit here is to think that the modern rationalist perspective is anything other than one of the myriad ways of being wrong. I suppose it is possible that the generation that finally corrected all the errors of the past and got everything sorted out just happened to be the generation we find ourselves in, but such a fortunate coincidence probably deserves suspicion.

    As for the original post, those numbers are simply mind-boggling. Especially when you consider the likely geographic divergences involved: If 119 million Americans believe in that primitive eschatology, probably very few of them are located in NYC, LA, Chicago, etc. We are truly seeing the end product of that late-stage urbanization in which all the life energy of whole broad regions is pulled, as if by gravity, into a few megalopolitan drains while the rest is dessicated. Greater access to higher education has improved our meritocracy to the point that anyone with an IQ on the left side of the bell curve can be fished out of whatever backwoods provincial town in which they happened to be born and drawn into the urban centers.

    There is an interesting paradox, though. An effective mythology ought to help adjust its constituent believers into properly functioning members of its society. Christianity today seems intent on performing the exact opposite task. Something like Mormonism doubly so. And yet, what are we to make of the fact that, compared to fellow citizens with a presumably more accurate cosmology and vision of history, believers in these silly myths score better on all measures of social capital, commitment to community (through service and charity), neurosis (except, of course, insofar as we define believing in Jesus’ imminent return as neurotic), family formation and divorce rate, propensity to crime, even economic success (even autistic-atheist tech billionaires don’t statistically make up for the higher percentage of the upper-middle class that are practicing religionists compared to the lower-class)?

    My assumption is that, although practicing members of a religion in the upper-middle class outnumber those in the lower class, the reverse would be true for the half that believe the Second Coming is imminent, but I have no data to back this up. Anecdotally, I know a highly successful multi-millionaire options trader who is full-on into End Times theology, as well as several other college-educated professionals who believe the same… an unaccountable fact that I have been puzzling over for some time now.

  4. Cris Post author


    Sorry for the delayed response. I’m taking issue with the whole idea that there is such a thing, whether an epoch or mode of thought, that can justifiably be called a mythopoeic era or society. The fact that so many millions of Americans, living in the so-called age of science or rationality, believe this myth at least partially proves my point.

    Do I think they are “wrong”? If you mean wrong as in a truth-correspondence sense, then yes. But I’d simply say they are laboring under the illusion of myth and leave it at that. I’m not especially keen on normative evaluations of this sort of thing.

    I think what has been called “myth” in other societies is a giant misconstrual of basic storytelling, or a failure to understand that these “myths” are cosmological propositions that don’t purport to explain or predict the world.

    The Jesus will return myth purports to be true, and both explain and predict. I don’t know what to say about it, other than: “wow.”

  5. Cris Post author

    Interesting observations. I’m hesitant to talk about “Christianity” in the essential or monolithic singular, simply because it’s such a vast and divergent grouping. Even American Christians are a fairly diverse group.

    I don’t even want to touch your (probably accurate) characterization of the dessicated hinterlands, however astute those observations might be.

    My preference is to limit my mythological musings to “other” societies. It’s too painful to contemplate the one in which I live.

  6. pain0strumpet

    Juggernaut Nihilism ~

    ” I suppose it is possible that the generation that finally corrected all the errors of the past and got everything sorted out just happened to be the generation we find ourselves in, but such a fortunate coincidence probably deserves suspicion.”

    This idea is adding more to what I said than I would try to argue, much less believe. That we live in a generation that has corrected all errors and has everything sorted out is wildly unlikely. But it is clearly true that we’re closer to an accurate grasp on reality than the previous generation, as they were over their predecessors.

    That we are probably wrong on important issues does not detract from the areas in which we’re right. And that we are wrong, just as previous generations have been wrong, does not in any way defend those previous generations from charges of having been wrong.

  7. pain0strumpet

    Cris ~

    Thanks for the reply. I think I’d have to agree that there’s no significant distinction between a mythopoeic society or era and whatever our era might be called, at least when comparing True Believers. The important distinction I’d draw is on another axis entirely: the middle-American True Believer doesn’t have plausible deniability on issues of fact. (Biblical literalists, for example, aren’t operating in the same context as the earliest hunters we could call human. The modern folk should simply know better.)

    “I think what has been called “myth” in other societies is a giant misconstrual of basic storytelling, or a failure to understand that these “myths” are cosmological propositions that don’t purport to explain or predict the world.”

    This is one of those moments when I realize that I’m struggling to understand a totally alien perspective. (I’ve been having them regularly while listening to “The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries” by Professor Alan Charles Kors.) My immediate thought is, “Well, of course a myth purports to explain the world. What else is it supposed to do? The tellers wouldn’t claim the story is fiction, would they?” And I follow that with, “Okay, check that assumption.”

    I think there’s an obvious difference between truth and fiction, even for fiction that is true-to-life. And, for stories told as true, I think there’s a difference between accurate and inaccurate (or true and false, or right and wrong). It sounds as if you’re saying that a mythic storyteller doesn’t share this perspective with me. Do I understand you correctly?

  8. John Blaise Lent

    You can be good at math (very good at math) and still be crazy and paranoid. Hence options trading success can coexist comfortably with the idea that Jesus is going to be burning down Wells Fargo in the next few weeks.

Leave a Reply