A.J. Marsden, Ph.D., and William Nesbitt, Ph.D.

Myth on the Mind

Be(lie)ve It or Not: Part One

Core ideas about belief from psychology and mythology

Posted Jul 11, 2017

Manu Praba / Wikipedia Commons CC BY 2.0
Source: Manu Praba / Wikipedia Commons CC BY 2.0

One of the cores of all mythological systems is belief.  This is so obvious, such a given that we don’t think about it much more than we think about the font or the size of letters when we are reading, unless the outrageousness of a belief makes us ask who in the world could possibly believe such a thing.  We register our shock, maybe ask someone else for his or her reaction, and move along.  However, belief, like mythology, is not a singular thing any more than color is: There are variations, versions, types, shades, and levels.  Fundamentalists, zealots, and extremists may feel differently, but belief is not an all-or-nothing proposition.       

While the first season of American Gods has a somewhat surface relationship to the various myths it appropriates, the show’s deeper premise is that all mythologies/religions are true, but the twist is that the amount and degree of belief each system’s believer has determines how powerful the belief system is.  In short, the more devoted and more numerous the followers, the more powerful the god.  Consequently, The Old Gods of Norse, Celtic, and European mythologies whose followers and have diminished come into conflict with The New Gods of media, globalization, and technology which may not have concrete belief systems, extended history, or an obvious set of divine figures—in the series various characters personify them—but exert tremendous power and influence nonetheless.  Certainly, the ways in which we depend on technology, the attention we devote to it, and the ways in which it is so embedded in the basic fabric of our daily lives equal or approach the characteristics of a religion.   

Yet, The Old Gods become new and The New Gods become old.  The ways in which we observe technology creeping—some might say encroaching—into every aspect of our lives is nothing new.  For example, panenthesism and panthesism—there are differences between the two—are ancient beliefs that hold that the divine infuses everything.

Although people have wondered about each other’s feeling, actions, and minds since the beginning of humanity, psychology is a relatively recent formalized, scientific attempt at understanding human beings.  While mythology is generally not data driven, it intersects and, at times, parallels psychology in that it is still observation-based and an attempt to explain people, our conditions, and our states of being.

We can see psychological concepts about belief that overlap with mythology.  To lead into this, we might begin with the distinction between alief and belief.  Alief is an attitude or behavior that is in conflict with our beliefs. Alief often leads to cognitive dissonance, which is a form of mental discomfort or stress the person experiences because he or she is simultaneously holding two or more contradictory beliefs, such as avoiding walking under a ladder even when you don’t believe you are superstitious. My behavior – avoiding the ladder – and my belief about myself – that I am not superstitious – do not match.  Therefore, I might experience some tension and start to question my behavior or my inconsistent superstitious ideas.  Or I might bury this tension and refuse to address it.

While less comprehensive than myth, superstition is the cousin of both myth and obsessive compulsive disorder.  Whereas a religious person refrains from an action because of a fear or a need to follow an external religious mandate, an obsessive compulsive person creates a more personalized sense of retribution, cause and effect, and order based on an inner order.  One person’s counting of rosary beads or repetitive chanting of a mantra becomes another person’s need to perform some action a set number of times.  Of course, an observer might say that praying to a god is a much more valid action than choosing the number four over six because it “feels” better for some reason.  But unless one believes in that particular god, is the one action any more reasonable or justified than the other?  Ritual is ritual.  Are personal mythologies any less valid than public mythologies?  Perhaps not, at least on the level of the individual.    

In the next column, we’ll look at some specific theories of belief and their mythical and psychological origins and counterparts.