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Can we define religion as "the mythologies that don't assume they are mythologies"?

First, mythology is the oldest way of describing Nature. Polytheisms, extant or extinct, usually know|knew their mythologic nature. Thus the usually pacific and prolific relationships between many different polytheistic people (between many amerindian tribes, or between old indians and chinese, for instance).

Since many gods exist in such mythologies, for "my gods" to exist it isn't necessary that "your gods" don't exist.

Then monotheism comes to the picture. It claims to itself the status of "truth". For "my God", the "only god" to be correct, any other gods must be false. Isn't it a completely new concept? Isn't it a mythology, like any other, with the main difference of not accepting to be called like that? Doesn't it come wrapped in an unprecedented layer of lie (deny every other myth, except itself)? If so, how can we call all of them the same?

A: call both "mythology", and monotheism/religion a subset of all existing mythologies. B: call both "religion", but polytheism/mythology a subset of all existing religions.

Looks like the choice between A and B is entirely dependent of what you believe|think? Or is there a rational, concrete, least prone to doubt or attack, way of choosing?

Since polytheistic mythologies are much older and geographically more widespread, to me sounds natural that some modern so-called religions derived from them, and not the opposite (as some believers have already tried to convince me).

So, "religion" and "mythology" are synonyms? Or one is a subset of the other? If so, which is a subset of which?

  • I'm not really seeing a question about philosophy here. Can you make clearer what your question about philosophy is? – virmaior Nov 6 '15 at 22:23
  • Isn't philosophy the "love/pursuit of knowledge"? Isn't knowledge also the proper use of names? If monotheism -- the institution that dominates most aspects of western life -- is "truth" of if it's a "myth" isn't of philosophical concern? – Rodrigo Nov 6 '15 at 22:26
  • This SE is not for doing philosophy but rather for asking questions about philosophy, for instance, trying to understand what a particular author is saying. – virmaior Nov 6 '15 at 22:28
  • "Ask questions about philosophy" is the same as "do philosophy" to me. It's all searching for knowledge. Perhaps you're a little too restrictive on your definition. And not every question on the site are about authors, are they? Perhaps your restrictive view is just another layer of monotheistic defense, I've noticed that's very common, not only here, but among most western philosophers as well. – Rodrigo Nov 6 '15 at 22:34
  • Most English-speaking philosophers are atheists (roughly 80%). But no, "ask questions about philosophy" is no more identical to "do philosophy" than "ask questions about biology" is identical to "post pictures of cats." Knowledge comes in many shapes and sizes, but the SE model is to have each SE focus on one. – virmaior Nov 6 '15 at 23:19
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The correct answer is B:

B: call both "religion", but polytheism/mythology a subset of all existing religions.

There are several established and historical religions which are polytheistic. Notably, in modern times, some schools of Hinduism and Buddhism (e.g. Tibetan Buddhism), and Shintoism (the traditional religion of Japan) among others are recognized by scholars, practitioners and governments as formal religions. They all contain some elements of religion: Scripture, deities, a creation story, a set of moral rules, a priesthood, etc...

Looks like the choice between A and B is entirely dependent of what you believe|think? Or is there a rational, concrete, least prone to doubt or attack, way of choosing?

This is incorrect: Although there is no formal strict definition of religion, as mentioned earlier, several polytheistic belief systems are officially recognized as being religions by both scholars and governments.

When defining a category, it is possible to define it in two ways:

  • Either by having a strict set of rules for what belongs in that category and what doesn't.
  • Or by having a set of prototypes and examples of what a member of that category looks like, but without any clear set of features separating the member from the non members. Wittgenstein popularized this notion of family resemblance.

Based on family resemblance polytheistic belief systems definitely fall under the category of religion.

Moreover, polytheism and monotheism are both forms of theism, coming from the Greek word theos meaning 'god'. If you want an irrefutable argument that polytheism is a subset of religion, then you might say that any form of theism is a religion, although not all religions are theistic.


As a historical aside:

Then monotheism comes to the picture. It claims to itself the status of "truth". For "my God", the "only god" to be correct, any other gods must be false. Isn't it a completely new concept? Isn't it a mythology, like any other, with the main difference of not accepting to be called like that?

It should be noted that most scholars believe that monotheism evolved from polytheism in a more gradual way than what you describe. Monotheism (and more specifically Judaism which is the source of most other monotheisms) is thought to have grown out of henotheism. Henotheism is when one worships only one god, but believes that other gods exist, or at least that their existence is possible. It is speculated that the Jews progressed from "there are many gods, but we only worship Yahweh" to "Yahweh is stronger and than all other gods and he will be angry if we don't worship him alone" to "Yahweh is the only god". In the Bible says more than once that Jews are forbidden from worshipping other gods - because Yahweh is a jealous god. If these other gods didn't exist, why be jealous of them or worry about them at all?

Christianity and Islam, then picked up on this concept and extended to mean that worshipping more than one god at once is somehow evil.

  • Which scholars and governments are you referring to? Maybe they're too influenced by western terminology? Daoism has two "sides": the philosophic/daojia and the religious/daojiao. Confucianism can hardly be called a religion. Buddhism, like most polytheisms, don't impose a believe-or-go-to-hell (with 3 main philosophies, China still has a rich diversity of familiar religions/mythologies). They're all more rational than just use fear of hell to force people to follow. We also need to see how hindus translate the world "religion", and how they called their own mythologies before the British Raj. – Rodrigo Nov 6 '15 at 22:19
  • What I mean is that monotheism and polytheism are so different phenomena, that I think using the same word to all of them more confuses than enlightens us. Unless you understand monotheism is a violent and imperialistic culture, so denounce them as mythologies has the benefit of slowing down their imperialistic hunger. Anyway, I noticed that most western philosophers always take the perspective of defending their own culture, many times not even noticing the destruction it causes. – Rodrigo Nov 6 '15 at 22:20
  • Also, if you think it's "correct" because it's of widespread use, than it was "correct" to say the world was flat when it was a widespread belief? – Rodrigo Nov 6 '15 at 22:22
  • You seem to be conflating Abrahamic monotheism with religion, but they are not the same. Hinduism is definitely a religion, not just a mythology, it involves worship, prayer, temples, priests, rules like "don't eat beef", etc...and although there is no threat of hell, there is a threat of being reincarnated as worm in the next life if one doesn't behave. – Alexander S King Nov 6 '15 at 22:55
  • Well, in definition A, Hinduism may be only a mythology, which is good. And since in Philosophy usually there are no "right" choices, your "DEFINITELY a religion" sounds misplaced. Mythology has worhship... rules, only lack faith as in "you MUST believe" (in the unbelievable!). Mythology (= Philosophy?) brings a natural causation, don't eat that because in the long run it will be bad for society. It'll seek the causes, it'll merge with science, not isolate from it. Today monotheisms don't seek, they avoid the causes. There's no discussion, no philosophy, different from polytheisms. – Rodrigo Nov 6 '15 at 23:28
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I'm inclined to think that the answer depends on the belief.

Those who defend monotheism will answer like virmaior, who denied the right of the question itself to be presented here, or like Alexander, who thinks B is the "correct answer".

Those who think too quickly on the subject, and have no opinion whatsoever, will be inclined to go with the Zeitgeist, and also choose B.

Those who see monotheism as a huge lie and essentially an evil enterprise, one destroying not only cultural diversity, but also intertwined with biodiversity erosion and other ecological problems: Laozi, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Freud, Russell, Sagan, Dawkins, Hitchens, Vidal and many others, including me, will try and be able to understand that A is, perhaps or probably, a viable definition.

The first group will most probably: a) don't understand it; b) don't even try to understand it; or c) pretend they didn't understand it.

Just my opinion on the subject. And if, on the Philosophy realm, we need to cite an author -- be on a question/answer website or any other modern Agora -- then I think it was much better to live in Antiquity, where Philosophy meant to do the questions that came to your brain, and there was no difference if they were your questions or someone else's, only that you wanted to gather more opinions about, i.e. try to understand.

  • I haven't denied you the right to your question but your answer says that your question is opinion-based ... I also don't think it's an invalid sort of thing to study in say anthropology or cultural history (though I have my doubts about the accuracy of the polytheism births henotheism births monotheism myth). – virmaior Nov 6 '15 at 23:21
  • @Rodrigo If you think I am defending monotheism, then you have seriously misunderstood my response. – Alexander S King Nov 6 '15 at 23:26
  • @virmaior one might argue that monotheism sprung independently from Plato. However the progression of semitic religions from henotheism to monotheism is supported by linguistic evidence, as some of the words used for God in the Bible and the Quran have their origins in the pre-monotheistic semitic pantheons. – Alexander S King Nov 6 '15 at 23:30
  • @AlexanderSKing, perhaps you as a person don't defend monotheism, but your position "B is correct" to me seems to give strength to it. – Rodrigo Nov 6 '15 at 23:32
  • @virmaior It looks like opinion-based, but... is it? – Rodrigo Nov 6 '15 at 23:33

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