This started as what was thought to be a simple English usage question to help me with a presentation. I wanted an umbrella term for writing that has no intrinsic or explicit connection to religion or mythology.

Stories/movies/etc. seem to always have some kind of connection to religious or otherwise mythological roots. An easy example trope would be the "underdog" winning (David vs Goliath), etc.

This brought up discussion whether such a thing (a fully secular story) exists or can exist. With the exception of non-fiction* is it possible to write fiction without an intrinsic or explicit moral message

Full disclosure - I am not a philosopher of any type, so feel free to edit, if I've used dysfunctional terminology.

*- Even documentaries and often non-fiction seem to have 'morals' embedded throughout them.

  • Can you define "religious" and "mythological" here? (Also note at least one contemporary definition of myth does not need to have any religious import). – virmaior Mar 23 '16 at 1:08
  • @virmaior - thanks for your patience on this one; myth is separated from religion here; I would (hesitantly) say any non-scientific stories (mythological, religious, etc.) that intentionally had morals or lessons attached to them. If that opens up too many cans of worms, I can try to re-phrase this. – Mikey Mar 23 '16 at 1:25
  • maybe to restate it more simply, you're asking if it's possible to write fiction or non-fiction without moral message ? (or maybe more broadly purpose?) – virmaior Mar 23 '16 at 2:23

There exist many works from fiction which are secular in the sense of your definition, i.e., free from religion or mythology. Just to name two modern authors: Henry Miller (Quiet days in Clichy) or Max Frisch (Homo faber).

In addition: A novel dealing with questions of moral can be a secular work. Moral and religion are not necessarily linked. There exist many systems of moral without religious foundation, e.g., Kant's Categorical Imperative.

  • Take the question in context -- if all 'underdog' tropes are meant to be related to 'David and Goliath', to what degree is the CI not just a form of Christ's Second Command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."? He was a Christian, so the odds that the second most important tenet of his religion just happened accidentally to become the basis of his entire ethics is unlikely. That gives is implicit religious content. – user9166 Mar 23 '16 at 14:16

Jung would deduce there cannot be such, and a long history of philology tends to agree with him. Writing is a psychological process, and psychology is anchored in the collective unconscious.

So we are shaped by our culture's shared fund of stories to the degree that we cannot help but be influenced by some 'archetypical' material that would touch upon our mythological roots.

That does not mean the influence is chosen, or that it is even strong. You cannot escape archetypes, but there is all kinds of other material. From a point of view like Jung's (or Lacan's) the very vocabulary is built on exemplars of archetypes, which are older than rational analysis, and therefore mythological. We certainly learn our own language in a matrix of mythologies built on layers of other mythologies. (In Westerns, there is a set of tropes imbued with a mythology of rugged individualism, build on a specific mythologizing of US history and 'American-ness' built on the notion of Christendom, built upon religious positions chosen by Roman Catholics against Orthodox positions chosen to resist Caliphate Islam...) But any story is not just made up of words, or even of basal tropes, or it would completely fail to be art.

In that sense, how does even our non-fiction escape mythological roots?

We derive models in modern sciences by analogy with past models, which ultimately go back to religious impressions. The frequency of particles is the music of the spheres (the songs of angels) and the subtle vibrations of Ayurveda. What is really going on has absolutely nothing to do with vibration, and was originally conceived of as rotation. But we are used to the story, and it has ongoing religious resonance.

We demand a creation myth for our universe, even if it involves an imaginary dimension to time, not because physics actually needs one but because religions always gave us one, and we have come to expect them. (In fact, it is not entirely in accord with the predictive nature of the new views of science to retroactively predict what we will never observe, especially if it requires rules significantly different from the ones we do observe)

And our science is an extension of our philosophy.

Questions here still consider Aristotelian and Platonic views favored by the Church and supportive of a religious creation myth. The whole of our philosophy has been drenched in theology so recently that we are still talking about some 'secular' notion of God, framed as the omnipotent creator, but independent of any acknowledged religious orthodoxy. We make it ontology rather than religion by tying it back to the Greeks.

  • 1
    Isn't your term 'secular' notion of god a contradiction in adiecto? - Moreover I do not see how, e.g., Hilbert space as a mathematical model for quantum mechanics, has an analogue in the past and goes back to a religious impression. - Also I find a bold thesis your statement, that modern writers are bound to invent new stories only from Jungian archetypes as components. - Could you please add some arguments? Thanks. – Jo Wehler Mar 23 '16 at 8:25
  • @JoWehler Is Plato's Timaeus not secular philosophy? Then there is a secular God. We take a long climb up to matrix calculations, and we can't get there without stories that have definite mythological content. Mythology gives reason traction, but of course it does not do the math. – user9166 Mar 23 '16 at 12:52
  • Could you please give me your definition of a secular god; thanks. - Do you mean matrix calculation in the sense of Linear Algebra? If yes, why do you need mythology to derive the rule of matrix calculation? – Jo Wehler Mar 23 '16 at 13:01
  • @JoWehler I gave an example. If it is not such a thing as you claim does not exist -- then make your point. Mine is made. Operations in Hilbert Space are what I meant by 'matrix calculations'. I explicitly said the religion and the math are not connected. So you are not listening. Try finding someone who does those computations as a starting point, bypassing vibrational models and the Big Bang, so they can have an education in physics without exposure to basically religious ideas. – user9166 Mar 23 '16 at 13:30
  • @JoWehler You also put words in my mouth injecting an only that I don't. I will further edit to remove that objection. You must rely on archetypes to make sense, but to use only those would net you a very boring and abstract story. – user9166 Mar 23 '16 at 13:40

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