What is Mythology? (Part 7: Religion and Mythology)

What is the difference between mythology and religion?

There are two cynical answers: “Nothing” and “A mythology is just a religion no one believes in anymore.”

I reject both of these answers, mainly because they fail to grapple with the subtleties of the question. With a wave of a hand, 100,000 years of human culture are dismissed.


Also, the terms “mythology” and “religion” are addressing two different things. Mythology is the study of myth. Religion is a system of beliefs and practices formally organized and set into action in the world. Myths are usually contained within this system. While myths can be formed outside of religion (think of national myths, such as Johnny Appleseed), most myths have some connection with religious systems. It could be said that myths are the literary content of religion.

Of course, there’s an instant problem with this statement. Many religious adherents will object to sacred stories being referred to as “literary.” This is where the cynics are on to something (namely the slippery subjectivity involved in distinguishing  between myth and religion), and it results in the following scenario:

If a religious adherent reads a story from his sacred scriptures and believes it to be literally true and the product of divine authorship, the writings, to him are not myths. If, however, that very same story is perceived by another person as a non-literal tale that emerged from an oral tradition of human authors, it is safe to claim it for mythology.

This was, essentially, Robert Grave’s position on the matter. He believed  that a religious story was only a myth to those who did not belong to the religion.thewhitegoddess071

But wait, you ask, doesn’t this imply that the definitions of religion and mythology depend solely on preference?

No, I would argue (in disagreement with Graves) because regardless of how it’s perceived, the myth remains a myth. In fact, if a myth can be read by one person as literal, divine truth, by another as non-literal symbolism, and still another as veiled anthropology, its qualities as a piece of writing must have myth-like qualities, namely a style that calls to mind the previous discussion on myth-as-fugue in Part 2 and Part 3.

This helps clarify a key difference between religious writing and mythological writing, a difference we could characterize as directness vs. indirectness, or perhaps as prose vs. poetry, though that may complicate things.

Let me back up. Religion can be said to be the structures, institutions, and rules that govern the faithful’s participation in their belief system, which is metaphysical in nature and which usually has scriptural support from a range of writings we can loosely divide into two categories:

1) The direct writings necessary to spell out rules of behavior and define beliefs and doctrines clearly enough to create the semblance of coherence among the followers and to distinguish their religion from the next.

2) Indirect and stylized writings that suggest the mysterious qualities of the metaphysical dimensions of the religion, usually without explicit messages attached.

It’s the difference between Leviticus and the Book of Job. The Book of Job, as a story without an explicitly defined moral, lends itself to multiple interpretations. (Check out Carl Jung’s Answer to Job if you want to see how far a legitimate interpretation of Job can go.)  In fact, the Book of Job is more probe than story. The truth is not directly revealed because, God tells us, we can never know. It is also a story containing fantastical events and improbable characters. Additionally, some scholarship pegs it as the oldest book in the Bible and the result of a long, evolving oral tradition, written before God and Satan were adversaries. Indeed, they consult with one another as partners at the beginning of the story.k9504

The Book of Leviticus, though containing figures, such as Moses, we may consider to be mythological, is largely a collection of laws meant to be followed to the letter as part of religious practice. Perhaps one could argue that the origin and moral authority upon which these laws rest is mythological in nature, but the nature of the writing itself is direct, prescriptive, and straightforward. In Leviticus 2:7, for example, we know exactly what is being asked of us: “And if thy oblation be a meat offering baken in the fryingpan, it shall be made of fine flour with oil.”

Religion, then, is about how to adhere to a belief. Myths, we could say, are about why, provided the answer is not, “Because God said you had to. It’s right here in Leviticus.”

Perhaps a better way to say it is that myths leave the mystery open. Most religions are comfortable with this as well, to a certain extent, as long as they also have access to a more codified methodology for manifesting their beliefs in the world, via their organization and legal systems.

Clearly religion and mythology are closely related (though myths do get created outside of the confines of religion), but at what point does mythologizing end and religious-izing begin? (I made that word up).

You can see why a cynic might answer “Nothing!” to the question, “What is the difference between Religion and Mythology?” because it seems as if I’ve engaged in nothing but semantics. I think the boundaries are blurry and the discussion of their differences should continue to be open-ended.

Let me just finish with one more answer: The aim of religion is largely to help a follower become better at practicing that particular religion. Myths, regardless of which religion they may be associated with, should make you wonder what you’re even doing here.