Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Myth Of The Sacred Goat Herders

I saved this item the other day while I was reading a newspaper from nearby Knoxville, Tennessee. It caught my attention and I thought it might make a good blog post. There was an ongoing letters-to-the-editor discussion about the question: Does God hear the prayers of non-Christians.
One fellow, while giving his thoughts, opined:
I am constantly amazed at the fact that people still believe in the myths, legends, and superstitions of a bunch of Bronze Age goat herders.
"Now, hold on there," I thought to myself.
I'm not superstitious (at least I don't think so), although I find the study of superstitions fascinating. But I have come to greatly appreciate what Joseph Campbell called "The Power of Myth." If you think of myth as mere silliness, I think you don't understand the subject very well.
And fables are a source of wisdom I have found useful my whole life. My personal opinion is that we are poorer as people because story telling has fallen out of fashion.
When I was in grammar school I had been given a book of Aesop's fables. How I loved that book! I read from it nearly everyday. Now that I think about it, at that particular period of my life, I read Aesop more than I read the Bible - and I got more out of it!
Our angry rationalist in his above letter may or may not be aware that the concept of a Bronze Age comes from a rather ancient book - which is dated back to a time during which parts of the Old Testament was being written and well before any of the New Testament was - which itself is steeped in mythology and legend, Hesiod's Ages of Man.
But that is probably a big never-mind for many because historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists have validated something like Hesiod's concept of a Bronze Age, minus the legendary elements, of course. The point is that practically nothing old can be truly useful, I suppose. These poor, ignorant ancients supposedly had such a poor understanding of life and human nature they could hardly give us any truly useful insights. That is the supposed point.
However, I would ask if it isn't a skeptical myth that the Bible was written by "a bunch of Bronze Age goat herders"?
Seriously, who really believes such a thing? Do the skeptics who spout that meme so frequently? Of course not. It is a myth in the sense that it is presented as a tale of how ignorant ancients lacked understanding about life in the Cosmos and so can be safely ignored. Yet many still find the ancient concept of a Bronze Age valid, and many other ancient ideas still have currency (think of how ancient the concept of biological evolution is).
So what's the real problem?
Of course knowledge is ever increasing. Should human life continue a few more millennia our present state of knowledge will appear primitive. However, I venture to say the beauty of our art and vitality of our spirit will live on. I also suspect the human quest for an understanding of a divine reality will continue, no doubt refined by better understanding of the Cosmos, but still vibrant as a part of the human psyche.  


  1. Hey Doug, easy there my friend! I am pretty much like the fellow you are castigating in this post!

    Here is his point. We know more than the ancients. Back when less was understood, formalized religion began. It incorporated both wise and foolish concepts, both beautiful and horrendous elements.

    We are in an age where no one takes the stage couch anymore. Seeing as how prayer has been shown to be about as effective as any other placebo, belief in it should be discarded, just as the stage coach has been discarded.

    No, the ancients were not dummies. I marvel at what was developed in ancient times, agriculture, writing, the concept of zero and the notion of the value of a number changing according to its location relative to a decimal point, money which facilitates division of labor - wonderful, wonderful stuff. I could never have thought of any of this, and our entire civilization would not be without these wonderful things.

    But some ancient thinking went quite awry, most particularly that imposed by our marvelous agency detection propensity, which largely serves us well, but which as near as I can tell (certainty is illusive!) also detected imaginary things on occasion, particularly gods.

    We, in our more advanced state of knowledge, should not then simply cast out all the ancients have given us, but should instead be fastidious in discriminating the wise from the foolish in all of what has been handed down to us from the past. Prayer being a part of the foolish.

    The poor chap you are responding to had not the patience to elucidate all of this. His terse statement conveys only contempt, but the ancients deserve better than this. I too cringe at the 'bronze age' epithet. It should more accurately be 'iron age'. The chap is being critical of others while making an error of his own. (I guess that's the first time this has ever happened (grin)).

    Of course, you and I both humbly know, than on the sliding scale from unreasonable gullibility to unreasonable skepticism, that we are in the correct place! Isn't that wonderful :-)

    1. No, I don't see how you are much like the fellow I'm castigating. Look, you and I have had our differences, even serious differences, but I never felt like you were being insulting towards me. And, unlike with this guy, I've never seen you give a less than thoughtful response.

      I didn't quote that guy's entire comment about the prayer question, but let me give it now:

      "What a load of absolute phooey.

      I am constantly amazed at the fact that people still believe in the myths, legends, and superstitions of a bunch of Bronze Age goat herders.

      'The bible' is nonsense as is the rest of the phooey you 'christians' spout."

      What is more, I checked this fellow's comments for the past several months and found the "Bronze Age Goat Herders" meme repeated several times when a Christian subject was being addressed.

      It just seemed to me that approach is absolutely silly. As I asked, who really believes the Bible is the product of Bronze Age Goat Herders? I've heard skeptics (besides this guy) say that, but isn't it just a myth - and a bad one at that?

      Say whatever we might about how much more we know than the ancients (a point that of course I wouldn't dispute), but we still have creationists with us today, even advancing scientific-sounding arguments. We still have people - even educated scientists like Francis Collins, not to mention Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and others who believe in efficacy of prayer and the spiritual truth of the Bible. There are serious philosophers who still believe the Bible and Theism, and even advance sophisticated arguments in support.

      Of course there is much room for disagreement. My point is that these folks are hardly simple-minded followers of ancient goat herder thinking.

      It seems to me the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle are still alive and well in our day, as much as is Epicurus's.

      To dismiss it all with the wave of a hand and a silly slogan is to beg the question.

  2. No problems with what you say. The phrase 'bronze age goat herders' is an embarrassment and is indeed wrong. The powers of childhood indoctrination and cultural pressure cannot be underestimated in explaining why some extremely small percentage of even Nobel prize winners can still not disentangle themselves from it. After all the Christian Collins would be the Muslim Collins if brought up in Iran.

    I like this Niels Bohr quote, when asked if he believed in the horseshoe over his door as a good luck charm. Something to the effect, "Of course I don't believe in it. But I have been assured that it works whether you believe in it or not." I would hazard a guess Mr. Bohr was having a little fun!

  3. A curious parallel. If you will go to this post


    interesting and worthy of referral on its own merits, and scroll down through the comments to read the entire exchange between thecountessshadow and tildeb, I think you will agree that these two differ in just about the same way you and I differ, and were able to handle that difference with a grace similar to how we have have done. (I know you like curious parallels! - I think you will enjoy.)

    1. Thanks for the link. I did read the blog and the comments late into the evening.

      You know, I see so many people with a cause. The convinced rationalists trying to "save" the world from unreason, the fanatic religionists trying to "save" it from sin.

      Then there are those of us somewhere in the middle, like me and perhaps the countessshadow.

      It's enough for me to attempt to work my way through the fog of my own heart and mind and then attempt to put it into words. If that helps someone it makes me happy. Likewise if others find it interesting. But for me it's an emotional release.

  4. I see exrelayman addressed the "bronze age" vs. "iron age" issue but even this issue gets itself into a mud-fest amongst skeptics. I might be inclined to say both iron age and bronze age but then why bother when the myths started even before the iron age. Aren't all myths evolving? Are any of those myths (regardless of their age, both oral and written) still intact?

    I've always wondered why goats have to get dragged into the discussion. Poor goats. Sheep herders seems accurate. Sheep need shepherds. Goats don't. I think this is how the myth that unbelievers are the goats got started.

    1. Your comment about the poor goats really got me to laughing. But anyway, as I interpret this skeptical myth, these religious ideas are primitive ideas that we humans ought to have outgrown by now. Yet many of theses ideas are just as alive and well (even if sometimes refined and revised) as when the ancient goat herders or shepherds sat alone in the dark and pondered the heavens above them.

    2. I'm trying to sort through "intact" "goat herder" myths and how they are useful to us today. Is there one you could write about that is beneficial to you?

      For me I guess, the fact that some of them are still around doesn't necessarily indicate usefulness as much as it indicates in an evolutionary way, they are beneficial for our species. Hmm? Is that your point though? (This is one of my early morning juggernauts.)

    3. The human condition - at least as it seems to me - is one that finds us either trying to discover the purpose and/or meaning of life, or if not that, at least trying to determine how we can infuse life with meaning.

      Personally, I have trouble trying to comprehend nothing. Is nihilism (that is, existence as senseless and useless) a viable life philosophy? I can only say that for me it isn't.

      Did existence, or our lives in this amazing cosmos, literally spring into being from nothing and is it destined to peter out into nothing again? That is a concept I have never been able to grasp. Maybe that demonstrates the limits of my intelligence; or maybe it is so against everything my deepest self intuits that I simply won't grasp it. What is nothing? I don't know. I only seem to be able to grasp the something of which I am a part.

      Myths are a fascinating way for me to relate to the human condition. For example, I don't understand the Bible literally, but still I am deeply moved by the myth of God causing a deep sleep to fall on Adam in order to take a rib from his side from which to make him a mate so he would no longer be alone. And with that Adam would say of Eve, "She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh." That's sweet. It represents a certain ideal that obviously is out of fashion with a lot of folks today. I wish I had my missing rib here beside me today, mythologically speaking, of course.

      The point I was making in my post here is that I'm not convinced the ancients had such a poor grasp of the human condition. To nitpick the artistic works of the ancients as they relate to the universe and our place in it because they are so out of sync with modern scientific thought is to take the heart and soul out of our living. We are, after all, emotional beings as much (and probably more so) than we are logical beings.

      Now religious fundamentalists who read their scriptures woodenly and literally miss the point, I think. But many atheists read those scriptures the same way and make the same kind of error in reverse. And both are wrong in my humble opinion.

      Materialist reductionism can never satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. We will always rely on our myths. We will always guide our bark through life navigating with our hearts. In that sense I think myths are useful for us.

    4. I believe that helps me understand your heart, especially the part about Adam and Eve. I think because of my experiences I tend not to think of the myth as sweet. But I guess that's to be expected because of my past fundamentalism.

      Thanks for teasing this out a bit more for me.

    5. So sorry for your pain. Sometimes I read your blog posts and and can almost feel it myself. I don't have any good thing to say about religious fundamentalism. Surely it mainly appeals to a certain personality type, and perhaps that is the problem.

    6. Any idea of the personality type?

    7. Controllers. Authoritarian types.

    8. Hmm. Yikes. I'm a controller and an authoritarian. I knew it. :-)

    9. And such was I once. But what I really mean is that some of us like solutions that can be gathered into in nice, neat packages - more black and white, less gray. Whatever else can be said about fundamentalist religion certainly it is concise and to the point. It doesn't need to be defended logically because "God said" is the ultimate rationale. The less one is willing to question authority the more at home one will feel in fundamentalism. In the end my constant questioning won out over my desire for simplicity.

  5. Replies
    1. Yes, and I've been doing a lot more of it recently. Thanks for helping me along.

  6. I will listen, again, to Campbell as I travel to see my Mother this morning. He gets my brain bubbling with excitement.

    1. It's been such a long time since I watched that series he did for PBS. It really made a great impression on me.

  7. The great irony is that most who regurgitate variations of this very common claim never have even attempted to study the subject, let alone the Bible itself and are exhibiting their own (willful) ignorance and even betraying their unwillingness to learn out of fear of the truth:

    *Job, the oldest book in the Bible (ca. 2200 B. C.), was recorded by a young philosopher -

    *Moses wrote the Torah (1445-1405 B. C.) who was raised as heir to the Egyptian throne, educated in the Egyptian arts, science, mathematics and philosophy -

    *Joshua (1405-1385 B. C.) was written by Joshua who was Moses' minister and commander of Israel's military -

    *Judges & Ruth (1043 B. C., 1030-1010 B. C.) was written by the prophet Samuel -

    *Song of Solomon, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (971-931 B. C.) were all penned by Solomon, one of the greatest kings in Israel's history; son of King David who was also a psalmist (song writer) and a warrior: wrote many of the Psalms (1410-450 B. C.) -

    *the books of the prophets (850-424 B. C.; Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, Malachi, Hosea, Zechariah, etc.) were written by those who worked according to their prophetic profession -

    *Ezra, 1/2Chronicles were written by Ezra, who was a scribe and priest (457-430 B. C.) -

    *Mordecai is possible author of Esther who was her uncle from a prominent family (450-331 B. C.), and she was a Persian queen -

    *Much of the New Testament (A. D. 44-96) was written by fisherman, tent makers, tax collectors, apostles and one of the most intelligent and learned Rabbinical scholars.

    *Luke was a doctor and an excellent biographer and historian even recognised as such by today's standards

    Many portions of the Bible are so eloquent and sophisticated that is is/has been used even in secular literature classes as a standard.

    This doesn't sound like a bunch of ignorant goat herders to me.

    Quod Erat Demonstrandum

    Furthermore, such ‘arguments’ are a form of the “ad hominem” logical fallacy as instead of addressing the message, these irrational skeptics are instead attacking the messenger.

    For even if they *were* goat herders, this in no way shape or form would invalidate the truthfulness of what they wrote. To do that one must examine and address the *facts*- something most skeptics are too lazy (and fearful) to do- for if and when it turned out that the evidence is on the side of the Biblical narrative then ultimately they would be held accountable for their every sinful word, deed and thought to a Holy God who they know very well would be perfectly justified in punishing them.

    Their solution? Close their eyes and deny everything in the vain hope that this will make reality go away.

    God’s solution was to become man Himself as Jesus Christ to pay the price for their sins, but sadly even then too many are too rebellious, dishonest, fearful, self-centered and self-blinded to look into this historically verifiable fact and so doom themselves to an eternity of regret.

    As always, it is a matter of *will* not as opposed to cannot believe.

    Learn more here: http://www.101arguments.com/2013/06/the-argument-from-intelligence-of-bible.html

    See also: http://carm.org/bible-writers