David Leeming, Myth: A Biography of Belief (Oxford, 2002)

“We are either heroes of the new myth or captives of the old.” —page 159

As a child growing up in a Catholic household, attending Mass every Sunday, I remember that although church was more than a little boring, there was still a sense of rightness to it. I would listen to the priest or read the stories in my children’s Bible, and I took it all to heart. Just as I was in my secular school, I was often the best little student in my Friday afternoon Catechism class. That is, of course, until my knowledge of the world grew and I found contradictions at every turn.

Maybe it started when I learned that human beings weren’t the first animals on our planet, or perhaps it was when I realized there were children in my class from other countries and other religions who believed things that were vastly different from what I had been taught. Eventually I started to ask the obvious questions that neither my parents nor my church could answer to my satisfaction, which often inspired defensive and even angry responses. The utter inflexibility and illogic of the myths I was supposed to regard as absolute truths inevitably led me to an impasse. There was simply no way for me to continue believing in the idea of a God as I had known him and make progress in other areas of learning at the same time. Unable or unwilling to deny my rational mind, I quickly relegated religion to the same place in my thinking as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

This, in essence, is the theme of David Leeming’s Myth: A Biography of Belief. In a series of four essays, Leeming seeks to prove that in order for the societies of earth to progress in a healthy, non-destructive manner, we must let go of our old religious myths — which contradict reality, isolate cultures, denigrate women, justify violence, and hinder us in countless other ways — and create new myths that are supported by our ever-changing understanding of the universe.

Leeming commits one essay each to the challenge to religion, and the ideas of creation, divinity, and the hero. Each chapter begins with several examples of myths from different world religions, but there is a definite emphasis throughout the book on Christianity. He also devotes a great many pages to exploring the role our antiquated God-the-Father myths have played in the oppression of women throughout history. Leeming’s book is made more readable and saved from overt didacticism by his unique presentation of the material. Instead of arguing in a straight-forward manner that would ultimately prove tiresome, Leeming frequently creates real-life scenes for the reader that illustrate his points in an interesting and accessible way.

At a brief 162 pages, David Leeming’s Myth: A Biography of Belief is non-intimidating but thought-provoking reading for anyone who struggles with the dichotomy of the antiquated religious myths our parents, peers, and clergy ask us to buy into, and our knowledge of the universe today. For anyone who wishes they could find comfort, awe, or wonder in religion the way it seems our ancestors did, but is unable to reconcile what our traditional religious texts tell us with rational thought, Leeming’s book suggests a hopeful alternative. Those who will cling steadfastly to the old stories, resisting changes in thinking, and insisting that their myths be taken literally, defying all logic and scientific progress, would be more comfortable steering clear of this one.

[Christine Doiron]