Science and History as Myth and Fiction: Exploring Some Common Labels

(Originally published in 2010 elsewhere) Most people know the genre of “parable” because they’re in the Gospels, but “myth” is poorly understood and the term carries a lot of negative baggage. Like “literal” you have to be very careful throwing around the term without defining it. One simple definition of myth is that myth is worldview in narrative form. That is, it’s a way of explaining one’s conception of how the world works in everyday language or story form.

John Walton, an Evangelical Old Testament professor who’s earned my respect, elaborates on myth this way.

“Mythology by its nature seeks to explain how the world works and how it came to work that way, and therefore includes a culture’s ‘theory of origins.’ We sometimes label certain literature as ‘myth’ because we do not believe that the world works that way. The label is a way of holding it at arm’s length so as to clarify that we do not share that belief – particularly as it refers to involvement and activities of the gods. But for the people to whom the mythology belonged, it was a real description of deep beliefs. Their “mythology” expressed their beliefs concerning what made the world what it was; it expressed their theories of origins and how their world worked.     By this definition, our modern mythology is represented by science – our own theories of origins and operations. Science provides what is generally viewed as the consensus concerning what the world is, how it works and how it came to be. Today, science makes no room for deity (although neither does it disprove deity), in contrast to the ancient explanations, which were filled with deity.”

– The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, p. 14-15.

NPR once provided a perfect example of modern myth. Radiolab featured a discussion with Dr. Fred Coolidge about the hypnic jerk. That’s not a certain kind of internet troll, but the thing you do when you’re 90% asleep, and suddenly… your legs kick and you’re wide awake. That’s a hypnic jerk. No one really knows why it happens.

Coolidge suggests that way back in the past, primates underwent a transitional period between living on the ground and living in the trees. They returned to the trees at night because it was safer, but lived primarily on the ground. Falling out of the tree at night would likely cause injury and expose you to predators on the ground. A  monitoring-and-correction system or a subconscious “am I falling out of the tree?” reflex could conceivably be an evolutionary advantage, one passed down to us as a vestigial sleep habit. In other words, evolutionary biology may explain the hypnic jerk and why so many people dream about falling.

The whole series (of which the hypnic jerk is part six) is interesting and worth listening to, but here’s a rough transcript of the relevant part between the two hosts and the sleep professor.

Prof: “If some of those primates had that behavior, they may have been just slightly more likely over millions of years to adapt and survive.”

Host1: “We haven’t gotten rid of it yet, is what you’re saying.”

Host2: “So that’s my jerk, is basically so I don’t get eaten by a lion, all these many years?

Host1: Yeah, that’s what he’s saying. Sort of like a Lucy echo.

Host1: ‘Do we know this, or are we just imagining…?

Host2: “NO, how are we gonna know this? It’s just a story!” (laughter)

In the last statement, Host 2 recognizes that what they’re telling is a myth, a story (albeit a scientific one) that explains how the world works, as well as the fact that said story can’t be empirically demonstrated. Indeed, science has much more in common with such myth-making and story-telling, as BYU geologist Barry Bickmore explains.

Science is the modern art of creating stories that explain observations of the natural world and that could be useful for predicting, and possibly even controlling, nature.

It may bother some readers that we used the word “stories” instead of “explanations,” “theories,” or “hypotheses” in our definition. It might be a bit shocking to think of science as a kind of “storytelling,” because we are accustomed to thinking about science as factual, whereas storytelling sounds so fictional.

Bickmore’s argument in BYU Studies “Science as Storytelling” is a boiled-down version from two more technical coauthored articles in the Journal of Geoscience Education (#1 and #2).

It’s a view shared by a number of other scientists; Randy Olson got a PhD in marine biology from Harvard, got tenured, but then went to film school because he was convinced science had a framing and communication problem. He wrote Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story and directed the documentary Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.(We showed this in the class I TA’d “God, Darwin, and Design in America.)

If you’ve ever gotten an email from me, you know my tagline comes from Robert Alter, a professor of literature and Hebrew Bible. He writes in Art of Biblical Narrative that

history is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume.

“Fiction” comes from fictio, something made, fashioned, or shaped. In that limited sense, all history is fiction, because all history is the conscious attempt by someone to shape a selection of data into a coherent story.

John S. Tanner, who went from BYU English professor to Counselor in the General Sunday School Presidency, and now President of BYU Hawaii, similarly wrote that

Historical narratives thus require fashioning…. In this sense, factual writing is not unlike the writing of fiction. Similarly, “story” and “history” derive from [the same] root….

Can scripture include fiction and myth? Or put differently, did ancient prophets share the worldview of their culture and the world around them and represent that worldview in narrative? I think it’s absolutely clear they did, and that God’s revelations to them accommodated and were expressed through that worldview. Scripture, history, and science are all trying to tell stories that make sense of what happens around us, how, and why. The label “myth,” then, says nothing about whether a particular story actually happened.

For more on this as it applies to scripture, beyond the works cited above (Alter, etc.) I suggest

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6 thoughts on “Science and History as Myth and Fiction: Exploring Some Common Labels

  1. Have you ever read “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt? Great book. But it does a lot of “evolutionary psychology,” which is to say, it explains our psychology using evolutionary stories. (Similar to the hypnic jerk.) That was the first time I realized: these stories aren’t falsifiable. They’re plausible scientific stories, but not science, per se. But barring a time machine/viewer, we’ll just never KNOW. This post was a helpful reminder of that. So thank you!

    RE: myth, I gotta ask: if you were running a Gospel Doctrine class (and assuming they were relatively open/knew you decently well), and at the outset of the OT year, someone asked you “what genre is Genesis 1-11, what would you say? Would it be what you’ve written here? Asking because I’m genuinely struggling how to talk about myth and genre for Genesis 1-11 (if at all) in a setting like *that*.


    1. I’d probably say “there are different genres and sub genres in those chapters, but they’re not history or science as we conceive of them. Genesis 1-3 could be termed “creation stories” but “creation” doesn’t necessarily mean scientific, historical, or material as we think of it.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. These are very interesting arguments. Thanks for sharing. The post forwards some really interesting ideas to consider.

    However, as the post compares myth and science, it does seem to overlook the scientific method as science’s foundational approach.

    I think empirical evidence produced through the scientific method is the reason there is such robust and democratic debate over universal theories within scientific disciplines and communities. Once you accept a synthesizing theory or story without criticism, or on a basis that can’t be supported by the scientific method, then I would argue that your interpretation no longer resides within the realm of science, but is more likely a good bedtime story or myth.

    Don’t get me wrong, stories are important in all disciplines as a basic tool of communication and teaching. They provide a basis for comparison, hypothesizing and testing. But the testing step is really the main point.

    The scientific disciplines themselves were created out of the scientific method in order to prove or disprove their own overarching stories. I think this is, to a large degree, what the history of science is about. Darwin’s personal history is also really interesting to think about in this regard.

    I think this is a large point of difference between science and literature. To my knowledge, literary disciplines have no requirement to attempt any kind of empirical accuracy. They often do reflect on the human condition from an anecdotal or philosophical perspective, but not necessarily as an exercise in the scientific method.

    History is more of a mixed bag since, by nature, it can’t be a discipline that utilizes controlled experimentation or statistical methods. However, with that said, I still know many academic historians and anthropologists, including many at BYU, who would view their job as uncovering evidence of events that actually occured in the past and can be empirically validated, rather than for the purpose of myth-making or story telling alone. I think that difference is worth noting.


    1. Why is it worth noting? I think if an LDS interpretor intentionally conflates terms like science and myth then the outcome will likely be continued support for another generation of neo-fundamentalist theology.

      And I get it. That can be good for a person trying to build a career within that framework. I don’t have anything against that. But I also think its important to note that there will be a sizable chunk of the congregation who won’t benefit from another generation of updated fundamentalist theology and should know ahead of time the difference between liberal and conservative theologies so they can sort thru ideas and decide for themselves which ones will be most helpful for their lives and faith journeys.


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