06/09/2012 09:40 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2012

Mythologizing Evolution Revisited

My last post, "Mythologizing Evolution," generated quite a bit of controversy and not a little hostility. Some of this was my own fault for not anticipating some confusion about the meaning of the word "myth" as I was using it.

The confusion about the word "myth" in my post comes from its two very different meanings. In popular parlance myth means "falsehood" or "made-up story." I have on my desk a delightful little book titled "Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion." Myth is employed here in the popular sense and the title essay explains that the harsh treatment of Galileo by the Inquisition -- torture, imprisonment -- has no basis in fact. It is a made-up story -- a myth. Obama's birth in Kenya is a current example of this sort of myth.

But there is a far more interesting definition of myth used in literature. One scholarly and wide-ranging discussion starts with this definition: "Myths are symbolic tales of the distant past (often primordial times) that concern cosmogony and cosmology (the origin and nature of the universe), may be connected to belief systems or rituals, and may serve to direct social action and values."

The definition is enlarged to include a wide-ranging roster of other attributes often but not always possessed by myths, including the fact that the mythological story "is or was considered a true explanation of the natural world (and how it came to be)." The setting is often in a "previous, proto-world." The story is "formative of worldview," and "conveys how to live: assumptions, values, core meanings of individuals, families, communities." Myths answer questions like: "Why are we here?" "Who are we?" "What is our purpose?"

Questions of simple truth take a back seat to questions of meaning in this deeper definition. The story at the heart of the myth may or may not be factually true but the meaning of the story transcends its factual character. The story of Abraham Lincoln's birth in a humble log cabin has a mythological character not possessed by Bill Clinton's birth in a hospital in Arkansas.

The best way to understand America's ongoing resistance to evolution -- as evidenced in the recent Gallup Poll -- is the theory's failure as an origins myth. Most Americans believe they are created by God, in God's image, whatever that means; they believe God cares about them and wants them to care for each other. They believe they are called to live virtuous lives and be people of character. They may fall short of these ideals but they believe these profound truths are rooted in their creation story.

Whether we think that the biblically based story of our origins is historically and scientifically accurate or not, we certainly have to admit that it is a beautiful story and that, at its best -- with some egregious exceptions -- it has nurtured our civilization in wholesome ways. Post-Christian Norway, which just made a strong move in the direction of full secularization, nevertheless retained official recognition of its "Christian and humanistic heritage," of which it is obviously and justifiably proud.

To take root in deeply religious America, evolution needs to be a better myth. Edward O. Wilson, one of our greatest living scientists and certainly no champion of creationism or any sort of religion, has gone so far as to say we need to appreciate the scientific story of origins to the point where we can "worship the evolutionary epic."

While "worshipping the evolutionary epic" might sound absurd and even meaningless, we must not be too quick to throw out Wilson's provocative proposal. Wilson understands, in ways that many of us do not, just how hard-wired we are to seek purpose in the world. He understands that we may not be able to simply abandon our traditional creation story without some sort of replacement. And evolution, as a full-blown origins myth, is not a satisfactory replacement for most Americans.

This is why evolution is constantly being "mythologized" by its champions -- to make it a better origins story.

Of course, if we could all agree that evolution could be viewed as God's method of creation, we could have our mythological cake and eat it too. But, as the latest Gallup Poll makes clear, this is not happening.