Logos, mythos and the endless struggle for sleep

My daily journey to the land of nod is seldom an easy one, and it invariably takes a while after laying in my pit before I finally fall asleep. But during that time I occasionally get to listen to some interesting radio broadcasts before the electronic timer kicks in and the wireless switches off automatically. Mostly news and current affairs, but also cultural and ‘human interest’ stuff.

On Sunday night I got an earful of Mark Tully on BBC Radio 4, who in this week’s Something Understood discussed logos and mythos, comparing and contrasting what he and his guests described as the languages of science and religion. Tully, in case you didn’t know, is a venerable BBC news correspondent based in New Delhi, who in his dotage has focused on making programmes about religion and spirituality with a liberal, non-literalist slant.

In years past, when I was a practising Christian of an old-catholic persuasion, I would often listen to Something Understood, and found solace in Tully’s thoughtful, reasonable and deeply spiritual cosmology. Tully’s worldview reinforced my philosophical prejudice, and his meditative broadcasts created a soothing, contemplative end to my weekends.

Today, as a born again New Atheist™, Tully annoys me intensely, jarring as he does with my new found bias in favour of experience validated by evidence. I now listen to the words emanating from my transistor radio, and they are just that: words that rapidly diffuse their sagacity into the aether, only to be forgotten ten seconds later.

In this Sunday’s Something Understood, Tully played some excerpts from soothing music, interspersing the aural snippets with his own wise utterances, together with those of friendly talking heads and quotes from spiritually improving literature. Take Karen Armstrong, the failed PhD who now makes a tidy living from peddling popular books on religion and stuff. If the television diet guru Gillian McKeith is ‘that dreadful poo lady’, Karen Armstrong is ‘that tedious religion bore’. She is a one-trick pony, whose arguments for religion are based, like Tully’s, on the setting up and demolition of the flimsiest of straw men.

This logos-mythos argument is so incredibly shallow, and in falsely presenting it as a battle between Science and Spirit, Tully and his magic-friendist comrades show themselves to be the true heirs of Descartes. Remove the false dichotomy between world and mind, and their religions, indeed their entire spirituality, are nothing.

In the age of science, mythos retains its power, but it has little to do with a peculiarly middle class yearning for spiritual meaning. Whether it be socially realist or magical and fantastical, storytelling helps us make sense of the world and our relationship with it, and each other. Mythos is ultimately rooted in physical, sensual reality, and it makes no sense to talk of logos and mythos other than as linguistic tools within abstract cultural criticism.

How can Tully get away with remaking the very same programmes he produced decades ago? Instead of this incredibly dull meta-cultural discourse on science and religion, could the BBC not send us into dreamland with tales that fire the imagination?