Every Atheist Needs: Joseph Campbell

A few years go, I ran into an old friend and we hung out a couple of times before I realized he was batshit crazy, and was now legitimately scary. During those couple of times we hung out, however, he brought me over some DVDs to watch, one of which was Joseph Campbell & Power of Myth With Bill Moyers (25th Anniversary Edition).

Prior to this, I had never heard of Joseph Campbell, but Godless Mom is a docujunkie and will literally watch anything that says “documentary” on it.

So I popped it into my DVD player, sat back with a beer and proceeded to have my mind fucked by the most incredible thing I’ve ever watched. Ever.

Why is this so incredible? It’s Joseph Campbell. This man set out to learn mythology and proceeded to accumulate more knowledge on the topic than anyone else will ever know. How he did it was amazing, too. While pursuing more traditional educational paths, he also traveled the globe. He took part in religious ceremonies and mythological traditions, even consuming hallucinogenic drugs and donning the costume of the rituals. He immersed himself so fully in mythology that he came out with a whole new understanding of humanity and a whole fuckload of personal stories that make your best Friday night look like naptime. The sheer wisdom that passed when he did, I firmly believe, will never again be achieved on this globe. He was, is and will forever remain, one of my greatest heroes.

This is just an interview. Bill Moyers sits down with Joseph Campbell at Skywalker Ranch and shoots the shit. That’s it. It’s Joseph Campbell’s intimidating knowledge, his personable tone, his incredible travels and experiences and his eloquent use of language that makes this so riveting.

Through the interview, Campbell talks about the common threads mythologies have, he relays his own experiences with them and he explains that gods are creations of the mind, and metaphors for the feeling of wonder we all get when we see something amazing or awe-inspiring. He was once quoted as saying, “I don’t think you can call someone an atheist who believes in as many gods as I do” when asked if he was an atheist. It’s important to note however, that his belief in these gods, is purely metaphorical.

Koh Phi Phi

This is where I got my first Joseph Campbell book.

As I watched this interview go on for 6 hours, I literally fell in love with this man. I was headed out to Thailand for Christmas that year with my family, and on Christmas morning, I opened gifts on the beach on Koh Phi Phi. Amongst them was Myths to Live By. I curled the book up, shoved it in the back pocket of my shorts and headed off to get a traditional Thai bamboo tattoo on the beach, on Christmas morning while I read it. Every time I look at that tattoo, I want to watch Mr. Campbell talk to me.

I have read almost all of Joseph Campbell’s books and the thing that I get from them, aside from amazing story-telling, is an understanding for why we’ve evolved with myth. It’s helped me explore the similarities between all the different creation stories that have been cherished throughout human history. The most popular book that Campbell wrote was, by far, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which pointed out that the Jesus myth is the same as countless others, some of which came long before Jesus ever did. This has helped me affirm my atheism, while at the same time develop a profound and insatiable curiosity about mythology.

Right now, my bookshelves are littered with his books – on of which is still bent out of shape and has white sand lodged in the spine. These books are among my most loved and I only wish someone had introduced me to Campbell sooner.

Have you read or watched anything by Joseph Campbell? What do you think of him? Who are your atheist heroes?

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  • DustySonoran

    I’ve watched Joseph for years on Ancient Aliens. He’s one of my faves. Intriguing, very intelligent man.

  • Joseph Campbell is one of my idols!

  • Jem

    He’s a bit passé, but still good fun, even if the scholarship has moved on. Now read “The Singer of Tales” by Albert Lord who’ll update the conversation a bit. Aside from the religious claptrap, a good explanation of why Campbell is outdated in folkloristics here: http://www.tektonics.org/copycat/campbellj01.php

  • i have to admit, i knew him only by name. (and, furthermore, as an avid sf-reader, i always confused him with john w. campbell.) until yesterday. one of the local radio stations aired a programme due to the 30th anniversary of his death. i didn’t expect those 15 minutes to be so fascinating and intriguing.
    i am a docujunkie as well (i guess, that is one of the many side-effects coming with atheism, because to be a docujunkie, you have to have a “lust for reality” of sorts) – so thank you for the indirect hint. i will both look up “JC & PoM…” and “the hero of a thousand faces” asap!