Religion in Science Fiction (8): Battlestar Galactica
Time & Punishment (ihobo)

What Did Joseph Campbell Believe?

Apollo 8 Earthrise Our cultural perspectives on mythology, and to some extent religion, have been significantly influenced by the work of the twentieth century mythologist Joseph Campbell. But what did Campbell himself believe?

Campbell's life work was to explore the mythology of our planet and to demonstrate the common threads between them. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces he described the monomyth (or the hero's journey), a narrative cycle that can be found embedded in all legends in whole or in part, and linked this to psychological roots. In his epic four-volume work The Masks of God, he explored the specific cultural variations of these commonalities from an anthropological perspective. The guiding idea behind these books followed Adolf Bastian's concepts of “elementary ideas” (elementargedanken) and “folk ideas” (volkergedanken), which also influenced Carl Jung's concept of “archetypes of the collective unconsciousness”. The idea was that there are common elements (“elementary ideas”) to all our mythologies which are wrapped up in local, cultural baggage (“folk ideas”).

It is tempting, therefore, to claim that Campbell held beliefs that were entirely within what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the imminent frame”, the physical and material universe we all live within. Yet it is clear from Campbell's lectures and books that he does allow for transcendence, and is not just a materialist (as many Christian critics have alleged). While it is true that he interprets both mythology and religion as metaphors, this is not the same as denying something beyond the merely physical. If there are questions in this regard, they concern what transcendence meant to Campbell, and this is more challenging to establish.

Perhaps the most lucid Christian critic of Campbell's work is Dr. Tom Snyder, who dismisses any claim (as made by the journalist Bill Moyers) that Joseph Campbell “didn't have an ideology or a theology” and demonstrates that Campbell displays essentially pantheistic beliefs, that is, viewing all life as connected by a common spiritual thread, a divine impersonal force or consciousness. This is a position which has a lot in common with Einstein's beliefs concerning God and religion, and indeed both Einstein and Campbell were critical of orthodox religion for not wholly dissimilar reasons. (Synder goes onto urge Christians to oppose the teaching of Campbell's work, a strange request for any follower of Jesus, since at no point does Jesus advocate enforcement of doctrine as a valid use of anyone's time).

It is not clear that Campbell would have described himself as a pantheist, although it is apparent that his notion of the divine is somewhere in this theological ballpark. In his last book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, he writes:

There is a Hindu tantric saying, nadevo devam arcayet, “by none but a god shall a god be worshiped”. The deity of one’s worship is a function of one’s own state of mind. But it also is a product of one’s culture. Catholic nuns do not have visions of the Buddha, nor do Buddhist nuns have visions of Christ. Ineluctably, the image of any god beheld... will be of a local ethnic idea historically conditioned, a metaphor, therefore, and thus to be recognised as transparent to transcendence.

The idea here is that an idea of God is not, and cannot be, truly God. Campbell re-iterates this view more forcefully:

The first step to mystical realization is the leaving of such a defined god for an experience of transcendence, disengaging the ethnic form of the elementary idea, for any god who is not transparent to transcendence is an idol, and its worship is idolatry.

This is a concept that can be found in many traditions, including Hinduism and Sufi Islam, but it is not as divorced from conventional Christianity as it may at first seem. Saint Thomas Aquinas in Summa contra gentiles (book I, chapter 5) states: Then alone do we know God truly, when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think of God.” Whenever we believe that our idea of God trumps other people's, we have committed a form of idolatry, which all the Abrahamic faiths condemn.

One of the more interesting developments of this concept can be found in Eastern religious traditions, which differentiate between the worship of God (or gods) as representative of the deeper mystery, and the abandoning of these concepts in order to take upon the mystical journey within which any specific notion of God or of self dissipates. As Campbell explains:

In the vocabulary of yoga, the two modes of realization, at Chakra 6 and Chakra 7, are termed, respectively, of saguna brahman (the “qualified absolute”) and nirguna brahman (the “unqualified absolute”), while the two related orders of meditation are, respectively, savikalpa Samadhi (“discriminating absorption”) and nirvikalpa Samadhi (“undifferentiated absorption”). “But this,” said Ramakrishna in discussion of the latter, “is an extremely difficult path. To one who follows it even the divine play in the world becomes like a dream and appears unreal; his ‘I’ also vanishes. The followers of this path do not accept the Divine Incarnation. It is a very difficult path. The lovers of god should not hear much of such reasoning.”

But here Campbell perhaps fails to listen to his own wisdom. A crucial idea expressed in these two ideas of “qualified absolute” and “unqualified absolute”are that they represent different paths, not that one is superior to the other. Thus while it may be the case that in “undifferentiated absorption”one moves beyond the details of specific beliefs and into the divine mystery, that does not disqualify “discriminating absorption” as a worthy approach to matters of faith.

Yet Campbell repeatedly criticises the Abrahamic faiths for insisting upon their own beliefs as factual, and in doing so he is denying particular ways of relating to divinity – specific versions of the “qualified absolute” in the yoga terms. Campbell complains:

From the point of view of any orthodoxy, myth might be defined simply as “other people’s religion”, to which an equivalent definition of religion would be “misunderstood mythology”, the misunderstanding consisting in the interpretation of mythic metaphors as references to hard fact...

Is this not, in effect, an attempt to enforce the pantheistic divine experience (“unqualified”) above the theistic divine experience (“qualified”)? Campbell seems to be requiring that people not be allowed to interpret metaphors as facts, but this is too much to demand of anyone – consider that our notions of both ourselves and of our nations are all metaphors, but these metaphors must still be gainfully deployed as “facts” if we are going to relate meaningfully with others. Not everyone can walk the path of a seeker of the divine mysteries; for many, such is the gate to madness.

Religious tolerance requires that we allow each individual to interpret the divine mysteries of existence in their own terms, something that Campbell clearly understands, but balks at when it means allowing traditional Christianity (or any of the Abrahamic faiths) the freedom to interpret their religious narratives as historical facts. The frustration for Campbell, perhaps, was being trapped in a culture (mid-twentieth century United States) which on the one hand was dominated by traditional Christian beliefs, and individuals who attempted to force those beliefs on others, and against which the only opposition seemed to be coming from an equally dogmatic attempt to discard religious teachings entirely. He writes:

It all comes from misreading metaphors, taking denotation for connotation, the messenger for the message, overloading the carrier, consequently, with sentimentalized significance and throwing both life and thought thereby off balance. To which the only generally recognized correction as yet proposed has been the no less wrongheaded one of dismissing the metaphors as lies (which indeed they are, when so construed), thus scrapping the whole dictionary of the language of the soul (this is a metaphor) by which mankind has been elevated to interests beyond procreation, economics, and “the greatest good of the greatest number”.

Thus, without meaning to, Campbell ends up guilty of the crime he accuses orthodox religion of committing – he demands that people with orthodox beliefs share his own perspective on mythology and religion. His position is more compassionate than many of those he criticises, but it falls short of the standards of freedom of belief that must underlie a cosmopolitan society, willing to accept all paths as valid provided they do not enforce their beliefs on others. Campbell's philosophy that you should “follow your bliss” (which he derived from the Upanishads, and was intended to advocate personal spiritual truth, not hedonism) seems strangely blinkered in this one particular regard. He suggests:

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are – if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

But it is in no way clear that the “bliss” of an orthodox Christian cannot be found in worship of their God-concept and the upholding of their own traditional beliefs. The assumption that it cannot is a strange denial of free will.

What Campbell wanted was not that everyone adopt his beliefs, but only that we might develop new metaphors and beliefs that recognised our world as one – his criticism of orthodox religion being levelled principally at their insistence on enforcing tribal boundaries that he saw as artefacts of the past. He saw this as a cultural battleground initiated by our first steps away from the planet:

The space age demands that we change our ideas about ourselves, but we want to hold on to them. That is why there is a resurgence of old-fashioned orthodoxy in so many areas at the present time. There are no horizons in space, and there can be no horizons on our own experience. We cannot hold on to ourselves and our in-groups as we once did. The space age makes that impossible, but people reject this demand or don’t want to think about it. So they pull back into one true church, or black power, or the unions, or the capitalist class.

A critical symbol for him in this regard was the famous Apollo 8 Earthrise photograph, which appears at the head of this piece. He says in this regard:

There are no horizons – that is the meaning of the Space Age. We are in free fall into a future that is mysterious. It is very fluid and this is disconcerting to many people... Earthrise is like all symbols. They resemble compasses. One point is in a fixed place but the other moves to the unknown. The fear of the unknown, this freefall into the future, can be detected all around us. But we live in the stars and we are finally moved by awe to our greatest adventures.

In this, Joseph Campbell's vision looked both beyond and within the mythological and religious traditions of our diverse planet, and found there both a reflection of who we are as a species, and a glimpse of what we might become.


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I agree with what I think you are saying: Campbell's criticisms were not an attempt to impose his own beliefs (though it may seem), rather a 'corrective' (in the Kierkegaardian tradition) aimed at certain unreflective, narrow-mined, and occasionally anti-social behaviours found within his culture.

Well, as they say, and as Campbell demonstrated, there really is "nothing new under the sun" is there! It's something I learnt too, in the course of researching and developing the dalek hypothesis (somewhat to my surprise I recall, followed by a mixture of disappointment & relief, and er ... chagrin!). And your reference to "a divine impersonal force or consciousness" illustrates this too, equating as it does to the dalek concept of Omneity.

But there appears to be a kind of suggestion in your closing remark "... of what we might become", that humans as a species might one day journey beyond their home planet ...? This is a notion that could be readily dismissed by contemplation of the matter - even with but a rudimentary knowledge of General Science - and that OBD firmly refutes, summarised in Escape from The Planet of The Apes. As organic entities, it would seem pretty much self-evident that humans will be staying put !...

All The Best!

beholdtheman: Campbell attracts tremendous criticism from people with traditional Christian beliefs, and I think it's clear that Campbell couldn't stop himself from sniping at them... In many respects, it's a shame that Campbell couldn't find a way to accept this traditional form of belief, because it deepened the divide in the US culture and as yet no-one has attempted to find a way to bridge it.

obd: I'm not sure where you are drawing the idea that I am suggesting humans will become an interstellar species from in this piece... it is not my intended implication from the phrase "...what we might become" - I meant this more in a cultural sense.

But since you raised the issue, I must say that I see no reason that humanity could not begat an interstellar species. But I think this future is much further away than most people imagine, and I tend to agree with Lyn Margulis when she suggests we should solve our problems here on our planet before pushing out into space!

Thanks for the comments!

Campbell was brilliant and the only professional critiques usually come from Christian "scholars"...whom he annoyed. He was one of the first, if not THE first to include Xtianity in the mythic mix!
Campbell will live forever...
Dr. Tom Snyder, who?
Sonny Crockett

Sonny: I agree with what you say, but I think that many of the Christian critiques are factually correct, in that the suggestion that Campbell did not have his own theology is clearly mistaken. Campbell was hugely influenced by Hindu metaphysics he picked up while he was in India. To suggest Campbell is metaphysically neutral is indeed misleading, and a lot of Christian critiques pick up on this.

(Also, watching recordings of Campbell's lectures, his dislike of Christianity as it is commonly practised is apparent; he has no such venom for the equivalent parallels within Hindu practice, which he judges by ignoring its occasional excesses, and in this sense he betrays his bias).

That said, I do think it was important to show how Christianity fitted into the grander mythic tradition. If Christians engage honestly with this, it opens the door to a much deeper spiritual experience (for instance, Catholic Priest Raimon Pannikar's work recognising Krishna as "the unknown Christ" of the Eastern traditions).

As ever, no religion is as simple as its charicacture. ;)

Thanks for sharing your views!

great analysis of campell's criticisms and the criticisms of his criticisms. glad i read it, if a year and a half later

Thanks for the kind words, Alex! There's no "statute of limitation" on my blog - read and comment whenever you wish. :)

Great essay. For as awesome a teacher he was, he was not free of preferences in faith. If I were to place a label on his belief, I would call him a mystical impersonal-god transcendentalist.

"...mystical impersonal-god transcendentalist."

Secular Hindu would be another way of making the same claim. :)

Thanks for your kind words!

I think you make a slight and subtle error in your interpretation of Campbell's critique of Christianity. Campbell is, of course, pointing out the misinterpretation of symbols by the church and his criteria for a proper interpretation is based on the syncrity of human thought and jungian notions of the archetypes. His argument is simply that the efficacy of the symbol as a device of reconcilliation to our existence is diminished in any attempt to make that symbol an historical fact. It is a rather simple and yet profound idea that asks the reader to "believe" nothing. Campbell would argue that the genius of Christianity, that is turning reconcilliating archetypes into historical realities, is ultimately self defeating.

Proehl66: Thanks for your comment! Although I don't quite feel the thrust of your objection.

"His argument is simply that the efficacy of the symbol as a device of reconciliation to our existence is diminished in any attempt to make that symbol an historical fact. It is a rather simple and yet profound idea that asks the reader to 'believe' nothing."

In the first place, I don't quite see how any argument can be asking for people to "'believe' nothing"; the very notion of argumentation is to sway people's beliefs - if you are touting one approach over another, you are trying to affect what people believe in that context. Or are you trying to restrict the term 'belief' in some way you haven't specified?

More relevantly, my argument here is that Campbell is not willing to extend the latitude that Hindus offer to one another in their many paths to Christians. I agree with your characterization here - Campbell expressly means to decry the historical interpretations of Christian symbols as undermining the value and purpose of those symbols. But Hindus have always faced the same issue in dealing with Bhakti (devotional worship) versus the more subtle paths, and no Hindu would feel the need to make these kinds of heavy-handed disclaimers in this regard. So why does Campbell, who is clearly influenced by Hindu theology and practice, not extend the same privilege to Christians?

The answer, I am assuming, is that he can see how Bhakti still gains the benefits of the symbols (while taking them literally) but he can't see how the historical interpretation of Christianity does the exact same thing - I'm guessing, because like most moderate citizens of the US he was driven mad by the pugnaciousness of hardline Christians! :)

"Campbell would argue that the genius of Christianity, that is turning reconcilliating archetypes into historical realities, is ultimately self defeating."

Why is this the genius of Christianity, exactly? If I had to point to aspects of Christianity that expressed genius, it certainly wouldn't be the occasional tendency to lapse into historical interpretation. The elevating of tribal ethics to human ethics would be a better alternative, and if you thought that contemporary Western society had anything good about it you might even be tempted to cite the genius in merging Roman jurisprudence with early Christian ideals (although I myself am somewhat more sceptical of this and believe this has been much more problematic than the historical interpretation problem in many respects).

Could you expand your comment slightly so that I can understand where your critique is supposed to posit its objection?

Thanks again for sharing your views!

"the suggestion that Campbell did not have his own theology is clearly mistaken"

Do you understand enough about Campbell to remember what he said about freedom to believe?

He and Stephan Hoeller would say something like "but only the fool believes he is free to think and believe"

Lets face it Campbell was a heretic, or 'The Mad Hatter'. And whatever ones belief, if you have one, he must be crucified by the 99% who wish to remain enslaved in the belief they are free to believe.

Hi Robin,
Thanks for your comment! Your reading here is rather odd... Campbell was a justly celebrated scholar who did not suffer significant discrimination to my knowledge.

I don't see Campbell as a heretic, since he broke with Christianity and it would only be by Christian standards that a claim of heresy could be applied. As an outsider Hindu, for want of a better term, Campbell was far from heretical! :)

Best wishes,


Nice article, though I feel like your first objection is merely technical and the second objection focuses too much on Campbell's personal bias (as opposed to challenging his actual teaching). Which is fine if that was the aim.

Your first objection when you quote "the vocabulary of yoga", Campbell doesn't seem to be claiming there are two viable paths (which conflicts with his career-long preference for the undifferentiated path). It seems he's just conveying a teaching about the modes of realization in yogic practice, not representing it as his own. So I don't see this is an example of him not heeding his own wisdom and, even if it is from "him", it's cherry-picking a passage that is inconsistent with his otherwise very consistent philosophy of getting at the divine mystery via understanding myth/symbol as such. At worst, it amounts to an outlier passage that conflicts with what he says everywhere else.

Of course, whether you agree with his thesis is another matter. I think he made compelling points that by holding onto myth as fact and thereby creating firm conceptualizations/idols of god, it would be difficult to achieve union with god through transcendent experience. For him, preferable would be an undifferentiated approach to allow for access to the "Real Truth" via experience, which I'm sure he'd say is really the whole point of all of this... and is therefore superior to analytical understanding of god via history and fact (which I'd argue gives you an easier, off-the-shelf moral system but a much weaker spiritual life).

It's kind of like Alan Watts in Behold the Spirit, where he talks about the worship of the Son and the Father (and the need to possess them via historical fact-worship) is largely mutually exclusive with understanding the living Holy Spirit, which exists in the here and now (which one might argue is similar in concept to Brahman, to tie it back to Campbell's inclinations).

Anyway, I don't see Campbell as being guilty of anything like demanding people stop following orthodoxy, though I'm sure that was his preference. He probably was too quick to claim the Jesus as (at least partly) fiction, not realizing that even a historical jesus would allow for us to interpret the "meaning" of the resurrection to insinuate a transcendent, present god we can commune with on earth (through JC's example). A lot of his loose words on Christianity was, I'd assume, an emotional reaction to an otherwise sound conclusion that the Christian's obsession with "the facts", and thereby trying to grasp or possess an image of god, was preventing a truly spiritual life predicated on faith and surrender... to allow mystical union with whatever's behind the veil (god, whatever). To quote Watts again, Campbell's concern about confusing myth for fact is akin to climbing the light-post rather than letting it light the way... which, again, you're free to disagree with... but you didn't really get into the whether the issue itself was sound/unsound as much as make a case for Campbell's inconsistency and hypocrisy.

But nothing but love for you. I enjoyed the article and I hope you're doing well.

Hey duckerman,
Many thanks for this thoughtful, well argued comment! I don't disagree with any of your observations.

I'm a huge fan of Campbell's work, but when I was reading one of his books in 2009 I was struck by a slight misrepresentation of his theological positions in work referring to him, and a few inconsistencies within his own observations - often rooted in the general frustration that people in the US who are not rooted in any particular theology experience facing the great many citizens who are.

So I wrote this piece, which is about as negative a criticism of Campbell as I can manage. But I still teach Campbell's work, and the criticisms in this piece are, at best, niggles.

Many thanks for taking an interest!


I taught the ideas of Joseph Campbell as an adjunct faculty member at a small college in PA. I must be odd, because as an orthodox Christian I find Campbell's "religion as human phenomenon" approach refreshing. I think it explains a lot.

Would you consider Campbell as part of the panentheist camp? I always have.

Hi TLars,
Thanks for your comment! You say 'orthodox Christian', but that just makes me wonder which orthodoxy you are alluding to. :) I think his specific theology is difficult for some protestant Christians to accept, not too tricky for Catholics - no idea how it would sit with Greek Orthodox Christians to be honest!

I wrote this piece as a push-back, as much against myself as anything, since Campbell's borderline hostility to Christianity is something that I hadn't seen dealt with, and the suggestion that he 'had no theology', which was sometimes banded about, was clearly a mistake.

Panentheist is not a bad label for his position; certainly, his influences come more from Vedic Hinduism, which has clear panentheistic threads, rather than from any of the Abrahamic religions.

I still love his work... I use it in my teaching on numerous topics. And I'm always glad to hear from Christians - or indeed, anyone! - who connect with his approach.

All the best,


So chose or sit on the fence post. It doesn't take a genius to see where the truth lies. So keep thinking and sitting on the fence. I stand before you today and offer you life or death choose.

If you understand anything about Campbell, you know that transcendence was central to his world view. Religion/Mythology is "Symbology". Meaning; all myth is metaphoric of a transcendence. "God is a name, God is an idea" – that is a reference to something that transcends the objective/sensual world.

I applaud your appreciation of Campbell but if you don't get that fundamental part you don't have an understanding of what Campbell's hard work was all about.

Look back at the section in 'The Power of Myth' where he quotes the translation of The Upanishad text that says, "Thou Art That". That is all Campbell in a nutshell.

"You are the mystery that you seek."

Good luck.

Hi Richard,
As I have elucidated in the earlier comments, the purpose in writing this piece was to take on Campbell's hostility to Christian theology, which you will find scattered throughout his work - whenever he brings up his Martin Buber anecdote in particular - and position myself in line with his Christian critics and think through their accusation fairly. I found their criticism to be vindicated.

The critique I advance here proceeds from this premise, and I feel it does hit its mark. At the same time, because of the way that this is mounted, it does not work as an expression of Campbell's approach towards religion. But then, Campbell's approach is grounded in the Hindu traditions, as you admit here in your comment. The difference between Campbell and the Upanishads, however, was that Campbell was weighed down by the pressure of orthodox theology in the United States. When the Upanishads were written, the sages had not yet had to deal with that problem. We, on the other hand, must deal with this problem, and we need to do better than Campbell did - even if he was doing better than many of his generation.

I agree with you that Tat Tvam Asi (Thou Art That) is the core thought in Campbell's spirituality. Appreciating this has no bearing on the points I am making in this piece, though. If you have no interest in Campbell as a man, then this piece is outside of your interest. But he was a man, a human, and I'm interested in this side of him as well as his teaching. I feel you are mistaken to chastise me for setting that aside in order to look at him from another perspective, but if that is what you had to do, then so be it. This piece was just something I had to do. Tat Tvam Asi.

Many thanks for commenting,



Campbell fully explains in an amusing way (paraphrasing) that one's religion is like software running on the correct computer platform. It won't work if you try to use on a different kind of computer. Better to stick with the software you're on. And it will work.

So, the argument that he is advocating "pantheistic divine experience" is absolutely incorrect.

Moyers, a Baptist Christian, tells Campbell that his ideas have deepened his appreciation of his own religion. How's that possible? Because Moyers understands the message. Myth as metaphor.

You're attempt to sway orthodox individuals holding to metaphor as fact is futile. They experience the divine in their own way. The criticism of Campbell picking on Christians (and Jews) is misplaced.

Campbell did not have an ideology beyond following one's own bliss. If you don't do that Campbell says, "you're living an inauthentic life". His bliss came from studying world mythology and the other paths it led to. Nothing more nothing less.

Best regards,

Hi Richard,
Thanks for returning to continue our conversation. I see where you are coming from, but I think to anyone living inside theology, the attribution of 'pantheistic divine experience' to Campbell is accurate. Even Campbell, when engaging with Christians, was sensitive to their way of viewing things, and might have recognised the merit in this particular characterisation.

I have great respect for Campbell's work, which I am a huge admirer of, and this is the only thing I've written that is close to critical. All of my references to Campbell in my academic work are supportive of his work, and indeed the relationship between mythology, imagination, and metaphor is a large part of what I do in philosophy these days. It seems you might be misreading this piece if you think it aims at being persuasive. That isn't my purpose here at all.

Regardless, you've made your case very clearly, and I'm sure there are others who would agree with your criticism of what I wrote here.

Many thanks for sharing it,


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