TUMBY BAY - One of the distinguishing features of human beings is our ability to create myths and stories.
These narratives entertain but also perform a much more important role in setting ethical and behavioural standards.
Some of the greatest mythical inventions appear as religious texts, like the Bible and the Koran, but there are also secular myths that serve the same purpose.
One of the earliest behavioural legends seeded by religion was the Code of Hammurabi laid down in about 1770 BC in ancient Mesopotamia.
The code was purportedly delivered to humanity by the gods Anu, Enlil and Marduk and sought to “make justice prevail in the land, to abolish the wicked and evil, [and] to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak”.
You may not take those gods seriously but the code was certainly something the great majority of people could sign up to.
Secular myths tend to exist as philosophical texts and have been offered to us through the ages by people like Socrates to Australian moral philosopher (now US resident) Professor Peter Singer.
Socrates was a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Western philosophy. He is credited with being the first moral philosopher of Western ethical traditions.
Peter Singer is an Australian ethical and political philosopher best known for his work in bioethics and his role as one of the intellectual founders of the modern animal rights movement.
Both religious myths and secular myths are essentially human inventions. Their source lies in the human imagination. They are not truths in the same sense that environmental and biological facts are truths.
Nevertheless, whether religious or secular, we humans need to believe in these myths to make sense of our world and decide how to live our lives.
I can’t remember when I abandoned my belief in religious myths in favour of secular myths but I suspect it was around the same time that I lost faith in Father Christmas.
For a long time I pretended to be a believer because, as a young person, I had an overwhelming need to be seen as conforming to the dominant social ethos.
Coward that I am, I didn’t openly profess my atheism until I thought it was safe to do so.
I relate this fact not to demonstrate any personal attribute but to illustrate the power of those myths.
Which brings me to the point I’ve been circling around. Human beings and particularly our collective entities as independent nations need these myths to be successful.
It doesn’t particularly matter which myths a nation chooses, secular or religious, as long as they provide a sound and ethical basis for life. They must be fit for purpose.
Australia began the modern era as a Christian nation but is slowly evolving into a secular one. Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, has clearly opted for Christianity.
This is not surprising given its previous history of animism and the belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. Christianity is a logical extension of that belief.
I’ve been critical of the role of religion in Papua New Guinea in the past but I am now coming around to the view that Christianity is a good fit for the nation at its present stage of development.
In this sense I think James Marape has made a wise decision by reiterating Christian principles as a guide to Papua New Guinea’s future.
Christianity, above all the other myths, and as long as people truly believe in it, gives the nation its best chance of success in tackling its manifest problems, be it corruption, lawlessness or inequality.
My thinking on this issue was prompted by reading an excellent book by the historian Yuval Noah Harari called ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’. It was recommended by Paul Oates and I’m glad I bought a copy.