As an atheist I've long attempted to put myself in the mindset of a true believer. I can't seem to do it. In my adult life I've never ascribed to a belief system that relied solely on self-justifying ideology, detached from rational proof, based entirely on the folktales of primitive peoples. I can understand academically that people can believe so strongly in invisible forces that they're willing to kill and die for them. The lesson of history is clear on this point. But it used to be couldn't understand the condition emotionally. Perhaps I still don't, really, but I believe I can get maybe a glimmer of the feeling from examining another source of great mythic literature - one which is already meaningful to me personally.
Of course I started thinking about Middle-Earth. I'm a big Tolkien geek, and although I don't speak Quenya I have managed to amass a significant clutter of knowledge about Tolkien's fictional world. Why did I do that? Obviously not a single event in Tolkien's Middle-Earth cycle of myths actually occurred. The entirety was cooked up in the imagination of a single individual, who accomplished the work of many lifetimes by writing it all down in a form that commands both respect to the author and vicarious wonder at the events and legendary characters he describes. Middle-Earth exists to me, in the sense that I can think about events there in almost the same way I'd think about events in ancient Rome, say, through imaginary reconstructions aided by great works of fan art. The paintings of Alma-Tadema don't actually possess a great deal of historical accuracy regarding the Roman Empire, but they're beautiful nonetheless, and I can appreciate them as I do the works of great Tolkien artists such as Alan Lee, as tributes to a body of great work that touches so many of our Jungian mythic-archetype buttons. At the functional level of appreciating a good story I don't really care that the Silmarillion is not literally inerrant.... and in fact I'd be quite shocked and terrified at such a discovery. I can appreciate the epic tales as finely wrought myth, full of heroes and drama, while also appreciating that every bit of it was invented from whole-cloth.
But what if I didn't think they were fictional?
What if, instead, we found ourselves living several thousand years from now, after a dark age wiped out human electronic civilization but spared our species from total extinction? Perhaps a coronal mass ejection wipes out all electrical technology, or maybe Earth's next magnetic reversal is spectacularly destructive in unexpected ways. The method is unimportant. The result is that people have to climb back up from ignorance, rediscovering the universe essentially from scratch. Ancient texts would be unearthed from time to time. Only a few remain... but they include the collected works of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.
What would a future age of ignorant peasants make of the Silmarillion? It isn't particularly difficult to imagine a single charismatic individual, a Saul of the future, finding Tolkien's ancient works and assuming them to be factual accounts of the misty past. Inflamed with zeal over the brilliant artistry cascading from the pages of the Ainulindalë, the Akallabêth, and finally the Lord of the Rings, future-Saul changes his name to Erudur - Servant of the One - and start to tell people what he'd found.
"Listen to me of the wonders wrought by Eru the One, He Who Is Alone, the Maker of all things, who sang into life all that moves and speaks!" might cry Erudur as he preached to the growing crowds. Perhaps the crowds are downtrodden enough to listen to itinerant beggars shouting sermons of salvation in the streets. "I want to tell you about a man who saved us all! He died by the hand of evil but was reborn! He spoke truths to kings both petty and high, and though they turned away His words were holy, and the kings perished! He laid low the armies of death to show us the path of righteousness! He did not die! He ascended bodily to the Undying Realms, where He judges still the living and the dead! Praise be to Olorin Gandalf, the Savior of Man!"
The crowds might enjoy such tales, and stay to hear more. "None of us are worthy of Gandalf's love, for we are weak, and are tempted by Morgoth to sin! Yet Gandalf forgives! He forgives all! Be joyful, and sing of glory in His name!" All of which might begin to attract a lot of attention, especially if Erudur can give a rousing speech. "Did Gandalf not say unto the Shirefolk, 'Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.'" Many might be swayed by such words.
Erudur might need to embellish a bit, and put himself into the story to make it more convincing... perhaps he could describe the sudden insights he gained reading the ancient texts, but flash it up a bit. Perhaps he'd claim that Ingwë, King of the Elves, appeared to him in a sudden blinding light and told him to spread the revelation of Olorin Gandalf to all the world.
Fast forward a hundred years, and Gandalfian cults are all over the place. Perhaps by that point the sacred texts will have made all the rounds, copied by the faithful in monasteries dedicated to prayer, astrological studies of the Star of Eärendil, and ring-making. There would be much talk of the One Ring... the instrument of death through which a New Covenant was forged between Eru and man, through Galdalf's grace. Perhaps rings become the shared symbol of this sacrifice, and are worn by adherents, displayed in temples, etc.
As the centuries wear on, Gandalfian cults might become so worked up they begin to splinter into rival schismatic sects. Perhaps there are the Erudan, the men of Eru, who reject the Lord of the Rings and base their culture on the Silmarillion. Erudan priests might lead ritual worship of Eru wearing robes stitched with Quenya proverbs, as the faithful kiss the priest's Ring. Perhaps there would be sectarian strife between the Erudan and the Valarians, who insist prayers be offered to the Valar who intercede in Eru's stead, and that by great faith and asceticism one may enter the Kingdom of Aman after death, perhaps even to be greeted at the Pearly Shore by St. Frodo and St. Bilbo themselves.
Sowing discord might be the Gondorists, who claim by divine right a Promised Land occupied at that point in the future by heretics and pagans, who must - of course - be exterminated in order to rebuild the holy city of New Gondor. Perhaps a legion of fundamentalist Gandalfic Evangelical sects would emerge, each seeking dominion by force. A tiny cult of Tom Bombadil might arise among rebellious kids, who sing and dance and wear flowers as they smoke Old Tobey, until slain or arrested by indignant conservatives.
In such a world, could one observe safely that Venus is actually not a flying swan-boat that shines by the light of a gem affixed to its prow, crewed by a man and guided by a bird? Would a claim that Venus is a round object like the Moon, with phases, earn one the pyre? Would fanatical groups try to prove the existence of Numenor by claiming the highest point in the Azores was the Meneltarma, highest tower of the sunken island nation, as described with historical accuracy in the Akallabêth? Would shocked victims of terrorism claim to see visions of the face of Sauron in billowing smoke? Would priests claim that crackers turn into magical Elvish lembas bread, just as worshipers swallow it? Would there be laws against mining, for fear of waking a Balrog? Would the image of a lidless eye wreathed in flames be so instantly disturbing to viewers that mass media would refuse to show it, and claims of teenagers practicing Sauron Worship terrify boon-dock parents? Would whole libraries be filled with words written in worship to Eru, Eonwe, Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo and - one shouldn't be surprised - Bilbo? Would end-times cults await the baleful return of Melkor, as predicted at some point by a screaming, unwashed, drug-addled Yavanna cultist? Would atheists then have to deal with the same cultural psycho-pathologies we suffer from today, only with different details?
Myths and legends may be authored by whole tribes, collectively over time, or by a single person with a vivid imagination. But they're still myths, intended as entertainment. The Greek myths are cool, and no less cool just because they're make-believe. But I wouldn't want laws based on the Greek myths, mandating the sacrifice of oxen or similar. I'd rather have laws based on how much knowledge mankind has accumulated until now, not until two thousand years ago. Instead we have ancient popular folktales that have somehow become etched into our very culture, predicating much of our public policy, and taken as literal descriptions of how the universe is organized by vast numbers of people. Very old fan fiction has been taken seriously as a wellspring of morality and guidance for so long that people now simply take it for granted. The arcana of our modern religions are nothing more than that, fan fiction, written as a pastiche. Every word by every religious apologist who ever lived is a personal ad hoc attempt to retcon their religion as they would a comic book canon.
But the religious seem bizarrely unwilling to recognize that fact. That's where they lose me. That's where I hit the wall, and can't imagine myself behind it. I can't imagine myself taking all that stuff seriously. I'd be wasting all my time on an imaginary fetish. I'd be dressing up in Gandalfic regalia, spending years to get a degree in Valar Studies or Silmarilliology, and taking vows to waste my life as a historical reeanctor.
The difference between true believers and me, I suppose, is that I'd rather put down the costume and go live my life.