So…you’re not religious? – How stories shape how we think

We are not united by what we believe. We are not united by our political persuasions nor even our religion. What unites each and every human being on this planet is story. We all think in terms of narrative. This is how we process reality, how we make sense of our deepest and most vulnerable emotional experiences and how we navigate ultimate meaning in life. It is not religious doctrine, scientific rationalism or intellectual philosophy that orients how we think and what fundamentally motivates our behaviour. It is the story that we tell ourselves about the world; about its nature, its purpose and our place within it. As human beings we are storytelling animals. We cannot escape it. However, not enough of us consider the implications of story. How story transforms how we think and feel about the world. How story moulds who we are, “reshaping us in the way that flowing water gradually reshapes a rock”. Stories are too powerful to be left unexamined and unexplored. We must all embark on a journey of self-discovery.

Story is at the heart of what it means to be human. The very invention of language was to serve this purpose. Before moral and legal codes, telling stories was the primary way that human beings could maintain order. Gossiping about the admirable or deplorable behaviour of different members of the tribe provided a certain level of accountability that allowed tribal community to function. Storytelling has always been a primordial instinct.

As human beings, we have a neural mechanism known as the ‘hero-making brain’. A mechanism in which our brains construct a narrative that is always for our benefit, always making us the ‘hero’. Our brains selectively choose to embrace information that conforms to our perception of reality and our understanding of how the world operates. This tendency stems from a way of thinking known as ‘naive realism’ – the belief that everyone else’s perception of reality is flawed apart from our own. This can cause our story-making brains to behave outrageously in order to justify our “rightness” – a rightness that we must attain at all costs. One of our most peculiar and scandalous proclivities (as a result of naive realism) is simply to make things up and believe them to be true. To construct purely fictitious memories in order to support our internal hero-making narratives. This process is what Professor Lisa Bortolotti calls “confabulation” – believing the untrue in order to construct a coherent inner narrative that magnifies our own self-importance and self-understanding.

This obsession, with neat and coherent narratives, fundamentally stems from our fetish for control. Human beings long for control. We crave it. We need to control our reality at all costs. In many instances we can feel physically or emotionally uncomfortable simply by pondering hypothetical situations in which our brains lose control. Stories are a way for our brains to trick us into thinking we have some measure of control over our reality. A means of providing comfort and solace in a harsh and unforgiving world. Our cause and effect brains need narratives that can explain what we are experiencing and why we are experiencing it. Even information that we think influences how we think such as ideology, political or philosophical inclinations, scientific or rationalist models and even religious dogmas are only really accepted because they first fit comfortably within the internal narrative that our brains have constructed.

The importance of story in our lives is perhaps most clearly illuminated when we lose control. When something in life fundamentally shatters our internal narrative, our unbreakable, impenetrable, perfectly accurate and unquestionable model of reality. This is the stuff of true drama and the essence of an attractive story. This is what highlights how story can make or break a person. All stories that we love to absorb are driven by the fundamental dramatic question – ‘Who am I?’. The question our hero faces when something happens to them that profoundly contradicts or challenges their internal narrative, leaving them with an uneasy sense of uncontrollability and forcing them to reconstruct their most important and intimate story. The feel good films, programmes and books that we enjoy feel good because they end with our hero overcoming the adversity that they are facing by giving up control of their situation, modifying their internal narrative and constructing a new story. Often when stories truly have a happy ending they feature a “God moment”. A point in which, for a brief and ever so precious moment, the hero feels like they have total control over their situation. For our control obsessed brains, there are few aspects of story more pleasurable.

But of course, this is not always the case. There are many films, programmes and books that we enjoy which make us feel sad. Stories that fall into the genre of tragedy. These works evoke sadness because they feature characters who do not give up control; who seek to cling to their old, out-dated internal narratives and therefore do not adapt or respond adequately to the adversity that they are facing. As a result, our characters are eventually consumed by the harsh and unforgiving nature of reality. A reality that demands an irreversible change to the story. 

These stories are powerful because they reflect our stories. How we navigate our world. How our internal narratives and stories are challenged. How we all know deep down that there are moments in life when we must give up control, when we must look at our challenges and fears straight on and allow our emotional and physical discomfort to wash over us so that we can construct a better and more profound, sensitive and nuanced account of reality that leads to personal and emotional growth.

So, to recap, we are storytelling animals; constructing, promoting and expressing stories is in our primordial DNA. We think in terms of story and all the information we ingest and comprehend as ‘true’ fits within an overarching framework or narrative structure that we have created to make sense of our reality as we incessantly seek control and the affirmation that we are right and everybody else is wrong. The implications of this natural proclivity are immense, nay stupendous. The stories that we tell ourselves about reality and the narrative models we create, impact every single aspect of how we think and how we relate to and ask questions about our world. It impacts what we value in life, how we feel and what gives our lives ultimate purpose. Indeed, Professor Marilyn Naidoo writes that “the modern ‘crisis of meaning’ is a crisis of narrative”. No story is ever innocent. There is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ story. As human beings we are “addicted to meaning”. All of us, whether consciously or subconsciously, construct a story about our lives that keeps us going. Our stories feature profoundly bold assumptions about the nature of reality and what constitutes “good” and “evil”. From the Fundamentalist Christian to the “I’m not religious”, from the Islamic Extremist to the Secular Buddhist, from the Scientologist to the “meh, I just try to be a good person and get by”.

Perhaps the clearest and most pronounced example of how story provides the basis for framing our fundamental existence is most expertly elucidated by religion. Indeed, author and editor Jonathan Gottschall writes that “religion is the ultimate expression of story’s dominion over our minds”. Religion provides the supreme story. The ultimate narrative within which we can process and explore all of the information and experiences that we come across as we live our lives. The reason why religion is not going away anytime soon is because it helps to saturate our story lusting brains with archetypes, myth and deep-seated explorations of the human condition. Religion is the piece of paper upon which our lives are the words.

However, at this point in our discussion, it is worth drawing a distinction between the two main types of story that we have explored so far namely, “personal narratives” and “meta-narratives”. Personal narratives are the individual narratives and stories that we tell about ourselves and who we are as unique persons. Meta-narratives or ‘grand stories’ on the other hand, refer to the larger, overarching stories or contexts within which our personal stories about our lives and how we see the world are constructed. Meta-narratives provide the ‘big picture’. Whilst I have sought to make only an amateurish distinction between both of these types of stories it is worth noting that they are deeply interconnected and profoundly influence each other so we should not conceptualise them as if they are totally separate.

Let us explore this relationship between personal narratives and meta-narratives and the powerful implications of believing particular grand stories. To take a personal example, I am a Christian. Thus, I subscribe and wholeheartedly believe in the so-called ‘Christian meta-narrative’. A story about a good world created by God with human beings made in his image. A fall into death and misery. A redemption and a final restoration of the entire world with God’s love being a continual source of light and life throughout all human existence. Without wanting to generalise too heavily, one could construct a chronology of this meta-narrative as follows. Firstly, the creation of the world by a loving God. Secondly, a fall of man into pain and death. Thirdly, a redemption of creation through the loving sacrifice of God himself. Fourthly, a period of gradual creational restoration and waiting for the ultimate restoration. Fifthly, the restoration of creation and a new world order rooted in ultimate love, justice and joy going on forever. This overarching narrative provides the context for, and thus informs the construction of, my own personal story – what I value, what I believe about people, what I believe about the nature of reality, moral worth, purpose, etc. Now of course, within this great meta-narrative there are other narratives which float around within this story adding to its fundamental construction. However, none of these narratives are above or beyond this fundamental narrative framework and understanding of the world. The Christian meta-narrative provides a framework for understanding all other narratives that are not granted the status of ‘meta-narrative’.

In subscribing to the Christian meta-narrative, I have made an active choice. I have surveyed other meta-narratives that permeate culture and have found the Christian meta-narrative to be the most satisfying on the grounds that it best explains human experience, existence, value and meaning. We must all embark on this quest. The quest of uncovering the meta-narrative that we believe best explains our existence. Don’t be fooled. You don’t have to be ‘religious’ to subscribe wholeheartedly to a grand story or meta-narrative of what the world is like and what reality has to offer. Western culture itself has its own meta-narrative, a meta-narrative within which we all live our lives and construct our frames of reference. And within which, if we are not careful, we will become fully consumed by. This meta-narrative is constantly reinforced by the media and sees material wealth as the ultimate aspiration of human existence.

The cultural meta-narrative I am referring to is, of course, the narrative arc of “Rags to Riches” or what many in the United States commonly refer to as the “American Dream”. This narrative is deeply embedded within the culture of Western individualism and consumerism and whether we like it or not, influences how many of us evaluate our lives. Whilst there are many names for the “Rags to Riches” story, I am using this term here because it coincides with Christopher Booker’s seminal work The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories in which Booker clearly lays out this narrative framework in perhaps the most lucid and concise manner that exists. The Rags to Riches story follows five main phases. Firstly, an initial call to action in the midst of squalor and wretchedness. The hero starts from a deplorable situation often as a result of birth, low socio-economic status or a difficult family situation but then something prompts a change. Secondly, the hero sets out on a journey to improve their life and make a change for the better. Thirdly, there is a central crisis. The hero’s journey reaches an intense point of ultimate adversity in which the status that they have managed to attain somewhat is stripped from them and they are knocked back down to a lower status. Fourthly, as a result of being knocked down the hero is forced to go back to their roots so to speak and to use their individual, intrinsic abilities to overcome the problems that they are facing within their story. Fifthly, there is a moment of fulfilment. Somehow, drawing on their own skills and abilities, the hero manages to exceed their expectations and achieve beyond their wildest dreams. The hero enjoys a happily-ever-after as they have gone from ‘rags’ (squalor and poverty) to ‘riches’ (achievement and wealth).

This narrative is clearly prevalent in Western culture. A culture of individualism. A culture which places a tremendous amount of emphasis on how to achieve individual success. From the moment many of us are able to read, write and dream about the future, we are consumed by a culture of ‘Rags to Riches’. A culture fixated on measurements and metrics; striving and driving. The implications of this meta-narrative are immense and contain manifold problems.

Firstly, within this narrative, material achievement is what derives meaning. It is attaining the status of ‘riches’ and achieving material success, which is what provides ultimate satisfaction; what is seen as the ultimate end goal. Not who you are as a person. Not how you treat people, not creative ambition, wisdom, love, compassion, open-mindedness or generosity. At best these are seen as fortunate by-products and at worse detrimental impediments to achieving success in a harsh and competitive world where everyone starts from (or at least thinks they do to some degree) squalor and wretchedness. (Indeed, another fascinating aspect of our storytelling brains is that they always portray us as the underdog, regardless of our social standing or material wealth in life. We always think that we are undervalued and if we were just given the right opportunities or resources, we would secretly have the skills and abilities to become awesome; to achieve incredible things because we have intrinsic worth before we achieve anything).

Secondly, within this meta-narrative we are fundamentally reliant upon ourselves. When we face adversity in life, we must fall back on our own individual abilities and it is only by focusing on our core skills and resources that we can overcome adversity and achieve success. However, the problem is that few of us can do this individually. Few of us know how to discern the right course of action or how to overcome a life-shattering problem without help from others. Indeed, whilst on a subconscious level, because of ‘naive realism’ this may seem the case, our individual skills and abilities can only get us so far. We need community. I would even go a step further and contend that we need to connect with phenomena outside ourselves if we really want to find ultimate satisfaction and achieve what we could only ever dream was possible.

Thirdly, very few people in life actually achieve ‘success’ by the standards of the Rags to Riches grand story. Indeed, a study conducted by Professor Mark Rank and Professor Thomas Hirschl with the Southwestern Social Science Association found that a staggering 70% of people in America will never achieve the American dream. They will never be able to pull themselves out of squalor and wretchedness and achieve wealth and ‘success’. Moreover, Rank and Hirschl found that in actual fact around 30% of Americans will face the “American nightmare”, a situation in which there is absolutely no hope of achieving affluence despite how hard one tries. To be the ‘hero’ in the Rags to Riches story is to live an unfulfilling, lonely, unpredictable and competitive existence.

This is the narrative that we are faced with in the West. The context within which we construct our personal stories. Unless we are proactive about considering what grand story we really tell ourselves, we will of course be devoured by the narrative that is constantly attempting to imprint itself on our very souls. All of us are fed this story –  the question is, are we going to accept it? Does this story really provide the best explanation of reality? The best explanation of personal, emotional, spiritual and material experience? Does it sit right with who we are? How we think? What life is really about? If so, that’s fine. But at least invest in yourself enough to ask these questions. Challenge, contest and uncover the narrative that you know exists and that you know best explains and makes sense of reality. The implications of story’s control over our lives are too outrageous and quite simply too tremendous to be left unexamined and unscrutinised. Each and every one of us is telling ourselves a story that shapes how we behave and fundamentally who we are as people. What story are you telling yourself?

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