On Storytelling

Back in November, Greta Christina wrote about how to overcome religious influence in politics, specifically in relation to Prop 8 and gay rights. At the time, I left some thoughts in a comment, which I think is worth developing into a full post.

I wrote back in 2006 about The Da Vinci Code, noting that although the movie was a bit of fantasy fluff that took major liberties with historical fact, it drew incensed reactions and paranoid denunciations from Christian religious leaders all around the world – a far larger backlash than most atheist critiques provoke. I offered an explanation for why this is:

Our society does not value critical thinking and skepticism highly, but rather steadfast faith and decisions based on emotion. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that rational arguments against Christianity or any other religion have made relatively little headway.

On the other hand, what can and does flourish in such an environment is another story, one that appeals to people on the same emotional level as Christianity and taps the same feelings: the emotional appeal of the triumphant underdog, the sense of being part of something greater than oneself, the idea of great and sacred mysteries that will be revealed to the initiate. The Da Vinci Code competes with Christianity on its own turf, so to speak…

This same dynamic was visible in California last year with Prop 8. If you look at what successful political campaigns have in common, the answer is almost always the narrative – their success at depicting the world in terms of a story that’s favorable to their goals. Campaigns that have a strong, compelling narrative are usually the ones that triumph, and that’s what most politics is about nowadays, the ability to tell a better story than your opponent. It needs to be a story that’s simple, memorable, and speaks strongly to its listeners’ hopes or fears (or both). It needs to be a story that people identify with, one that they can readily see themselves as participants in.

In the battle over Prop 8, it’s widely agreed, advocates of marriage equality failed at this task. We let our opponents define the terms of the debate, spreading fear and misinformation about the consequences of the vote, and failed to put forward a strong narrative of our own that presented the case for equality in simple, persuasive terms. We should have blanketed the state with advertisements that showed gay couples as they are, going about their daily lives, explaining why they wanted to be married and what they stood to lose if Prop 8 passed.

This realization is the key to how freethinkers can outcompete the deleterious impacts of religious voting blocs on politics. Some apologists say that people are innately programmed to be believers, that religion’s influence on humanity can never be overcome, but we should know better. What people respond to is not primarily logic and reason, but stories. We’ve always been storytellers and story-listeners, ever since we were hunter-gatherers sitting in the dark around our fires. Religion is a particularly grand and elaborate form of story – the story of why we’re here, why the world is the way it is, and why we occupy this place in it – the story crafted to explain the biggest and most important questions that exist. Religion dominates because it’s had millennia to practice and perfect its stories under the selective pressures of memetic evolution.

So, how do you defeat a story? Not with logic and reason. If you ask how the giant got up into the sky before the beanstalk was there, or why animals and weather hadn’t destroyed the gingerbread house long ago, people will laugh and think you’re missing the point. No, the way to defeat a story is with a better story.

This isn’t an impossible task. We have the raw material we need: the fruits of several centuries of patient scientific exploration, which has yielded an impressive amount of detail about how the cosmos came to be and how we fit into it. And these details aren’t dull and pedestrian, either, but awe-inspiring in the truest sense of the word. The only problem is that science is a relative newcomer to this game, and though its stories have the virtue of being true, the storytellers of science haven’t perfected their ability to present an equally good narrative.

Here, too, we know what goes into crafting a compelling narrative. A good story will present a likable and sympathetic main character with whom the reader can emphasize; it will present the character with a dilemma which he has the ability to solve; it will explain the character’s backstory and show how he got into that dilemma; and it will tie together established character traits with elements from his past to create an explanation for how he can triumph. These are the basic components of any narrative arc.

With these elements in hand, can we tell the story of atheism, and can we present it more compellingly than past efforts have done? An upcoming post will attempt to answer these questions.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Mathew Wilder

    Carl Sagan had a wonderful ability to make science and skepticism appealing. Carl Zimmer is another popular writer with similar abilities.

    Wait! We just need more Carls! Let’s all change our names to get the special Carl ability to tell science as a compelling story!

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Good post. I’ve been thinking about this issue too. Since story-telling is not my forte, I’ll have to hone my skills.

  • mikespeir

    This is perhaps related tangentially. As a Christian, I used to grouse about TV shows and movies that, while not explicitly anti-Christian, nevertheless simply left God out of the picture. On display were people who didn’t “retain God in their knowledge” (Romans 1:28) and yet didn’t turn into monsters, sometimes losing miserably and sometimes triumphant, here good and there less so, but still at all times, well, normal. I think that kind of thing leaves a powerful, contrary impression on the minds of believers. Sure, it’s fiction, and fiction doesn’t have to be rigged to correspond with reality. Still, it introduces at least the unsettling notion that maybe the whole God thing is adscititious to the human condition.

  • Penguin_Factory

    You’re right on the money here. The story of the universe as revelaed by science is largely what attracted me to atheism in the first place.

  • Tom

    This isn’t an impossible task. We have the raw material we need: the fruits of several centuries of patient scientific exploration, which has yielded an impressive amount of detail about how the cosmos came to be and how we fit into it. And these details aren’t dull and pedestrian, either, but awe-inspiring in the truest sense of the word. The only problem is that science is a relative newcomer to this game, and though its stories have the virtue of being true, the storytellers of science haven’t perfected their ability to present an equally good narrative.

    There’s another obstacle, I fear, that this would face – traditional myths, legends and stories are written in terms of the properties of human beings and their interactions, and basic common knowledge, which any reader can all but be guaranteed to appreciate. By comparison, stories built upon scientific fact, especially the good ones, tend to rely on a much higher level of education and knowledge on the part of the reader. Take, for example, two of the most profound works of science fiction by Isaac Asimov, “The Last Question” and “The Gods Themselves” – the former cannot really be comprehended without about an A-level to undergraduate knowledge of the nature of entropy, and specifically the implications of heat death, whereas the latter cannot be appreciated in any depth without a basic grounding in sub-atomic physics (in the latter, at least, Asimov makes a good effort to explain the subject matter to the reader, but still starts from a relatively high level: knowledge of protons, neutrons, electrons, and their antimatter counterparts, and awareness of the strong and weak interactions)

    Creation myths come from a time of extremely low intellectual stratification, and are written in simple terms using probably almost universal common knowledge. Everyone can relate to a human-like being feeling lonely and filling a void, everyone knows that a sentient being can make things, and can relate to the notion of a god making a world in the same vague way as they can relate to someone making a clay pot, everyone knows what it feels like to be deceived, what it’s like to piss a parent off, what it’s like to be thrown out of the house and told to get a job and feed yourself. (You can probably tell I’m thinking specifically of Genesis, here, but I’m sure the argument can be adapted to most other such myths) How much harder is it for a layperson to relate to tales of mass-energy equivalence, of quantum mechanics, of time dilation and space distortion, which all, notoriously, cannot be comprehensibly analogised by any everyday effect or common human experience? Which story would they prefer to be told?

    I’m not saying it can’t be done, in fact I’m sure it can and should, but it’s bloody difficult to get a certain, not uncommon, kind of person to make any significant effort to learn and understand a confusing new thing when they’re already comfortable with what they already know and understand, however flawed and inadequate it may be.

  • ThatOtherGuy

    I’ve thought this for a while, and tell me if you think there’s anything to this, but it is my hypothesis that the highly religious have trouble recognizing the delineation between fact and fiction. This would help to explain both their attachment to their own story, and also their flipping out when a competing fiction tells them they’re wrong (a la His Dark Materials or Da Vinci Code).

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    True, but we clearly have the ability to learn from our mistakes. You want Proposition 8 turned into a fabulously compelling narrative? Watch prop 8: the musical!

  • Jeremy

    Well if anyone would be capable of turning science into a compelling story, you’re the one ebon muse. “The age of wonder” was one of your most amazing posts, and impressed several friends that have been hovering in the middle and showed them that you don’t give up the capacity for wonder by becoming an atheist.

    As for prop 8, well, as a Californian I’m appalled and as a San Franciscan everyone around me is appalled and rest assured, with the mobilization of resources and the backlash from every corner it will not stand for much longer. I think people didn’t really realize what would happen if it passed, and now they do. We’ll overturn it yet.

    As for your points about a greater sense of community, that feeling of being part of something larger that a religion and a good story can give you, that is one of the strongest allures of religion to a lot of people. I think that the most important thing to do is to remember that we’re all people, we’re all as good as one another. It’s amazing what kind of community you can feel with the average bloke walking down the street when you acknowledge this, and how much better it can make you feel.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Y’know, it always bothered me that people could believe things because they wanted to, regardless of whether they made sense. I’m usually skeptical when things seem “too good to be true,” I don’t want to get suckered into a scam. But I guess it kind of makes sense, in a way, for people to believe what they want to be true if they’re not sure how to settle the question and don’t feel comfortable withholding belief. Ugh, that feels weird just typing that.

    But yes, a compelling atheist narrative would be a nice thing to have, and I second the motion that Ebonmuse is probably the best qualified to get that ball rolling. Now I’m imagining an entire Atheist Bible, starting with something like this movie and ending with a warning that humans will blow themselves up if they continue to believe in superstitions. Man, now I’m excited about that…

  • http://www.ateosmexicanos.com/portal/ Juan Felipe

    Carl Sagan was perfectly capable of turning science into a compelling story. There is a chapter in the “cosmic connection” in which the history of the universe is told briefly; its really good and its definitely worth reading.

  • prase

    Ebonmuse, you didn’t seem to think that religion is a particularly good story before. And now, you are saying that religion is a particularly grand and elaborate form of story…

    Are you suggesting that we should make better propaganda for science and reason? This may be a bit of problem – rationalism cannot be consistently promoted by irrational propaganda.

    We let our opponents define the terms of the debate, spreading fear and misinformation about the consequences of the vote, and failed to put forward a strong narrative of our own that presented the case for equality in simple, persuasive terms.

    I don’t suspect you want to deceive to reach our goals, but still one has to be quite careful. Strong narrative put in simple, persuasive terms can easily become synonymous to screwing the truth. What I find attractive on atheism and rationalism is that they don’t insist on finding nice simple explanations, but true ones.

    Or did I misunderstand your statement somehow?

  • lpetrich

    Proposition 8 barely won, by 52-48%, but back in 2000, another anti-gay-marriage proposition, Proposition 22, won by 61-39%. So there is hope for the supporters of gay marriage.

    There are interesting regional divisions as this Los Angeles Times page shows. The San Francisco Bay Area was the biggest supporter of gay marriage, most likely a result of San Francisco’s very visible gay community. Los Angeles was not as sympathetic, though its sympathies grew from 2000 to 2008. West Hollywood’s gay community is likely not as prominent as San Francisco’s. And much of the Central Valley stayed unsympathetic.

    I agree about creating narratives. Perhaps something like Ebonmuse’s allegories about the Tempter and the Desert. But I don’t think that we should depend on Ebonmuse to write such narratives; perhaps some of you people could get started on such a project.

    And I am reminded of how Lucretius’s epic philosophical poem On the Nature of Things had survived the Middle Ages — it barely did so, and if I remember correctly about it, it was because someone liked the writing. So the Carl Sagan strategy is a good one.

  • Christopher

    The real problem has nothing to do with a “story” but rather with the herd mentallity itself – the idea of “a good story” is merely a tool to manipulate a herd that already exists. That’s the reason that the mainstream churches were so upset of “The DaVinci Code:” it took an already familiar story and gave it a make-over, and since so many people in our culture have already been programmed by the herd to respond to that story it threated the “official” version of it. Had it been any other story there wouldn’t have been so much hoop;a raised over it…

  • http://blocraison.blogspot.com Paul

    Really interesting thoughts here. If only Carl Sagan could have been around to join the ranks of the New Atheists and help tell that story as possibly only he could.

    To blog-whore a bit, I recently did a post on the more practical side of this discussion: who do atheists put on television to, well, tell our story? It’s here: http://blocraison.blogspot.com/2009/01/atheists-as-tv-talkers.html

  • staceyjw

    A good story is necessary, and it doesnt have to denigrate the truth to be exciting and effective.

    If we want to reach a larger number of people, you have to speak their language. If we wait for the majority to become wholly rational, we could wait forever, and there is nothing wrong with understanding your audience. Putting the truth into a simple story doesnt make that truth less accurate. The best part of scientific thought is that the more you learn about it, the better it gets.
    Many people hear a story, and get interested enough to seek out further info . When they go looking, they learn more, which is the point.

  • EpicSkeptic

    Funny, you mention the Da Vinci code. I can remember the exact time and place when I lost my religion, it was chapter 51 when Teabing was telling the story of how Jesus was just an ordinary man and everyone had been lied to, at that moment, it hit me and my body started to tingle as if I had drank too much coffee. I cried that night, not for losing a friend, but by gaining the truth of reality. The next day, i went on the computer and googled “atheism”. I haven’t looked back since. That’s another reason the church didn’t like the book, because of how many followers it had started to convert or peaked the curiosity of it’s readers. Oh how i wish someone would make a movie about a de-conversion, wether it be fiction or not.

  • MS Quixote

    Ebon,

    Your intuitions are excellent, as usual. Narrative is a powerful tool because most, if not all, of us encounter and conceive the world as a story, not a science project. I’m working along the same lines already from the Christian perspective, having started a book tentatively titled “The World as Narrative” as well as a fiction revolving around an atheist protagonist.

    Atheism has had much success in the past with narrative, especially in science fiction. Watch the backstory, though. It has to be handled with care or it’s a real drag on the story itself. One other caution: stories imply story-tellers :)

  • Leum

    One other caution: stories imply story-tellers :)

    Quixote, human history is a great example of a story without a story-teller. Of course, history lacks any real logic, narrative, or meaning, but the historian’s job is to take what’s there and create a plot from an unending pattern. Stories need not spring from the creative part of the mind, they can be created by taking what’s there and forcing it into the shape of a story.

    Of course, the above comes from my reading way more into your statement than was there, but I love stories too much to avoid going on about them (I blame Pratchett and Gaiman).

  • http://dimension-less.blogspot.com Brad

    Stories also typically imply a distinction between outside readers and inside characters… so ours would be quite a special one, wouldn’t it? :)

  • http://effingtheineffable.wordpress.com Peter

    Here, too, we know what goes into crafting a compelling narrative. A good story will present a likable and sympathetic main character with whom the reader can emphasize; it will present the character with a dilemma which he has the ability to solve; it will explain the character’s backstory and show how he got into that dilemma; and it will tie together established character traits with elements from his past to create an explanation for how he can triumph. These are the basic components of any narrative arc.

    Darwin!

  • The Avenger

    Nitpick: shouldn’t it be “with whom the reader can _empathize_” in the second paragraph from the bottom?

  • MS (Quixote)

    Of course, the above comes from my reading way more into your statement than was there

    I think you read it perfectly, Leum. It’s all in there, I was just too lazy to develop it. BTW, if you love stories as much as you say, perhaps you should start writing them, if you’re not already. You just never know….

    Stories also typically imply a distinction between outside readers and inside characters… so ours would be quite a special one, wouldn’t it? :)

    Now that you mention it, they do, don’t they. Thanks for the notion, Brad. The more I think about it, I really think this entire idea has legs, and can be developed fully as Ebon has indicated. It’s also interesting that we run in different directions from an initial set of plot conditions.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    As well as poetry/prose another way to tell a good story is in song. Hymns and carols perpetuate in memorable soundbites the key bits of the xian message and I often think about how to replicate this for Atheism. Despite being something of a musician I have yet to manage this is in a way that is’nt either as dry as last week’s crackers or a rant (cue thrash metal riff). If I ever write something I’m proud of I’ll link to it for general critique, but in the meantime does anybody know of an explicity atheist song that passes the “old grey whistle test”?

  • Mathew Wilder

    @ Steve Bowen: Bad Religion has quite a few anti-religious/freethinking songs that aren’t dry or preachy. The key is to express your feelings, and not try to write the song equivalent of Hitchens’ God Is Not Great.

  • MS (Quixote)

    explicity atheist song that passes the “old grey whistle test”?

    Does “Imagine” come close to what you were thinking?

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Does “Imagine” come close to what you were thinking?

    I guess it would have to, with the proviso that the singer doesn’t change the lyric to one religion too, as some do. Yes, all rise and turn to page one in your atheist hymnal. But, I’m really thinking of a way to do what Ebon is talking about and tell the competing story to (e.g) “All things bright and beautiful” where “the lord God” doesn’t “make them all”.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    I don’t listen to a lot of rap, but there’s a group called Dead Prez that has some very good atheistic verses like this (paraphrased):

    I’d grab the intercom
    My first words would be
    Man made god out of ignorance and fear
    If god made man, well why the hell would he put us here
    He’s supposed to be the all-loving
    The same god who let Hitler put the Jews in the oven

    Also, on Pharyngula about a year ago, there was some atheist rap music that was pretty good that took on intelligent design.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    This is who I was thinking of from the above comment.

  • Christine

    @Steve: I second the Bad Religion recommendation. Their song “Atheist Peace” is an especially good one.

    And the world might cease/ if we fail to tame the beast/From the faith that you release/Comes an atheist peace…

  • Christopher

    If you want an “Atheist song” try “Helleluyah: ‘God’ is Dead” by Vader (from their “Impressions in Blood” album).

    Lyrics:

    Passing the empty house
    I see the thing upon the Wall
    Wooden sticks crossed together
    And kneeling man talking to the effigy of steel…
    God is Dead!!! Dead !!! Helleluyah!!!

    Smell of burnt bodies
    Slaughtered virgin lies dead without the face
    Men staring at the skies
    Singing lines and eating sand of waste…
    God is Dead!!! Dead !!! Helleluyah!!!

    Wandering the globe around
    I saw no miracles nor wonders
    Humanity so poisoned by their myths
    Why none can see my wings?!
    God is Dead!!! Dead !!! Helleluyah!!

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    OMGF, Mathew Wilder, Christine.
    Finally found the time to check out Bad Religion and Greydon Square, thanks for the pointers. Both were very interesting and expressed aspects of the atheist outlook (musically I found Bad Religion a bit derivative, Greenday?) and Greydon in particular (though Hip Hop is not my natural environment) obviously approaches a lot of his lyrics from a scientific world view. However, in the context of the OP this was not really what I was getting at. Ebon has said

    Our society does not value critical thinking and skepticism highly, but rather steadfast faith and decisions based on emotion. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising that rational arguments against Christianity or any other religion have made relatively little headway.
    On the other hand, what can and does flourish in such an environment is another story, one that appeals to people on the same emotional level as Christianity and taps the same feelings:…

    Not only does religion have the Biblical narrative but also the reinforcing background of hymns and carols which (in the UK at any rate) we learn from infant school. Over xmas I was at my youngest daughter’s carol service, and without the aid of the song sheet (work made me late) I easily sang along with all of the carols; Little town of Bethlehem, Away in a manger, Silent night et al, embedded as they are in my psyche over decades. In order to have people grow up with the rational scientific world view we need songs that can be sung by 5 year olds which don’t start with the antagonistic premise (There’s no God Yeah, Yeah!! etc etc) but with a catchy, memorable positive attribution to evolution, secular morality and the real wonder of the universe we inhabit. Alongside the unfolding narrative of scientific enlightenment, we should be helping future generations plug into the zeitgeist with song.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    So, how do you defeat a story? Not with logic and reason… No, the way to defeat a story is with a better story.

    Hell, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    Steve Bowen,

    …musically I found Bad Religion a bit derivative, Greenday?…

    Oh, please don’t. If one is derivative of the other, it’s the other way around!

    I hear what you are saying though about songs that can be sung by 5 year olds.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    I’m going to have to agree with OMGF here:

    (musically I found Bad Religion a bit derivative, Greenday?)

    BR came way before Greenday, and they used to be punk. My favorites were always the stuff on 80-85, Suffer, Against the Grain, and No Control. I grew up on BR even though I was never an atheist, and can still recite many songs verbatim. Graffin is such a good writer and really has a way with words. At any rate, it’s only newer BR that has the melodic, poppy sound you’re correctly identifying with Greenday.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I’m going to have to agree with OMGF here:

    Hey! glad I got you guys to agree on something:P I’ll try to listen to more of Bad Religion, I’m sure you are both right about them.