On Storytelling

On Storytelling January 4, 2009

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.

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