Overview:

A good story wins people over, which is why atheists and other secular folk need to get better at telling ours.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Civilization is a tapestry of stories.

Whether you call them ideas, or myths, or memes – they fall on us like rain, and we soak them up. They become part of us, and they shape our thinking the way water carves channels in earth. All that we are springs, ultimately, from the stories we hear and the ones we tell.

Stories entertain.

They go back to when we were hunters camped around the fire, spinning tales of gods and monsters, heroes and lovers, tricksters and fell deeds, to make others roar with laughter or thrill the blood in their veins. The love of a good story is as old as humanity. And more than offering mere diversion, great stories make us bold. How many people have gambled all that they have, fought back against injustice, or set out on an adventure into the unknown, because the hero of their favorite story did likewise?

Stories instruct.

They teach us the ways of the world and preserve vital knowledge in a format that’s easily remembered. Before the printing press, before cuneiform or papyrus, memorable stories were the only way to transmit folk wisdom and morals from one generation to another. A story can teach you where to find food, which medicinal plants to use for an illness, what signs mean fair weather, why you should always tell the truth, why you should show hospitality to strangers, or why you should obey the elders of the tribe.

Stories justify.

They tell us why the world is the way it is, or if not, why it should be different. The golden age, the royal blood, the chosen one, the promised land, the great chain of being, the white man’s burden, the workers’ paradise, the master race – all of these are stories told to exalt certain kinds of political orders over their competition. Stories can unite people in service of a greater cause, or stories can plant the seeds of paranoia and hate. Stories can explain why inequality is fair, allow the wealthy to sleep easy and keep the poor content to labor without reward – or stories can spark revolution.

Religion is a story.

In fact, it’s many stories: The chosen people, sealed by ancient covenant with God, scattered across the world but still keeping to his commandments. The son of God taking on human form, dying and rising again as proof of his gospel. The prince who forsook his royal upbringing to discover the secret of enlightenment. The prophet who received a new revelation, correcting the earlier doctrines that had been corrupted by men. The hidden world, concealed from the masses by veils of illusion but visible to the enlightened few. The faithful remnant, keeping to God’s commandments in an evil world, until he returns to vindicate them and destroy the rest of humanity.

Each of these narratives has its own internal logic and its own appeal. And all of them, even the most outlandish, have real power to shape behavior. For the sake of such stories, people have built magnificent churches, devoted their lives to charity and contemplation, or set out to become missionaries converting the heathen. For the sake of such stories, people have marched to war, burned witches and infidels, killed and died.

Culture, too, and patriotism and nationalism: these things are stories as well. America the beautiful, manifest destiny, the city on a hill, one nation under God, land of the free – all these familiar patriotic slogans form part of our national identity, which just means that, consciously or subconsciously, they steer the way millions of people think and act.

Stories are neither good nor evil in and of themselves, but they can serve either end. Dueling stories can convince both sides in a conflict that they’re the righteous ones and the other side is wicked, treacherous, subhuman. Stories can help the oppressed find the courage to rise up against seemingly impossible odds. Stories can help us find common ground with those who are unlike us, can help us see through surface differences to the humanity beneath. Or stories can turn neighbor against neighbor and provoke awful atrocities. Even Southern secessionists, KKK lynch mobs and Trumpist insurrectionists had a story about how they were defenders of America’s true heritage, taking their country back from the alien forces that usurped it.

No matter what motivates you, stories are why we get out of bed in the morning. Our lives are made up of stories we tell ourselves, stories about who we are and why we’re here and what our purpose on earth is. The late, lamented Terry Pratchett called it narrativium: the invisible element that everything else is made of, without which the universe would be mere balls of flaming gas and rocks moving in curves.

What point am I making by telling you all this? Simply stated, it’s to persuade you that stories matter. A good story is what wins people over. Preachers know it, politicians know it, advertisers and marketers know it. We atheists and secular folk need to get better at telling ours.

Our lives are made up of stories we tell ourselves, stories about who we are and why we’re here and what our purpose on earth is.

We have the facts on our side, but that isn’t enough. Given the very same facts, one story can make you believe you’re on the cusp of greatness, while another story can make you believe you’re on a slippery slope to oblivion. Religion isn’t afraid of facts; a story can twist to accommodate them, or create a rationale for denying them. But religion, and other ideologies, do fear a better story – one that plays on the same emotional chords, but more elegantly, more satisfyingly. That’s why they’ve so often turned to censorship to prevent alternative stories from being told.

The good news is that religion, narrow nationalism, and other dogmatic ideologies don’t hold a monopoly on story anymore. The omnipresence of the internet, and especially the proliferation of social media (despite the downsides of the latter), means that no one can dam up the flow of information at the source. For the first time in history, we can tell our own stories without interference. It’s a power we should practice and get better at using.

If you’re concerned that fighting religious stories with atheist stories is descending to their level, I say that story doesn’t have to mean fiction. A story can be fictional, but there are true stories as well. What matters is the ability to weave facts into a compelling narrative, just like weaving threads into a piece of cloth. Coming up, I’ll make some suggestions on how best to do that.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...