Humans have always searched for meaning in their lives and in the world around them. Every society has created stories to explain the natural and supernatural things around us. Ultimately, these stories help to provide us with a meaningful place in a confusing universe. Storytelling or story-living is the axis between our personal and interpersonal lives. Historically, “myths,” rituals, religion, and epic storytelling were used to weave individual stories and personal selves into larger, collective narratives and communal entities. Even today, as we grow up, we forge a unique identity or personal self through this act of storytelling. We take up many of our shared narratives and instill upon them a personal sense of ownership. We creatively add something of our own upon that which was already there and waiting for our mark.
In our scientific age, atheists have often severely critiqued religions and religious truth. It is rather easy to do: Close readings have shown textual and logical contradictions in divine texts. Geologists and biologists have shown that creation was not a spontaneous act creating all life as such but was a rather slow process of evolution. Astrophysicists have shown that the universe began with the Big Bang and not seven days of separating heaven, earth, etc. and that our Earth and all its atomic minerals were slowly created through fusion of countless stars’ primordial furnaces, not the Word of God. These are only a few of the startling truths science has accumulated and continues to accumulate through experimentation and observation. And yet religious people still find truth and meaning in their religions, their rituals, their spiritual books, and their collective communities in spite of everything that seems so wrong about it. Atheists often find blatant error in religious people’s claim at truth and meaning in such sources. But such a judgment ignores that people generally don’t look at these stories and communities through the lenses of scientific reasoning but through the lenses of a broader, more primordial human phenomenon: narrative truth and storytelling.
The Word of God: One Story for All People
In the Bible, some of the writings of the Old Testament date back to around 1200 B.C. while those of the New Testament were written in the first and second centuries A.D. Likewise, the first manuscript of the Koran dates from around 633 A.D. and the first authorized version appeared about 650 A.D. Believers claim that even though these texts were delivered and received at a particular place and time in the past, the words contained within are those of God’s eternal voice. As such, these texts are often taken as the core textual basis of how certain religious groups should live out their lives. As many commentators have shown, these texts are littered with contradictions, and if we take religious belief at face value, we must take these contradictions as God’s alone. This begs some questions: Why would God contradict Him/Herself? How could God’s Word, as an eternal divine force outside of time and space, have contradictions, which, by definition, could only exist in time’s passage (namely that someone can only contradict something that was said or done before)? These are just a few of examples of problems non-believers and some believers have with religious sources.
These texts are said to represent a universal truth brought to us through prophetic revelation, held up across a unified, authoritative communal tradition, and defended against critique by appealing to religious faith. Atheists and skeptics are quick to find fault in such claims, but the fact of the matter is that this is religious truth, not scientific truth. Its “evidence” lies in the hearts of believers and their communities who use these narratives to construct meaningful lives. People tell and have told stories since the dawn of humanity, because storytelling is a natural part of what humans do and enjoy doing together. Many argue that believers should not use the word truth, because such claims at truth and validity requires evidence and verification, which, epistemologically-speaking, religions often lack. But while it’s true that religious truth can hardly stand up to the exigence of science, such a totalizing critique misses the point that religious truth is often fulfilling for people meaningful, lived, narrative truth.
Religions appeal to divine moments when a new storyline came to be, namely God revealed to so-and-so such-and-such a message for us. Skeptics justly struggle to see how anyone could ever believe such seemingly empty evidence for the truthfulness of a religion and its message. What matters is not always the message per se but the narrative stickiness in which that collective message becomes obsessively personal. We shouldn’t forget that people and societies have shifted beliefs, religions, and political institutions countless times across recorded and unrecorded history. The religious stories of our ancestors have become our mythological stories. Even today, individuals can whole-heartedly change religions and create meaningful lives even they are late comers to a religious belief.
Current religions are largely the products of cultural fusions between other contemporary stories and beliefs. Atheists often critique these fusions because they claim that they reveal the fact these stories cannot be legitimately claimed as “the World of God.” But in all things cultural, there is no such thing as cultural purity, because as historically-embedded cultural storytellers, we are always grounded in these stories that are larger than us, and it is from and through these larger cultural backdrops that we are able to instill creatively upon our world and our personal lives a sense of meaning. Without a backdrop, there would be nothing to orient us.
The Word of Science: A Story Still to Tell
Atheists talk about atheism in terms of facts, and religious people talk about their faith in terms of stories.
Atheists are often dumbfounded that religious people read the Christian Bible or the Muslim Koran or any other religious text as if the words within were the eternal, unchanging Truth coming straight from the mouth of God. But what is more amazing is that people are able to take any story, religious or otherwise, be able to pull it out of dead parchment and static worlds in the act of reading and make such words alive with human meaning. Maybe we as scientifically-minded people have misunderstood the importance of narrative truth and of staying “faithful” to meaningful stories in our collective lives. Its historical factuality might be challenged, but whatever the narrative, it remains highly meaningful to the participants and their individual and collective identities, and as such these religious and textually-based narratives are “truthful” to the extent that believers remain “faithful” to their storylines. People aren’t searching for the scientific, though sometimes they argue otherwise; they are seeking a weaving of my story and your story, myself and ourselves to something greater and unifying, namely a word that is the Word.
And while its easy to critique the scientific truthfulness of religions and their religious texts, I think we as atheists have failed in our critique to provide a replacement storyline. Darwin, Einstein, and various other scientists have provided us with a wide array of bullets to fire at religion, but these were scientists who largely spoke, wrote and presented themselves in the cold facts of a stark pallet. Dawkins and Hitchens have spoken out intellectually against the absurdity of religions, but they, like numerous others, have yet to provide us with a new emotionally-charged and narratively-rich storyline. Across all times and all cultures, narratives and storytelling are of central importance to the life and reality of all shared, human societies. Stories fill us with meaning and wonder and help us find our place or role in the human-constructed universe. We attack religions as “myths,” but we have failed to tell a story that is equally filled with the same meaningful, epic passion that older religions and myths once stirred in humanity’s soul.
We cannot banish the stories. Traditional, dogmatic religions will continue to provide people with a part of their cultural heritage. But in order to conceive of a world without the pretentiousness and vanity of such illusions or delusions, we must attempt to construct our own storyline, our own narrative truth, and, ultimately, our own “bible” for the future, for which we can finally and truthfully stay faithful to.