Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Decline of Religion Through Story

Humankind has an insatiable appetite for stories. Story is our most prolific art form, and each day we devour them in billions of pages of prose, the unending stream of television comedies and dramas, movies, 24-by-7 broadcast news, the internet, and even dinner-table bragging. We even experience stories when we sleep, through our dreams. And what compels us to experience stories? The need to know how to live.

Each and every day we humans seek an answer to the ageless question Aristoltle posed in Ethics: How should a man/woman lead his/her life. Strangely enough, even though we seem to spend most of our waking hours chasing after the answer, it seems to elude us. The harder we chase after it, the more it slips through our fingers.

Traditionally, mankind sought the answers to Aristotle’s question from philosophy, science, religion and art. But of these four wisdoms, religion held the most sway with the general population. It defined every aspect of how each man and woman was to live and relate to each other and to the environment. But religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that masks hypocrisy. As we are inundated with other forms of stories from movies, TV, books and media, our faith in traditional ideologies diminishes. We as a culture are turning to the source we now prefer to believe in: the art of story.

Film, novels, theatre, and television have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration as it seeks to gain order from chaos. As playwrite Jean Anouilh said, “Fiction gives life its form.”

So as we go forward into the void called future, fewer people are relying on religion to guide them, and more and more people depend on the writers – novelist, screenwriters, playwrights, journalists – to delve into the human condition and find meaning, then relay that meaning to the masses in the form of story.

Fiction then, is not a flight from reality, but the shiny new vehicle that carries us in search of reality, and the writers, or storytellers, are the new messiahs who lead the way. Some of them even seem to walk on water...

When you think about it, that puts a very weighty responsibility on the shoulders of writers, one that I don’t believe should be taken lightly.


Etienne's Stories said...

Most of the characters in my stories are practicing Episcopalians, and high-church ones, at that.

I can tell you, based upon feedback readers, that Religion is an important part of the lives of ordinary gay men.

AlanChinWriter said...


My experience is just the opposite. I don't know a single gay man who takes organized religion seriously. Perhaps it simply the circles I travel in.

What I do see is a decline in every person's religious devotions. I've said many times that the only true expression of one’s beliefs lies in action. If Christians truly believed, then every man would be a Gandhi, every woman a Mother Teresa.

Needless to say, most people are only looking out for their own interest, which means they don't really believe, in MHO.

Bryl R. Tyne said...

Alan, this is an interesting take on fiction and religion. After thinking on it, I'd say playwrite Jean Anouilh may have a stronger point than first imagined.

From my experience, one of the main points drilled into me from an early age was this: Never discuss religion or politics. Stress: NEVER.

I have no idea how many people were taught as I was, but if just those people are searching for meaning and purpose because they are either timid or ashamed or have been tempered into not asking questions and discussing issues/sides/points or even philosophizing ideals... where are they to turn?

Maybe that is the next bastion of philosophy -- the storyteller. I do feel many believe the same have been the true leaders all along. Who knows.

I know many authors who pour themselves and their beliefs into each and every word they put to paper, which is to say, those beliefs are being shared and, from the author's hopeful perspective, quite convincingly to the masses. It does give one something to ponder.

But then again, I know many who do it for only superficial reasons.

Again, interesting point to bring up.

Lloyd A. Meeker said...

Let me offer a different perspective - spiritual experience that can be shared is found in stories, and it's always been that way. Along with others, Jung and Campbell showed how our greatest stories invoke universal archetypes and their inherent truth and power. "In the beginning" is one of the most powerful "Once upon a time" openings I know of.

My personal belief is that some stories about great lives and great events, if they give voice to the archetypes deeply enough, can give birth to religion, which then organizes the stories into a system of belief and behavior.

Classical mythology is a perfect example of how religion springs from a set of stories. The Olympian gods did things, and their stories were told as ways of approaching the infinite.

Universal spirit and the stories able to carry it are as vibrant and powerful today as they were when first told, whether they are historically true or not. As every writer knows, some truth can be told only through fiction. Christian Jesus taught that the letter of the law kills, but the spirit gives life.

So if a religion dies, it's not because stories destroyed it. It's because that religion has become too rigid to let its own stories breathe the breath of life.

I'm delighted if there is increased interest in stories that aren't organized according to religion but carry a deep message for the human heart longing to touch the universal. I take that as a sign of true spiritual health and growth.

Alex Beecroft said...

From my perspective, my religion informs my stories and any ethics or morals that might be found in my stories. So if people are looking at my books to learn ethics they will learn (I hope) Christian ethics.

Before I became a Christian, I learned my morality from Tolkien - and of course his underlying world view was a Christian one too (though given a bitter-sweet flavour by some very old paganism.)

Where do the writers who write the stories get their morality from? If they live in the West and are raised without religion then most of their unexamined beliefs will still be rooted in the vestigial Christianity of their societies. (Either accepting or reacting against it.) If they are believers in a religion, then their stories will reflect and pass on what their religion (or religions, if they've gone through a number of them) taught them. The number of philosophers who sit down and work out their own belief systems from first principles are minimal, I would have said.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

My first novel, 'Holy Communion' written more then 25 years ago was a religious novel. It explored God and sexuality in the mind of a 7 year old boy faced with adult claims to his worth. In the end he comes out victorious in his battle with the adult world. So much that it won Lambda Literary Award for the year. That kind of made my religious life, for which I am very grateful.