More Stories As Religion

Most people who say they are atheist or agnostic still believe in supernatural powers:

In the United States, 38% of people who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power. While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey … found that … only 13 per cent of adults agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”. …

When researchers asked people whether they had taken part in esoteric spiritual practices such as having a Reiki session or having their aura read, the results were almost identical (between 38 and 40%) for people who defined themselves as religious, non-religious or atheist.

This is plausibly reinforced by fiction, which (as I’ve said) serves similar functions to religion:

In almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

In manuals for writers (see “Screenplay” by Syd Field, for example) this process is often defined in some detail. Would-be screenwriters are taught that during the build-up of the story, the villain can sin (take unfair advantages) to his or her heart’s content without punishment, but the heroic protagonist must be karmically punished for even the slightest deviation from the path of moral rectitude. The hero does eventually win the fight, not by being bigger or stronger, but because of the choices he makes.

This process is so well-established in narrative creation that the literati have even created a specific category for the minority of tales which fail to follow this pattern. They are known as “bleak” narratives. An example is A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry, in which the likable central characters suffer terrible fates while the horrible faceless villains triumph entirely unmolested.

While some bleak stories are well-received by critics, they rarely win mass popularity among readers or moviegoers. Stories without the appropriate outcome mechanism feel incomplete. The purveyor of cosmic justice is not just a cast member, but appears to be the hidden heart of the show. (more)

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  • Ally

    “In the United States, 38% of people who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power.”

    It would be interesting to see the breakdown, if it exists, of those identifying as atheist and claiming to believe in a God. Please would you mind revealing your sources for this quote?

    To claim to be an atheist; to claim to believe in a God – these are contradictory claims. One cannot simultaneously be an atheist and believe in a God.

    I suspect that this finding may be more accurately stated as: “In the United States, 38% of people who did not identify themselves as belonging to a particular religion or denomination went on to claim to believe in a God or a Higher Power.” or “62% of those not self identifying as belonging to a particular religion or denomination consider themselves to be atheists.”.

    • lump1

      I thought the same: If you lump together atheists and agnostics and note that 38% of *that lump* believe in a higher power, that tells me that some agnostics are spiritual – a “no duh” result. It’s a misleading way to present data, like saying that 64% of the clergy and aristocracy are married.

  • God is the quintessential omniscient narrator.

    • Kenny

      Or, to flip it around slightly, the omniscient narrator is just another manifestation of God.


    I guess Americans and the British are so used to christianity and islam that they equate a karmic force with religion. Most people do not know that there are religions that do not claim a karmic force to exist and even in some parts of christianity and islam the “karmic justice” only takes place in the afterlife (where most stories don’t venture).

    So our preference for stories with at least some hitn of a happy ending is not the same as being religious. There are similarities and out desire for karmic justice is a driving factor behind religion but they are not one and the same.

    In fact I’d wager that the whole practice of viewing the endings of stories as some sort of karmic justice is shaped by experiences with christianity and islam. Most stories are at their core older than christianity and not designed to showcase karmic justice. For example a time travel story where the protagonist finds out he/she can’t ultimately change the past (12 Monkeys comes to mind) is at its core a Greek tragedy where even the greatest hero cannot defy the fate the gods have laid out. Modern society would interpret this as the hero being punished for the sin of hubris, but the Greeks did not consider hubris a sin (many cultures do not, because hubris being a sin doesn’t immediately follow from our preprogrammed forager ethical instincts) as they did not believe all of the actions of the gods were always just. So in essence some religions have assimilated storylines into their own belief system and those religions happen to be dominant right now to such an extend that we think those storylines are a sign of religious thinking.

    • AnotherScaryRobot

      I think your last paragraph gets at precisely what’s going on here. It’s not that ostensibly non-religious narratives involving karmic justice are a sort of crypto-religion, it’s that the desire for universal justice is one of the many inherent human instincts that some religions have effectively co-opted for their own purposes.

    • Philip Goetz

      Name some religions that don’t claim a karmic force exists. It is central in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which together cover pretty much all advanced civilizations. There is no karma AFAIK in most animistic religions, the kind you’d find in tribal societies in Africa or the Americas, but that’s all I can think of at the moment.

      • IMASBA

        The Greek and Roman pantheons didn’t dish out karma. And the animistic religions are very important, they may have few followers today but they were the first religions and they continue to serve as a reminder that you can have religion without all the petty moralizing of modern religions.

  • Michael Vassar

    Actually, Ayn Rand’s “Romantic Manifesto” covers this ground MUCH MUCH better. The concept Robin is calling god, she calls Romanticism, as contrasted with Naturalism.

  • Granite26

    I don’t understand what a craving for karmic justice has to do with one’s belief in its existence in our universe.

    ‘If God didn’t exist’, and all that…

  • Evan Gaensbauer

    What do we think of the just-world hypothesis as a plausible explanation for both religion, and stories that appear to match the pattern Dr. Hanson has noticed here, but don’t explicitly admit they’re in a world with a god?

    • The question is: what is thought to cause the just world?

      • Evan Gaensbauer

        Well, naturally, god, or otherwise some supernatural force maintaining justice, and order, in the world, is what most people would believe causes it. However, to clarify, I believe that’s a rationalization for the false belief.

        To clarify, the just-world phenomenon is classified as a cognitive bias, so I’d consider the cause of itself to be the same for other cognitive biases. That is, caused by the fact it provided an evolutionary advantage in the past for our species, or genus.

      • Weaver

        Perhaps successful ancestors are more likely to have received justice than those who did not?

      • IMASBA

        Nah, believing in a somewhat just world is believing that you can make a difference and that good accomplishments can last. Those beliefs are essential to even get out of bed in the morning. It’s a motivational necessity to keep an intelligent species going, although it must be said that over the very long term humanity has been goign back to its innate forager values that feel “just”. For a human living today the successes of the gay rights movement and the decline of worldwide violent crime and war can be seen as confirmation of the just-world hypothesis.

      • Weaver

        I don’t suppose we could invoke Steven Pinker’s better angels here?

        Dare we consider the possibility that long term factors in human civilisation do indeed have a just bias? To which people have given unconcious agency?

  • lump1

    I wonder if ordinary adults are growing more open to “bleak” stories. Let’s say that Game of Thrones turns out to belong to that genre – nobody knows, but it’s not a big stretch to imagine it. I don’t think that it would lose fans. Lots of other popular fiction has played with bleak themes, in fact, that really might be a part of HBO’s winning formula: a generous blend of bleakness in your fiction makes it feel adult, and sometimes adults like feeling adult. Maybe after millennia of standard narrative forms, we are now in a phase where “bleakness” pleases us with its relative novelty, but that novelty will soon wear off. But maybe, we’re actually changing a bit in how we relate to fiction. Could it be that for the ordinary subscriber of HBO, the world is starting to feel a little too scrubbed of genuine peril?

    • Weaver

      GoT is just designed to LOOK bleak. Martin is just as much a romantic as the rest at heart; he just enjoys wrecking the concepts of the heroic fantasy archetype.

      Sure, classic heroes die. But cripples, kids, women, and the disabled tend to survive. Evil bastards have about the same mortality rate as classic heroes. Maybe higher.

      Martin might go bleak, but at the moment, I’ll bet against it.

      • I haven’t read the books (just watched the show), but I know some of his real life inspirations like the Black Dinner and Glencoe Massacre resulted in basically no repercussions for those responsible. They were more like stepping stones for dynastic triumph, which is not the tack he’s taking.

      • Weaver

        Ditto. Just enjoying the show.

        I think Martin is deliberately subverting the classic high fantasy genre and heroes at every chance he gets. Its great fun, but makes him predictable in other ways though.

      • IMASBA

        “Evil bastards have about the same mortality rate as classic heroes.”

        That IS bleak. The just-world fallacy is a bias, but so would an evil-world fallacy be (where heroes die more often than the villains). A bleak world would be one where the heroes die as much as the villains (not counting active persecution of the villains by other people who demand justice, which even in the real world drives up the death rate of villains like Saddam Hussein) and that’s what we’re seeing up until now in GoT, though it’s fairly probable the ending will tend towards a just-world.

      • Well, although Hussein is dead, Bush and Cheney—who are certainly more responsible for death and destruction in the Mid-East than Hussein—live on.

        [I know that one example proves nothing.]

      • Weaver


        Counting the entire Iran-Iraq war? The persecution of the Marsh arabs? The Kurdish anfal? The long years of the Mukhabarat and the sanctions regime?

        Bush-Cheney were worse? I’d love to see your maths on this one.

        (For the record, I’ve little problem with a “Bush-Cheney are idiots” narrative, but the inability to do first-order numbers and a blindness to intentionality in ethics really gets my goat. Sorry.)

      • IMASBA

        Yeah, also Saddam much more resembled a classic villain. He was a violent psychopath who killed his first victim with his bare hands when he was a teenager. Cheney, and especially Bush fall more into the incompetent leader category, storywise.

      • You’re “goat” is gotten for totally ridiculous reasons. We are talking about issues of historical causation and interpretations of the actual objectives of Bush and Cheney. To think this is a matter of common sense is stupidity.

      • Weaver

        You made a rather strange claim about moral responsibility (or at least causal responsibility) for death and destruction.

        I would see it tested.

        Please list the the principal dead involved, the causative agency of their death, and moral agency as you see it. For both Bush-Cheney vs Saddam. I’ll do the same, and we can compare notes. My goat is waiting.

      • Weaver

        The classic heroes have having a rough time of it. As are the classic villains.

        The anti-heroes, sympathetic women and kids are doing OK. There’s moral order in GoT – just not in the usually expected places.

  • Victor

    I think this is why many of the plot twists in Game of Thrones are so jarring.

    • Alexis Gallagher

      I think this is also what is quietly radical about House Of Cards. It’s hard to think of another piece of popular culture where the protagonist is undeniably a villain and undeniably wins the end.

      • Peter David Jones

        If you are going to write an antihero, you need villains who are even worse.

  • AnotherScaryRobot

    I don’t think the word ‘spiritual’ is defined well enough for the ‘material beings’ vs. ‘spiritual element’ question to useful. From the current Wikipedia summary:

    [Spiritual] may refer to almost any kind of meaningful activity or blissful experience, but without a single, widely-agreed definition.

    Sam Harris, who I think has pretty well established atheist credentials, has no problem applying the word to certain experiences, and point out that Hitchens also did so.

  • Axa

    Thanks for the link to the 2012 post. Robin, this is a true aphorism: If you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth?. Just remove “far” to make it perfect.

    • I don’t see the force of said aphorism. A better analogy would be attending church. There are atheists who go to church because they enjoy it, although they don’t believe a word of the mythology.

      Would other nonbelievers say to this atheist, “If you loved truth, you would give up not only your belief in the various superstitions but your practices?”

      The distinction is rather obvious. We may scorn those who believe dumb things regardless of the demands of reason, but we don’t require people to organize their lives to maximize truth.

      Moreover, abjuring all stories is unlikely to yield more far truth. You would be sacrificing the acquisition of insights in favor of avoiding false conclusions. Although this might be the recipe for “rationalism,” it doesn’t foster truth seeking.

      • Axa

        Right, Stories are a useful tool in life. It is also necessary change “stories” for “fiction” in the aphorism. What Robin argues is that you don’t need to believe literally the fiction story to be influenced by it. You don’t need to believe in the gods of Game of Thrones to find solace in the idea of cosmic destiny, karma, whatever. Another example is the fair play idea from sports. An average intelligence adult acknowledges that rules, an almost omnipresent referee and immediate sanctions are are exclusive to sports. Life is not like that, but people want to see fair play everywhere… war, in the job, in family, etc.

      • IMASBA

        “An average intelligence adult acknowledges that rules, an almost omnipresent referee and immediate sanctions are are exclusive to sports. Life is not like that, but people want to see fair play everywhere… war, in the job, in family, etc…”

        I’m no expert but I’d say wanting to establish and enforce rules leads to there being rules that are somewhat enforced which leads to less misunderstandings and backstabbing. It avoids the sort of general chaos that would drive a social species to extinction.

  • TaymonBeal

    It occurs to me that this explains a certain brand of metafiction. Terry Pratchett is most famously associated with it, but he’s not the only one.

    If you’re an author with a naturalistic worldview, it might bother you to have things happen in your story acausally; you don’t want the good guys to win in a scenario where, if it were real life instead of a story, the good guys wouldn’t win, for no in-universe reason. And although there’s a long tradition of using “God did it” as an in-universe explanation for the good guys winning, you might not want God to exist in that way in your story.

    On the other hand, you might still want to write the kind of story where the good guys win, because that’s the kind of story that you like.

    If you’re unafraid of mixing up different meta-levels, you can elegantly solve this. The in-universe cause for the good guys winning in your story is the same as the out-of-universe cause: because it has to be that way in order for your story to work. Hence the Theory of Narrative Causality.

  • Michał Kaftanowicz

    >While the UK is often defined as an irreligious place, a recent survey … found that … only 13 per cent of adults agreed with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”.

    I think this statement is poorly chosen, as most people probably get confused by the wording and interpret it as an axiological rather than ontological. “Purely material with no spiritual[ity]” sounds to philosophically untrained ear almost like an insult, I guess.

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  • Philip Goetz

    I’ve argued before that the defining characteristic of classic fantasy is that rule-based or virtue-based ethics work in the fantasy world. This is common in popular fiction, as you point out. In fantasy, it’s taken a step farther: The author goes out of his way to construct a worst-case scenario, in which following “virtuous” behavior is obviously stupid and immoral, and then things work out so that doing so is crucial to the protagonist’s victory. One example is Frodo sparing Gollum’s life in Lord of the Rings.

    But karma exists only in some fiction. In post-modernist fiction (say, anything published in the New Yorker in the last 50 years), we have anti-karma: Virtue, or at least innocence, is inevitably punished.

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