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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