Religions tell stories.
They tell stories of a reality behind reality. Stories of a world you didn’t know existed, but one that explains the world you do.
Religious stories can be as fanciful as they like. But if they were only fanciful, they would be only fantasy. A story works when it connects with reality. A common way of making that connection is to explain why reality is the way it is.
For example: we all feel we sometimes fall short of our own moral standards. This is reality.
We can say what this experience means with a story:
Human beings have an inherent sense of morality, but have a sinful nature. The sinful nature is the result of disobedience to God, and can only be remedied by God raising us to new life with him after our earthly death.
In the core of our being we are holy and righteous beings, but clinging to our soul are hundreds of evil spiritual entities who limit us and deny our power. By auditing, we can strip ourselves of these beings and be better able to live the life we want.
Religions have also linked their stories with physical reality. They explained why storms happened, why crops fail to grow, how the world was formed, and why people get sick. But their explanations of these realities turned out to be wrong. So religion is retreating from the physical, or — as in creationism — it turns from using reality as a evidence for its story, into using its story to deny reality.
Even so, human experience remains a fertile ground for putting down roots into reality.
Here are some observations that are ripe ingredients:
- I think it is so unfair that some people die without having received justice for their crimes, while others suffer undeservedly.
- From time to time I get a call or text from a friend I hadn’t heard from for ages, who I was just that minute thinking about.
- I’ve learned that you can’t trust anyone: even those closest to you can betray you.
- Sometimes I get Deja Vu.
- No matter how bad something is, when it is over there is always good that comes from it.
- I cringe inside sometimes when I think of things I’ve done or said in the past.
- I fear death.
- Even when I’m surrounded by friends or family, I can still feel alone.
- Somehow I feel like I was intended for something more than this. I can’t help but think, why am I here?
- From time to time I get these feelings as if I’m one with the cosmos and all I feel is love.
- I just feel like I have no strength left to cope on my own.
- Sometimes everything seems a bit unreal, as if I’m playing a part in a play.
- I hate the way that the next generation has no moral standard: anything goes.
- I can’t imagine not existing.
I’m sure you can wrap your own stories around each one. Or find religious stories you know that reveal the reality behind these realities.
Powerful religious stories weave together many such observations. Very powerful stories can suggest experiences you’d never consciously had, but turn out to be there when you look: “have you ever noticed that …?”, “no, but now you mention it, that’s so true!”
Think about the sin/redemption story of Christianity, for example. It is powerful because it sucks in a whole bunch of these human experiences around morality, around justice, and around our disappointment with ourselves. And those experiences then become usable as evidence for the story.
Even stories that explain lots of our experiences don’t explain them all. There isn’t a story about Deja Vu in Christianity (that I’m aware of) for example. But some religious beliefs in ‘The New Age Movement’ use it as evidence of our latent psychic ability.
Religious stories are complex, and serve many functions. But if they had no connection with reality, few of us would accept them. By interpreting reality, they encourage us to see reality through the interpretation, and find evidence for their truth in the undeniable aspects of our everyday life.
1. I don’t think this is the only way religious stories create evidence for themselves. They can also do this using supernatural phenomena. I’ve touched on how this works before, and I’ll probably come back to it.
2. This post is related to this previous post. Both are based on some writing I’m doing off this site, on how religion works. So I’m interested in observations and criticisms.