Stories and Reality – How Religion Works

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.

Some notes:

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.


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16 responses to “Stories and Reality – How Religion Works

  1. Mike Gantt

    How do you define “religion” and “religious”?

  2. Ian

    Very broadly. I think this is also true for lots of other things we wouldn’t associate with religion. But seems to me to be pretty universal in all talk of god or gods, the supernatural or spiritual beings.

  3. Mike Gantt

    So, anything purported reality that could not be discovered, measured, or explained by science?

    Or, would it be an equally good paraphrase to say: anything that cannot be validated through our five physical senses?

    Or, would it also be correct to think you are meaning: anything falls outside the realm of Naturalism?

  4. Ian

    Its not really to do with senses. In the list of source-material I gave, not many of them are sensory, are they? And I think science is a bit of a red-herring too. None of this, I think, assumes naturalism or empiricism, even. It is just an observation of a pattern that is common in religious stories.

    I think you might be responding to my subtext, rather than the content.

    Do you interpret any of the observations in my list in terms of the teachings of the bible, for example?

    Do you take the fact that the bible explains so much about the world as part of the evidence that you use to know its teachings are true? (I know from previous comments you have other reasons besides, I’m not asking whether your whole religion is based on this).

    Even admitting that this post is true, would not warrant the conclusion that any particular religious story was false, as far as I can see. Because, let’s say that your understanding of God is absolutely correct: in that case we’d *expect* to see the same pattern: some things we can all see, other things we require the Word of God to show us. So the pattern is consistent with both of our views, I think.

  5. Mike Gantt

    I’m trying to properly understand your content. The questions I’m asking may be taking me away from your point rather than getting me closer to it. But if I don’t ask them, I’ll just be left to my guessing.

    It’s possible that you’re describing religious stories generically from an atheist standpoint so as to demonstrate their common flaws. It wouldn’t be the first time an atheist did so. However, I didn’t want to assume that was what was taking place – thus my questions.

    Now that we’ve gotten to this point, you can dispense with answering those specific questions and maybe outline for us the standpoint from which you write, the point you are wanting to make, and where you are wanting to go with it

    It may be entirely my fault that I don’t already understand these things. If so, I just ask your patience.

  6. Ian

    I don’t think you’re wrong about my subtext. I think that religions are human constructs. I think their supernatural claims are false. I think they all work in very similar ways, using a relatively small core of techniques. I am motivated by that belief to post things like this.

    I think that, if the way religions work was more widely understood, fewer people would fall for them. I’m pretty sure we agree that large numbers of people get sucked into harmful and false religion all the time, because they aren’t aware of what tricks are being played on them.

    So I think that, as long as we both acknowledge the fundamental disagreement between us, we can actually agree on much of this. Or at least disagree in ways that are interesting. I strongly suspect neither of us is going to cleverly argue the other onto their side. So I’d like to be constructive, while not pretending either of us is not where we are.

    Does that make sense?

  7. Mike Gantt

    It does.

    That said, it’s not a paradigm in which I think, or can ever recall thinking. And even now, it’s not a framework that seems useful to me in trying to map to reality (truth) – the understanding of which, for me, is the ultimate goal.

    Therefore, others are probably better candidates to engage with you on it than I am.

  8. I have a minor nitpick. I don’t think that the power of religious metanarrative lies in explanation, but in description, i.e., its ability to stageset and typecast. Take your example:

    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.

    Taken as a character cue, we find ourselves playing a part in the religious metanarrative; we are in the throes of the story. If we take your example as an explanatory fact, it’s open to being challenged.

    Aside from all that, I’d like to say that this post really hit home.

  9. Ian

    Dan, thanks.

    I definitely agree that that the story seeks to have one perform it, to adopt a character in the world it presents (so one plays the part of the saved sinner, for example). So the believer behaves in ways that are consistent with the story. which further justifies it. It is an enrolling narrative.

    ” If we take your example as an explanatory fact, it’s open to being challenged.”

    I don’t understand your distinction in terms, i.e. ‘explanation’ vs ‘description’, and so I don’t get in what way the difference between an explanation and a description might change whether it can be challenged.

    By explanation I meant that the story of the unseen world forms a reason why you are having that experience, so it feels more than a description. But I suspect I may be using the terms differently. What am I missing?

  10. I’m pulling the ‘explanation/description’ distinction from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. As I understand it, (and to be fair, I might not: Wittgenstein is awfully cryptic on this point), description is what we are left with when we bring what we understand already plainly into view. We ‘describe’ when we trust what we already know. When there is reason to distrust what we know, we seek to ‘explain’ it.

    I suppose this probably isn’t helpful, but it’s the best I can do for now.

  11. Ian

    No, that’s very helpful. I love comments that give me fun homework! Thanks a lot. Its about time I read Philosophical Investigations for myself, rather than relying on summaries.

  12. Wittgenstein, of course, perseverates on the question of what makes us doubt or distrust what we know. That’s what makes him fun, I guess.

  13. Sorry, I somehow managed to miss your reply. I’m going all the way through the PI for the very first time myself. (Well, I had gone through it once before, but that was merely to say that I had read it. Nothing stuck.) Before I’d rely on summaries of it, or I’d reference certain sections. It’s been a rewarding experience to read through it slowly. Anyways, I’ll be interested to see what you’ll be writing for blog posts when you get around to reading it!

  14. Claude


    I would add to your list:

    • Sometimes I’m so moved by aesthetic experience that it feels like I’ve been transported to another world.

  15. Ian

    Claude, good one. Yes, that works too. Thanks for the suggestion, and welcome to the blog!

    Dan. I’ll order a copy at the start of Feb, when my book budget gets some more fuel 🙂 And then I’ll work through too.

  16. Claude

    Thank you for your kind welcome. It’s a pleasure reading your blog!

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