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Narrative in the Rise of Religion


In recent years skeptics have often applied Richard Dawkins’ “memes” idea to religion. This does go some of the way towards providing a naturalistic explanation for religion but I think it over-emphasizes the importance of belief at the expense of narrative. Religions, I suggest, mostly begin with narrative; belief arises later and is, in a sense, a secondary development. It is probably our Christian heritage that leads us to attach undue importance to the role of belief. Narrative depends largely on language, and there are important similarities between religions and language in the way in which they are acquired. This way of looking at religion suggests an explanation for its seeming ubiquity in human culture and also for its persistence in our modern society.


From the naturalistic standpoint it is difficult to explain the seeming universality, in all human cultures, of practices and beliefs that would generally be called religious. One recent attempt to do this derives from the idea of the meme, first introduced by Richard Dawkins (Dawkins, 1976) almost as an afterthought at the end of his influential popular exposition of modern Darwinism The Selfish Gene. Since then, in a kind of recursive illustration of its own hypothesis, meme theory has proliferated enormously so that today we have a “science” of memetics, textbooks on memetics, journals of memetics, websites on memetics, while references to memes constantly appear in books and articles on all kinds of subjects.

In her book The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore has a whole chapter on the relevance of memes to religion: “Religion as memeplexes.” (A memeplex is a group of memes that cooperate to ensure their own survival.) So the memes of Catholicism are supposed to include the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God, the belief that Jesus Christ was the son of God, the Virgin Birth, the infallibility of the Pope, and so on. She takes the reason for the success of such memeplexes to be self-evident.

When we look at religions from a meme’s eye view we can easily understand why they have been so successful. These religious memes did not set out with an intention to succeed. They were just behaviors, ideas and stories that were copied from one person to another in the long history of human attempts to understand the world. They were successful because they happened to come together into mutually supportive gangs that included all the right tricks to keep them safely stored in millions of brains, books and buildings, and repeatedly passed on to more.

Blackmore refers to the “right tricks” that religions use to ensure their success. These are similar to those that have been identified previously by critics. Religion is said to provide explanations for the origin of the world and the existence of evil, it helps to hold society together and give a basis for morality, or it is simply an expression of human gullibility and willingness to believe anything. But is this really how religions work? Is it just a matter of “tricks”?

In his recent book Religion Explained, anthropologist Pascal Robert Boyer finds all the hypotheses commonly advanced by rationalists to explain the widespread existence of religion to be superficially plausible but ultimately unsatisfactory. He puts forward instead the theory that religion is the result of psychological mechanisms shared by all normal human minds. The same systems in the mind that we use to explain everyday occurrences such as a tennis ball breaking a window, he suggests, also generate belief in invisible beings and hidden influences on events. For Boyer there is no real difference between these two sorts of explanatory process. He develops this admittedly counterintuitive argument at length, with abundant citation of anthropological evidence. An important part of his theory is that the explanatory processes themselves are not accessible to introspection, which is why the beliefs they give rise to are so persuasive.

It has often been remarked that there are similarities in the religious ideas of cultures that are widely separated from one another geographically or in time. For Boyer these resemblances are explained by the fact that all human minds and brains function in much the same way. C. G. Jung earlier reached a similar conclusion, though from a different starting point, when he formulated his theory of archetypes. Just as the psychological explanatory mechanisms postulated by Boyer are not accessible to introspection, so with archetypes. We do not have direct access to the archetypes themselves, since they are unconscious, but they may become “constellated” or made manifest at the conscious level in various ways, notably in dreams. (Dreams were considered to be very important in many ancient religious traditions; in the Bible Joseph receives Divine guidance in a dream.)

Some critics have dismissed Jung’s archetypes as unscientific and metaphysical, and it is true that there are inconsistencies and obscurities in the way Jung himself described them. However, some Jungians, for example Anthony Stevens, have interpreted the idea in a biological sense (Stevens, 1990). Stevens regards the archetypes as inherited patterns of function analogous to instincts in animals. On this view archetypes could be thought of as psychological “instincts” that manifest themselves in behavior and thought patterns. The widespread devotion to the Virgin Mary in Catholic countries and within Orthodox Christianity can be seen as arising from the archetype of the Anima. Stevens’ version of Jung’s archetype theory implies that religion is hardwired into the brain. There are (presumably genetic) mechanisms in the brain which tend to give rise to religious experiences and ultimately beliefs.

So religions take many different forms, but it is probably possible to discern common underlying themes or structures. There is an echo here of Noam Chomsky’s view of language as based on a Universal Grammar (Chomsky, 1972). The grammar or “deep structure” of human languages is very complex, yet young children seem to have an innate ability to master this complexity within a short time, as if by instinct. This has suggested to many people that the rules of grammar are in some sense built into the human brain during evolution. If this idea is correct, might not the same be true of religion? Religion, after all, is apparently a near-universal in human societies, like language, so perhaps there is a “deep structure” for religion just as there seems to be for language.

I shall come back to this idea shortly, but first I want to look at a different question: should religion be considered primarily as a set of beliefs (which is what Dawkins and Blackmore seem to assume) or should we think of it as based primarily on narrative?

Religion as Narrative

Narrative is at the heart of probably every religion we know of. The Old Testament is not a philosophical treatise, it is mostly a huge collection of stories, and it is on these that its power largely rests. The same is true of the New Testament. The narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is intrinsic to Christianity, and Jesus himself used narrative in the form of parables to convey his meaning. Islam likewise begins with the narrative of Muhammad’s reception of the Quran. Hinduism contains innumerable narratives of the deeds of the gods, and even Buddhism, probably the most “intellectual” among religions, starts with the narrative of the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment. As religions develop they accumulate stories about the lives of their saints and prophets–more narratives.

New religions typically also start from a narrative: Mormonism, for example, begins with the story of Joseph Smith’s discovery of the golden tablets on which was inscribed the Book of Mormon. In almost all traditional societies the process of initiating young people into the mysteries of the tribes seems to have consisted largely in telling them stories about the deeds of tribal gods and ancestors.

One reason why religions have such a strong hold on human societies is that they are based not primarily on intellectual beliefs but on narratives. Story-telling accesses the human psyche not at the intellectual but at the emotional level, where it is more powerful; probably the brain pathways are different for narrative response and belief formation. Human beings are story-telling by nature. Every society seems to have had its story-tellers, its oral epic poets, and the earliest literature that has come down to us (the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Gilgamesh epic) is narrative. Today we still enjoy narratives in the form of plays, films, and novels. (The death of the novel, like the death of religion, is constantly being foretold yet both novels and religions seemingly continue to thrive.)

Intellectual critics today tend to assume that all this narrative material is merely a concession to the uneducated masses, who are unable to understand the sophisticated concepts that are the real substance of religion. I think that this puts things the wrong way round. To understand the appeal of religions we should look first at the narratives in which they are expressed and only subsequently at the doctrinal beliefs that they give rise to.

If this idea is right, it follows that the occurrence of strange beliefs in religion has a ready explanation. Many people find it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. Writers of radio or television soap operators often report that people write to the fictional characters in the apparent belief that they are real. This is a trivial illustration of a basic human propensity, which is to project the stories we tell ourselves on the outer world. The human imagination has given rise to religious stories in which all kinds of miraculous and wonderful events occur. These are taken to be real, and give rise to beliefs which are then incorporated into the religions as factual statements.


  • Blackmore S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press.
  • Boyer P. (2001). Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors. William Heinemann.
  • Dawkins R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. (Revised edition with additional material, 1989.)
  • Stevens A. (1990). On Jung. Routledge.