The Stories You Believe Shape Your World
Stories are an intrinsic part of humankind. They are how we have been able to leave our humble roots behind and transcend our planet.
Think of the great religions, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, all of them offer a narrative. They offer explanations for the world we see around us and a set of codes that we should adhere to lest we invoke the wrath of our God or Gods.
The ability of humankind to connect and prosper is down to belief in several such stories. Nation-states are a prime example of this. None of us would doubt the existence of the United States, Germany or even Fiji, but they are merely lines on a map.
Nation-states are a relatively new development in the history of humanity. For the majority of our existence, we existed in small tribes. Borders and the idea of national cultures were not even contemplated. They were not a part of reality.
Nations exist in part because of our collective willingness to believe in the story of such countries. If I am to drive through the United Kingdom, I cannot see or hear the United Kingdom, because the idea of the country exists in the collective imagination of humans.
What I see are trees, land, birds and appalling weather. These are all things that can be found in other countries too, apart from the weather perhaps! Whether we realise it or not, it is our belief in these collective imaginations that binds us all together. It is these very stories that have allowed us to prosper and develop into the species we see today.
But, these very stories can also be our downfall. Belief in certain stories, such as Nationalism or Fascism, undermine our freedoms and are a threat to democracy, another one of humanity’s many stories.
Stories are not going anywhere. They help us to understand and exist in the world that we live in. However, we need to be careful about which ones we choose to believe because it could lead to our downfall.
A good analogy for our capacity to believe in stories is sport. I am no stranger to this, being a huge Liverpool F.C. fan. Millions of people around the world follow their own sports team and derive an identity from doing so.
This following echoes religion in a lot of ways. Each team has a specific kit, a stadium, where thousands of people go to pay homage every other week. While the players that play for these teams are worshipped almost as fervently as deities.
However, if you were asked if you could see, hear or touch any of these football clubs you would be out of luck. Yes, you could go to the various stadiums, but they are merely buildings used for the playing of a sport whose rules exist in our imagination.
I can go to Liverpool and search for hours and hours, but I will never be able to find anything with any tangible reality that I can see or hear. The club is not a tree or a stream, it is an entity that exists on paper and in our minds.
Yet, this club can command my loyalty and attention. I jump for joy when we win, and I plunge into the depths of despair when we lose. Even the use of the collective pronoun ‘we’ indicates how the story has seeped into my consciousness.
Nationalism is a similar story, but one that is much more widespread and potent compared to sports teams. Millions of people grow up in the belief that their country is sovereign, has an undoubted right to existence and is a virtuous place to live.
However, they are as real as the football clubs that exist within them. They are lines on a map, borders on land, which is millions of years old and existed long before the idea of nations was even conceived.
This is why nationalism is dangerous. Nationalism dictates that we should only believe in one story, that of the nation. Pride in your nation is common, but when it is taken to the extreme it can have dangerous repercussions.
Americans are constantly told their country is the greatest on the planet. Indeed, Donald Trump’s election slogan in 2016 was to ‘Make America Great Again.’ The irony in this statement is apparent, but oblivious to many.
By what metric do we determine a country’s greatness? Who decides whether a country is great or not? The simple answer is that there is no metric. You could use several statistics, such as the mortality rate, literacy rate and so on, but none of them would be able to definitively tell you which nation is the greatest.
Statistics are hard to absorb anyway. What is more appealing to the average citizen? To hear that your country has the highest literacy rate in the world, or to be told that your country is the greatest on the planet over and over again? Given a choice, most people would plump for the second option.
This is why nationalism is so appealing. It offers easy solutions to complex issues. These issues are often glossed over because people believe they reside in the most glorious country on the planet and no amount of bad news can detract from that.
However, the reality is that these stories are fragile entities that are held up by the flimsiest of beliefs. This is most evident in the story of mainstream religion.
That religion has been able to survive into the 21st century is a sign of how much stories can endure. Christianity, Judaism and Islam can trace their origins back two thousand years and more.
In that time the world has changed beyond all comparison. If we were to travel back in time to Gallilee and encounter disciples of Jesus Christ, the differences between us and them would be stark.
Despite this, belief in religion has managed to persist into modernity despite all religions being built on shaky foundations. Indeed, there are hardly any foundations to speak of. Religions are held up by the weight of the roof rather than the strength of their foundations.
When we consider Christianity, it becomes evident that the foundations of religion are shaky. There is no evidence to back up the claims that Mary was a virgin and gave birth to a child. We have zero evidence that Jesus was God, the creator of the universe, personified.
All we have is a text written thousands of years ago and little to no scientific evidence to back the claims in it. Yet, the story persists. why?
When confronted with the reality of the situation, people are faced with two options, they can either acknowledge the evidence and admit they were wrong, or they can double down on their beliefs and bat away these claims.
Religion gives a lot of people a story and identity that is personal to them. They build their lives around the stories of Jesus, Mohammed and other prophets. To be told that these stories are nothing but fantasies is disconcerting, to say the least.
This is why religions often employ elaborate rituals to reassure followers that there is a reality behind the religion they follow.
Christians partake in the ritual of mass or communion depending on their denomination. A priest holds a piece of bread a loft and declares it a piece of Christ’s body. Followers are then encouraged to take a bite of the bread and taste the flesh of Christ.
Nowadays, the rituals are performed in the native language of the congregation, but in the past, this ritual would have been performed in Latin.
As the priest held the bread aloft he would have exclaimed, ‘Hoc est corpus!’ — ‘This is the body!’ Latin was not widely spoken by the majority of illiterate peasants who made up the congregation. While being enraptured with the performance, they would have been none the wiser about what was said.
Without intimate knowledge of Latin, ‘Hoc est corpus’ became ‘Hocus Pocus’ in the minds of those peasants. So from one story, we have the birth of another. The word that is used by magicians around the globe as they conjure up tricks has its origins in Christian rituals.
If there is an example of how stories can enter mainstream belief in the most mundane of circumstances and persist, this is it!
What Stories Should We Believe In?
This is an important point to consider. If we are clear that the world we have constructed is dependant on stories, then it is clear that we will need to believe in a few of them.
It is not for me to tell you which stories to believe in. I am by no means an expert in these matters, nor do I have a crystal ball to peer into the future and see which stories will prosper and which will not.
What I can say is that we must pay careful attention to the stories that we do believe. As we have seen recently, the cost of placing our faith in stories which have shaky foundations can be the loss of life.
In an age of information overload, it is not enough to base your belief system on a few tweets from people on Twitter. You must assess and think through the information that you are presented with.
Stories such as nationalism and religion are attractive because of their simplicity. Follow us and you will prosper. Come to my church every Sunday and you will be rewarded with eternal salvation.
These are simple solutions to complex problems and what is conspicuous in both is a lack of detail of why you should follow and how these grandiose statements will be fulfilled.
To counteract against these types of stories we need to analyse the words they are using. Words such as sacrifice, eternity and redemption are to be met with wariness.
These words usually invoke images of suffering. Consider the soldier on the battlefield that has made a sacrifice in the name of his nation. In modern times, this has happened a lot. Has their sacrifice been worth it? Invariably not, because those who call for sacrifices to be made are the often the ones who do not make any.
If they believe in their stories so much, why are they not the first ones to lay themselves on the line when push comes to shove?
Stories such as these are becoming increasingly common, but we must remember that they are just that, stories. Nations, football teams, religions, they are all constructs we have developed to allow us to make sense of, and tolerate life.
We must choose what stories we follow carefully, for if we do not, the very stories we hold dear could lead us down the path to ruin.