Everybody loves a good story. And I mean everybody. It’s incredible, when you think about it, just how universal our appreciation of stories is. Whether in books, plays, films or songs, humans across the world have always enjoyed stories. This was a fact that I’d never been forced to consider quite so much before coming to UEA and beginning my Creative Writing course. Our first seminars opened my eyes to some incredible truths about our love for stories and about the importance of structuring them to appeal to our human sensibilities for clarity and closure. But there was one comment that didn’t sit well with me.
It was just an offhand comment intended to underline our infatuation with stories. My tutor brought up religion and claimed that our love of stories helps explain why their grand universal narratives are attractive. Belief in a world with God provides comfort and order to our universe by turning every aspect of human life into a story that has meaning and purpose.
But I, as a religious believer myself, would like to respond to this claim from a different perspective. I want to look deeper into this unique relationship between humans and stories and ask the question of why it exists. And, in doing so, I would like to flip the atheist hypothesis on its head: rather, God is not a product of our love of stories, but our love of stories is a product of God. This is not only an alternative perspective but also one that seems to make sense of what is otherwise a baffling natural instinct which we as humans collectively possess.
In my early days as a writer, I didn’t much like the many writer’s guides which insisted that stories had to be structured in a certain way. However, whilst on the surface this seems deeply limiting, at its core its nothing more than an acceptance of the fact that an audience goes into a story with certain expectations. A story must have a conscious structure to separate it from just being a series of events. Everything must make sense and every action should have consequences that are paid off in a satisfying way. Every ending should feel right, as if it were always building up to end that way. Random events and coincidences create disappointing stories.
Yet, according to an atheist worldview, this is precisely how the universe works: totally random and without any conscious structure. The complete opposite to what we like in our stories. Perhaps this really is just another random quirk of our evolution, that we have evolved to have a universal love of worlds that work in the exact opposite way to our own. But I think another possibility is worth considering and – dare I say – just as plausible. Could it be that our love of stories points to a greater truth? Could it be that our craving for worlds that conform to logic and that make sense is not a hopeless wish but a reflection of reality? Could it be that we love our stories to have a structure that makes sense because it reflects a structure that does exist in our universe? A structure that wasn’t created by a writer, but by something else – a god, perhaps?
We constantly make stories out of our lives, applying meaning to our actions and relationships, but it can be very difficult to actually believe that the universe as a whole works this way. Day by day, we are bombarded with random events that don’t seem like they could make sense and with a universe which seems far too bizarre to be ordered. But this is also the case when in the middle of a good story. If the structure is plain to see then the story is probably a dull one, where the writer’s craft is too obnoxious and ruins your enjoyment. In the best stories of all, the structure only becomes apparent when you reach the end – and at that point it makes perfect sense. There’s nothing quite like finishing a story that you felt ended exactly as it should have – exactly as it was always destined to. So maybe – just maybe – God gave us a love of stories and a love of worlds that make sense because that brings us closer to the way that He made the world for us.
When considered in this way, it seems almost a paradox that our hatred for randomness and love of structure would lead us to reject the idea of a structured universe and feel more assured in a random one. Even if we believe that we’ve somehow evolved to enjoy stories precisely because they are the opposite of our meaningless reality, there is something distinctly un-random about that outcome too. The alternative to that, I think, is at least worth considering.