« Gone Writing | Main | Who Lost Iraq? »

November 29, 2006

Competing "Stories"

The popularity of the current counterattack on religion cloaks a renewed and intense anxiety within secular society that it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real.

This is Richard A. Shweder in a New York Times opinion piece a couple of days ago. Now I'm too much of a postmodernist to be a die-hard Enlightenment guy, but isn't there something really screwy about such comparisons. What, perchance, is the story of religion? That the universe was created in six days? That we go to heaven or hell when we die? That there are seventy virgins waiting for suicide bombers? That premarital sex or homosexuality are sins? That some omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Being rules the cosmos? Or is it just that we all should be moral (however that might be defined) because some never-seen, never-heard creature in the heavens, who had a son but then had that son crucified for our benefit, insists that we be?

If the story of the Enlightenment was that the whole world was going to be democratic, pluralistic and secular by now (and in exactly what "holy text" of ours was that written?), yeah it hasn't happened. Just a whole lot of the world is more or less that -- a dramatic change (even a postmodernist wants to say "improvement") from the days before the Enlightenment or even from twenty-five years ago. And while progress in this direction is far from smooth, it seems reasonable to assume that more of the world will be democratic, pluralistic and secular at the end of this century than it is at the beginning.

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at November 29, 2006 11:52 PM


While I don't disagree with your challenge to Shweder's too easy summary of some standard 'story of religion' or his conclusion about atheists, I also think he makes an interesting point, that the recognition of the hollowness of that Enlightenment story of progress has finally begun to seep deeply into everyday culture.

That 'story' is everywhere: it provides the foundation for every major institutional set of practices in the west and it has required various forms of violence to install 'secular, democratic, pluralism' for the past two centuries, including but not limited to imperialism, the slave trade, patriarchal domination and genocide. Every 'roadmap to peace' and 'universal declaration of human rights' is based on that narrative, however pretty these sound. That the pretensions of that narrative have been exposed to the point that outright manipulation of opinion and/or coercion must be frequently employed in order to keep people believing in it (the Bush administration's manipulation of the press is only one example) is part of the coming to consciousness of that awareness Shweder speaks of, I'd suggest.

Posted by: JM at November 30, 2006 11:00 PM

One cannot step outside the story anymore than an actor can step from the screen. We exist by use of a story of reality, woven from symbols that arise from the very same story. But that doesn't make sense, oh yeah.

Posted by: Jay Saul at December 1, 2006 6:21 PM

So maybe what's happening today is people are finally realizing that it's *narrative* that's become empty; that the content of the narrative -- comforting stories about eternal life, uplifting stories about universal freedom -- doesn't matter so much as narrative's ability to let us feel that there's order in the world. But of course there IS no order to the world, only our attempts to provide some kind of control. When we believe that the attempt is 'real' then we lead ourselves into incredible tangles, willing to kill in order to prove the rightness of our particular narrative because it's through narrative that we find our places in the world, establish meaning in our lives...

But narrative is, of course, a constructed thing. Accidents will happen. Endings go awry. Randomness and chance are partly the reason, but (here's the upbeat part of this response) people also have a nearly infinite number of choices they can make in any given situation. As Thomas Pynchon reminds us, it's the crazy unpredictability of human response to the chaos that makes life interesting... we're on the road to nowhere, not utopia -- Sisyphus's absurd joy.

Posted by: JM at December 3, 2006 12:26 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)