Saturday, October 3, 2015

An Atheist on the Moral Impact of Stories

I'm an avid listener to National Public Radio, so I routinely monitor programs such as "Weekend Edition" on my car radio, even when they feature guests hostile to Christianity. That is how I came to hear Scott Simon's interview of Philip Pullman last Saturday morning.

Pullman (who describes himself as a "religious atheist") wrote the children's trilogy called "His Dark Materials" twenty years ago, beginning with The Golden Compass. He incited the wrath of Christians everywhere with his 2010 book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a fictional version of Jesus' life. While I'm not recommending Pullman or his books, I want to draw your attention to a couple of his comments from that NPR interview:
Simon:  You’ve suggested that stories are the way to teach morality.  
Pullman:  Well, ... people remember stories better than they remember commands. One of the greatest storytellers of all time, Jesus of Nazareth, told stories in order to make his moral teaching more memorable, more explicit, more clear to everyone.
Simon: Why do you think that is?
Pullman: We like hearing about people in circumstances, situations, or problems that we can relate to in some way. It’s intriguing to see how people resolve the difficulties they’re in, ... inspiring to see them overcoming hostility, difficulty, and outright hatred.
In other words, morality is forged in life conflict. Our sense of right and wrong, good and evil, beauty and ugliness grows out of wrestling with the obstacles that life throws across our way. And that struggle is best portrayed through stories, not pious sermons or philosophical lectures (with all due respect to preachers and philosophers). I agree with Pullman at that point, don't you?

I liked the interview for another reason: It proved that unbelievers care deeply about morality. Eminent atheists of every age, from Aldous Huxley to Christopher Hitchens, have focused on the moral questions of life. Couple that interest with storytelling skill and you have an author who can influence millions of people. Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis are Christian authors who come readily to mind, but atheist authors such as Pullman can wield just as much influence.

Pullman uses his storytelling gift to challenge the values we normally teach our children, such as the importance of telling the truth. He expects to shape the convictions of a new generation by telling them memorable stories.How about you?

1 comment:

  1. What a great post! Thanks for this encouragement. I needed it!