Learning from Stories and Narratives

There are no key stories in Humanism, and no sacred stories.

On the other hand, it seems to be a general characteristic of human beings to enjoy and learn from stories, both true ones and fiction, and so stories of various kinds are important to humanists. Though they distinguish carefully between truth and fiction, humanists find psychological and moral truths in both.

Most humanists in Europe and North and South America are familiar with the stories of the Bible and the great works of mythology and literature that are part of our common culture and which encourage us to think about the human condition and our place in the universe. Humanists are capable of appreciating stories from the world’s religions without believing that they are necessarily literally true. Most humanists appreciate the power of imaginative fiction, poetry, myth, drama and metaphor to move us and persuade us to empathise with characters both like and unlike ourselves and to think about important moral questions. Teachers will be familiar with the way even quite banal stories can stimulate intense discussion about motivations and morality.

Historical and scientific narratives can also be inspirational for humanists, who, for example, find meaning and beauty in the immense “story” of evolution or in stories of human benevolence, courage and creativity.

Stories can be taken at face value, as mere entertainment – and humanists are unlikely to object to “mere” entertainment. But fictional and non-fictional narratives are often also a way of exploring the world and learning more about it, ourselves and other people. The works of Shakespeare, for example, are valued for their psychological and moral insights as well as for their drama, poetry and narrative drive.

Humanists also see the scientific account of evolution of life on Earth, and the accounts of the discoveries which led to it, as both true and fascinating, placing humankind firmly in the natural world (a place which is not seen by humanists as demeaning) and offering powerful explanations of human beings, their nature and behaviour, as well as of other species.

Humanists do not necessarily share stories, so their impact will tend to be personal rather than communal. As a group, however, they do attach great importance to the scientific accounts of life on Earth; the developing understanding of this in the 19th century was instrumental in moving many Christians away from literalist interpretations of the Bible, and for some caused a loss of religious faith and a shift towards Humanism.

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