Religion: Paving Over the Narrative Trench.


There is a phenomenon found in (but not limited to) computer-generated special effects, known as the Uncanny Valley. The term refers to the way our emotional response to a thing aping human form or behaviour abruptly nosedives when mimickry becomes almost, but not quite, perfect, only recovering when we are presented with something indistinguishable from a genuine human being. An oft-cited example is that audiences will laugh along with the cartoony cast of a Pixar film, but find the more realistic CGI actors of The Polar Express disturbing, zombie-like and repulsive.

The remarkable part of all this is, to my mind, not the depth of revulsion to near-human mimicry, but the fact that it is a valley, with high ground beyond, as opposed to a simple cliff.

I believe the Uncanny Valley reflects a more general truth about how our brains equip us to deal with the world, and I believe this truth is fundamental to the persistence of religion in society, and to the dangers it (and similar modes of thought) present.

Real-Think vs Story-Think

"In the corner of my back garden is a play area. There's a slide, swings and a treehouse, and I put a lot of time and effort into building it for my daughter. One day, I noticed a number of weeds growing in the play area, so I decided to clear them by setting fire to the whole thing. As my daughter was playing on the swings at the time, and I did not wish her to be harmed, I told her to wrap herself in wet blankets and kitchen foil until the flames subsided. I also asked her to collect seeds from each kind of weed, so that we could plant them all again afterwards."

This story is obviously crazy - so why is it that replacing fire with flood, blankets with an Ark, and a child's play area with the entire planet turns this into a story that a significant proportion of otherwise sensible adults insist actually happened? After all, nothing I do in my story is impossible or even especially difficult. The Flood myth, on the other hand, depicts entirely fantastical events. A boat that could never float containing a menagerie that could never have been assembled, tended or subsequently dispersed, riding a global flood that the earth's geology insists never happened and which several contemporary civilisations never noticed.

How peculiar: not only does the flood myth suffer from all the same narrative absurdities as my story (a silly overreaction, a crazy method of preserving that which is desirable, the whole exercise achieving nothing), it also has a whole bunch of extra problems.

Yet even I can feel the difference between my intellectual convinction that Noah's flood is a myth, and my visceral certainty that nobody would clear their garden in the way I described. What's going on here?

To find out, let's return to the Uncanny Valley.

When we watch WALL-E on his post-apocalyptic rounds, there are a number of distinct resonances with everyday experience: the proportions of his body and features are childlike, as are his innocent delight, his mode of speech, and his mannerisms. Beyond that, however, he is completely unlike anything we've ever seen 'act human' in real life.

The Polar Express, on the other hand, attempted to create entirely realistic CGI actors. Realistic proportions. Realistic skin and eyes, realistic movement and facial expressions. This backfired because the broad-spectrum realism triggered the full might of the scrutiny we apply in our everyday person-to-person interactions - and the illusion was shattered.

We can go further: consider that while we may find, say, Shaggy and Scooby amusing in cartoon form, we generally find their brand of over-the-top acting and shallow character crass and off-putting when performed in the flesh. So not only do we more readily accept non-human characters, we also find exaggerated antics more believable when their appearance does not prime us to expect normal human behaviour.

There are countless examples of this phenomenon, from the bizzare facial proportions and melodrama of Manga, to the hyper-masculine, impossibly stoic protagonists of Gears of War. It is also exploited in war propaganda, anti-semitic campaigns, political rhetoric - I've even seen it here on this site, in threads that dehumanize and poke fun at religious believers.

The rule seems to be: keep the resonances simple, and the mental circuitry that probes for and detects inconsistency, implausibility or deceit is less likely to become engaged. This acceptance of simplified, exaggerated motifs typifies what I term 'story-think', as constrasted with 'real-think' in which all of our critical faculties are brought to bear.

Armed with this rule, we can re-examine the flood myth and my bastardised version of it. Right away we note that in the original, we don't intuitively imagine somewhere else Noah could have waited while the Earth was cleansed, or that a deity capable of wishing the world into existence could just as easily have weeded out the unwanted by hand. God is presented as a caricature of righteous wrath, his motivation simplistic and his actions extreme. It resonates simply and clearly, and thus avoids triggering 'real-think'. In effect, the flood myth lies beyond the 'Narrative Trench' of stories we instinctively dismiss out of hand. My version, which takes place in a familiar setting with a familiar father/daughter relationship, comes under far more intense scrutiny.

A second example:

"One day, Microsoft decided to make sweeping changes to the terms of service of its operating systems. Anyone in contravention of the new rules would face stiff legal penalties. After considering its options, Microsoft - a corporation with almost unlimited resources, global reach, and access to the smartest minds and most advanced technology - decided to disseminate this vital information by phoning a solitary farm worker living in the back of beyond, and telling him to pass it on."

Would you swallow that? Of course not; nobody would. But by many the notion of a god accosting some guy from within a burning bush is considered perfectly reasonable. The patent lunacy of Bill Gates whispering swingeing policy changes in the ear of some lonely manual labourer excites no comment when the context is divorced from everyday experience. All that resonates is the theme of being singled out for a special purpose, entrusted with foreknowledge that will preserve those who
cleave to you, elevated to Alpha (or at least Beta) social status. It's Noah's Ark all over again.

In summary: by presenting people and deities as simple caricatures and by using miracles and other devices to peg stories firmly on the far side of the "narrative trench", religious texts bypass our instinctual defenses against inconsistency, implausibility and deceit. We literally don't make the same kind of decision to believe or disbelieve them as we would a more earthy historical account. We use story-think (resonance, preference), not real-think (which includes critical analysis), to assess them.

The Dangers of Story-Think

We all use story-think from time to time. We daydream about what that girl on the train would say if we struck up a conversation with her. We snuggle up with a good (or even not-so-good) book and read about wizards and dragons and pirates. We watch Manga and play Gears of War. Under normal circumstances, this is entirely harmless - indeed, we benefit greatly from the exposure to new ideas and perspectives that story-think affords us.

The problems start when ability to recognise 'story-think' as distinct from 'real-think' becomes eroded. The teenager with a gun in the bottom of his schoolbag, acting out his fantasy of vengeance. The stalker, acting upon an imagined close relationship. The ideological terrorist. The war-hawk. The alcoholic. The adulterer. In all these people the ability - or inclination - to distinguish between story- and real-think has become impaired in some aspect of their lives. Only when reality forcibly intrudes, either in a close call or genuine tragedy, is proper functioning restored, and sometimes not even then.

This is where the practices of certain religions or sects begin to excite concern. By presenting stories designed to bypass critical faculties and stir emotion as if they were real events, religions do more than simply sneak false beliefs in under the radar. They are training minds to apply story-think directly to the real world.

Anecdotal Supporting Evidence

I've been discussing and debating religion and science online for a few years in various forums, and in my experience the correlation between intensity of religiosity and the tendency to favour story-think over real-think has been exact.

At one extreme are people like Christian evolutionists, who have their story-think habit well in hand. Recreational use only, no operating heavy machinery under the influence. Story-think is generally confined to areas where it's difficult to make a really convincing critical argument one way or another. They are understanding of atheists and amenable to rational discussion.

At the other extreme is the guy who tells me I'm going to burn in hell. It's usually tossed out with the same air of mild schadenfreude as my wife telling me I'll have a bad head in the morning and that I shouldn't expect any sympathy. Let's put this in perspective: this is far worse news he's giving me than "I'm afraid the cancer is inoperable," or "you'll never walk again." And yet he feels not the slightest twinge of shame in taunting me with it, in slapping it down triumphantly like a fourth king in
Texas Hold'em.

Of course, at that point he's deep in story-think mode. I'm Wile-E-Coyote smashed under a rock, musical sting, roll credits. I'm not a real human being who's about to undergo excruciating torture for each and every second of the next billion billion billion years, while he sits in heaven trying to think up new rhymes for 'praise'.

In this latter variety, it's common for story-think to be widely applied. Evolution is an atheist plot, etc etc. The ability to think critically and to be moved by evidence is significantly impaired across a broad range of topics, while the resonance and appeal of stories is given undue weight. They almost always refuse to hold still, throwing one story after another in front of the discussion so as to avoid delving too deeply into any one argument. Getting them to admit even the most obvious error can be all but impossible.

Story-think, being largely uncritical, also makes it easy to hold multiple contradictory beliefs. Thus there is a divine plan, which makes dead babies OK, and intercessionary prayer works, which is why his baby got better when he prayed to Jesus. The only answer I ever got when I protested the incompatability of these ideas was that it was a 'divine mystery'.

Surely there can be no more compelling evidence of the damage religious thinking can do to the mind than the concept of divine mystery, the idea that it is virtuous to believe something to be true when it is clearly false or contradictory. It's a precision strike on the body's only natural defence against bullshit. People fret about the danger of 'gateway drugs' like marijuana, while happily sending their kids off to have a mind-bomb like divine mystery implanted in their craniums.

In Conclusion

These ideas are based on my experiences of speaking and interacting with religious believers. I try to be aware of my own use of story-think, and sincerely hope I have not fallen prey to it here. I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

Views: 143

Comment by jb2013 on November 28, 2013 at 8:25am

Wow great piece. Well written. I am not as blessed with writing skills as you are. I woke up this morning with a similar thought. I wanted to present the idea of writing a bible today and how would it sound. What stories would be written.

Obviously the people who wrote the stories of the bible were on some sort of drugs or had some mental anguish to make the stories so grand. I can see that they were following an acceptable trend of the time that if you want to get your point across then go for the big fat exaggerated story.

I like your idea of dehumanizing the characters and situation. It really explains the whole need to throw in GOD to make it work. The people of the time sure did some non human things if the bible is at all accurate as a history book. Really amazing to twist the way people will accept horrible acts as facts of life. They lived a rough life back then. Even on a good day.

I laugh at the thought that in a thousand years from now will people of the future look at our Hollywood movies and think of them as a devine creation. And where is our science wrong? Will we appear to have had magical thinking driving us on our method of thought? Will our work be translated into other languages and misinterpreted?  

I appreciate your writing. Fun food for thought.

Comment by bongani muthwa on November 28, 2013 at 9:02am

WoW! Andrew. I am not very much computer clued up. Please with your permission send me this whole writ to my personal email: . It will definately add to our arsenal of knowledge and ideas with my small group of free thinkers who, some of, cannot access Think Atheist. Well written, thought provoking, powerfully mind blowing. Thanks again!

Comment by Physeter on November 29, 2013 at 1:42am

Very nicely done. Thank you for writing this out. I've never really looked at the uncanny valley as applying to stories as well, but it's very true.

It's all in suspension of disbelief, isn't it? When you're watching Bugs and Daffy run about, you'll view the most preposterous things without batting an eye. But if you were watching a serious, live-action drama and someone suddenly dropped an anvil on another's head, or walked off the end of a cliff and didn't fall until he looked'd have a very different reaction.

It's scary how religion teaches you to extend the "suspension of disbelief" into real life.


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