We humans are story-tellers. At times, we stand transfixed by a narrative, real or fictional. At other times, a story moves us to action: revolutions, both salutary and tragic, have been spawned by narratives, both real and imagined. Apropos of the current season, we are surrounded every December with evidence of the power of a narrative to shape lives and cultures.
We Humanists are devoted to reason and facts, in service to the human condition. We value science, scholarship, literature and the arts. Curiously, though, we seem as a group to have resisted a discipline that is essential to the promotion of the human condition: anthropology, the study of ourselves.
Our Humanist narrative is everything. It includes the true stories of science and history, and also the imaginary stories of literature, as well as the symbolic-imaginary stories told by our music and other arts. We would not dispense with Les Miserables, Moby Dick and Tom Sawyer; Mona Lisa and Beethoven’s Ninth.
Every work of literature and art that has ever captured the imagination or moved someone – that has been meaningful in any way – tells us something about us. We may not agree with every aspect of the intended message. Still, if a story has moved the human heart or mind, it probably expresses a Human(ist) value. We can abhor the idea of a man being willing to slaughter his son because he thinks God has asked him to, and still see Abraham’s story as a metaphor for fidelity to a cause greater than self. Indeed, Abraham’s story invokes some but not all of the values that led to the heroic sacrifices the “Greatest Generaion” made to defeat Hitler.
There are only two kinds of stories: those that are true and those that a human being invented. And all of them have been told by human beings. Every one of them tells us about the human condition, and sheds light on how we might create a more humane world.
People will continue inventing and telling stories for as long as our species exists. Our challenge – our invitation – is to develop and practice ways of telling the vast human narrative, informed by reason and also keenly aware of the emotional character of the human animal. In one respect, the method is simple: we should celebrate our stories, both real and fictional, taking care to distinguish between the two.
This is the method I use at www.thisisourstory.net, a website devoted to an exploration of human values from a Humanist perspective. The first thing you will see, usually, is an image, which might be a photograph or a work of art. As you scroll down, you will see true and fictional stories clearly delineated. Sometimes one side dominates the page, sometimes the other does. The goal is to illustrate the value on that page. I invite you to join me in this project, in conjunction with the Humanist Community Project, by offering your suggestions for other stories to include on the site, and of course with constructive criticism for improvements.
To be more fully a part of the human community, Humanists must embrace and practice the art and science of narrative. We must draw upon the meaning of narratives, not only from true histories but also from literature and the arts. Every other response to our wealth of narratives paints us into a self-imposed corner of withdrawal, alienation and irrelevance. We can, and must, affirm the importance of narrative to the human condition, while delineating the distinction between what is real and what is merely imaginary. This evolution of Humanism toward a view that more fully accounts for imagination and human longing is an essential step toward a more inclusive, more broadly satisfying and more effective Humanism.