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Stories, yarns, legends ... these are the stuff of community identity

By Mark Randell - posted Monday, 25 February 2002

"Man is a seeker of the Agent." This notion, cribbed from John Fowle's superb book, The Aristos, is a succinct summary of the reason for the emergence of religion in the human mind.

We are seekers of the reason for why we are here, on this ball of dirt in a vast, seemingly empty universe. We are seekers of meaning - "what does it all mean?"

The latter question, as one philosopher notes, is most likely to be asked by children, the mad, the anguished, the ironic, and the damned. It is a question we all routinely push to one side as we occupy ourselves with the family, the business, the bills, the lawn, the local.


The local - no, not the pub, but our local 'area of operation' - is the primary locus of our sense of meaning. It's where we build our most treasured meanings, since meaning is not something received 'from out there' but something we make, something we construct.

If you - as cognitive scientists do - build a 'neural network', a primitive set of connected, artificial neurons, it will take in what data you choose to give it and seek to categorise that data in some way; it will try to make understandable patterns from the data. "Which is what you would expect," I hear you cry, "seeing that's why you built the thing in the first place."

Well, yes, but neural networks are simply an impoverished imitation of a brain, with all its billions of interconnected neurons. The brain is a pattern-seeker, a pattern-builder par excellence, and it evolved that way - we didn't build it.

Human brains run on meaning. All those neurons need nutrients, in the form of information, data to work on, patterns to find. We desperately need to put a meaning to things, to things that happen, things that we see, things that we experience. Most of the time, we put meaning to things by telling stories. We weave our stories in order to make sense of where we are, what we are, who we are.

So, we work our way outwards. We build our local meaning - in family, close relationships, home. We make wider meaning and stories about our place in a community - our relationships with others who work and live nearby - and we make our richest stories about 'ultimate meaning', first causes, prime movers, in order to put some pattern we can handle into the strangeness of our human condition, marooned here on our blue planet between the lost garden of Eden and some mythical promised land.

The richest of these stories have a compelling sense of 'rightness' - they match our pattern sense, they fire the 'God' neuron in our brains. They are, however, stories. They are worked on by generations, refined, passed on, passed down, handed over. But they are stories, built by humans, people seeking meaning.


As Mr Fowles again points out, we find ourselves adrift on a raft, in a silent, unyielding universe, dominated by hazard and infinitude. We reason there must have been a shipwreck, before which we were happy. And we reason there will be land ahead, where we will be happy again. Meanwhile, we are miserable en passage.

This story underpins and underlies the major religions of the world. Before there were religions, there were stories.

Such stories are devices necessary to the human brain. They allow us to function, to handle our experiences. By building stories, we build our lives. By interweaving our stories, we build communities.

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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