Religion, Stories, and How We Carry Truths

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Over at Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander has posted a theory in regards to the origins of religion, and why they are both so ubiquitous and powerful in different cultures. It is not a particular revolutionary theory — and to be sure, Scott doesn’t claim that it is — but it is one that mirrors my own world view.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, but his ending paragraph is a good summation of his thesis:

The important thing about a religion is that it has a rallying flag that encourages it to preserve a certain culture, plus walls against the outside world. Crucially, despite everything I’m saying about ossification the culture changes a lot: King Solomon would probably recognize modern rabbinic Judaism, but only barely. But it changes in a way different from the way the outside secular society changes, and in ways bound by the ossified text, so there’s still an element of having this ancient culture preserved in amber and maintained up to the modern day.

As I said, this pretty much matches my own thoughts coming into the post and thus I have no real quibbles. I do, however, have an addition to what Scott posits, which is this: Much of the reason that religion is as deeply woven into human hearts and history is that religion tells us truths in the form of stories. 

Stories have power. They stick to us in a way that facts simply do not. We humans are fairly cavalier with our facts. We dispose of facts when they they bore us, or when we simply decide we don’t care for them, or when they rub up against things we’d prefer to believe in their place. Like the burs that you unwittingly bring home after a long hike, however, stories sink their teeth into us and hold on tight, even when we are unaware they are doing so. And when they do, they carry their truths with them.

Take, for example, the myths of the native American tribes that lived near my hometown of Portland. The Multnomah, Yakama, Klamath, Puyallup, and Klickitat tribes all have remarkably similar stories regarding the Cascade Mountains that run from Washington to Northern California. Specifically, they have stories about Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainer and Mt. Adams. In these myth-stories, the mountains are not natural formations but rather great gods. These stories are not rational to our modern ear, yet they carried truths with them for generations that more rational narratives could not sustain.

Take, for example, the story of Hood, Adams, and St. Helens:

In the days before our fathers’ fathers lived in this land, the gods sometimes appeared and walked among the world of men. Two of these gods — Pahto and Wyeast — were brothers, equal in strength and power. But they were too the most bitter of rivals. Such was their bickering that the Great Father, in his wisdom, dug a chasm between them that could be crossed by but a single bridge. 

This bridge needed to be guarded, obviously, lest the brothers simply cross at will to willfully challenge one another. The Great Father is filled with wisdom in the way a jar in the river is filled with water, and because of this he recognized that he could not ask another god to stand guard, lest that god be seduced with promises of power by one of the brothers and the balance of power become irrevocably  tipped. Nor could he choose a great warrior among the world of men, because the temptation to beat such a champion would be too great for either brother to resist. He also knew that if he chose a woman, the brothers heart’s might be filled with lust and they might fight to the death of all for her love. So the Great Father chose an old woman, blind and toothless, withered into ugliness by time’s arrow. This worked, because the brothers respected the elder woman and had neither the desire to either best or cleave to her.

Then came a winter that was most terribly harsh. So long did it last that the lands themselves ran out of food, and it looked to be the end of the tribes of men. The old woman saw this, and she emptied her own stores of seeds and grain, and flung them out over the land so that the tribes might live and the world might bloom again with Spring. The Earth Mother was so impressed by the old woman’s generosity that she looked into the woman’s heart, and granted her most dearest and most secret wish — to once again be young and beautiful, and to have her maidenhood returned.

When Pahto and Wyeast saw how beautiful the woman had become, they each instantly fell in love and asked for her heart. When they saw that they were both competing for the love of the same woman, they were consumed with rage and declared war upon one another. When the now-young and beautiful maiden saw this, she destroyed the bridge so that they could not reach one another. This did not deter the brothers, however, who instead began to throw giant rocks and fire at one another. Such was their fury that their onslaught accidentally killed the woman each loved so. 

The tribes of men were terrified, as you might well be if fire and rock was raining down upon you. And so they sent their wisest medicine men as a sacrifice to the Great Father, that he might intercede on the behalf of men. The medicine men marched through the barrage from the sky until they came to a river that was so hot it was the color of blood, and they threw themselves in as they offered prayers to the Great Father.

When the Great Father saw this, he was so moved that he made a storm that brought black snow, which, because it was made by the Great Father, would not melt in the sun. He then turned each brother into a mountain. Pahto was transformed into what is now Mt. Adams, and Wyeast into what is now Mt. Hood. He also brought back the woman from the land of the dead, and transformed her, too, into a mountain. You likely know her now as St. Helens. He left the brothers to live mountains as long as they might, knowing that because of their nature they would eventually rise as warriors again and renew their battle. To the woman he bestowed equal power, that she might too be able to defend herself should one of her now brothers come for her against her will. 

The three sibling gods are still there today, each trying to control their temper. But know, children, that the time will come when they can not hold back any longer, and they will rise to war again.

Not surprisingly, this story was treated by Western explores and settlers as quaint native superstition. It would not be until the twentieth century that scientists realized that all of the mountain gods of the Pacific Northwest tribes are in fact active volcanoes. That the tribes retained this knowledge is all the more impressive when one takes into account that some of these “gods” have not erupted for thousands and perhaps even tens of thousands of years.

We have a tendency to look at myth-stories and tell ourselves, “Well, that’s just what those primitive people all thought about a natural cataclysmic event.” This, however, is as incorrect as it is condescending. In fact, after an eruption there were likely plenty of narratives in the native tribes that simply stated, “Dude, sometimes the mountains move. It’s just what they do. They’re not a lifeless as they look. It sucks, but there you have it. Trust me on this.” But none of those narratives survived, and no wonder. It’s one thing to be told by your father, “I saw it with my own eyes!” It’s quite another to be told that many generations down the line. You live your whole life, and neither you nor anyone you know has ever seen a mountain move. Neither have your parents, or your grandparents, or their grandparents. Eventually you don’t bother passing it down to you children, because to do so would be irrational.

But you do pass on the story of Pahto, Wyeast and the beautiful maiden. You don’t pass it on because people need to know about mountains, or the lesson that even things that appear permanent are transitory. You pass it on because it is beautiful and terrible and compelling. It doesn’t get passed down through generations over thousands of years because it’s true, but the story still takes it’s truth with it, despite us.

This is the way of all religion, I believe, and why religion seems to exist in every culture throughout history. It’s not because people weren’t capable of being rational until now. It’s because the truths we need to remember hold into us best when they are part of great stories. And first and foremost, that’s what religion is: A way to keep retelling the stories — and the truths — we still need to hear.



Image credit: Wiki commons

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular contributor for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. The Great Father clearly favored Pahto, for the maiden who became the mountain known today as St. Helens is far closer to Mt. Adams than Mt. Hood, and on the same side of the great divide (which I take to be, or have become, the mighty river which we call Columbia).

  2. Good analysis, I like it. It makes some intuitive sense. Of course in reality circumstances can change so that the lessons or morals of the religion cease to be salutary and can even become counterproductive.

  3. I really like this post, Tod. I do think that religion is only a special instance of a desire to tell stories and the practice of telling them. I believe that there are non-religious stories that “we” (I think I mean the royal “we”) value because they are stories in addition to other things they tell us. (I might write a post about it.) But to repeat, I really liked your post.

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