Fairy Tales, Religion and Life

Don Cupitt opened the 2002 SoF UK conference with this reflection on the role of fairy tales.

Many idioms in our language combine to give storytellers a bad name. A fairytale is often used to mean ‘pure fiction, a lie, with not a particle of truth in it.' A sob story or tale of woe is a story artfully designed to extract money or sympathy. Telling tales means spreading derogatory information about someone else s faults, or misbehaviour, or secrets - especially to a teacher, in school. Romancing is lying, and a likely story is an improbable lie. Some people are compulsive fantasists, who cannot stop fabricating stories about the wonderful things they themselves have seen and done. They tell tall stories as they try to build up a greatly-enlarged and excessively flattering image of themselves in the minds of their hearers. In sum, it seems that myths, fairytales, romances, fantasies, fictions, tales and stories all tend to get a bad name for being misleading untruths.

So why do we go on telling and listening to stories with such relish, when we know perfectly well that so many of our stories are indeed mere boasting, or malignant gossip, or attempts to deceive, or self-indulgent daydreams? And why in particular do we go on telling children at bedtime wildly untrue stories, that give a highly incorrect account of the way the world is? Why do we want to give our children the idea that animals can talk, or that people may wield supernatural powers?

Suppose that you have a pair of children of primary school age. Each evening you have half an hour or so of ‘quality time with them. What would be the most useful way of spending that time: (a) reading them fairytales; (b) with the help of atlases and picture-books, giving them factual information about the world; or (c) giving them intensive moral and religious instruction, and saying prayers?

I am going to defend the first of these answers, making out as clearly as I can the case for the fundamental importance of fairytales. When my own children were small I spent a great deal of time reading children's books to them, in the belief that stories contribute a great deal to our formation as persons. Give your children as large a repertoire of stories as you can, and the stories will provide the soil in which everything else can grow, or the framework into which everything else can be fitted. So I believed.

To explain how this can be so, I must begin by saying how it has come about that in modern times the notion of life has become central to our thinking about the human condition. Since the publication of What is a Story? in 1991, I have become gradually more preoccupied with the notion of life, and I hope you will see how it now provides the context for my ideas about stories.

In the philosophy of Plato, and in almost the whole of the Western tradition that descends from Plato, the attention of philosophers and other thinkers has always been concentrated, not upon the human social world, nor upon the world of extra-human Nature, but upon an unseen and unchanging world of general ideas. This world of ideas was the world of necessary truth, the world of logic and mathematics, and it was also the world of pure meanings or ‘essences'. It was a kind of dictionary in the sky, a lexicographer's vision of heaven. Plato was the original realist about meanings: he thought that the meanings of words were things out there, objectively existing in his ‘noumenal' world. In order to make progress in a subject like ethics, you needed to get really clear about the meanings of the key words that you were using. This required you to carry out detailed analyses of objective, unchanging meanings. Once you had achieved that level of clarity you would be able to perceive accurately all the logical connections between the various terms, and moral reasoning would become an exact science. Thus speculative philosophy was a way to exact and objective knowledge by pure thought.

It is hard now to remember the extent to which, before modern times, thought was focussed upon the ideal order. In church, the worshipper gazed at icons, paintings, mosaics, images and stained-glass portrayals of sacred scenes and persons who belonged to the heavenly world. In the school and the university, the mind was trained rightly to follow the ways of the intelligible world which was its true home. For your human mind was basically a timeless spirit, only temporarily incarnated in a human body here below. The real you was an immortal rational soul, destined to return to the heavenly world to which it really belonged.

It is because of this fixation, both of religion and of philosophy, upon the ideal world above that to this day ordinary people regard believers and thinkers as absent-minded dreamers with their minds on higher things. It's hard to remember now, but serious thinkers began to attend closely to the empirical world here below only after the rise of modern science, and they began to attend closely to the world of ordinary people and everyday life only in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The first serious person to write unaffectedly and guiltlessly about pleasure in sense-experience and about the pleasure of feeling the pulse of life in one' s veins was probably William Wordsworth.(1)

A huge revolution was taking place during the nineteenth century. It is summed up in the way Hegel brought all philosophy down into history, and his successors began to describe a new and radical version of humanism. Human reason, human language, and, in short, all thinking is brought down into the unfolding temporal process. Philosophical attention becomes more and more concentrated on history and the here and now. The old timeless, invisible world disappears and the soul/body distinction disappears. Metaphysics dies, and everyone begins to think simply in terms of this world and this life.

This change creates a long agenda for philosophy. Language, for example, will have to be seen as human, living and historical. The meaning of a word will no longer be a timeless thing up there that the word stands for, but will instead be simply the way the word is currently being used in the living language. Logic and mathematics will no longer be seen as built upon eternal truths of Reason, but will be seen as human and conventional, like the rules of games. The old idea that everything is held together by an invisible Order of Reason behind the scenes will gradually give way to the idea that Reality itself, and Truth itself, are no more than expressions of a slowly-evolving consensus.

In short, during the past two centuries or so we have been slowly giving up Plato's world-picture, giving up metaphysics, and bringing everything down into life, the movement of things in the historically-developing human world. What makes the new humanism ‘radical' is the realisation that the only world we have now is the world that our own language gives us. We cannot compare our world with the world, because we have only our world. Our knowledge of it is no more than an always-disputed, slowly-evolving consensus. And the great turn to life begins, as people recognize that the primary fact about human beings is not the way we have been put upon this earth as a ready-made stage and proving-ground, and not the way we are confronted by an eternal order to which we must conform our thinking, but simply the way we find ourselves to be always already immersed in life.

To this day it remains difficult to grasp the turn to life, and to trace it in detail. But a good early moment to pick on is the late 1860s. Darwin is writing The Ascent of Man, and people are trying to take in the implications of his theory of the transmutation of species. In Paris the younger painters are beginning to recognize the newness and the innocence of modern everyday life. Experience has suddenly become post-ideological. And at the same time, Leo Tolstoy is writing the later chapters of War and Peace. During his captivity, Pierre has been forced to witness ugly war crimes, and has been very badly affected:

Though he did not acknowledge it to himself, his faith in the right ordering of the universe, in humanity, in his own soul and in God, had been destroyed.(2)

Pierre is forced to rebuild his outlook, and finds it just in the fact of his own survival, in the feeling of being alive, and in his continuing desire to gain his freedom and to choose his own way of life.(3) The culminating statement follows:

Life is everything. Life is God. Everything changes and moves, and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy in consciousness of the divine. To love life is to love God. Harder and more blessed than all else is to love this life in one s sufferings, in innocent sufferings.(4)

The writing of those words marks the coming of a new epoch in which both God and the world are effectively replaced by ‘life' as the primary religious and moral fact. Life is all-inclusive: ‘Life is like nothing, because it is everything'.(5) Writers show strong interest in the new religious sense of ‘life' from the late nineteenth century onwards - Hardy, Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and F.R. Leavis being prominent examples. But I have argued elswhere(6) that the full effect of the change arrives in ordinary language only since about 1960.

It is worth noticing some respects in which life as the religious object differs from God. First, life is only contingent and temporal. It is so excessive, so abundant, varied and chaotic that it doesn't present us with any single sense or moral pattern of its own. On the contrary, as Jean Anouilh remarks: ‘The object of art is to give life a shape'.(7) In the religion of life we do not submit to another's will, nor accept a script already written for us. On the contrary, we have to wrestle imaginatively with life in order to impose a moral pattern of our own upon it. We need to try to find a right and distinctive manner of conducting, each of us, her or his own life. This is nowadays called a ‘lifestyle' , a term which I believe dates from the early 1970s.

Now notice: whereas the old God was self-existent, life is not. It is amoral, excessive and disorderly. It waits for us to grapple with it, domesticate it, bring it under the control of a group of dominant images, and generally give it a distinctive and intelligible moral shape and style. All human cultures and religions do this on a large scale, but novelists and other artists are doing it too on a smaller and more individual scale. When I talk of the religion of life as a new form of religion, I am clearly not talking about any traditional sort of religion which is received readymade from the past. I'm talking about a battling, almost marital relationship to life. One's relation to life is like that of a composer to sound, a painter to paint, or a writer to words. This is the raw material of existence: it is what one loves, lives with, and battles with anew every day. Hence the saying of Henri Matisse, when asked if he believed in God: ‘Yes - when I am working'.

It is also to be noticed that the problem of evil, as traditionally understood, does not arise. In saying Yes to life, we accept a package which includes the possibility of personal disaster, degenerative disorders, accidents and (of course) death. Tolstoy, in the last sentence quoted from him above, clearly recognizes this point. Joy in life depends upon accepting the package, saying Yes to life, and on living ‘like the sun'. As I would now put it, it is a religious duty so far as one possibly can to say a simple Amen to one's own life without complaining about or regretting anything. It is almost a matter of loyalty that one should not complain.

I now ask: What is life made of? How do we get hold of it? How does a person carve out a distinctive lifestyle and lifestory of her own, out of the general flux of life in which we all find ourselves? Life in general presents itself as a huge tangle of stories, which include both individual lifestories and group-narratives. Immersed in this very abundant material, we need to find, to develop and to live out our own personal stories. Such stories need to make sense, or ‘add up', not only at the individual level, but also in our various relationships with other individuals and groups.

We can now see, beginning to emerge, the answer to the question that I set myself at the beginning of this lecture. I asked, What is the first and most important thing that we should teach children? Should it be fairytales, factual information, or moral and religious instruction? I answered that we should give children as large a repertoire of stories as we can. The first thing a child needs to learn is how to live a life. Our life is lived amongst and with others, in time. We need to be able to work out what kind of story about them other people's behaviour is telling us. What is his project? What does he want? What is he up to, and what is he likely to do next? And we also need to learn the skill of making meaningful lifestories of our own out of the materials and circumstances that are to hand. It is a subtle, difficult art, which I have often compared with the art of making a flowing, involving story out of a pile of pieces of cinema film.

Life with other persons, in time, is inevitably narrative. In order to understand life and in order to imagine, choose and live out a meaningful life of our own, we need to carry with us a large stock of stories. Their job is to suggest ‘narrative hypotheses' to us that may help us to interpret other people's behaviour, and may also suggest projects and plan for our own future conduct.

We can now attempt an answer to the question about stories and truth. At the beginning I was quoting popular idioms that give stories a bad name for being lies, deceptions and fantasies, and I raised the question of why it is that so many of the stories which we tell children are so obviously and wildly improbable. Why, in Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, do animals live in fully-furnished holes, wear clothes, speak, row about on the river in little boats and so on? These are not works of natural history that purport to tell us how animals live. They are more like Aesop's fables that illustrate very general truths about life, helping us to understand other people's behaviour and to construct our own. The stories may seem at first glance to be stories about animals, or about humans with supernatural powers, or about spirits whether good or evil, or about extra-terrestrials. But they are never really about non-human beings. On the contrary, the characters in the story invariably have a human sort of psychological makeup, and behave in human ways. The stories are in fact always about human life, and how human beings tick. They have to be. That's what I meant by talking about radical humanism. All our understanding is inevitably anthropomorphic. It has to be, and in any case we are not really interested - or should I say, we cannot really get interested? in anything else.

Why then disguise what is really a story about human life as a story about rabbits or mice? The answer is that the disguise gives pleasure, helps the story to get past the censorship (as the Freudians would say), and is a clue to the very general relevance of the story to human behaviour and the construction of a human life. The story is a more acceptable and effective teacher than a straight moral injunction would be. For example, just at this moment I have a five-year-old called Hector living next door to me. Hector sometimes likes to annoy his mother by running away and hiding in our house. He enjoys being naughty, and I guess a moral warning about the risk of his being abducted by someone who might harm him would not be easy to give in a good-humoured but effective way. Hector is so resistant to conventionally ‘good' moral advice that it might be best to try telling him a bedtime story about a young rabbit who couldn't resist slipping into the garden next door to nibble a lettuce, and was very nearly caught and eaten by Mr MacGregor the gardener.

So the reason why religious myths, fairytales, children's books, science fiction and political satires are so unlike our own everyday lives is that their message is very general, and also needs to be coded in order to slip past our natural resistance to accepting advice. We are told a tale about events in another world, or far away and long ago but of course the story is always about life, human life only, because that is all there is. The real meaning of religion, and of imaginative literature generally, is always and only human. That is why in my philosophy I have gradually come to emphasize so strongly the all-inclusive outsidelessness of ‘life', the only-human meaning of religion, and the need therefore to interpret all theological statements non-realistically. They don't really describe God: they are about our life.

By that I mean simply that religious myths and beliefs play just the same sort of basic part in our lives as do fairytales. Fairytales don't give us factual information about supernatural beings and their influence upon events here below: no, the truth of fairytales is ‘regulative' - which means that in coded form they give us very general advice about how people tick, and how to construct our lives. The best-known and most popular fairytales of all warn the youngest children of dangers that they may face (chiefly from adult relatives), and encourage adolescent children to hope that they may successfully negotiate the excitements and dangers of courtship and win their way through to a successful marriage and adult life.

Similarly, a religious belief-system is a big fairytale for adults to live by. It doesn't give us any factual information about supernatural beings or about any higher world. There are not literally any supernatural beings, and there is not any higher world. When we read the story of the creation of the world by God, we should read it simply as saying to us that we should all the time receive our own lives as a pure gift, new-minted and constantly renewed. We need to recover, and we need to keep, that vision of everything's freshness and brightness.


1 See Cupitt, The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech (1999), pp.25f.

2 Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, tr. Louis and Aylmer Maude, New York and London: Macmillan and Co. and the Oxford University Press, 1954 edn., p.1066 (Book XH, Ch.Ill).

3 Ibid, p.1116 (Book XIII, Ch.III).

4 Ibid, p.1173 (Book XIV, Ch.III).

5 From William Golding, in Free Fall and elsewhere.

6 In The New Religion of Life, cited above.

7 Jean Anouilh, The Rehearsal, Act 1, Sc.2.

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