Narrative Belief

I talk about myself online a lot. I write a journal and I tweet aplenty and one of the things that is an important part of my life, which people have asked about, is Narrative Belief. I was raised in the Uniting Church and then left in my late teen years, evolving into an angry atheist by the time I was in university. Since then I’ve grown in a lot of ways, including coming back to seeing the value of the religion I had, even if I cannot convince myself to believe in its dogma. These days I try to use the ideas, practices, and tools available to me to not only make my own life more meaningful but also to help those around me engage in their own lives in ways that are meaningful to them. Narrative Belief is a key element of that, especially considering the primarily secular nature of the communities I engage with. So I thought I would put together a little primer on Narrative Belief for those who are interested.

Narrative Belief is a belief or form of belief that you engage with intentionally for the purposes of enhancing your own life with narrative despite knowing and understanding that it is not factually/logically/empirically true.

While my wife and I know that Santa Claus does not exist, we act as if he does at Christmas. While I see no reason to think that a higher power actually exists, I still pray to one in times of distress or times of comfort. My wife does not think that tarot cards can predict the future but she still draws one every morning to prepare her for her day.

This is specifically distinct from faith, which is continuing to believe that something IS true in the face of evidence against it or a lack of evidence for it.

Narrative Belief is also distinct from Nominal Belief; belief held for the purposes of identity, which a person might not consider to be literally true if pressed but of which the person considers themselves a believer regardless. Because they are primarily held for the purposes of identity or community membership nominal beliefs don’t need to be deeply questioned by the holder. In this way the function of the belief, and the understanding that the belief is not true, are implicit in Nominal Belief whereas they are explicit in Narrative Belief. Unfortunately the implicit nature of Nominal Belief also leaves it open to manipulation either intentionally or unintentionally by members of the belief community.

The explicit statement of recognising the functional purpose and the lack of truth within Narrative Belief is what makes it both useful and safe. By choosing to say, “I know this isn’t true but I’m going to treat it as if it is for now,” we open ourselves up to the benefits that those beliefs might convey to us without compromising the ways in which our rational mind is capable of protecting us and preventing us from harming others unintentionally.

We already rely on the rationality of our minds to protect us in these sorts of ways almost constantly. We use it to try to make sense of the world as it truly is, because to be unaware of threats or to assume safety where there is none often leads to harm. To this end we have shaped the rationality of our minds into tools like mathematics and the scientific method which allow us to make ever more precise judgements about the world; what is boon and what is bane. But to assume that our minds are purely rational is to fail to examine ourselves critically. Rationality itself is just one of the evolutionary products of a brain that is structured to find and match patterns. There are plenty of other irrational modes of thinking that we employ all the time in our day to day lives as well. We employ them because they take less energy than the high level processing of rationality. We personify and attribute minds to all sorts of complex systems such as the weather or technology. We see faces in random patterns of light and dark. We create stories of victory, defeat, solemnity, and celebration around yearly seasonal cycles. Our brains are shaped in ways that recognise certain kinds of patterns much more easily than others.

Over millennia the thousands of distinct cultures across the globe have worked out innumerable ways of thinking about the different parts of their lives and held on to the ones that were either useful or made their lives richer. Many of these are purely or partly rational. We don’t tend to attribute to gremlins that which we can see is the result of gravity. We don’t say it is our lack of faith that causes us to fall to the ground when we lose our footing from high up. However, the complex physical interactions that caused us to lose our footing in the first place might be opaque enough that we place blame for that onto our old buddy Lucifer. While it’s tempting to dismiss these non-rational beliefs or parts of beliefs as being inferior,​ we should actually look at why these ideas survive in the memetic pools of culture. Some are simply defensive; they survive by attacking other ideas and defending themselves from retribution. Those tend to be the least valuable to the Narrative Believer. However, many other irrational beliefs serve those who hold them well. They might be a helpful simple model for a complex system that doesn’t need to be fully understood. They might make the lives of those who believe them fuller, more exciting, or more pleasant. They might provide support for some of the psychological needs of the people who believe them who cannot find that support elsewhere. They may provide a powerful placebo effect that is actually effective in changing the believers for the better in some way, such as the removal of pain or anxiety. Just because these beliefs aren’t necessarily based on empirical evidence does not mean they are of no value to secular people at all, in fact, the opposite is true.

Learning to recognise the value of certain beliefs regardless of their rationality and to be able to engage with them opens up a world of possibilities for those who choose to do so. The childish joy of receiving gifts “from Father Christmas” without having to engage in the usual politics around festive gift giving, the separating of troubles and blessings into those within and outside our own control through prayer, the mental preparation and framing of the day that comes with drawing a tarot card are all tangible benefits that I see around me from engaging in irrational beliefs within the safety of a mental sandbox. The point is that I can engage in these beliefs and reap those benefits while still consciously knowing that I can nope out if they push me in a direction that I’m not comfortable with. I’m not going to take any actions that assume that a higher being will hear and respond to my prayer, my wife isn’t going to go out and hurt someone because she thinks that’s what a tarot card says she should do, and no one is going to make stock market investment decisions based on artificial flooding of the toy market by a jolly old arctic hermit.

This has come naturally to me as a person with a long history with roleplaying games and might do too for actors or writers or anyone else who already engages with the process of thinking through someone else’s eyes. For others it may take some practice, but we are powerful empathy machines. The same mechanisms that allow us to benefit from these sorts of stories allow us to learn other stories from those around us if we’re willing to listen and try on their shoes. We don’t have to walk a mile in them, but we can take a few steps and see what it feels like.

The practice of Narrative Belief doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however. One of the important restrictions I place on myself in my practice is to respect the beliefs of the people who do understand them to be true inasmuch as they are not bringing harm to others. When I attend a church service there are certain parts of the proceedings that I do not engage with. Elements of the Christian faith and its practice are specifically centered on the importance of the integrity of the belief and membership in the community of faith. In my practice I would consider taking part in those elements to be disrespectful to those who genuinely hold these beliefs, especially those who I know and care about in that faith community.

Additionally, as a Scottish Australian woman I specifically make a point to only borrow directly from cultures that are within the broad European mixing pot of which my heritage is a part. I avoid borrowing directly from parts of other cultures because I usually don’t know enough to understand which parts of those traditions should be off limits when practising this form of belief. The times when I do engage with traditions, rituals, or beliefs from other cultures are when I am invited by members of that culture and I do so with an open intent to genuinely learn enough to understand where those lines are drawn.

Similarly, it is important to make sure you’re not misrepresenting your narrative belief as genuine belief. Lying about what you understand the truth of a belief to be is is not only disrespectful to the people who do hold those beliefs genuinely but it’s also pretty obviously stepping into the realm of charlatans and hucksters.

I think it’s important to talk about these limits and boundaries on how we practice Narrative Belief because the whole idea is one of moderation.

The entire point of the exercise of Narrative Belief for me is to enjoy enhancing my life with the spices of superstition, religion, spirituality, and tradition without allowing them to hurt me or those I engage with. I love my narrative beliefs and I’m thankful to have a way to engage with them safely and I really hope that this way of approaching things might help you to safely enrich your own life with the full depth of thousands of years of human culture. In fact, I pray that it does.



  • Ash McAllan
  • Emily McAllan

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