When I finished reading Life of Pi for the first time, I was furious. As a fourteen-year-old aspiring writer, I had fallen in love with Yann Martel’s stunning prose and the epic story of a boy who survives a shipwreck and spends 227 days at sea in a lifeboat with a tiger. In the final pages, though, as our embattled protagonist struggles to make a pair of bureaucrats believe his tale, he poses the following question:
Pi Patel: So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?’
Mr. Okamoto: ‘That’s an interesting question…’
Mr. Chiba: ‘The story with animals.’
Mr. Okamoto: ‘Yes. The story with animals is the better story.’
Pi Patel: ‘Thank you. And so it goes with God.’
To reveal Pi’s awesome journey as a lie was a stinging betrayal; to make it an allegory for religion, something I had recently decided was bunk, was salt in the wound. I wrote the required paper for my ninth grade English class and turned my back on the story that claimed it would “make you believe in God.”
I later dropped the dreams of writing and decided I would be a scientist. This time I fell in love with Carl Sagan’s vision of an elegant universe, unknown but knowable through experiment. I remain starry-eyed in my devotion to this story—the sheer nobility of it! To be the universe discovering itself, an exquisitely complex assembly of atoms pondering its environment, its origins. How intricate, how all-encompassing, how uncompromisingly real. Understanding is, without a doubt, “a kind of ecstasy.”
So four years after reading Life of Pi, I attended a dinner discussion about the intersection of science and faith at Harvard. I fidgeted while students recounted memorizing the facts of evolution in order to pass tests while resolutely refusing to believe any of it, often at the behest of their parents. One fellow freshman, in expressing that the secular materialist conception of the universe was unsatisfying to her, quipped that “you can’t love entropy.”
Suddenly I was fourteen again and aghast. How could the natural world, in its staggering beauty, be once again deemed inadequate? This from a writer, even a great one, I could handle: but in a room full of aspiring scientists, the very people who should be buoyed by awe for the grandeur of the universe? I was indignant on behalf of entropy.
I tried to live with intellectual charity, openness, and even a vulnerability which I had not previously allowed myself.
Then in May of this year, I had the terrific honor of getting coffee with Margaret Atwood, another Canadian author and a personal hero of mine. Her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, about a theocratic dystopia (set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of all places!), is another one I read for English class, at the same high school Atwood herself attended in Toronto. Between sips of café con leche at Pamplona, we discussed religion, science, and stories. When I pressed for her opinion on why people continue to choose religion, Atwood (who identifies as a “strict agnostic” herself) suggested that a story with God has staying power because “someone cares what you’re doing.”
For some reason, this notion resonated with me. Perhaps it was the celebrity factor. Perhaps it had never been phrased exactly this way to me before. Most likely, I think I wasn’t ready at fourteen or at eighteen to hear it. While I’m grateful to say that, at twenty-one, I’ve still had relatively few encounters with loneliness and loss, my conversation with Atwood happened at a time of both. For the first time I opened myself to the idea—timidly, subconsciously almost—that maybe there was something to this story with God.
About a month later, I found myself about to live for two weeks with a devoutly religious individual—none other, in fact, than the disparager of entropy. I was initially nervous, but a few days in, I recognized it as one of the better decisions I’ve made.
We did talk about religion. More importantly, we talked about relationships, food, science, music, sex, friendship, family, school, writing, self-improvement, and self-perception. I had a chance to compare notes with someone navigating all of the joy and despair and confusion of early adulthood using a different story of the universe. She described the transition to her current set of beliefs as a journey, and I imagined myself taking a single step down that road—I listened and participated. I attended a Bible study. I prayed. Before, I had been guarded and hostile when it came to faith, but this summer I tried to live with intellectual charity, openness, and even a vulnerability which I had not previously allowed myself.
Stories are more than entertainment and more than explanation: they are the primary tool with which we process the world.
Throughout the experience, I was impressed with the ubiquity of stories and storytelling. When I walked into the Bible study with my roommate, there was a quote written on the chalkboard: “To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.”
Stories are more than entertainment and more than explanation: they are the primary tool with which we process the world. I think it’s a fundamentally human need, to situate one’s life within a coherent narrative, and for many that narrative can be found in a holy book.
For some (like me), the story offered by science—which, Atwood argued, is itself “a narrative art”—is thrilling and satisfying and enough, but there are things it cannot do. The language of science is not tailored to the human experience; or rather, human language did not evolve to describe things like electrons and galaxies and enzymes. Most of what people talk about is other people and the relationships between them, so it’s unsurprising that faith—which is at its core a relationship between you and a person of sorts—uses that language more effectively.
Being human lends itself to belief in other ways as well. In an exercise my roommate suggested, I imagined a perfect God of my own creation to see what sort of character He would be in the novel of my life. For someone who grew up writing fiction, this was a personally appealing window into the religious experience. And I did experience a moment of “oh, I get it. I get why people do this.” In an admission which would mortify my high school self, I will say that it felt very easy and very natural, to think of the universe as a person, and to structure my thoughts as one side of a dialogue with this individual. I really think we all do this on some level, and for me, doing it consciously was a fascinating change of perspective and a genuine source of peace at that time.
So seven years after first reading Life of Pi, I can finally say I see what Yann Martel was talking about. There is beauty in the story with God in it; there is grandeur in this view of life. But where does that leave me? Well, I still don’t think there is a God. This summer, though, I experienced the transformative power of stories and the people we share and write them with. I dropped a huge burden of fear and anger that I’d been carrying around for years. I gained some respect for the human capacity to feel and not just to think. I also gained a friend. And I realized that the parts of the human experience we share—goals, hopes, fears, loves, needs–are both greater and much more important than the differences in the stories we tell.
Emma Kowal is a senior at Harvard College studying Chemical and Physical Biology. She is the president of the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics, a tutor at the Harvard Writing Center, a certified bartender, and an experienced ice cream scooper.
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 George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine
Image from Flickr via PreciousBytes.