Fundamentalism Meets Sci-Fi: Truth, Falsity and Fiction

The latest in Cake or Death’s series going through the A to Z of modern Christianity is “F” for fundamentalism.

I assume the movie the DVD of which is being returned in the cartoon is supposed to be one of the “Planet of the Apes” movies.

I’d like to suggest that the underlying reason why the fundamentalist in the cartoon is returning the DVD is because he has a worldview that considers all stories to be of two sorts: true, or false. He also holds the corresponding assumption that if it is false, then it is to be rejected.

That approach will screw up one’s appreciation of stories in the Bible every bit as much as one’s appreciation (or lack thereof) of “Planet of the Apes.”

If one approaches the stories in the early chapters of Genesis in this way, then one is bound to either accept them as factual or reject them as lies. I’ve been that sort of fundamentalist in the past, and have been interacting with some who currently hold that view in the comments sections of other posts on this blog in recent days.

But those are not the only options. Fiction is not aiming to provide accurate description. Myth is not about conveying history. And even what we think of as history is subject to revision in light of new evidence.

There is nothing wrong with rightly identifying that many stories do not provide factual information at all, and some provide only partly factual information. But if you cannot learn to discover something of value in those stories, your life will be much less rich as a result. And so will your understanding of the Bible. For if one tries to shield stories in the Bible from such questions, and assumes instead that they are all literal, factual reporting of precisely what happened simply by virtue of their being in the Bible, then one will profoundly misunderstand them.

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  • Ian

    I agree, the dichotomy is more complex.

    There are certain things that one would say or want to claim are objective fact. They are, independent of human knowledge or reasoning. Say, the existence of gravity.

    There are certain things that are not objective fact, but induce a human reaction that is significant, and meaningful. Say, Hamlet.

    You’ve been attacked on the threads you mention for your faith. Can I ask an honest question, with the assurance that I have no particular debating motive or come-back in hand? As a theist, is the existence of God in the first category or the second, in your understanding? Or if you think there is a continuum, is the existence of God nearer the first or the second, in your understanding?

    I’ve met and respect folks of both opinions, I don’t have a witty reposte. But I am interested based on what you have shared about the motivation and substance of your faith before.

    Or you can tell me its none of my business…

  • Gary

    1. Objective fact….”one would say or want to claim are objective fact”
    2. Not objective fact…”not objective fact, but induce a human reaction”
    How about:
    3. “want to claim”, “hope it is fact”, “not sure in the back of your brain”, “afraid it is not objective fact”, but in the meantime, “assume it is objective fact”, given the alternative of death and nothingness. Or is this just alternative #2?
    I would be interested in the response requested. In the end, it will be all our business, whether we like it or not.

    • Ian

      I’d say that is in my ‘objective fact’ category. I think it is a different question how confident you are in the existence of God, and on what basis. Let’s assume God exists, for the purpose of the discussion: if so is god independent of humanity, a fact of existence, or is god something that is true because of the meaning it has for humanity. I suspect you lean towards the first, because finding out whether God actually exists seems important to you (in a way, presumably, you wouldn’t be concerned to find out about whether Hamlet is ‘true’ or ‘real’). For James, I’m not so sure.

    • Ian

      “In the end, it will be all our business, whether we like it or not.”

      I’m pretty confident that, in the end, it will all be entirely irrelevant. But hey, that’s what’s cool about discussions with others from differing points of view.

      • Gary

        “I’m pretty confident that, in the end, it will all be entirely irrelevant”…perhaps. “I suspect you lean towards the first, because finding out whether God actually exists seems important to you”. True. But all the philosophy, nature, THE ultimate, universe, theism, etc…very interesting, but for me irrelevant. I am selfish. Purpose of life, for me, is the “living” itself, and gaining knowledge, accomplishing tasks I enjoy. A moral code exists for me, but a God is not necessary for my moral code (especially NOT the OT). The hints (evidence) of a God’s existence is in the strong anthopic principle (Rees’s physical constants). Thus 1 sigma for me (what? maybe 87%, I forget now). I can accept multiple universes, but don’t accept “almost infinite” number of universes (can’t all be equally probable). Given all this, I could be perfectly happy being an atheist. I was an agnostic most of my life. Bottom line, back to selfish….why 1 sigma, hoping for 5 sigma? I want to see loved ones again, who have died. For me, it’s just that simple.
        Merry Christmas….hope, verses a holiday experience.

  • Gary

    One more comment from me, then I think I will go on a hiatus. I like this blog, since it discusses science and religion combined. And it centers on not ignoring the facts, like evolution and the Big Bang for creation. This I get. Joel’s blog dicussed the Higgs particle…
    The so-called “God particle”.
    Evidence, or confidence in the data that it exists, according to the article is 5 sigma (about 99.99999%) for a “discovery”. So far, the experimental data is at about 3 sigma (99.7%).
    Although you can’t get experimental data on God, if I relate that to an individual’s belief in God, the fundamentalists seem to have a 5 sigma. They have evolution wrong, but I envy their confidence in God, since I might place my sigma at 1. I wish there were more “real” scientists (supporting evolution and the Big Bang), who also tended more toward a 5 sigma belief in God. If only to bolster my sigma. Scientists, when faced with the question of God, are more reluctant to place more confidence in their beliefs, perhaps since there is no measureable data. Makes me question how the fundamentalists got to 5 sigma and we are sitting at 1.

    • Ian

      “Makes me question how the fundamentalists got to 5 sigma and we are sitting at 1.”

      It is very easy as long as you ignore any evidence to the contrary. I give you a coin and tell you “this always flips heads”, and you flip it. If it flipped heads 20 times in a row, you’d be at six nines confidence. So you start flipping and writing down the result, and you ignore all the times it flips tails. After 20 recorded flips, you’re there.

      High confidence is difficult when you have noisy data, things that don’t quite fit. In short, when you deal with reality.

  • James F. McGrath

    Ian, sorry I didn’t see your earlier question until now – I think the e-mail notification of your comment may not have gotten through. But I was going to share this recent post of mine in response to your later comment: 

    On the existence of God, it depends what you mean by “God.” I only fit the category of “theist” if those who think of God in ways other than traditional theism are still considered “theists.” There is some debate about that – panentheists, for instance, still have the “-theists” bit in the designation, but they are not “theists” in the sense of the traditional, anthropomorphic theism.

    If one uses God to refer to that which is ultimate, as Tillich does, that which transcends us and which is the origin and ongoing context of what exists, then there is a sense in which there is no doubt that there is something that transcends us and precedes us in this way. Whether that is the universe, the multiverse, or something greater than either of those is something we cannot answer, but the question is what the ultimate is like, its nature, not its existence.

    If you are talking about theism in the strict and traditional sense, then I would answer the question differently.

    But in the second category, depending on how one understands it, one might place not only inspiring literature but also love and our other values and commitments. And the use of God as a symbol for those things is also an important approach, as found in particular in reconstructionist Judaism.

    • Ian

      Cool, yes. And thanks for answering the question, even while rejecting the categories I tried to impose on you 😉

      “the question is what the ultimate is like, its nature, not its existence”

      I agree. I personally get confused about what the ‘nature’ of the ultimate might be that could be differentiated from its existence.

      My sense is the folks who speak as you do about god, tend to separate their scientific curiosity (excitement to see how humanity pushes back the envelope of what is known, and geeky pleasure in what is found), with their enjoyment/fulfilment at *relating* to something external and ultimate (where myth, symbol and metaphor provide a mechanism for understanding that relationship or inducing the mental states associated with the relationship). Is that somewhere close to what you are saying?

      As I gradually came to the point of deciding that I should put myself in the ‘atheist’ category, I came out of a deep respect for Tillich. Ultimately I found that I could relate to the abstractions in his theology, but I found that increasingly disjointed from the specific doctrinal constructs he was shoring up by it. I couldn’t quite figure why he would start with a concern for the ultimate and just import Christianity as ‘revelation’ – assuming a whole ontology that he never, as far as I could tell, defends. And doing so, as far as I could see, without acknowledging that any other mythic structure would be as good, or as logical. So while I still love and read Tillich, I ultimately couldn’t derive any useful theology from him.

  • James F. McGrath

    Ian, I like your way of putting things.

    In Tillichian terms, would it be fair to say that Tillich’s theology has taken on the status of a “broken myth”? If so, I would venture to suggest that Tillich himself would be more than happy with that outcome. :)

    • Ian

      “would it be fair to say that Tillich’s theology has taken on the status of a “broken myth”?”

      Yes. That’s a fun way to look at it, thanks!