The “Fictionalist” Approach to Religion

The “Fictionalist” Approach to Religion August 30, 2022

I have heard it said that one can be Jewish without believing in God.  I came across an article by a rabbi who tears that notion to shreds.  But the problem he cites and the issues he raises are relevant for Christians–and those who claim to be Christians–also.

Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa, has written an article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a wire service, entitled  Judaism without God? God forbid, says South Africa’s chief rabbi.

He is responding to an earlier article by Andrew Silow-Carroll, who describes the phenomenon as “fictionalism.”  Silow-Carroll defines the term as “pretending to follow a set of beliefs in order to reap the benefits of a set of actions.”  He quotes philosopher Philip Goff, who relates the term also to Christianity:

Religious fictionalists hold that the contentious claims of religion, such as “God exists” or “Jesus rose from the dead” are all, strictly speaking, false. They nonetheless think that religious discourse, as part of the practice in which such discourse is embedded, has a pragmatic value that justifies its use. To put it simply: God is a useful fiction.

Silow-Carroll gives the example of a Jewish professor who fasts on Yom Kippur and celebrates Passover even though he is an atheist.  “It’s just what we Jews do,” he explained. “It keeps me connected to a community I value.”  He went on to say, “When it feels like the world is falling apart, I seek refuge in religious rituals — but not because I believe my prayers will be answered.”

Silow-Carroll respects this position, seeing Judaism and religion in general in terms of actions, ethics, and ritual, rather than beliefs and doctrines.  Fictionalists differ from humanists and new atheists because they keep God and the observances of religion, including prayer and worship, in the picture.  They just think God is fictional, prayer is a useful form of meditation, and worship is beautiful.

I have heard from Catholic fictionalists, who say,  “Of course, I don’t believe all this stuff, but I am a Catholic, and this is what Catholics do.  Also liberal Protestants, including Episcopal bishops who publicly reject Christ’s resurrection, but soberly intone the Easter liturgy.  In fact, much of liberal Protestant theology is fictionalism, denying the tenets of Christian belief while still carrying on the ministry of the church–preaching, teaching, leading Bible studies, conducting worship services, praying, singing hymns, and offering spiritual counseling–as being somehow valuable, even though they consider Christian teachings like the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the atonement, salvation, eternal life, and the Word of God to be untrue.  They don’t believe the Bible, but consider it to be a good piece of fiction, even though, as C. S. Lewis shows, fiction written like the Bible would not be invented until the 1700s.

I suspect this can be found also among evangelicals and even confessional Lutherans.  Pastors, I suppose, have a profession to consider, so that if they lose their faith, they have to keep on in their jobs.  They become fictionalists, either teaching their whole congregation to be the same, or, probably more commonly, keeping their unbelief to themselves, but persisting in the traditional forms.

I suppose in the latter case, the members of the congregation can still receive the sacraments and hear God’s Word from a faithless preacher.  At least that’s what the orthodox side said in opposing the Donatist heretics.  Meanwhile, some laymen might come to church to keep a spouse happy or because they enjoy the music or even because they think religion conveys psychological or social benefits, even though they don’t believe in it themselves.

Rabbi Goldstein refutes Jewish fictionalism, saying, among other things, that,

 if you remove God from Judaism it ceases to be recognizable as such. When we say “may the Omnipresent comfort you” at a funeral , or “God who blessed bride and groom” at a wedding, or “God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh” during Kiddush, or “God is one” every morning and evening, and on our deathbed — these are all just fictions? If so, Judaism is meaningless; it becomes a system based on falsehoods. . . .

The only form of Jewish identity that has proven itself capable of surviving more than a few generations is one rooted in the complete embrace acceptance of the truth of all the factual claims made by Judaism, including belief in God and His authorship of the Torah. Throughout our long history no Jewish community has ever survived without a belief in the foundations of our faith. A pretend Judaism won’t cut it. Only the real thing is worthy of us and our children — and a guarantee for a bright Jewish future.

One could say the same about Christianity.  A pretend Christianity won’t cut it.

This syndrome would be an example of “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it” (2 Timothy 3:5).  Simply holding onto the forms is not just a matter of denying the doctrines of the religion, as fictionalists assume.  It also denies the power that those doctrines testify to and that the forms of the religion  convey.

As Hamann reminds us, doctrines are not just abstract ideas, to be debated or proven or refuted or disagreed with.  Rather, they are mighty realities that we neglect to our ruin.

Put another way, religion without faith is dead.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


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