(Article is by guest writer Rob Wheeler. See bio below.)
All religion is fiction
I begin from the simple but not uncontentious premise that all religion is fiction. I want to make the strong claim that no religion contains any historical or metaphysical foundation. Religions are fictions all the way down.
I don’t intend to argue the case for treating religion as fiction, rather, my task is to examine why we might regard religions as continuing to have value for us even after we have given up the idea that they contain objective truth.
I also want to consider how it might be possible to engage in religious practices such as prayer, worship and reading scriptures, and fully participate in religious community in a honest and coherent way while avoiding accusations of deceit, insincerity, confusion, lack of seriousness or free-loading.
Facts in Fictions
I concede there may often be some authentic historical facts nested within religious texts but I suggest they are irrelevant to the general point that the doctrines, stories and ideas of religions are all essentially fictional in nature.
For example the following (redacted) phrase in the Nicene Creed which asserts “Jesus Christ… was made man… was crucified…under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried…” can be accepted as historically accurate by a naturalistic atheist while still construing these ‘facts’ as elements within a fictional narrative.
When we read historical novels we may believe that the settings and the events depicted are broadly accurate without feeling obliged to classify the book we are reading as non-fiction. Along with pure invention, authentic historical and scientific facts become in effect ‘fictional-facts’ when embedded in a work of fiction. They are ‘true’ within the universe of the tale for so long as we are immersed in the tale and suspending disbelief. That they may also be true within the real world becomes irrelevant. It is for this reason we do not use historical novels as primary sources for scholarship.
It’s undeniable that modern readers of hard-core historical fiction expect the main events of the era in which the story is set to be accurate. That’s a modern convention of the genre and if the reader discovers an author has made errors about certain events they will feel cheated. The writer has been sloppy in their research and has shown insufficient respect for the reader. On the other hand we do not reject Shakespeare’s play Richard III as worthless just because the writer has played fast and loose with the historical facts. We are well aware that he is in some ways ‘playing’ in his writing and so we do not judge his dramas by the same standards as works of scholarly history.
In the case of religious narratives modern historical scholarship has demonstrated fairly conclusively that the historical truth of the Bible is in most cases inaccurate, unclear or inaccessible and the supernatural elements entirely beyond any empirical verification. When we enter religious narrative we enter the world of myth where there is no direct connection with the mundane world of empirical fact and so the question of how much is objectively true is even less relevant than in the various forms of conventional historical fiction.
Intellectual Benefits of Religious Fictionalism
A major benefit of the fictionalist approach to religion is that cuts through a host of theological conundrums and excuses us from participation in interminable debates over anomalies and inconsistencies in doctrine. For instance by treating all religious texts as fictions, suspending disbelief and reading them like novels (‘as if’ true) we side-step the problem of scriptural accuracy and we can get on with the substantive business interpreting the stories and living the religious life. It also allows us to ignore all the insoluble metaphysical problems raised by a realist God. If God is read as a fictional character in our text then his reality becomes spiritual, mythic and poetic and all these problems dissolve, and we have no need to engage in theological rationalisation any more. It’s a great relief.
Religion is more than explanation
Many atheists seem to view religion as attempting to fulfil the same role as science, ie, explaining, predicting and manipulating natural phenomena, and nothing more. In pre-scientific cultures people explained complex events by appeal to occult supernatural agencies because they knew no better. We have the correct explanations through science now, it is argued, and so we no longer need religion. Religion is redundant along with falsified scientific theories like luminiferous aether and phlogiston and so can be jettisoned without regret.
True, religions traditionally contain explanatory content, and indeed atavistic believers like modern-day Creationists, still adhere to some of the outdated explanations offered by religion, but that does not exhaust what religions are all about. In addition to explanation religions also perform aesthetic, expressive, prescriptive, therapeutic, identity-molding and group-bonding functions. These are effected by the ‘cultic’ or practical side of religion, which I argue we can continue to appropriate without commitment to outdated explanations.
Religions always begins with cultic practice which historically precedes theological systematising and some religions, like those of classical Greece or modern day West-Indian Rastafarianism, never develop the rationalist theological aspect of religion at all.
I use the word ‘cult’ here in the French sense of religious practice and not in the British or American sense of a closed religious group. Under this characterisation ‘cult’ is the care, obligation, honour, veneration, worship and reverence owed to the gods and other holy figures along with their temples, churches, shrines and sacred places.
Religion Is Art
I suggest that we should regard the ‘cult’ of a great religion as a work of art or poetry in itself and instead of thinking of it as being merely true, in the objective sense, we can read and evaluate it in terms of whether it is truthful to the human condition in the same way that a work of great literature may be viewed as being truthful. I suggest that while religious ideas and sentiments are indeed expressed in art, religious concepts, stories, practices and institutions can also be considered forms of imaginative art in and of themselves. I would add here that in the same way there can be good and bad art, there can also be good and bad religion (and in some cases, terrible religion—think ISIS for example). The criteria for judgement is how convincing an account of the human condition the religion offers, what fixes it prescribes, the aesthetic and ethical appeal of the way of life it promotes and the beneficial effect it has on its surrounding society. So not all religions are equal.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould has suggested a way of reconciling religion and science through a concept he entitles ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ (NOMA). He advocates that we understand science as being in the business of facts, explanation and prediction and religion in the business of values, meaning and purpose. This way they each have a clearly delineated domain of their own which do not conflict or overlap. However, as the biologist Richard Dawkins quite rightly points out, religious believers habitually make putative factual claims about how the universe came into being, how it is being providentially guided and about miraculous interventions in the natural order, all of which quite clearly conflict with the claims of science. Religions, he complains, undoubtedly make empirical claims and fail to keep to their side of Stephen Jay Gould’s clear boundary.
I think Dawkins’ challenge can be met but it requires a revisionist position to be adopted. Religion has to to withdraw from the front-line of the battle for objective truth and see its domain as fictional and imaginative and eschew all factual claims (historical and scientific). Art and science clearly occupy non-overlapping domains and so religion should be interpreted as belonging to the same domain as imaginative art. In cases of factual claims about how the world came into being, how it works now and how it is going to end up, science must always trump religion. This entails that religion also renounces literalist belief in supernatural and magical causality in the natural world (although supernatural ideas may be retained as expressive mythology within religious narratives, rituals and liturgies).
Revising Devotional Practice
Insofar as religion gives up its belief in supernatural and magical causation it must also revise its devotional practice to some extent. Prayer, worship, ritual and meditation become expressive, communicative and therapeutic and no longer means of manipulating the deity into doing what you personally want. Prayer for moral and emotional strength, transformation, guidance in making decisions and expressions of thanksgiving and compassionate concern for others all continue to have a place in regular religious practice. Prayer for deities to intervene in empirical events, such as intercessions for rain, funding for projects and healing of disease are to be played-down and interpreted as expressions of heartfelt hope and desire.
The philosophical position I am recommending here is known as Radical Religious Fictionalism. It is a second-order or meta-belief—ie, a belief about the nature of religious belief. It entails an error-theory as religious narratives are viewed as always having been fictions and that those who regard them as true or factual have been in error all along. But it also seeks to elevate fiction and imagination, and the emotions evoked by them, to a status equal to, but different from, that of empirical truth. Terms such as ‘mere fiction’ or ‘mere mythology’ are rejected as anathema. The dual domains of fact and fiction are seen as equally important and a religion may be considered to have superlative value even though it is not objectively true.
Fictionalism Within Orthodox Religion
While fictionalists treat all religious stories and doctrines, without exception, as imaginative creations, some element of of fictionalism is common even within fairly orthodox religious circles these days.
The overwhelming majority of contemporary Christians (at least in Northern Europe and Australasia) interpret the Genesis creation story as myth and many interpret the virgin birth, miracles and even the resurrection in the same light. Some British Anglicans who attend cathedral choral Evensong have given rise to the humorous epithet ‘Anglo-Choralism’ (a play on ‘Anglo-Catholicism’) as they attend worship primarily for the aesthetic inspiration of the music without any commitment to Christian credal belief.
Similarly Secular Buddhists treat Buddhist meditation practice as a form of spiritual therapy and regard Dharma, Karma, Nirvana, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and the Pure Land as rich myths providing an expressive and regulative structure.
Many Liberal and Humanistic Jews also talk of treating their festivals, ceremonies, prayers and religious regulations as symbols of cultural identity and ethical commitment rather than items of credal belief. A 2011 US study found that half of all American Jews have doubts about the existence of God, compared to 10–15% of other American religious groups. A 2013 Pew report found that most American Jews see no conflict between being Jewish and not believing in God; two-thirds say that a person can be Jewish even if he or she does not believe in God. Belief in God is much more common among the general public in the US than among Jews. Even among religious Jews belief in God is less common than among members of other major US religious groups.
Practicing Religion ‘as if’
Fictionalists are not agnostics as they are perfectly clear in their own minds that the religion they are following contains no empirically true content (or at least none that matters). They are therefore convinced there is nothing to ‘know’ or ‘not know’ here, so the term ‘agnostic’ does not apply. Neither are they engaging in self-deception or wishful thinking. They immerse themselves in their religious fiction by a deliberate act of suspending disbelief (adopting an ‘as if’ attitude) in the same way that one does when reading a novel, watching a movie or play, or engaging in a role-play game. For the duration of ‘doing’ their religion the fictionalist is a full-blooded believer while simultaneously aware that they are playing a game, albeit a very serious game with serious spiritual and ethical implications for the meaning and purpose of life outside the game. They are not engaging in religious play-acting simply for escapist entertainment.
One might think of religious devotion as a kind of LARP (Live Action Roleplay), although with a much more serious intention than is normally found within the LARPing community. In fact the Anglican writer, and Sea of Faith member, Anthony Freeman in his book God in Us: A Case for Christian Humanism has gone so far as to describe the Church of England as “…the Sealed Knot at prayer”.
What Fictionalism Is Not
Some theorists of religion who, like fictionalists, reject the objective truth of religious language hold that religious statements are not at all what they appear to be on the surface. These theorists, mainly following the philosopher Wittgenstein, claim that the so-called ‘realist’ believer may think that when they confess a religious belief they are making a straightforward statement of fact. However, what they are really doing is expressing values and commitment to a way of life. What look like factual statements on the surface can always be cashed-out in terms of expressions of feeling, values and commitment. This is a theory of meaning. It claims that the religious believer does not really understand the true meaning of what they are asserting and so these theorists translate all religious beliefs, point by point, into expressions of value and commitment.
The contrast with fictionalism is subtle. Fictionalism is a theory about truth rather than meaning. The fictionalist accepts religious language at face-value and adopts a common-sense theory of meaning when interpreting religious assertions. S/he does not translate them into something else. When the Bible says God creates the world in seven days and Jesus performs miracles of healing the fictionalist does not translate these stories point-by-point into expressions of ethical commitment. They are treated ‘as if’ true within the mythic narrative in which they occur. The fictionalist immerses herself playfully and imaginatively within the mythic and ritual world of the religion for a period of time allowing themselves to experience the emotions and values evoked by the narrative before returning to the ‘real’ world of everyday life. In the same way that a reader of a novel re-surfaces from reading with fresh attitudes, values, emotional responses and ways of looking, the fictionalist emerges from worship, reading, meditation and contemplation with (hopefully) a more truthful understanding of the human condition and how to deal with it more effectively.
Benefits of Fictionalism to the Practitioner
By immersing themselves in a religious community and engaging with its sacred narratives, ceremonies and rituals (‘as if’ true), the fictionalist re-enchants their world and commits themselves to a way of life with its concomitant ideals, values, ethics, attitudes and way of life. By being embedded in stories enacted in dramatic rituals the values are given strong emotional valency which promotes internalisation and commitment and assists the believer in overcoming moral weakness. Furthermore, living out the commitment is rendered more effective for being supported by a group of like-minded co-religionists.
Note that nowhere in this account is faith or belief invoked in the traditional sense. The only faith a fictionalist needs is faith that the values and way of life promoted by their religious stories and rituals make for human flourishing.
Problems of Fictionalism
Having argued, and I hope demonstrated, that fictionalism is an intellectually and ethically coherent position and that it can also deliver benefits, it has to be admitted that it presents several problems in practice.
The fictionalist engages in religious community because they need the support of a group in walking their chosen religious path. However, most of their co-religionists are unlikely to share the same second-order beliefs about the nature of religious truth as fictionalism is not currently a mainstream position. This places our fictionalist in a dilemma which can result in a degree of spiritual discomfort or cognitive dissonance.
They can decide to tell no one about their fictionalist meta-beliefs, and it’s very unlikely that anyone will ever inquire about them in the normal course of events. In this case their realist co-religionists may simply assume that the fictionalist shares the same second-order beliefs as themselves. If at any time they discover the fictionalist has different ideas about the nature of religious belief they may well judge the fictionalist has been deceptive. The realist may also feel offended by having their deeply held beliefs treated as fictions. They may consider it denigrates and trivialises them.
On the other hand the fictionalist might decide to ‘come out’ right at the beginning and declare their fictionalism to the community with the risk that they are judged to be insincere or lack integrity. Worse—they may be treated as confused or lacking seriousness, patted on the head and tolerated out of paternalistic concern! Furthermore, the very logic of fictionalism entails an inbuilt reserve against pushing the theory too self-consciously. When reading a novel you do not constantly remind yourself that what you are reading is a fiction. To do so would undermine the very process of immersion and suspension of disbelief which is the very point of fictionalism and a guarantee of its effectiveness. The fictionalist does not want to hide their belief about religious belief but on the other hand they don’t want to forefront their meta-beliefs in a way that will distract from immersion in religious practice.
One solution would be for fictionalists to cluster together and form their own churches and religious organisations where they can ‘come out’ and promote their own mode of religious life publically and so avoid accusations of deceit, insincerity or confusion. As fictionalists are currently a bit thin on the ground this presents practical difficulties for creating community.
If fictionalists cannot form their own communities of belief at present then they are left with having to obtain support by joining existing communities of believers. They may well find a home amongst tolerant liberal and progressive movements such as Liberal Judaism, Humanistic Judaism, Non-theistic Quakerism, Humanist Unitarianism, Secular Buddhism, Neo-paganism, Syntheism or Progressive Christianity.
If our fictionalist succeeds in finding a home within an existing religious community or church with values they can sincerely ally themselves to this opens them to the further allegation of being ‘free-loaders’—relying on realists to maintain the community that fictionalists need but cannot maintain themselves. The conclusion might be that only religionists with substantive realist beliefs are able to to provide the glue to maintain a unified and committed community. However, I think it unlikely any modern religious community would take a strong line against the fictionalist to the extent of excommunicating them and they certainly won’t burn them at the stake! Furthemore, falling congregational numbers being what they are (at least in the UK) most religious groups are desperate to hold on to any members they can get!
We must face the problems of being a religious fictionalist amongst realist believers with honesty and sensitivity while still arguing clearly and openly that we believe this is the right way of being religious.
On the whole, most realist believers (and most non-believers too) tend to think that once the supernatural reality of religion has been completely stripped away the superstructure collapses and religion consequently loses its entire point. On the other hand I suspect that there may be a lot of churchgoers nowadays who subliminally reject supernaturalism and are in reality ‘subconscious’ fictionalists but feel they need just a sliver of realism at the conscious level to root their beliefs in the empirical world. Imagination can’t do all the work for them.
The Parable of the Allotments
I think the dilemmas and rewards of fictionalism are brought out by the philsopher Julian Baggini in his neat little ‘parable of the allotments’ where Flo is in the minority as a religious fictionalist but ends up finding intrinsic value in her practice:
- One day as Jesus was walking through the marketplace, a scholar came up to him and asked: “Teacher, what should I believe?”
- Jesus turned to him and said: “Once there were three neighbouring allotments, tended by three people, Thea, Alf and Flo.”
- “There he goes off on one of his stories again”, whispered Judas to Peter. “Why can’t he just give a straight answer?”
- “Ssshh!” Peter replied. “The stories are good. People remember them. And the faithful that follow us will make good use of their ambiguity as they adapt to new times and places.”
- “One day, an environmental scientist walked past the allotments”, continued Jesus, a little miffed that not all his disciples were concentrating, “smiled happily at the enthusiasm and effort of the gardeners, and asked them why they were working so hard.
- ‘Because the organic food we produce here is cheaper, healthier and better for the planet’, they replied as one.
- “At this, the environmental scientist’s face fell. ‘Alas, it is not true’, he said, explaining at length that the small, inefficient nature of their endeavours did not result in cheaper or less resource-intensive food than could be bought in shops, and nor was there any evidence home-grown food had any significant health benefits.
- “They continued to discuss this for several hours, after which, all were persuaded that their convictions had been wrong. They packed up their tools, went home and resolved never to return.
- “A month later, the scientist was again walking through the allotments. He saw that Thea’s patch remained untended but Alf and Flo were both working their earth as industriously as before. ‘Did you change your views back after we talked?’ he asked them.
- “‘No’, replied Alf. ‘We stayed at home the next day, but then we both realised that what we really loved about the allotment was the contact with the ground, seeing the food grow, being outside, watching the changing of the seasons, the camaraderie of our fellow gardeners.
- ‘We sincerely thought that what we believed about organic allotments was the reason we came. But when that belief went, we realised a wasn’t about that at all”, added Flo. ‘Although it was for Thea.’
- “Several months later, the scientist passed by again, and this time he saw that only Flo was at work, and Alf’s allotment had become overgrown. ‘What happened to your friend?’ he asked Flo.
- ‘He continued for a while’, she replied. ‘Yes, he enjoyed all the things we said we enjoyed last time. But working an allotment is hard work and over time it transpired that these rewards weren’t enough. Without the belief that it really was healthier, greener and cheaper, he simply did not have a strong enough incentive to persist.’
- ‘But you?’ asked the scientist. ‘For me, the activity is enough.’” Jesus fell silent and it was clear the parable was over.
- “And the moral of the story?” asked the scholar. “There’s always a moral.” Jesus shrugged his shoulders. “People can be mistaken about how important their own beliefs are.”
- “I see”, said the scholar. “So, metaphorically speaking, they all believed at the start that their ‘religion’ rested on a whole set of beliefs. For Thea, that was true, for Flo it turned out not to be. Alf agreed with Flo in principle but found that without belief he was not motivated enough to do the practice.”
- Jesus nodded gently. “Do you think there are more Theas, Alfs or Flos in this world?” he asked.
- “I don’t know”, replied the scholar. “But isn’t the main question not how many of each type there are, but which one I should be?”
- “You can lead a man to gardens, but you cannot make him dig”, replied Jesus, and he set off on his way. “Hey! Where do you think you’re going?” shouted the scholar, “I need a better answer than that! We all need answers!”
“Grow your own”, replied Jesus, without turning his head.
[From ‘The Myth of Mythos’ by Julian Baggini in Religion and Atheism: Beyond the Divide, ed Anthony Carrol and Richard Norman, Routledge, 2017]
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
- Second-order or Meta-beliefs — The best way to explain the difference between first-order and second-order (or meta-) beliefs is by means of an example from ethics. Two people may agree that murder is morally wrong (that’s their first-order or substantive belief) but they may disagree on the status of that belief. The belief about the status of the moral beliefs is a second-order belief—a belief about a belief . For instance the ethical objectivist believes there are objective moral ‘facts’ in the world and that when she says ‘murder is wrong’ she is making a true statement analogous the true statement ‘grass is green’. By contrast the moral subjectivist believes there are no moral ‘facts’ and that when she says ‘murder is wrong’ she is simply expressing a personal attitude. The objectivist and the subjectivist agree on their first-order belief but disagree on their second-order belief.
- Error theory — An error-theory is an explanation of how someone’s false belief has arisen and why it seems so intuitively convincing. It is typically used in ethics to explain how the popular belief that there are moral facts in the world is wrong and how it arises. The point here is that it is not enough to demonstrate that a belief is wrong, you must also show how it arises and why it seems so powerful.
- The Sealed-Knot — The Sealed Knot is a UK based 17th century English Civil war re-enactment group whose period of interest covers the same period in which the 1662 Book of Common Prayer was published.
- Realist/Realism — Realism is the belief that religious language has some reference to objective facts in the world. It does not necessarily involve belief in the literal truth of scriptures. A minimally realist view would be that the universe is structured in some way that ensures that love and justice will triumph in the universe.
- Re-enchantment — Sociologist Max Weber coined the term disenchantment to describe the character of modern, bureaucratic, secularized Western society, where scientific understanding is more highly valued than spiritual belief, and where processes are oriented toward rational, depersonalised goals. This contrasts with traditional society, where for Weber, “the world remains a great enchanted garden”. Re-enchantment is essentially a romantic ideal involving the re-establishment of spirit, myth, wonder, awe and magic in social relations and institutions.
Rob Wheeler’s Bio
Rob Wheeler graduated many years ago from the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, in philosophy and theology and since then has, at various times, been an assistant hospital manager, a social worker, an IT systems manager, a software developer and a college lecturer. He is now happily retired and living in south east UK, where he had been running a pub philosophy group called ‘The Stoa’ (stoa.org.uk) for the past 13 years and occasionally officiating at weddings, baby namings and funerals as a Humanist celebrant.