Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Fictional Deities

June 22nd, 2007 · 9 Comments

TCSDaily seems to be on a real tear against Christopher Hitchens’ book-length jeremiad against religion: The lastest attack there blasts Hitch for neglecting to grapple with the theological ideas of some of his favorite literary giants. He says not a word, for instance, about Shakespeare’s Iago as a critique of atheism.

What’s that you say? You hadn’t especially noticed that Iago was presented as a critique of atheism? Well, you see, he’s an amoral sociopath, and atheism leads people to be amoral sociopaths. Duh. I’m not sure whether to be more appalled at the vacuity of the argument or the reduction of one of the Bard’s most interesting characters to some sort of shallow parody.

Dostoevsky, by contrast, can indeed be read as a critic of atheism; it’s just that the critique isn’t a very good one. Consider this “send-up,” which purportedly “exposes the self-delusion of the atheistic revolutionaries who presume themselves bold and more intelligent that the God-fearing around them”:

I mean, we know, for example, the superstition about God derived from thunder and lightning . . . It’s only too well known that primitive man, terrified by thunder and lightning, deified his invisible enemy, conscious of his own weakness with regard to them.

This is meant to show that “dismissal of religious faith as something that arises from primitive fear and ignorance of the workings of nature is not clever or new. ” Perhaps not. But as an account of the origins of religious explanation, it’s also, you know, true. It doesn’t become less so for being put in the mouth of a silly fictional character.

Addendum: The definite article in that penultimate sentence was probably ill advised: Obviously, religion has many “origins” and serves many functions. But equally obviously, a large part of its appeal is its claim to explain aspects of the natural world, and of human existence, that primitive peoples had no other means of investigating. The openly expressed fear of creationists that the teaching of evolution will undermine religious faith is grounded in a recognition of just how important this explanatory factor still is in cementing people’s convictions. It’s not some kind of massive coincidence that the major religions (arguably excepting Buddhism) all contain such origin stories.

Tags: Religion



9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jess Austin // Jun 22, 2007 at 5:13 pm


    Maybe to a structuralist. This is a just-so story.

    Even if you don’t acknowledge such shallow criticism, how does this work in a modern context? Do any of the billions of religious people with access to a basic scientific education today really derive any religious feeling from a fear of thunderstorms?

    Even those for whom the majesty of the natural world informs the religious experience are just as likely to be in awe of the beauty of a butterfly or a raindrop as of lightning.

  • 2 John Goes // Jun 23, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    But as an account of the origin’s of religious explanation, it’s also, you know, true.

    This is certainly not true. There is no evidence and no good reason to believe that religion sprung from a proto-scientific grasping in the dark. The reasons for the impulse to the supernatural are much more psychological. Primitive people, through shamans and witchdoctors, people we would call schizophrenic today, were grappling with psychological demons and forces that they viewed as exogenous to themselves. These people became the village medicine men and taught people about the spirit world and it’s intimate involvement with our daily life.

    Then of course there is the perenniel awesome fact that we are able to communicate as sentient beings with each other, through space and time. Storytelling, probably the main activity (along with jokes) driving along the invention of language, naturally addresses this most curious question of Where did we come from and why did we come from there and where were we when we were born? The most interesting stories were about this. Obviously when confronted with lightning people will resort to their cosmology to explain it, but not the other way around.

    That atheists are ever blind to such simple facts about what it means to be human goes a long way to explaining the ease with which atheist tracts are brushed aside.

  • 3 Gil // Jun 24, 2007 at 11:47 pm

    I think that if you title a post “Fictional Deities”, you should at least acknowledge the redundancy.

  • 4 David // Jun 25, 2007 at 8:38 am

    I thought it was odd that Mr. Hitchens presents Socrates as his hero of reason vs. the forces of corrupting religion.

    Socrates–who was no atheist.

    See Mark McPherran’s book:


    Using Socrates as his hero undermines Hitchen’s thesis that religion corrupts everything.

  • 5 David // Jun 25, 2007 at 8:58 am

    McPherran explains his view of Socrates here:


    While Socrates was innovative and perhaps revolutionary in his view of religion and reason, he certainly wasn’t a Hitchens-style atheist.

  • 6 Gene Callahan // Jun 25, 2007 at 12:02 pm

    “But as an account of the origin’s of religious explanation, it’s also, you know, true.”

    Julian, maybe you should, you know, research these things before you talk about them? Cassirer’s Language and Myth might be a start.

  • 7 Jon H // Jun 30, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    “Primitive people, through shamans and witchdoctors, people we would call schizophrenic today, were grappling with psychological demons and forces that they viewed as exogenous to themselves.”

    I call bullshit. Trendy bullshit, I’m sure. But bullshit all the same.

    It reads like an attempt to glorify what was, essentially, a bunch of ignorant people seeking some influence and protection from natural forces they feared and could not control.

    “What is lightning? I don’t know, must come from a god or a spirit. It’s scary, let’s keep the spirit pleased so it doesn’t kill us.”

    Nooo, we’re supposed to elevate this by talking about schizophrenics and ‘grappling with psychological demons’.

    But at the end of the day, it’s just human minds trying to fill in the gaps of their knowledge in order to reassure themselves, and making shit up to do so.

    You don’t need to be schizophrenic to do that.

  • 8 John Goes // Jun 30, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    Jon, this is observable now. Read Mircea Eliade’s book on Shamanism for example. Given your superficial tone, it appears you know absolutely zero about primitive societies. They were surprisingly similar to ours in many aspects. The irony is that you feel the need to create myths about primitive societies to straighten the crooks in your cosmology.

  • 9 D. Edward Farrar // Jul 2, 2007 at 9:25 am

    Is it my imagination, or is one of the problems with being an Atheist in today’s America – and I am an Atheist myself – is that the moment one of us spots a slur against atheism and points it out in a public forum…the rest of us seem to gather around and tear him/her down for flaws in some analytical sidepoint, completely ignoring the original issue! Who cares if Julian Sanchez, or John H was spot on about the origins of religion? Does anyone want to respond to TCSDaily’s claim that Shakespeare created the character Iago to illustrate the evils of Atheism?

Leave a Comment