As a young boy, I was an avid reader of a series of biographical picture books called ValueTales, which illustrated such virtues as confidence, kindness, and imagination through lightly fictionalized accounts of the lives of historical worthies ranging from Confucius to Louis Pasteur and Harriet Tubman. At the same time, I was enamored of ancient myths, devouring illustrated kids versions of the stories of Hercules, Jason, Theseus, and (the Germanic one-off) Siegfried. I’m pretty sure I understood at the time that the former were stories about real people who had actually existed (even if some of the details were invented), while the latter were fantasy. A couple years later, when I became enthralled by Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the PBS Mystery series (originally produced by Granada for BBC), I think I may have needed to ask my parents for clarification about whether these were made-up stories, or dramatizations of a real historical detective’s famous cases.
The thing is, in a sense it didn’t really matter that much what was true and what was made up. The point of these stories—or at any rate, part of the point—was to have engaging and memorable tales of, if not “virtue” in every case, then at least various types of “excellence” to be inspired by or emulate. To be sure, it might be more effectively inspiring if you knew that a story described some achievable real-world accomplishment, but this wasn’t the essential thing. The same goes for parables that illustrate behavior or dispositions to avoid: There’s no shortage of real-world stories one might use to convey the moral “pride goeth before a fall,” but a fictional one will do as well if the point is just to memorably capture an important lesson. Did the historical George Washington really fess up to felling a cherry tree because he “cannot tell a lie”? Almost certainly not, but unless you’re a historian, how much does it really matter whether all your beliefs about the Washington’s life are accurate?
All this is apropos of a piece by Jonathan Rée arguing that the so-called New Atheists misunderstand religion when they treat it primarily as a set of truth-claims on par with a scientific theory. When we read or watch explicitly fictional stories, we sometimes talk about the “suspension of disbelief” that’s necessary to become truly immersed in a tale. We need to find the story, in some sense, “believable” in the sense that it has a kind of internal coherence, without being committed to it’s literal truth. This is the sense in which it’s “unrealistic” for Booster Gold to win a one-on-one fight against Darkseid, even though, of course, there’s nothing remotely realistic about either character.
Fundamentalists of every sect are, pretty much by definition, strongly committed to the literal truth of all of their scripture. But the garden variety “believer,” I suspect, may often be more accurately thought of as a “suspension-of-disbeliever.” (Somewhere in the back of my head is that CollegeHumor video about religion as a species of fanboyism.) When you think about the actual functions that religious narratives serve in people’s lives, literal truth or falsity is often rather beside the point, and yet suspension of disbelief is a necessary condition of immersion in the story. On this view, Richard Dawkins is a little like that guy who keeps pointing out that all the ways superhero physics don’t really make sense. (Wouldn’t characters with “super strength” would really need super speed as well to do stuff like punching through concrete? Shouldn’t Cyclops be propelled backwards when he unleashes those concussive eye beams?”) It’s not annoying because we literally believed the stories, but because our enjoyment depends on our not attending too explicitly to their unreality. People can, on one level, be powerfully committed to the idea that Han Solo shot first, dammit—while on another being perfectly aware that, really, nobody shot anybody, and it’s actually just Harrison Ford and a dude in a green rubber suit with some laser effects added in post production.
Fanboys, of course, know their cherished fantasy worlds are fantasy, and will admit as much readily if you press them. For many ordinary believers, I suspect the situation is closer to what I think my initial view of Sherlock Holmes probably was: I knew that Watson “was” Holmes’ faithful sidekick, and that Moriarty “was” his archenemy, but if you asked me whether I meant this “was” in the sense of a historical truth claim or only as a “truth” about a fictional narrative, I suspect I would have initially been surprised by the question, because nothing about my relationship to the narrative or my reasons for enjoying it turned essentially on whether the events it depicted had really happened.
Update: It’s clearly true, as a commenter argues, that Dawkins & co. are themselves quite capable of appreciating religious and mythical narratives as narratives. What Rée seems to be positing, though, is that they may underestimate the number of soi-disant Believers who appreciate it on something like the same level. The people most motivated to debate and respond to New Atheist arguments, after all, are almost certainly not a representative sample, but likely to be heavily composed of those with a strong, reflective commitment to the literal accuracy of religious narrative. (Just as the small number of Atheist evangelists are pretty unrepresentative: Most of us don’t have all that much interest in talking people out of their favored narratives, as long as they’re not actively bugging us with them.) I’m not suggesting many believers appreciate their own narratives exactly as Dawkins does—that they’re ironists reciting their credos with a knowing wink, like the nuns at the end of DeLillo’s White Noise or the villagers at the end of Book of Mormon—though there are plainly a few of those. But I think there’s a vast fuzzy space between the ironists and the literalists, where the ontological level of the commitment to the narrative is left deliberately vague precisely because reflectively understanding it as fictional would weaken it, but endorsing it as a literal truth on par with everyday factual claims is unnecessary, and maybe even a little weird.
Update II: Just because so many commenters are focusing on it: I really like Richard Dawkins! I own and have enjoyed many of his books, including the athevangelist ones, and expect to purchase more! I’m just suggesting that it may be more common than we appreciate to “believe” in a way that engages with a story without needing to know whether things really happened that way. (“What a great period movie!” “Was it based on real historical events?” “Not sure, now that you mention it, I was just enjoying the movie.”) If that describes a nontrivial number of nominal believers, Dawkins’ (correct!) arguments may not be relevant to those people.