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He’s My Favorite Fictional Character!

September 19th, 2011 · 30 Comments

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.

Tags: Art & Culture · Religion



30 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kevin // Sep 19, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    This matches how I think about religion but, here’s the thing. I bet it matches how Dawkins thinks about religion too.

    It’s almost like people have imagined up a fundamentalist version of Dawkins who doesn’t love Evensong and the literary traditions of Anglicanism. It’s easier to criticize Fundamentalist Dawkins than the actual Dawkins.

    I bet if you were to make Dawkins an offer – if we all admit that we don’t really believe that the stories are literally true, we can can keep our churches and our mosques and our glorious traditions and our mysteries and our ceremony – he’d be sitting up there in the front pew singing the Kyrie eleison along with you.

  • 2 prasad // Sep 19, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    What Kevin said. I don’t know of anything Dawkins has done that should make us doubt his ability to enjoy fiction, mythology, superhero comics or hagiography. Dawkins so described is a pinata, not a person.

    Also, let’s be real here – if you went before a mixed audience and drew your analogy between Christ and Sherlock Holmes, it wouldn’t be the irreligious (or liberal religious) who’d feel threatened.

  • 3 UserGoogol // Sep 19, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    I suppose this is somewhat plausible, but (as someone who’s never been any sort of religious) it just seems like there has to be more to religion than that. I mean, when you strip away the claims to literal truth, what exactly separates religion from literature? It intuitively seems like there ought to be a rather sharp divide between one and the other, but if this is what religion is, then it’s just an incremental distinction of how much they suspend their disbelief and how elaborate their costumes are.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Sep 19, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    It’s very clear that Dawkins appreciates Religion (and other myths) on this level. What I’m suggesting is that I suspect this is actually the level on which relatively large numbers of nominal “believers” appreciate it as well, and that folks like Dawkins may overestimate the proportion of adherents who are profoundly and self-consciously committed to the status of doctrine as making absolutely literal truth claims, because THOSE tend to the people who want to debate folks like Dawkins. Again, that isn’t to say that most “believers” self consciously regard their own faiths as appealing fictions, embraced with a knowing ironic wink, but that there’s space between the ironic adherent (like the nuns at the end of DeLillo’s White Noise) and the serious fundamentalist for a kind of “fuzzy” attitude where disbelief is suspended for the purposes of enjoying from and learning from the story, but the question of whether the story is a literally accurate representation of historical events isn’t really that important to wrestle with.

  • 5 Adrian Ratnapala // Sep 19, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Quite right. Religions thrive on a kind of creative ambiguity between claiming literal truth and creative truth. They play to have their cake (by being flexible) while eating it to (by being authoritative). This works mostly because people don’t see the distinction explicitly. When they here a sermon we instinctively think in terms of plain truth, when challenged we fall back on subtler interpretations.

    The anti-religionists have their own game to win by arguing against the actual *claims* of religion, they force the religious to choose. That’s good. Dawkins’ problem is not that he tackles the ideas of relgion at face value; it is that he preaches to the choir, the religious don’t feel the need to take him seriously.

  • 6 Mack // Sep 19, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    Not being religious, I have a hard time putting myself in a believer’s shoes.

    But it strikes me that this is unlikely to be true. Whether or not most self-styled believers are literalists, surely there is a core — a capital-C Creator, an afterlife, etc — which must be accepted as actually true, in order to participate in the communion?

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Sep 19, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    Admittedly, so do I. This is a speculation based partly on my own loose personal impression, and partly on the fact that poll data suggests that very large numbers of people who self-identify as believers also afford religion relatively low priority, and maintain nominal membership in a church they attend, but only infrequently. And that seems hard to square with their fully believing the official line that they’ll be awarded infinite bliss or infinite torment as a function of piety, in exactly the same sense that they believe (say) drinking bleach will result in a painful death.

  • 8 K.Chen // Sep 19, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    You’re missing the mark slightly, as did Johnathan Ree.

    What we tend to call fundamentalists and literalists are not literalists: as in they do not view a text as literature, of certain genres. (Genesis? starts of as a creation story, followed by another Luke-Acts? A history). Rather so-called literalists tend to view all text as a particular kind of history.

    For most religious, at least ones who have more or less come to grips with modernity, view their religious narratives in a way that is similar to both fiction and pedestrian historical fact without being either. Fiction is meant in any way to be true, but this in between thing of myth, is True even though in a pedestrian sense it may be false. The pedestrian history aspect is ultimately unimportant.

    That more philosophical way of dealing with religious beliefs (Jesus is the Son of God, Buddha completely detached from the world) is also almost completely orthogonal to the other aspects of religiosity: the ritualistic practice of worship, prayer, and the like.

    For the strongly but modernly religious the religious belief is very strongly held, but also unthreatened by pedestrian reality because its a different sort of belief. “Jesus was resurrected” is a belief more similar to “my mother loves me unconditionally” than “invisible creatures cause sickness.”

  • 9 K.Chen // Sep 19, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Adding on to that thought, but being slightly more specific:

    “So God created humans in his image.”
    As a fictional statement, like in a comic book, you imagine a character “God.” drawing smaller versions of himself on a blank canvas, and humans springing forth.

    As a historical statement, the details are obscured, but at some point in time, God used some force on the world that caused humans to be, and humans look like God, whatever this creature or entity is.

    As a mythical statement, the important part is that we are somehow like God, and that this is no accident. We are special, and we are great.

    There can be very specific or vague interpretations of each of those sorts of statements, but the information that needs to be accepted is of a different kind. The mythic sense is unchallenged by evolution, but is challenged by each time humanity manages to find yet another horrible, animalistic way to make each-other more miserable.

  • 10 Jens Fiederer // Sep 20, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    If you want to keep Siegfried from being a one-off, thus metaphorically vanquishing a legendary hero, I recommend Dietrich of Bern, one of those rare cases where the HERO is the one who breathes fire.

  • 11 Ken Pidcock // Sep 20, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    I bet if you were to make Dawkins an offer – if we all admit that we don’t really believe that the stories are literally true, we can can keep our churches and our mosques and our glorious traditions and our mysteries and our ceremony – he’d be sitting up there in the front pew singing the Kyrie eleison along with you.

    Yes! As a nonbeliever, I worshiped as a Christian for some twenty years. It was only when I finally accepted that there was nobody around me prepared to enter into such a deal that I resigned myself to intellectual honesty.

    Reading this post, I found three occurrences of the phrase “I suspect…”, then a fourth in a comment from the author. Why should we be asked to speculate? Why don’t more believers acknowledge this more or less publicly? I suspect that it’s because they know that denying the actual presence of supernatural agency will identify them as less than fully human among their fellow worshipers.

    That doesn’t happen among fanboys, by the way.

  • 12 Jim Kakalios // Sep 20, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Hey – I AM that guy who points out superhero physics – at least – I’m the guy who wrote THE PHYSICS OF SUPERHEROES. And my point was not to take the enjoyment out of fictional characters whom I enjoy, but rather to use them to illustrate physics principles. I grant each character a “one time miracle exception from the laws of nature” and then show how, often, what the heroes do with their powers is consistent with physics.

    Suspension of disbelief is necessary for fanboys (and fangirls), and sometimes for scientists as well. We often have to posit things that seem counter-intuitive in order to advance our understanding of nature. The narratives in science are fact-checked against evidence and observation.

    And Han shot first.

    As Stan the Man would say: Face Front, True Believer!

  • 13 J. Bennett // Sep 20, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I more strongly suspect that these metaphor- and narrative-minded nonliteralist and nonfundamentalist religious folk exist largely in the wishful thinking of liberal, urban, secularized-but-still-kinda-religious people. In my corner of the Bible Belt, people still cite Genesis as incontrovertible evidence that evolution cannot be factually true, quote Exodus as a historical text, use the Book of Revelations as a key to understanding current events and believe in the literal efficacy of prayer to affect real-life, physical events. If you told my neighbors that they believe in myth or fiction, they’d understand you to mean that their faith is false.

    I also think it’s ridiculous to characterize Dawkins as someone who, for no reason, decided to hate religion because he just didn’t get that it was all a metaphor. Would Dawkins have ever written on religion if there had never been a creationist movement or the religious right?

  • 14 K.Chen // Sep 21, 2011 at 12:06 am

    “I more strongly suspect that these metaphor- and narrative-minded nonliteralist and nonfundamentalist religious folk exist largely in the wishful thinking of liberal, urban, secularized-but-still-kinda-religious people”

    So, if I’m reading this correctly, liberal urban secularized-but-still-kinda-religious people are not narrative-minded non-literalist and nonfundamentalist religious folk?

    And you know this because of how they treat Genesis, Exodus, Revelation (no s!) down in a particular region known for, wait for it, a particular literalist, fundamentalist culture?

  • 15 Dave // Sep 21, 2011 at 1:50 am

    >>committed to it’s literal truth
    its, not “it’s.”

  • 16 Geoff // Sep 21, 2011 at 6:04 am

    Getting better information would really be helpful. I get the feeling that most of us reading and or posting here are basically atheist philosophers and so I really question whether we have any real idea whether believers really believe this stuff.

    For instance Julian wrote,
    “disbelief is suspended for the purposes of enjoying from and learning from the story, but the question of whether the story is a literally accurate representation of historical events isn’t really that important to wrestle with.”

    I find it difficult to believe that when Christians talk about Jesus ‘ divinity or the immortality of the soul, they just think of it the way one might think of Plato’s Cave or Zarathustra speaking out in the marketplace, as a helpful way to understand big ideas. It may be true — the reasoning of the believer is pretty inscrutable to me. But it doesn’t ring true to me based on what I have observed. ( I am stuck living in the Deep South, so I probably have a pretty skewed sample to examine.

    Does anybody have any evidence, either anecdotal or better about whether or not the typical believer thinks of these stories as more history or more literature?
    Of course, Julian and some of the others may be arguing for some kind of state of mind where the believer is in some sense suspending disbelief about his own suspension of disbelief. But self-referential notions like this often seem to come with a warning label of “mind-numbing paradox hazard inside” on them.

  • 17 J. Bennett // Sep 21, 2011 at 8:13 am

    K. Chen, I think the question is what kind of religious believer is more typical of the majority of the population of the United States. I’d bet the literalists are a majority. I certainly don’t think that Dawkins is arguing with a straw man.

  • 18 K.Chen // Sep 21, 2011 at 10:47 am

    They’re not the majority, but they do have significant power, and they’re loud. Evangelical Christians, and the radical ones within that group no less, have been successful in pushing their particular cultural assumptions on what Christianity and Religion is on to a religiously illiterate public. This includes phenomena such as nominative mainline Protestants who show up to church maybe twice a year, and only for gran-gran suddenly believing in the Rapture

    I can’t have a serious discussion about Dawkins in particular, but movement atheism/new new atheism is arguing about straw man in so-far as the religious believer they take to task does not believe what they think they do in the abstract, and definitely does not act the way they think they do in concrete reality. They are not arguing against a straw man in so far as the people they are arguing against do in fact exist, and are in fact, big trouble.

  • 19 James // Sep 21, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Religious belief, narrative, dogma, is but the clearest example of the way belief is used to perpetuate ignorance. We essentially choose ignorance when we choose to rely on a culturally pre-determined account of the world rather than newly confront our encounter with the world in each new moment. This is the problem. Dawkins, e.g., seems to have the conviction that a scientific worldview is better suited to responding to this confrontation, because it (a) relies on evidence, and (b) admits of ignorance where insufficient evidence exists. There are good arguments to be made against some of Dawkins’s positions, but his challenge has value nonetheless. Not in sussing out which religious beliefs are scientifically permissible and which are not; but rather in helping to bring to light the extent to which believers (i.e. all of us) use belief to choose ignorance, whether the beliefs we turn to are simple or sophisticated. (His challenge does this by bringing up the question at all – whether his challenge alone is sufficient is another question.) It’s not that religion unto itself – independent of its believers – makes various truth claims that are problematic, but that in relying on belief to underpin our worldviews WE unwittingly make truth claims on par with philosophical and/or scientific descriptions of the nature of reality, only without doing any of the work to see whether these claims are worthwhile. There are negative consequences to this kind of non-thinking approach to reality. How to clearly pose the problem, and what to do about it – these are questions that I think still need to be worked out.

  • 20 J. Bennett // Sep 21, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    K. Chen, I’d like to believe you’re right. But if you are, I really wish that nonfundamentalist religious people would speak up more and represent a visible religious alternative to the religious right. The real threat to moderate religion is fundamentalist intolerance, not the New Atheists.

  • 21 Jesse Walker // Sep 21, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    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.

    It was thanks to the Value Tales series that I learned Helen Keller’s greatest contribution to society: She discovered leprechauns.

  • 22 James Wynn // Sep 21, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    I’m pretty sure that the degree to which the Bible maps to the every day life of Fundamentalists far surpasses the degree to which a belief in Evolution maps to the life of atheists…that is all atheists except Richard Dawkins.

  • 23 Jeff Johnson // Sep 21, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    I doubt there are many atheists who consider religion to be only a set of truth claims. Everyone understands there are also myths, parables, and other texts, there is prayer and ritual, and other aspects of communal bonding. Along with this religion asserts without a doubt a set of truth claims, belief in which is essential for claiming religious identity. These are, for Christians, the existence of a creator deity who listens to prayers and has a plan, the existence of heaven or some sort of life after death, and the existence of a soul, or the belief in mind/body duality. I think it is this set of truth claims that most annoys atheists and most conflicts with scientific evidence, or most infringes on the territory where science claims to be authoritative.

    Star Trek conventions don’t bother atheists. These represent a community of people who share a set of myths and rituals, but who don’t make associated truth claims or assert political rights based on them. They are, in other words, harmless.

    If Christians had the status of trekkies in our society, or any other hobbyists or enthusiasts, as a group of people who share weekend entertainment based on inspiring myths, the conflict with atheists would of course melt away.

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  • 25 Kevin // Sep 23, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Thanks for the update!

    It grates harshly on my soul every time Dawkins is trundled out as the very archetype of the New Atheist who hates religion who has nothing but contempt for believers and their spiritual aspirations. It grates not because I love Dawkins the man, but because if you spend more than 10 minutes reading his stuff, it’s so obviously untrue.

    To make the case that Dawkins is a fundamentalist on a par with the Christian kind, you you have to rip his words violently from their context. To say that Dawkins does not grok the numenous or that Dawkins does not appreciate the traditions and mythology of religion, you have to gloss over at least 20% of his words on the topic.

    Bloggers and journalists should be required to sit down with glass of brandy and watch Dawkins’ discussions with the Bishop of Oxford before they are allowed to hold Dawkins up as an example of atheist incomprehension. They should also be required to read The Ancestor’s Tale (best book of the century so far) before deciding that he has no spiritual side.

    I was motivated to comment here – rather than some other blog – because I suspected that you knew better, Julian, and it warms my heart to be vindicated.

    Small print: Dawkins is uncomfortably strident and dismissive more often than I would like but if you think he is strident about religion, you should hear him on group selection.

    I suspect that Dawkins’ target market is (or, at least, was) people who always suspected that religious truth claims were a little fishy but had no scaffolding on which to build a different belief system and no community to validate their lonely worldview. Dawkins addresses those people amazingly well and I don’t think his original intention was to change anyone’s mind about religion. In latter days, I expect he has given more attention to the Look How Silly the Fundies Are side of the atheist business because that’s where he earns his money on the speaking circuit and that’s what wins him headlines. I wish he would stop and do what he does best – Chicken Soup for the Atheist Soul – but I don’t begrudge him the money he makes from the anti-fire and brimstone stuff. He’s rather good on evolution too, I hear.

    I wish I had a blog of my own to get fhis stuff off my chest. Oh wait. I do.

  • 26 Eli // Oct 3, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Tagged: http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com/2011/09/journey-was-wrong-stop-believing.html

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