Atheists Love Stories, Too


Some religious folks seem to think that atheists are worse than Vulcans. When we become atheists, we’re supposed to end up with nothing but cold logic, nihilism, and the complete inability to understand or appreciate stories.

There’s Paul Wallace, who sez “atheists may be ill at ease with stories.” And then there’s John Gray, who babbles some nonsense about how science’s silly story is that it “can enable us to live without myths.” What these two authors seem to have in common is some idea that those who don’t believe that the Christian myth is the Really Real Truth must not understand stories, because if we did, we’d believe in Jesus. Or something. Their thinking is so muddled I hesitate to call it thought, and their conclusions so laughable I’m not sure I can finish this post before I rupture something vital. But I shall try.


There’s something right here that rather destroys the argument that atheists don’t understand stories. In fact, it suggests we understand them better than some Christians. There’s this poem, “Cheating at Cards With Jesus.” It’s a beautifully religious poem. It can be read in a variety of ways, like all good poetry. You could see it as Jesus gathering the lost, sacrificing himself for you, turning a losing situation into a winning one. It rather put me in mind of a play one of my Christian friends told me about back when we worked at a bookstore together, which had a defense lawyer telling the court his client pleads guilty, and just as the courtroom erupts and the client panics, tells the court he himself will serve the sentence. Nice metaphor for Jesus paying the price for our sins so we could get on with the living bidness. And you’d think that people who bleat about all the wonderful stories in the Bible, prodigal sons and all that, could accept that Jesus is a card cheat who throws the game in our favor. It’s a metaphor. Or maybe a parable.

Atheists got it in one go. Yes, some of us probably groaned, but we got it. Some Christians in the audience, however, missed it completely. Kelly Barnhill, the Catholic Sunday School teacher, got condemned to hell and called an atheist by quite a few good Christians who can’t see a good Jesus story when it socks them in the eyeballs. Perhaps it was because Jesus drank whiskey. Or was it the belching? I’m not sure. I only know it’s pathetic that a group of people who preach about all the awesome stuff Jesus did to save us and how you can only be a truly moral and good person if you believe in him are so quick to wish eternal torment on someone and lump her in with us icky damned unbelievers simply because she portrayed Jesus as something other than a squeaky-clean white dude who never drinks, burps, or cheats at cards.

Look. When you become an atheist, you don’t go in to a sterile room where you hand over your love of a good story. You’re not forbidden to enjoy myths. You get to read, comprehend, and adore fiction. You can even keep writing it. Yes, even if it’s based on myth. Yes, even if it includes a scientifically impossible world lousy with gods.

I’m a Gnu Atheist, my darlings, which means I’m one of those hardcore majorly-atheistic atheists, and I still love stories. I bloody well adore mythology. If you’re a believer who can’t wrap your mind around that, think of the Greek and Roman myths you’ve adored, and tell me that someone who doesn’t believe in that stuff can’t appreciate it. Go on, go ahead. I’m listening.

Hmm. Crickets are out in force tonight. Lovely.

I’ll admit, I had a moment of panic when I first admitted I was an atheist, and not just an atheist, but one of those who can’t even be a faitheist. How could I possibly write fiction based heavily on myth, enjoy fantasy, or get deeply in to a teevee show when I knew this stuff was totally not true? This moment of crises lasted about ten minutes, just as long as it took for me to recall that many of my favorite fantasy authors are atheists, and that the crowds of Gnu Atheists I hung about with loved them their SF books and shows. Didn’t bother them a bit it wasn’t 100% factual. So why should it bother me? Shouldn’t. Moving on, then.

Funny thing happened, too. I could appreciate a well-turned story far better. It’s hard to explain. Someday, I’ll follow this post up with something about that, but it’s got a lot to do with not elevating one myth to the status of factual truth and then trying to avoid thinking that if all this other stuff is myth…. That’s part of it. Also, I could admit the Bible’s a bad story. It’s not even a story - it’s a mishmash of stuff, written by a lot of very strange people and collected by lots of other strange people long after the authors were dead, that only forms a coherent narrative if you skip big chunks, squint really hard, and avoid thinking too deeply about the main premise. There’s some decent poetry in there, some pithy quotes, some neat themes and some good stories, hidden in the dreck. Some of it’s even worth mining for inspiration. But it’s no damned different from Greek, Roman, Norse, and sundry other mythologies, except for the fact far too many people take it for literal truth.

And that’s the thing: atheists can easily enjoy stories. We’re all about good narrative structure. We love a well-told tale. The thing is, we recognize fiction as fiction, myth as myth, and we don’t need either one of them to be factually true. Myth is fiction. That doesn’t mean it contains nothing of value: it can illustrate true things about being human, just like any good work of fiction. We don’t read these things like textbooks.

And we love us some narrative non-fiction. We adore those true stories, the ones based on facts and evidence and reason. We appreciate data woven into a tale. Look at the outstanding success of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for an example. That was an amazing true story, non-fictional narrative at its finest. Look at Carl Sagan’s books, which often waxed poetic. Here’s another gorgeous story, written by Marcia Bartusiak, which tells you right up front it’s a story: Through a Universe Darkly: A Cosmic Tale of Ancient Ethers, Dark Matter, and the Fate of the Universe. That’s one of the most gorgeous science stories I’ve ever read. And The Mountains of St. Francis remains one of the best geologic stories ever told. These books are far from dry recitals of facts. We wouldn’t want them to be. We atheists, we are human: we love a good tale.

But we science-loving atheists can see stories others can’t, too: in data, in mathematics, in genomes. We don’t need a god story to make sense of those stories. And they are epic.

Trying to crowbar a god or two into the stories nature tells seems ridiculous, like adding something to the plot just because it’s currently popular. It would be like adding a vampire romance to Macbeth: clunky, contrived, and utterly useless to the story, taking away far more than it gives. Science doesn’t need gods. Discworld, on the other hand, would be impoverished without them. But that’s the difference between fiction and reality.

No, we atheists understand and appreciate stories just fine. I think the problem for these believers who claim we don’t is that we don’t accept their myth as a true story. And they can’t accept their tall tale as fiction, so rather than confronting the fact that what they believe is fictional, they tell themselves that we just don’t get it.

Whatevs. I can’t be bothered with them anymore. I have some Doctor Who to obsess over, stories to read, and fiction to write.

Comments

  1. Jazzpirate says

    Nicely put :-)
    I think I’ve heard variations of this accusation far too often. Mostly by people who seem confused about the difference between truth and fiction. If you ask them about their belief, they’ll tell you it’s truth. If you criticize it, it’ll be fiction. It’s always just as much fiction, that none of your arguments are valid and just as much truth, that it seems worthy to build your whole life around it…

  2. speedwell says

    I would love to print out excerpts from your article and take them to my Tarot reading club. I’m considered by far one of the better readers, equivalent to the professional “psychics” in the group, but I am an atheist. The “psychics” openly resent that I clearly state that I am not psychic and the cards are not magic. But what I do works, and it works because of the shared power of myth and story, and because I am a good listener and a good guesser. It works because enabling and encouraging people to tell their stories, draw correspondences, and make guesses in a safe way works.

  3. badandfierce says

    Atheists don’t like stories? What are all these atheists doing in my stories, then? I better tell them to get out.

    Nah, this claim always cracks me up. I hate all narrative, obviously. That’s why I have a spec-fic review blog and devour the sci-fi/fantasy section of the library and write my own. I actually have a great affection for writing atheists and skeptics in speci-fic stories, just so as to tear down the straw vulcan story where everyone who doesn’t just love the squishy feeling of believing stuff without evidence learns their lesson in the end. It’s an ending our culture insists on. Reminds me a bit of how you were allowed to write gay fiction once upon a time, as long as the characters came to tragic ends. I’ve got a creepy story about a ghost inhabiting a church who feeds on belief whose atheist victim escapes by breaking her that I’ve got to revisit. That one’s being pesky, but I’ll make it behave. And there’s a team that investigates the supernatural made up of about half hardcore skeptics. Since they live in a world where magic only gets into our universe when certain doors are opened, the tools of skeptical inquiry let them pick apart actual incursions of fey and mysterious elements from fraudulent astrologers. They couldn’t get by without it!

    Gnu atheists for speculative fiction! I think I’ve got a book club here…

  4. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    There are a whole series of myths about atheists that certain goddists like to trot out:

    ● Atheists do believe in god, they’re just angry at him.

    ● Atheists are nihilists.

    ● Atheists have no basis for morality. This is often combined with “if I didn’t believe in god then I’d be a serial murderer.”

    ● Atheists want to remove religion from society and make everyone become atheists.

    ● Etc. Dave Silver’s article Top Ten Atheist Myths is a good read on the subject.

    Many goddists aren’t arguing with actual atheists like you and me. They argue with the atheist who lives in their head. They have their preconceived prejudices about atheists, many of those reinforced by their religious masters. Mere facts and logic do nothing to dispel the fables these goddists have about atheists.

  5. jacobfromlost says

    Great article. I was looking for something exactly like this!

    Another point that I would make is that THEISTS don’t believe everything in all fiction is literally real either…do they?

    All writing in some sense is metaphorical, as even when we are accurately describing something that happened, the DESCRIPTION is not the reality–it just matches it in useful ways that help us communicate.

    I have a degree in English Lit. and this question about stories, myth, language, and theism (or other supernatural beliefs) has always fascinated me.

    Some people think language is a REALITY–that words are magically woven into reality (or that meaning is magically woven into words). That’s why you get sayings like “it is written”, as well as the term “scripture”, because once upon a time most people were illiterate, writing/reading seemed like magic, and if something was “written” then it must magically/mystically reflect reality. (And when stories told from those words contained magical elements…it made perfect sense since words ARE magic!)

    It’s the same kind of thinking that says if you can have a concept of something in your mind, then it must be real “because you have a word for it” or because “how can you think about something that doesn’t exist?”. It only takes the smallest of intellectual efforts to push these misconceptions over, but if you’ve spent your entire life believing that your thoughts are real, that words are woven into reality itself (as if English always was and always will be! lol) then it becomes VERY easy to see certain myths and stories as literally real because they are based on “real magic words”. (How many times have I been told “in the beginning was the word”!)

    Also, as an atheist and a reader, I don’t see fiction simply as “fun stories that aren’t true”. Stories don’t need to be literally true to have truth in them, and they can still help us understand life better without being literally true or risking our lives in the process. (And the stories I find to be the MOST fun–and useful–are the ones that illustrate some aspect of life in a brutally honest, truthful way.)

    But this, I think, is where believers make their mistake. One can recognize that it is generally a good thing to sacrifice yourself to save others WITHOUT EVER BELIEVING JESUS WAS A MAN/GOD WHO LITERALLY SACRIFICED HIMSELF FOR ALL OF HUMANITY (or even believing that Jesus was historically real). Suspending their disbelief has become confused with BELIEF due to a true principle (self-sacrifice to preserve the lives of others is noble) being confused with a story that illustrates that principle in mythical, fantastic, hyperbolic ways. The magic of meaning being woven in to words themselves has suddenly become the magic that a particular myth and all its powerful archetypes must indicate something objectively real, even in the very details of the story itself.

    The archetypes in myth are powerful to us because they are the basic elements of human life, and we ARE humans! The archetypes are not some kind of supernatural mysticism–they are just very meaningful to us because they not only make up the basic elements of anyone’s life, but because understanding those elements can help us be successful. It’s one way humans have of “playing” that prepares us for life. But if we get so confused that we think the playing is literally real, we may be undermining our own success in many cases.

  6. Lauren Ipsum says

    …what’s wrong with Vulcans? :( They have stories too, you know. Falor’s Journey?

    “It is a tale of enlightenment consisting of 348 verses. …Falor was a prosperous merchant who went on a journey to gain greater awareness.

    ‘Through storms he crossed the Voroth Sea
    To reach the clouded shores of Raal
    Where old T’Para offered truth.
    He travelled through the windswept hills
    And crossed the barren Fire Plains
    To find the silent monks of Kir.
    Still unfulfilled, he journeyed home
    Told stories of the lessons learned
    And gained true wisdom by the giving.’ ”

    — Tuvok, VOY, “Innocence”

  7. says

    I loved this. One thing I wonder, though, is that, given our appreciation of metaphor, myth, and fable, why are there so few good explorations of Humanist philosophy within literature? I often feel like Humanism suffers from a great symbolic poverty in comparison to religions, because of its lack of stories, images, music, buildings etc. dedicated to promoting the worldview.

    • jacobfromlost says

      “I loved this. One thing I wonder, though, is that, given our appreciation of metaphor, myth, and fable, why are there so few good explorations of Humanist philosophy within literature?”

      This gets complicated. The easy answer is that I think there ARE many examples. The problem is that when humanists (or rationalists, or atheists) write stories, they use metaphors, invent mythical story elements, even make up entire cosmologies (or borrow religious or nonreligious cosmologies), since that is what storytelling IS. Those elements can get confused with advocating a supernatural worldview outside the story, but there is no need to read ANYTHING that way (as if a story can be evidence of the supernatural outside the story), even if that is what the author intended. You can recognize that is what the author ostensibly intended, but still not accept it as a reality outside the text(reminds me of a guy who once told me he read C.S. Lewis as a kid and loved it, but as an adult he found out it was a Christian allegory and felt betrayed; my question would be…why? He never read it as a Christian allegory, and it isn’t necessary to do so to enjoy the story, nor is it necessary to accept Christianity to read it as a Christian allegory!)

      I think it is more important how one READS texts and understands reality. I feel no need to take any myth as literally true in its details in order to learn from it. (This is why Aristotle thought literature was more important than history…because literature deals with–or at least TRIES to deal with–universal themes that are always true, while history deals in particulars that are ultimately not as important as the universals.)

      Moreover, it is really impossible to tell what an author’s views are from a text that they’ve written, since the written word can be artistically shaped for the needs of the piece, the audience, or what-have-you. (Not to mention that fact that authors are people who can change their minds, or play mind games with the audience, or be raving lunatics.)

      In short, I see all literature, art, music, etc, as “humanist” since humans made it–even the supernatural ideas, the god ideas, and everything else were created by human creators, and those creations are symbols of other things. There is rarely (ever?) a supernatural symbol that can’t be seen as a symbol for some REAL human experience–fear, adversity, an enemy, guilt, sacrifice, the unknown, the human propensity to make myth, etc. Literature is just our effort to understand our lives–just like trying to work out a math problem, but much much harder because there is a long list of problems, and most of them have many more than one solution.

      Some religious folks say that supernatural story elements are symbolic of supernatural realities. I’d rather just say they are symbolic of human imagination, human psychology, and human experience– I don’t need to believe The Force is symbolic of god or spirituality. The story works just fine seeing it as symbolic of human experience itself, of our interaction and collaboration…and of how we can be more than the sum of our parts if we learn out to work together and help each other. (And even if I do see it as symbolic of “god”, I don’t see it as symbolic of a real god as I don’t believe in a real god. I see it as symbolic of another symbol–a variation on a theme.)

      In short, for me, I don’t see any literature as CAPABLE of effectively advocating a supernatural worldview since literature is not evidence–it’s art, meaning artificial, meaning created by humans. Now, if there is something in the literature that is literally TRUE, then it can be demonstrated such in reality. You don’t NEED the literature for that.

      Just my two cents.

  8. Mattir says

    Not only do some atheists love stories, but some atheists (those in the Mattir Family, for example) love stories from the bible! And from Gilgamesh and Beowulf and Homer and…

    Seriously, I love the stories MORE now that I’m an out atheist – figuring out the world view of the storymakers and which parts are wise and interesting and which parts are abhorrent is a wonderful exercise. It keeps me humble to think about how cruel and foreign some aspects of the storymakers’ ethics are to me and then wonder what aspects of my own ethical framework will be seen as cruel and foreign by later humans. (Assuming that future humans are guided by science and humanism, I guess.)

    I’m tired of all the various permutations of the “atheists are cold” meme.

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