I get so tired of Christians sanctimoniously declaring what atheists really believe, and going on to tell us how we get it all wrong. They always seem to hector us over stuff we don’t believe and tell us that if we only stopped doing things we don’t do we’d see the value of Jeeesus. And we roll our eyes, and tally up another data point that says that religion turns you into a moron.
The latest exercise in firing 180° away from the target comes from Paul Wallace, who sends an open letter to atheists about believing in Johnny Cash. He really, really likes Johnny Cash, as he explains to us at length; I like Cash too, and I’ve got a few of his songs coming up frequently on my iPod list. His point is that Cash’s songs tell stories, and those stories shed light on the human condition, and that somehow this is something only a Christian can understand while atheists are blind to it.
The only thing I’m blind to, though, is the logic of the case he’s trying to build. It seems to go something like this:
Johnny Cash was a storyteller whose stories had truth in them.
Jesus was a storyteller whose stories had truth in them.
Therefore, Jesus was __________.
I don’t know, fill in the blank. A country western singer? Drug-addicted and angry? He’s supposedly explaining this to atheists, so I think he’d like to convince us that Jesus was the magical son of a sky-god, but nothing in his explanation lends itself to anything religious. Unless, maybe, he’s trying to persuade us to worship Johnny Cash as he does.
But no. His actual point is even dumber and more clueless than that: he thinks “atheists may be ill at ease with stories.”. He thinks we “cannot accept that stories may have something to do with what’s really real”. He gets specific and declares that I don’t believe that stories have any power or anything to do with the truth, and further, that when I use a narrative to explain something, that I deny that I’m using the structure of a story to get a message across, or that truth and story can complement each other. It’s bugshit inane crazy talk, but I guess he’s convinced himself this nonsense is all true.
What I propose is that no one lives, or can live, or has ever lived, within the circle of empirical science. I propose that no matter who we are or what our beliefs might be, we have always had to deal with the question of interpretation. And that question is not whether to interpret, but how. No one fails to interpret. Interpreting is what human beings do.
Put another way, we cannot avoid believing in stories. We can only hope to choose the best ones. How to do this? I propose that good stories are stories that tell the truth, and bad ones are ones that do not.
I fear that I may have lost some of you just now. In particular, most atheists I know would be quite critical of the idea that stories are related in any meaningful way to the bedrock truth about the world. So in the interest of keeping everyone on the bus, let’s back up and assume that the stories we tell are unrelated to anything that could pass as true.
Some atheists take this assumption—that stories are not meaningfully related to the truth—and run with it. But when they do they immediately leave behind the circle of empirical science by making up stories of their own. Here’s a dazzling example, blogger PZ Myers on the metaphor of God the Father:
Christians and Muslims and Jews have been told from their earliest years that God is their father, with all the attendant associations of that argument, and what are we atheists doing? Telling them that no, he is not, and not only that, you don’t even have a heavenly father at all, the imaginary guy you are worshiping is actually a hateful monster and an example of a bad and tyrannical father, and you aren’t even a very special child—you’re a mediocre product of a wasteful and entirely impersonal process.
We’ve done the paternity tests, we’ve traced back the genealogy, we’re doing all kinds of in-depth testing of the human species. We are apes and the descendants of apes, who were the descendants of rat-like primates, who were children of reptiles, who were the spawn of amphibians, who were the terrestrial progeny of fish, who came from worms, who were assembled from single-celled microorganisms, who were the products of chemistry. Your daddy was a film of chemical slime on a Hadean rock, and he didn’t care about you—he was only obeying the laws of thermodynamics.
Now, this is a story just as surely as any other. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t for a moment doubt the basics of evolution and thermodynamics. But Myers was not forced by the facts of nature into these beliefs he so forcefully espouses. Instead, he has done exactly what storytellers do: He has told us a story. That is to say, he has added his own stuff.
The problem is that not that Myers is telling us all a story, but that he insists he is not. “Reality,” he writes, “is harsh.” His story is the story you absolutely must believe if you absolutely insist on not believing in stories.
Back way up, guy. You’re going to have a hard time finding any atheist, let alone me, who denies the human appeal and the educational potential of a good strong story — a narrative description of events. I use stories all the time to get a message across — in fact, right now I’m telling the story of an oblivious nincompoop smugly making up lies about atheists in order to reassure himself that his cockamamie Jebus myth is just as useful as science. I actually think it’s a potent and useful narrative for getting across the message that believers in religion are delusional fools, a deep truth about the human condition. Look, everyone, I’m just like Johnny Cash! And Jesus!
I don’t deny that I told a story. What I did, though, was tell a true story, the very criterion Wallace declares to be the hallmark of the best stories.
My story emphasized the actual facts of common descent, and also the harsh nature of evolutionary processes. It tried to get across the differences between a science-based story, like evolution, and a myth-based story built on wishful thinking, like the religion story. It makes a case that the religion story is not the best one, because it has little relationship to reality, which, by his own words leads me to suggest that maybe he ought not to choose to believe in Christian lies.
Bizarrely, Wallace then chooses to abandon the creation myth of his religion, the “story” his Bible tells about a world designed by a benign god who shepherded each stage of his creation personally into existence. My story he claims contains lots of ‘added stuff’; he doesn’t specify what, nor does he provide an alternative that illuminates our existence better. What exactly does the metaphor of God the father tell us about reality?
Instead, he retreats to the story of the prodigal son, something with no supernatural elements that could be retold as a country western song. Nice story. Interesting message. Says something about the relationship between fathers and sons. So?
If Wallace thinks atheists somehow reject the notion of using stories to illuminate the truth, he’s flailing desperately at a straw man. We’re fine with stories about fathers and sons — those are real. We can even find a good metaphor useful and entertaining. What we find silly are stories about supernatural beings carrying out unnatural acts that clearly never occurred, and that really don’t tell us anything honest about humanity and the universe. You know, the bad stories that don’t tell the truth.