Disbelieving in Gods but Believing in Stories: a response to Paul Wallace’s open letter to atheists

There is an essay titled Believing in Johnny Cash: An Open Letter to Atheists by Paul Wallace at Religion Dispatches.  In the essay, Wallace writes about Johnny Cash as a way to demonstrate that stories can contain truths that are relevant to life.  He writes in the beginning of his essay that he has “long suspected that some atheists may be ill at ease with stories” and later explains further,

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.  Interpretation 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 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.[1]

Over at Pharyngula, PZ Myers posted a blog entry titled Wait, what?  Atheists don’t understand stories? in response to Wallace’s essay.[2]

I wrote the following as a comment on Myer’s blog entry.

Comment #105 (13 September 2011 at 7:56 pm)

I absolutely love stories and think they can have great meaning.  In fact, one of my many issues with religion is that, instead of treating holy books as works of literature, people treat them as though all or some of their contents actually literally happened, even if they didn’t happen.  Even people who take some parts metaphorically (such as Genesis) still believe literally in other parts (such as Jesus being the Son of God).  And even those who take many more parts metaphorically still pretend the characters are paragons of virtue despite their bad actions, because (unlike with other books) believing in an interpretation in which a character is actually bad isn’t considered okay, especially if that character is favored by God.

Greta Christina’s “When Anyone is Watching: Metaphors and the Slipperiness of Religion” and Jen McCreight’s “Skepticism & Fiction” are relevant reading here.[3]

I believe wholeheartedly that stories can convey truth and meaning, both nonfictional information and figurative lessons.  I have written entries about lessons in literature, which I hope show my love of stories and my belief that they convey ideas that are relevant to life.[4]

Are there people, both religious and non-religious, who are overly dismissive or critical of fiction or of certain types of fiction?  Yes, there are.  Most people are probably familiar with religious groups which don’t approve of certain fictional stories if there are elements in the stories which criticize, question, or even just don’t sufficiently support their religious worldview.  (The disapproval of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy comes to mind, as do various condemnations of books with LGBTQIA characters.)  Jen McCreight’s entry Skepticism & Fiction contains criticism of skeptics who don’t like fiction.  A reader of McCreight’s blog asked her, “How can you be ok with all the shiny-afterlife-awaits-you and stuff in Harry Potter?”  McCreight explains that she understands that it’s fiction and that “it’s a pet peeve of [hers] when skeptics are so skeptical that they can’t even enjoy fiction”.  She also criticizes Richard Dawkins for saying that reading fantasy novels contributes to irrational thinking, and she points out that reading fantasy novels enforced her skepticism, making it easier for her to recognize religious stories as fiction.[5]  I very much agree with McCreight’s points, and I’ve also had the experience of realizing that religious stories are fictional due to my reading of fantasy and science fiction novels.  So, while there are people who are too suspicious of works of fiction which don’t fit with their worldview, who miss an opportunity to find meaning in certain stories, I don’t see a reason to believe that atheists are somehow more likely to do this (to be more “ill at ease with stories”) compared to religious believers.  (It’s also worth pointing out that even people who may not see the purpose or meaning in certain stories or genres that they don’t like are still capable of finding meaning in other stories that they enjoy.  Dawkins has written about the value of learning about the Bible in order to understand literature, and religious people who don’t like particular stories still enjoy other stories that they feel don’t conflict with their religious beliefs.)

Additionally, and importantly, there is a significant difference between not appreciating stories and disagreeing with the way that religious texts are interpreted by religious believers.  A person can disagree with the way a religious story is being interpreted by religious believers without discarding the idea of finding truth or meaning in stories.  The literal interpretation of religious texts and the automatic assumption of the goodness of religious stories are two examples of interpretations that a person might reject while still believing that stories contain valuable insight into life.

On the first point (the literal interpretation of religious texts), Wallace accuses atheists of not believing that stories contain truth while he himself does not acknowledging that religious leaders very often teach that fictional stories are literal fact.  Some “truths” that are often proclaimed to be evident in religious texts are the literal existence of gods and other characters and the historical veracity of certain supernatural events.  These “truths” are not true.  Wallace’s evidence supporting his assertion about atheists mostly consists of criticism of a literal belief in God and creationism by one atheist (PZ Myers).  Wallace is vague about whether or not he actually thinks that the stories in the Bible actually happened, which raises questions due to the ubiquity of literal or partially-literal interpretations.  As Greta Christina pointed out in When Anyone is Watching: Metaphors and the Slipperiness of Religion, some religious people are vague about whether their religious beliefs are metaphorical or literal.  She points out that people sometimes claim their religious beliefs are a metaphor when speaking with someone who is not a member of the religion but say that they really believe in the supernatural elements of their religion when speaking with coreligionists.[6]  Considering that we live in a world in which many people believe that religious stories are literally true, it’s understandable that conversations about the “truth” of religious stories will focus on factual truth.  Since one of the main arguments against religion is the lack of evidence for its factual claims (and since not believing in the existence of gods is the main disagreement between theists and atheists), atheists’ statements about the truth in religious stories often address the lack of evidence for the existence of God, and these statements should not be taken as a denial of the importance of fictional stories when they are read as fictional stories.

On the second point (the assumption of the goodness of religious stories), it is important to consider is that there is a difference between not finding any meaning or truth in stories and believing that a particular story has an immoral message.  Wallace accuses atheists of dismissing the truth that can be found in religious stories while not acknowledging that there are atheists who believe that stories can contain important lessons but disagree with the messages in some religious texts.  A person who believes that the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac (in Judaism and Christianity) or Ishamel (in Islam) is a horrendous example of unquestioningly following an oppressive God is not denying the ability of stories to convey meaning, but is rather pointing out that the message being conveyed is wrong.  Wallace emphasizes that good lessons that can be found in the Bible (in particular, the parable of the Prodigal Son), but another person may interpret the same passage in a different way or point out that there are many other passages in the Bible which contradict the good messages found in a few passages.  A person may think that a particular story has a horrible message and think that another story has a better one.  (In fact, PZ Myers’ Sunday Sacrilege:  So alone, the entry that Wallace quoted from, includes criticism of the message taken from religious stories as well as an interpretation of the true story of our origins that gives us meaning and hope for a better future.[7])  Stating that a story has an immoral message, while another story has a better one, is actually an acknowledgement of the fact that a story can convey a truthful message that is relevant to life.  Believing that a particular story, even a religious story, has an immoral message should not be taken as an unwillingness or inability to find meaning in stories in general.

Lastly, I want to put forth what I find the most glaring inconsistency with reality that is demonstrated by Wallace’s essay.  He ignores the following fact:  In the real world, there are atheists who write fiction.  Fiction writing is not the exclusive domain of religious people, and ignoring the existence of atheist authors who pen moving and meaningful fiction (as well as those who make frequent allusion to fiction in their nonfictional works) while writing a questionable essay accusing atheists of being “ill at ease” with stories is an exercise in absurdity.



Thanks to PZ Myers, because I found Paul Wallace’s essay at Pharyngula, and to Paul Wallace for writing the essay in the first place.  Thanks to Greta Christina and Jen McCreight for their writing on the topic.


Update (6 October 2011)

Paul Wallace wrote a blog entry called Lying on a bed of nails:  more on Johnny Cash, the prodigal son, and the truth of stories (PSNT, 19 September 2011) in response to the many reactions to the original piece. (URL:  http://psnt.net/blog/2011/09/more-on-stories/)


[1] Wallace, Paul.  Johnny Cash: An Open Letter to Atheists.  Posted on 11 September 2011 at the (A)theologies section of Religion Dispatches.  Retrieved on 13 September 2011 from http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/4796/believing_in_johnny_cash:_an_open_letter_to_atheists.

[2] Myers, PZ.  Wait, what?  Atheists don’t understand stories?  Posted on 13 September 2011 at Pharyngula.  Retrievedon 20 September 2011 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/09/13/wait-what-atheists-dont-understand-stories/.

[3] Sharmin, Ani.  Comment #105, posted on 13 September 2011 at 7:56 pm.  Retrieved on 13 September 2011 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/09/13/wait-what-atheists-dont-understand-stories/comment-page-1/#comment-53326.

[4] The link leads to my blog entries that are filed under the Lessons in Literature category, which can be found at https://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/category/lessons-in-literature/.

[5] McCreight, Jen.  Skepticism & Fiction.  Posted on 23 July 2011 at Blag Hag.  Retrieved on 13 September 2011 from http://www.blaghag.com/2011/07/skepticism-fiction.html.

The link has been changed to http://freethoughtblogs.com/blaghag/2011/07/skepticism-fiction/, because Jen McCreight’s blog Blag Hag is now at Freethought Blogs.

[6] Christina, Greta.  When Anyone is Watching: Metaphors and the Slipperiness of Religion.  Posted on 23 October 2009 at Greta Christina’s Blog.  Retrieved 20 September 2011 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2009/10/23/when-anyone-is-watching/.

[7] Myers, PZ.  Sunday Sacrilege:  So alone.  Posted on 27 June 2010 at Pharyngula.  Retrieved on 20 September 2011 from http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/06/sunday_sacrilege_so_alone.php.

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Drkshadow03
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 18:21:26

    Do you think most atheists believe the Bible contains insight on life?

  2. Ani Sharmin
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 20:43:23


    I obviously cannot speak for all, or even most, atheists. My own view (and one that I have heard expressed by at least some other atheists) is that religious texts, such as the Bible, contain a mixture of good and bad. I do not think that the Bible and other religious texts are as good as many religious believers think they are, as I don’t think these books live up to their reputation of being inspired by a perfect God. However, I am not one to throw away the good along with the bad and do find some parts of these texts that I agree with or find poetic. I tend to see religious texts as literature to be studied, rather than holy writ.

    Thanks very much for reading, and I’ll drop by to check out your blog!

  3. Drkshadow03
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 07:23:48

    I’m glad to be here.

    Define good, though. Are you saying the Bible contains a mixture of good and bad morals? Or that it contains a mixture of good and bad literature? Do you think there is a relationship between the two?

  4. Ani Sharmin
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 13:58:34


    (Sorry I took so long to reply!)

    Personally, I think the Bible contains a combination of good and bad literature and morals. I wouldn’t consider the Book of Leviticus good literature, but I’m quite partial to the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and certain portions of other books, such as Pslams and Proverbs.

    As for good morals and good literature, I don’t think they necessarily have to be related to one another, though I find it particularly moving if a book has both. You posted an entry about Dante’s Divine Comedy. Even though I disagree with the morals of the afterlife that’s described, I still consider it wonderful literature. Although, there is the potential for a reader to learn even from a book whose morals they disagree with (by realizing why they disagree, for example). Then, there are books that have bad morals intentionally, such as books about future dystopias, with the point of the book being that it’s supposed to be seen as immoral or wrong.

    This all my own impression, of course, based on what I’ve read on my own.

    I feel as though I’m just going on and on. What are your thoughts on the subject?

  5. Drkshadow03
    Sep 29, 2011 @ 08:47:24

    Dante is a great example to explore my thoughts on the subject. Since I’m a light theist Jew, what am I supposed to make of this Christian allegory about Catholicism?

    The art for art’s sake movement believed that a work of art has an intrinsic value without didactic or moral purpose. Art is primarily an aesthetic experience. Regardless, if I believe in a Christian worldview, I can still admire the visceral physicality of Dante’s hell, the beauty of his language, his grotesque imagery, the multi-layered symbolism, the overall structure of the three books and the parallels between them, and the audacity of his entire artistic vision.

    There is historical value. Reading Dante can tell me a lot about the politics of the time, the specific political parties, the church and its role in politics, and generally what life in medieval Italy was like (pretty treacherous place, even for the upper-class if the many dead nobles, church officials, and government officials in hell are any indication). Not to mention what the concerns would have been of an educated man (like Dante) during this time period. Even the way Reason and Rationality (those beloved words of many atheists) equated to genuinely believing in Christianity during his time period.

    There are didactic elements. Part of Dante’s point is the necessity to adopt a genuine repentance of one’s sins aligned with his medieval Christian worldview. His other major point is the church needs to get out of politics and back to saving people’s souls, less concerned with money and worldly affairs, and back to focusing solely on spiritual affairs. Well, the first doesn’t do much other than add to the aesthetic quality of the work. But what about this second major point of his work? Certainly people, Christian, atheist, and otherwise, complain today that the Church needs to get out of politics.

    Then there is mimesis (the way art imitates reality). This is most obvious in the characters. We can relate and identify with the characters in hell, purgatory, and heaven without buying into the full-fledged Christian worldview. Often books don’t say do this and you’ll have a better life (didactic lesson), but rather they say this is what life is like and these are problems are part of being human (mimetic).

    Therefore, I’m not really sure books are supposed to be about morals or lessons exactly. I think books have meanings or issues they want to explore. It’s not about accepting or rejecting the themes, but listening to them, exploring them, experiencing them. Literature is an aesthetic, intellectual, historical, didactic, and mimetic experience simultaneously.

  6. Ani Sharmin
    Sep 30, 2011 @ 01:32:11


    Your explanation is wonderful to read. I definitely agree with some of your points.

    When reading Dante’s Inferno, the explanations of historical figures in the footnotes were really helpful (especially for someone like me, who is coming to the topics of history and literature as a layman) in better understanding and appreciating the text.

    Art imitating reality is something that I’ve always found fascinating, especially the way that a story — even one that is or seems drastically different from my life — can still make me think about our own world.

    In the main entry itself, I focused on the factual claims and the moral claims mostly because those are the two things about the Bible that atheists and theists often argue about. Also, I personally find literature to be a good way to think about morality (kind of related, in my mind, to having “meanings or issues they want to explore” as you wrote.)

  7. Paul Wallace
    Oct 04, 2011 @ 13:26:16

    Thanks for addressing my essay, Ani. I have received a lot of feedback about that particular piece. Please look here for a little more: http://psnt.net/blog/2011/09/more-on-stories/. It may or may not clarify things, but it’s what I have.

    Thanks again,

    Paul Wallace

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