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.