Can Atheists Enjoy Fiction?

Economist Robin Hanson poses an odd challenge to atheists:

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

Well, I’m certainly opposed to reading fiction and pretending that the stories are true. And I’m double-mega opposed to organizing my life around stories that I wrongly believe to be true. Beyond that, though, I don’t see the connection between loving truth and not reading fiction. A love for truth just means that you think it is important to distinguish truth from falsity, not that you must never engage in a bit of fantasy.

Come to think of it, I wouldn’t say my hostility toward religion, and my support for atheism, is the result of some abstract love for truth. After all, “the truth” tends to be elusive, especially when we are talking about ultimate, metaphysical questions. I’m fine saying things like, “There is no good evidence in favor of belief in God,” or “The claims of traditional Christian theism are incredibly hard to believe given what science has taught us about the world,” but I still hesitate before saying, “Atheism is the truth!”

It would be more accurate to say that my hostility towards religion is the result of my hatred towards bad reasons for believing things. Religion relies far too much on authority, revelation and dubious claims of direct mystical perception for my taste. Even that, though, doesn’t quite capture everything. I’m not the “reasons for beliefs” police, and I have no objection to people believing unreasonable things in the privacy of their own home.

With religion, it’s really the combination of the unreasonableness of the beliefs and the tendency of those beliefs not to remain private that provokes my hostility. I won’t go as far as Christopher Hitchens and say that religion poisons everything, but I would certainly agree that it poisons an awful lot of things.

At any rate, “becoming religious” just doesn’t seem to be an option for a lot of us. Pascal argued that if someone regularly goes through the motions of being religious they will eventually come to believe, but at least for me that does not seem to be the case. As a kid I attended Sunday school, had a bar mitzvah, and celebrated Jewish holidays, but mostly I couldn’t wait for it to be over (even though, looking back on it, I’m glad I had the experience.) Even as a kid the stories I was learning from the Torah struck me as pretty silly. When I later moved to Kansas I tried again, joining the synagogue and becoming a regular attendee at services. It didn’t take.

So the whole discussion is moot. I like reading stories, but I don’t like religion. It’s as simple as that.


  1. #1 Eric Lund
    May 14, 2012

    Fiction, like other forms of art, can give a window into truth. Religion, by contrast, is specifically designed to point you to what the priests consider to be Truth. Note the capitalization: religious Truth and real-world truth are not the same thing.

    Hanson’s proposed explanation isn’t necessarily wrong, but it is equally (if not more) applicable in the other direction. There are many places in the US (and the world, for that matter) where going along with the dominant religion confers high status, but seeking the truth rather than the Truth confers low status. An economist making statements about religion and status really should be aware of this.

    (In case it’s not clear: I don’t like religion either.)

  2. #2 Mary
    May 14, 2012

    Actually, I don’t like fiction and don’t read much. Because I think real life is freakin’ fascinating. Science and history are full of terrific and interesting characters and scenarios.

    And stories can backfire. Ask Mike Daisey how that goes.

  3. #3 eric
    May 14, 2012

    I don’t care if its a window to truth or not, escapism can be fun – be it a game, or story, or movie, or song, or whatever.

    I think I would put the burden of proof on Hanson here: why wouldn’t atheists be able to enjoy these things? He seems to think we have to justify having emotions; I would say, justify why you think we don’t. We’ve got the exact same biological and neurological wiring as anyone else. Stuff like mirror neurons? Check. So, why would you expect us not to?

    I also find his position incredibly ironic given the puritanical roots of US Christianity. Evidently, religion is needed to save us from the distractions of the flesh. Except that now we also need it to enjoy the, um, distractions of the flesh. Well, which is it?

    Or is it both? Heads the preacher wins, tails I lose?

  4. #4 JimR
    May 14, 2012

    I knew some people who believed in the Force of Star Wars in the 80’s. I enjoyed the movies of that era, and thought the Force was a decent fictional concept. Also the believers were not adamant about others believing. I offer this as a recent transfer from fiction to religion. The other religions arose pretty mush the same way. Maybe there will be a strong Force group in 100 years.
    Most sects don’t make it to a second generation of leaders. A few have survived from the 19th century and a couple from the 20th century are still functioning.
    I predict the Internet will destroy some sects when the secrets are revealed; yet others will form through social network sites. Start a competing social network site based on some fictional construct; close membership after some level is reached and limit new members to those vouchsafed by current members. Then start a fee structure and delete members that are unpaid. Promote the necessity for secrecy among remaining members, while maintaining an acceptable public face to recruit new members.
    I realize this is not a new idea, but it can be much more easily implemented through social networks.

  5. #5 Phil
    May 14, 2012

    Tolkien held to a philosophy of myth that basically said there was one myth that keeps getting retold, imperfectly, about one dude who sacrifices himself to save the world (coughFrodocough), but there was One True Myth from which all the imperfect myths sprang.

    One myth to guide them all, and in the darkness bind them!

  6. #6 Steven Carr
    May 14, 2012

    I think what Mr. Hanson is trying to say is that we can all make up stories about his sex life, write fiction about how he plagiarises other people, and there will be nothing wrong with that.

    We all like a bit of fiction, don’t we?

    So let’s have a ‘tell fiction about Mr. Hanson’ competition.

  7. #7 Kel
    May 14, 2012

    Nothing wrong with fiction, or having a good imagination. Fiction can help us see things in a different light, or take a different perspective to issues that we would not otherwise be swayed by. How is that similar to religion, except if religion is taken non-literally? And if religion is taken non-literally, then isn’t that just affirming the atheist position?

  8. #8 CarlosT
    May 14, 2012

    Well, given enough time religion is seen for what it really is: fiction. Case in point: the Greek myths. At one point, they were religion. After some time, they became fiction. They make great reading, and the Aeneid (already fiction) is especially moving in the original Latin.

    As for his question, of course atheists can enjoy fiction. The problem with religions is that they make these ridiculous claims and ask you to believe that they’re actually true. Fiction can put forward all sorts of fantastic or absurd ideas and it can be all in good fun because there’s no requirement to believe that it’s real. Whether it works or not is down to the skill of the writer.

  9. #9 PJB/
    May 14, 2012

    Wow. The entire idea behind this false conundrum is a giant red herring. Comparing religion to fiction is tantamount to comparing a fatal car accident to picking peaches.

  10. #10 Badger3k
    May 14, 2012

    I love fiction of all kinds, it’s just that I have this ability to tell fiction from reality, and to not confuse the two. Both are good at different times and for different reasons, but I think I’ve been pretty good at not confusing the two. It’s the ones who can’t tell the difference that are the problem (like Scientologists and UFO “experiencers” to use two modern examples).

  11. #11 Lanny Buettner
    May 14, 2012

    Many atheists and religious believers, particularly fundamentalists, fail to understand the way religious literature attempts to communicate truth. These groups alternately argue that a myth is either a worthless fiction or a true telling of real events. Mythology functions more like good literature. The message of the story does not depend on whether or not the events depicted really happened or not.

    Love of fiction is another way of saying love of literature. We know stories like Treasure Island and Gulliver’s Travels are not literally true. But we would be fools to say that such stories have no value because they did not literally happen. Completely fictional tales can still convey deep truths, just not the kind of truth validated by science nor those allegedly validated by religious authority or divinely inspired writings.

    My father was a Protestant minister who did not believe everything in the Bible was true. Even though he believed Jesus did rise from the dead, I once asked him if some evidence surfaced that definitely showed Jesus did not, would he still be a Christian. After some thought he said yes, he would. He claimed to have been convinced of the truth of Jesus’ message by living his life by the principles Jesus espoused and observing the transformations in his own life and in the lives of those he influenced.

    I have often wondered why Christianity has spread to such places as Africa and Asia, mostly by peaceful proselytizing, not forced conversions. Why would people believe a message in which God ignored their ancestors and did nothing for them, yet heaped so much attention on the Jews? Wouldn’t they find such a notion insulting?

    I think the answer is that they are moved by the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The message that comes through the story is not the literal one but the one that speaks of a compassionate, forgiving God. Even if said God is not literally an agent in the world, the story of a loving God could still tell us something truthful about ourselves, particularly when the central character in the narrative was a man who was also God.

    As a final bit of evidence, I recommend reading “How Harry Cast his Spell,” by John Granger. He maintains, with much documentation, that the Harry Potter stories are laced with traditional Christian mythological symbols and narrative elements. He maintains the reason the stories resonate so profoundly for so many is this underlying mythology, which is uplifting in its view of humanity, without ever mentioning God or Jesus, heaven or hell.

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    May 14, 2012

    Hi Lanny. I see from your blog that you are based in Richmond, VA. Will I be meeting you at my talk on Wednesday?

  13. #13 JimV
    May 14, 2012

    Actually, there is a kind of fiction which I feel cheated by and don’t like: the kind that doesn’t make sense, even within its own premises. For example, “The Da Vinci Code”. It seems to work until the end, when you find out the secret was never in any danger of being lost, and there was no need for the murdered curator to risk letting the bad guys discover it by leaving clues for a scavenger hunt.

    Then there was the fantasy book, whose title I forget, in which the heroine rescues someone whose raft is about to disintegrate in a pond of acid by floating over him on lighter-than-air metal, and dropping some of the metal down to him.

    Christianity has the same feeling. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons? The unjust punishment of one redeems the many who deserve punishment? Under no modern judicial system would that be considered fair – probably because our morals have evolved a bit since the Bronze Age.

  14. #14 Pierce R. Butler
    May 14, 2012

    Lanny Buettner @ # 11: John Granger… maintains, with much documentation, that the Harry Potter stories are laced with traditional Christian mythological symbols and narrative elements.

    Joseph Campbell & Sir James George Frazer maintain, with very much documentation, that the Jesus Christ stories are laced with traditional quest/transformation mythological symbols and narrative elements.

    JK Rowling just happens to have a knack for rendering same in a way that resonates with a contemporary generation – much like “Mark” and his copycats, but with better distribution and royalty deals.

  15. #15 Cory Doctorow
    May 15, 2012

    There’s at least one commenter, who, every time I review a fantasy YA novel on Boing Boing, comes along and condemns us for promoting the teaching of nonsense to children, because, you know, giants and trolls and stuff don’t exist. He’s clearly a nut, but he’s like a caricature of stiff-necked skepticism.

  16. #16 Greg Cross
    May 15, 2012

    I agree with PJB. Hanson has created a false conflict between “stories” and “truth”. Some of the other commentators have also spoken to this point. I love reading science and science fiction and fantasy and find no paradox in that. Ursula Le Guin has addressed this question eloquently:
    “In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before.” To paraphrase another observation by Le Guin, good fiction writers reveal truths by telling lies.

  17. #17 AnswersInGenitals
    May 15, 2012

    Mr. Hanson certainly has this ass backwards. It is the Christians who insist that: “The truth shall set you free” (John 8:32 KJV). So, for Christians, the reading of fiction – Mr. Hanson’s ‘stories’ – is the road to enslavement. A Christian’s love of fiction is a strange fetish indeed.

  18. #18 Sean
    May 15, 2012

    An odd post you’ve found there. I can’t really connect with it at all:

    1) I don’t think his links are enough to unambiguously condemn stories. For example, if people who watch TV more are worse at gauging risk, so what? Maybe the stories in books or online are just better. Maybe it’s the nonfiction on TV thst’s the problem. Or class or intelligence or education mediate a connection. Besides which, fictional stories can teach as well as mislead.

    2) I deconverted in an environment where religion was high status and I thought everyone around me believed in God. This stopped me from calling myself an atheist, but not from becoming irreligious, and in fact uncomfortable with the whole mess. So I’m not impressed by this dime-store Freud explanation for atheists who like stories, not until there’s some science to back it up. Maybe we are less open if not in a supportive environment, on average, but that’s not really the sort of embarrassing truth that he wanted to point out.

    3) I do treat fictional stories and religious myths the same. I find some interesting and others dull, soome to have good morals, some bad, some troubling, and I believe none of them. So why is this being pointed out as an inconsistency? Obviously believing religion is not the same as liking a story; I want to believe things only if I have reason to think them true, which is not the same as saying that I never want an untruthful thought or hypothetical to ever cross my mind.

    4) If “truth” as a personal ideal was all that was at stake, atheism might not matter as much to me, politically. But what I’m interested in fighting is not mistaken belief, or even dishonesty, but moral negligence. I do not believe it is possible to come up with a workable system of morality or social responsibility, unless that system gives some weight to making sure that you have the facts of a matter straight before acting, if you know there are high stakes involved. Gambling away your ability to tell right from wrong is itself the wrong thing to do, even if it makes you slightly happier! And religion always seems to ask you to make that gamble sooner or later; it’s faith in the purest form. So in a sense my personal happiness is irrelevant so long as it is outweighed by my sense of responsibility to have a clear head about moral issues. Fiction does not generally ask for such a strong gamble; a story may affect me unpredictably, but it won’t command me to change my ideas about how medicine or sex or the mind work just to rationalize a stupid plot twist.

  19. #19 Sean
    May 15, 2012


    “The message of the story does not depend on whether or not the events depicted really happened or not.”

    That seems like a sort of half truth to me. I see it like this:

    -The meaning of any statement may be the same whether it is true or false. “The sky is blue.” would mean the same thing tomorrow even if the sky turned orange. Today it would be true and useful, tomorrow false and useless. But this is irrelevant to the question at hand, which is whether fiction can be useful.

    -A story that illustrates hypothetical situations can be equally good at that even if those situations were never real.

    -A story that provokes a purely emotional reaction can do so even if false.

    -However, whether a story is true or not *always* affects the *useful* message, unless the story’s content is so utterly trivial that you would not even lift one finger for the chance to find out if it were true.

    -Even if some useful message can be salvaged from a false story, usually knowing that a story is actually true adds useful meaning… which necessarily means that finding out a story is false subtracts meaning.

  20. #20 Lassi Hippeläinen
    May 15, 2012

    I’d rather ask if religious people can enjoy fiction. We can read fiction in recless abandon, because we have no obligation to believe in the story.

  21. #21 James Sweet
    May 15, 2012

    Hanson’s argument here is so ludicrous as to beggar belief, and as such it barely deserves a response. Does he really pretend not to know the difference between literally believing a falsehood and enjoying a work of fiction?!? That’s pretty brazen. In any case, a few brief points nevertheless, approaching this at a somewhat different angle from Jason:

    1) I don’t think any atheists are saying you can’t read the Bible or be aware of Bible stories. In fact, in the wake of the recent announcement that Tim Minchin would be playing Judas in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, a number of very outspoken atheists (myself included) confessed that they rather enjoyed the musical. Because, you know, we understand the difference between “fiction” and “falsehood”.

    2) We have no difficulty recognizing the bright line between “enjoying fiction” and “believing falsehood” in other contexts: Someone who watches Star Trek is entirely normal. Someone who frequents Star Trek conventions may be a little quirky, but still no big deal. Someone who spends so much time obsessing over minutiae and trying to reconcile various parts of the canon of Star Trek, while still recognizing at least from an abstract level that it’s all a fiction, well, that’s pretty eccentric and some of us might start to express a mild disapproval. Somebody who crosses the line and truly believes it’s all real… we’d be worried about that person. And nobody (except Hanson) has difficulty understanding this spectrum of healthy and unhealthy approaches to fiction.

    And let’s not even mention the hypothetical idea of a powerful political movement trying to pass discriminatory and damaging laws based on their interpretation of some scene in the sixtheenth episode of the third season of the original Star Trek series (they hold up signs reading “Tos 3:16”). It’s so absurd that nobody even imagines it could happen. See, because fiction and false ideologies are not the same thing. Apparently news to Hanson, not news to anyone else.

    3) The idea that believing a falsehood is a net benefit in every respect is a pretty strong claim, and as such requires some pretty strong evidence. It does seem that, at least for some people under certain conditions, church-going (not belief) has benefits. It’s long been theorized that these benefits are purely from the community aspects, and new research continues to support that hypothesis. But it’s not clear how robust this effect is, whether it works for everybody, etc. (I hated church even when I was a believer, so I really doubt it was working on me…) And of course then you have all of the obviously negative effects of religion against which to balance this.

    I am open to the possibility that, at some point in the future, when religion’s destructive political influence has been entirely annihilated, when the idea of social ostracism over questions of faith is simply absurd, when the only religions left are relatively innocuous stuff like UU and Quaker and such, that it could be demonstrated that this de-weaponized religion is a net benefit. I am agnostic (bah-dump!) to such an idea, as I feel there is clearly nowhere near enough evidence to make a call either way.

    In such a future, some people might choose to indulge in religious belief, just as some people indulge in the fantasy that their sports team is the best (the Buffalo Bills went 6-10 last year, but I’m think playoffs this year, baby*!). But that’s nothing like the world we are living in now, and Hanson is being dangerously irresponsible in implying that it is.

    * I’m actually not. As much as I would love to believe that is true — yes, I am for real a fan of Buffalo — the odds are overwhelmingly against. In many ways, this makes me not a “true” sports fan… I just cannot muster in myself the fanaticism to always believe my team is going to win, that the every call the refs make against them is bad, etc. I suspect that whatever it is about my personality that denies me that indulgence also makes religion a non-starter for me. This could be a whole side point in itself, but…

  22. #22 Comrade Carter
    May 15, 2012

    Yeah, put me in the no fiction camp started by Mary.

    There’s far too much to learn in this life to waste my time on fiction.

  23. #23 Birger Johansson
    May 15, 2012

    Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon can be seen as fanfic of the Bible, which is itself fanfic, often rewitten and censored, beginning with the editorial decision to purge other gods back in the seventh century BC. And the various religions have been plagiarising each other, stealing the best stories and incorporating them in their own narratives.

    -Frequently cults grow up around Bible fanfic but they rarely survive the founder. Scientology is unusual in that it has survived the death of the author with more than a decade. If Sicientology members switched to believing in Tolkien’s writings -or the belief systems of the Jedi- it would probably be a change for the better.
    — — — — — — —
    If you want fiction about a resurrected hero that protects the community I recommend Kate Griffin’s “Matthew Swift” novels. It is among the very best in urban gothic (a genre otherwise overflowing with rather mediocre books).
    Of course, Matthew Smith may have more in common with Beowulf than with Jesus.

    BTW, the film “Indestructible” made some interesting points about the connection between pop culture and mythology. If Bruce Willis’ character was real I would certainly pay tithe to him in return for some justice 😉

  24. #24 NJ
    May 15, 2012

    Birger Johansson@23:

    Joseph Smith’s The Book of Mormon can be seen as fanfic of the Bible

    Having been raised nearby Palmyra, NY, I can unequivocally award you one Internet for today!

  25. #25 eric
    May 15, 2012

    Lanny @11:

    Many atheists and religious believers, particularly fundamentalists, fail to understand the way religious literature attempts to communicate truth.

    Lanny, I think you are falling into the NOMA trap. Certainly some religious believers agree with you about how to read their scripture. But others will not. In the real world, “religion” includes the whole spectrum of sects, from those that take their revelations as completely abstract and symbolic, to those that take revelation to be completely concrete, and every interpretation in between.

    Like Gould, you are attempting to tell believers how their revelations ought to be intepreted. This implies that there are rules that God (or gods) follow when sending revelations, and you know those rules. Believers who disagree with you can justifiably respond: you don’t know them, you’re in fact merely asserting that there are such rules in the first place!

  26. #26 Max
    May 15, 2012

    I, as well, see no connection between reading fiction and being hostile to biblical beliefs. Hanson’s question certainly displayed a misunderstanding on his part.

    I enjoy good fiction because I enjoy that flight of fantasy now and then. The knowledge that fiction can be used as a platform to deliver the reader a message has led me to write a novel for this very reason, and on this very theological subject. The manuscript is currently in the possession of readers, and I’m hoping this first literary endeavor of mine will be successful.

    My objections to belief in the Bible is that the majority of society continues to believe that it is a work of non fiction, and many further insists, sometimes with hostility, that I should believe it as well.

    My own brother put Pascal’s Wager to me, but not having studied philosophy and apparently overly sensitive about this deficiency he became upset when I pointed out the fallacy and gave a logical refutation.

    This is the very reason the Bible must continue to be exposed for the fiction it is. Too many good people become inextricably, emotionally attached, whether they’ve read it or not. Yet, even they can read a novel and enjoy it, but let it go when they finish reading.

    Incidentally, I enjoy non fiction as well.

  27. #27 Anthony
    May 15, 2012

    I have certainly been willing to read portions of the bible as works of fiction, though large parts of it are dull beyond words. I have to agree with the thesis that this is an odd challenge. People aren’t atheists because they value truth more than religious people, they’re atheists because they consider religion false. They may have certain preferred standard for determining the truth of a statement, but that has nothing to do with whether they’re interested in fiction.

  28. #28 Birger Johansson
    May 15, 2012

    “large parts of it are dull beyond words”

    When I grew up Sweden still had a state church, and in the first six years of school we had to sing psalms now and then. Being force-fed with stale state-sanctioned religion inoculated most people against religiosity.
    And if you consider religion dull you are less likely to give credence to stories about miracles, seas parting etc. (BTW the climate up here does not encourage men wearing biblical dress). The whole thing just felt silly.
    In regard to fiction, the school got regular visits by a “library on wheels” and the kids were enthusiastic. There was simply no correlation between the two phenomena.

  29. #29 Stu
    May 15, 2012

    I love fiction, because it is fun to read.

    I hate the Bible, because even disregarding all the connotations, it is really, really, really crappy fiction.

  30. #30 Neon Sequitur
    May 15, 2012

    @Comrade Carter #22: “There’s far too much to learn in this life to waste my time on fiction.”

    Fiction is also part of “this life” as you call it; one of humanity’s greatest forms of art, and as such it’s well worth learning about.

  31. #31 Wow
    May 16, 2012

    “Why would people believe a message in which God ignored their ancestors and did nothing for them, yet heaped so much attention on the Jews? Wouldn’t they find such a notion insulting?”

    You got free food and education. You got more rights. Leaders got another reason for their prestige (God Meant It That Way). And we killed savages (defined as “Didn’t Believe In Jesus Christ”).

    And some genuine conversion on faith. I mean, why not? If you’re willing to believe in one faith, why cannot you change your believe to another one? Or even none at all?

    Absolutely possible, but most of the conversion was coercion.

  32. #32 Valhar2000
    May 16, 2012

    One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

    No Mr. Hanson, that is not an obvious explanation, it is a silly explanation. The obvious explanation is that you don’t have to believe fiction in order to enjoy it.

  33. #33 Lenoxus
    May 16, 2012

    Lanny Buettner’s argument about religion-as-metaphor is nicely addressed by the incomparable Greta Christina in her piece “Trekkie Religion and Secular Judaism”.

    Meanwhile… there is an interesting argument to the effect that if we immerse ourselves too much in fiction, we train our minds to think in overly “fictional” ways. Perhaps there exists some threshold of imagination beyond which any mere primate brain will end up being at least a little damaged. I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s not to be dismissed altogether.

    Saying “But I can always tell the difference between reality and fiction, so there’s no risk of ‘too much’ fiction” is somewhat akin to saying “I can always logically determine whether or not a cigarette will harm me, so if I take up smoking, there’s no risk of somehow losing my sense of reality and smoking more than I should.” In both cases, the stimulus itself can cause your brain to do some thinking against your prior will (so to speak). A nicotine addiction will cause you to rationalize… and perhaps an overuse of fiction could subtly prompt some bad cognitive habits to a mind that, research shows, likely already suffers from a number of systemic defects. (And cognitive biases which make us slightly worse at critical thinking are all I’m talking about here, not full-blown delusions.)

    Of course, the degree of potential harm from fiction is way, way, less than that from any drug. A better comparison may be to playing video games all day, but it’s got to be even less bad than that. Heck, it’s possible that reading political blogs, or even science journalism, has a worse effect than novels and short stories. (I for one wouldn’t be surprised.)

  34. #34 CherryBombSim
    May 17, 2012

    Most of my reading is non-fiction, but I don’t mind a bit of of fiction now and then. What sticks in my throat is the bastard genre of “Historical Fiction”, which is basically making up stories about historical figures and events. In my mind, this crosses the line between fiction and lying.

  35. #35 Wow
    May 18, 2012

    “In my mind, this crosses the line between fiction and lying.”

    Except, if it’s saying it’s Fiction, then it isn’t lying.

    I may say my momma is fat, even though she isn’t, but if I say beforehand “I heard a funny joke today: my momma is so fat…”, I am not lying.

    I may be wrong and it’s not funny, but I’m not lying.

    Same with the book. If it’s in the “Fiction” section rather than the “History” one, then it’s not lying. It’s fiction. Just tied to a lot of historical fact.

  36. #36 Lenoxus
    May 18, 2012

    CherryBombSim @ 34:

    What sticks in my throat is the bastard genre of “Historical Fiction”, which is basically making up stories about historical figures and events. In my mind, this crosses the line between fiction and lying.

    But all fiction involves falsehoods about things that do in fact exist, whether it’s the implication that the real country in which the story takes place has a particular fictional town, or that the real town has particular fictional people. What’s the big difference in going one step beyond that, and talking about real people having fictional adventures?

    I suppose there is the hazard of a “Da Vinci Code problem”, whereby the nature of the story is, for some reason, such that people think there must be something to it (because people like conspiracies, da Vinci, and Jesus?) and the author doesn’t go to sufficient lengths to clarify which parts were made up. But I believe the “onus” should be more on increasing peoples’ critical thinking abilities than just taking for granted that people will be gullible and expecting authors to work around that. (Then again, I do support truth-in-advertising laws, so I suppose my opinion falls into some complex nuanced corner or other, or I’m just a hypocrite.)

  37. #37 Wow
    May 18, 2012

    “Then again, I do support truth-in-advertising laws”

    However, the free market principles are predicated on a fully informed consumer. Not a misinformed consumer.

    Hence truth-in-advertising.

    No worries about hypocrisy.

  38. #38 SC (Salty Current)
    May 18, 2012

    A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak?

    Holy cow!

    I’m writing a series about Erich Fromm and humanistic psychiatry. The current sub-series is about “alienation, animals, and atheism,” in which I argue that carnism and faith are symptomatic of, and further, our alienation from other animals and the rest of the natural world, reflected in debates about the turn to veganism and atheism.

    The subseries opens with a quotation from a NYT piece about veganism that I think well captures this alienation. There are so many similar examples in discussions of religion-vs.-atheism that I wasn’t going to spend time searching for a single specific quote that illustrated the problem so pithily, but the imbalance – having a great quote in one case and not the other – bothered me.

    But now here it is, and it will make an appearance in one of the next posts. Thank you, Robin Hanson!

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