By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
Scientists who claim to be religious are in a difficult position. Religion requires belief in acts that science declares impossible, such as resurrection from the dead. But if you do believe in religion at the expense of science, it will be hypocritical of you to criticize others for their non-scientific beliefs. So what is the way out?
Religion as Only Ethics
Consider New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. His work addresses the scholarly consensus that the biblical Gospels are not historically accurate. Although he defends the historical existence of a man named Jesus from skeptics he agrees with the consensus view that this man likely did not perform miracles, rise from the dead, or say much of what the Gospels report him saying. But, Ehrman argues, acknowledging this doesn’t have to prevent one from being a Christian.
Although he too is an agnostic, Ehrman argues that one can—and indeed, many of his Christian colleagues who agree with him do—have what can be called ‘mythical faith’. They acknowledge that the Gospels aren’t literally true. They are myths. But they still ‘believe in’ them—they think they contain true moral lessons. You can still be a follower of the Jesus of the Gospels, even if history doesn’t contain someone exactly like him.
After all, what does it matter whether the Gospels are literally true? If the Jesus they describe speaks words of wisdom, and his teachings are morally sound—what does it matter if he did what the Gospels say? Or if he even existed? What is important is that we follow the teaching. Perhaps the words are more important than the man.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Fictionalist Belief in God
Some scholars even take this approach with God. They’re called fictionalists, and they agree that God doesn’t exist but still pretend he does. This could include living according to God’s commands, praising God for fortunes, praying in times of need, going to church, reading scripture—all the while believing God doesn’t exist.
Fictionalists include Jean Kazez who practices her Jewish faith even though she doesn’t believe, and John Caputo, who says that God doesn’t exist—he “insists.” Now, what does that mean?
Unlike Nietzsche, an atheist who said that even the mere idea of God had become irrelevant, Caputo suggests that, although God does not exist, the concept of God is still relevant: it “calls upon us, lures us, solicits us” to act in a certain way. He says:
The insistence of God means that the name of God is the name of something that lays claim to us unconditionally, like a promise of things that [the] eye has not seen, nor ears heard, but without the force of being, power, [or] sovereignty, and omnipotence.
Now for some, like Kazez, fictionalism seems voluntary—she chooses to act as if God exists. For Caputo, it may be involuntary—he can’t help but feel the insistence of the concept of God and act accordingly. Regardless, we are forced to wonder whether fictionalists, or those who have ‘mythical faith’, are genuinely, truly, believers.
Learn more about the Gospel of Peter.
Philosopher Tamar Szabó Gendler might say they don’t have religious beliefs, but religious ‘aliefs’. An alief is a belief-like attitude one takes, knowing that it is actually false.
The perfect example is the attitude you take when watching your favorite sci-fi movie. You get emotionally wrapped up, and even cry, when, say, Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise in Star Trek II—yet all the while, you know that none of it’s real. But this helps us formulate an objection to “mythical faith” and fictionalism.
The Church of Spock
Consider the Church of Spock, an actual congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia, that reveres Leonard Nimoy’s character from Star Trek, and tries to emulate his logical, emotionless approach to life. Now, members of the church obviously don’t really believe that Spock is real—they alieve it. They suspend disbelief. They know Spock doesn’t really exist, but consider the words to be more important than the man.
But we don’t think the Church of Spock is a real religion, right? Of course, there is nothing wrong with belonging—but even if it had millions of adherents, we wouldn’t put it in the same category as the world’s major religions, right. Why? It can’t be because they don’t believe in the supernatural. Neither Buddhists nor Confucians do that.
No, it’s because members of the Church of Spock don’t really believe their stories—they alieve them. It’s a philosophy of life, like stoicism, not a religion. Indeed, Gene Roddenberry modeled Spock on his inaccurate view of what Stoics are like.
Learn more about the multiverse theory in the Star Trek.
Maybe Mythical Faith Is for Academics
But isn’t that exactly what those who embrace mythical faith and fictionalism are doing? How can you take someone’s claim to be a Christian seriously, if they think Jesus’s story is as fictional as Spock’s? Those stories contain true moral lessons, too.
If that’s all it takes, you could make a religion out of anything. Honestly, what would happen if a pastor confessed from the pulpit to be a fictionalist? “I don’t really believe God exists; I just act like he does.” Do you think he’d still have a job the next Sunday? Mythical faith seems to just be a way for academics to say they believe something they know they don’t.
Common Questions about Mythical Faith and Fictionalism
Bart Ehrman addresses the scholarly consensus that the biblical Gospels are not historically accurate. Although he defends the historical existence of a man named Jesus, he agrees with the consensus view that this man likely did not perform miracles, rise from the dead, or say much of what the Gospels report him saying. But, Ehrman argues, acknowledging this doesn’t have to prevent one from being a Christian.
Some people have ‘mythical faith’. They acknowledge that the Gospels aren’t literally true. They are myths. But they still ‘believe in’ them—they think they contain true moral lessons. You can still be a follower of the Jesus of the Gospels, even if history doesn’t contain someone exactly like him.
According to Tamar Szabó Gendler, an alief is a belief-like attitude one takes, knowing that it is actually false.