I was at a convention in New York this weekend, where I ended up on a panel with David Silverman, president of American Atheists, on the topic of religion in fiction. American Atheists is the organization founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, most famous recently for their atheist billboard campaign publicly attacking various religions. Silverman himself is a prominently outspoken (one could say evangelistic) atheist who has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor and in numerous interviews and public debates.
The panel was not explicitly a debate between religion and atheism, but on the value of religion and religious views in fiction. Honestly, I found it a frustrating experience, since the panel was crowded and audience participation lively, so that it was difficult to develop any thought beyond the “sound bite” level. Silverman and I agreed that writing a story explicitly to promote a religious (or political) point of view is generally a recipe for bad fiction. The beauty of fiction is that it succeeds or fails based on how effectively it shows people and life as they really are, and the skill of a storyteller may transcend his own understanding of what drives people and the world to be the way it is. That, however, was where our agreement ended.
Silverman makes much of reason, seeing it as the means by which man can conclude that God doesn’t exist and that we don’t need him. He sees fiction as having the power to demonstrate the ruinous effect on people and societies that belief in God can have, when people ignore what reason and science tell them to believe in superstition.
As much as I love the power of reason, it’s a mistake to think that the only thing that exists is the physical world around us. Reason itself, for instance, transcends the purely physical. It may be driven by neurons and electrical signals, but it allows us to consider the metaphysical and purely symbolic. It’s a spiritual activity, in the sense that it involves our spirits and goes beyond our mere biological selves.
Story, just like reason, comes from God. The ability to tell stories is part of what it means to be created in the image of God, part of what differentiates us from the other primates, mammals, and animals that inhabit our world. Easter, coming up in two weeks, celebrates the climax of the grand story God is telling in real life. In this story, the human race rejected God, using its powers of language and story telling and reason to conclude they didn’t need to acknowledge or obey him. But God, instead of rejecting them in return or crushing their rebellion, became a man and took the punishment they deserved on himself, purchasing for them the ability to rise from the dead, just as he did.
This is the ultimate story, the story from which all human storytelling derives its power.