Fantasy and Religion: One Fundamental Difference (Or, Why God’s Word Will Never Fail)

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by Neil Godfrey

Fantasy&ScienceFiction_cover_Oct1978Some theologians like to study what they call the intersects between science fiction (which is a sub-genre of fantasy) and religion. That might be a cute way to spark interest in the gospel message, but in reality there is no intersection between the two at all, at least not cognitively. Scot Atran explains:

One clear and important distinction between fantasy and religion is the knowledge of its source. People generally attribute their personal fantasies and dreams to themselves and to events they’ve experienced. They also know or assume that public fictions (novels, movies, cartoons, etc.) were created by specific people who had particular intentions for doing so.

A religious text is another story. Followers believe it to be the work and word of deities themselves. Believers assume that sacred doctrine was first heard or transcribed in some long-forgotten time by chosen prophets or sages who were faithfully repeating or imagining what the deities had directly said or shown to them. (In Gods We Trust, p. 91)

As I have been showing in my posts on Dennis Nineham’s lectures collated in The Use and Abuse of the Bible, theologians of the modern-day have salvaged the Bible from the ravages of standard literary and historical criticism by declaring that its authors were imbued with remarkable spiritual insights into the meaning of the events they witnessed and modern readers who have faith will recognize this gift of theirs in the Scriptures. This is, in effect, a more sophisticated version of the “divine inspiration” of the Bible. It’s a neat device for justifying the Bible as the fundamental source of their faith, filled with divine insights (a more intellectually respectable way of expressing the concept of “divine inspiration”), even though there are human errors evident in the text and even though some texts reveal a humanly flawed author.

The need by some Christians to affirm the apostolic authority of the Gospels is worth commenting on in this context. It appears that affirming the traditional authorship — two apostles (Matthew and John) and two associates of apostles (Mark and Luke) — is necessary in order to further elaborate the faith narrative that holds these works are indeed products of divinely chosen eyewitnesses. Normal evidentiary means of confirming authorship are dismissed as “overly sceptical” in the need to affirm the faith that a religion grounded in historical events is indeed “historically true”.

But what does it mean to accept a text on faith as authoritative?

Why God’s Word Cannot Be Disconfirmed

Accepting a text on authority and faith implies that the listener or reader suspend the universal constraints on ordinary communication . . .

In ordinary communication, the listener or reader “automatically” attempts to fill the gap in understanding between what is merely said or written and what the communicator intends the listener or reader to think or do as a result.

Atran illustrates. Normal communication works like this:

English: Simple Linear Communication Model
English: Simple Linear Communication Model (Photo credit: Wikipedia) — This illustration is NOT part of Atran’s discussion.

Someone says to you, “That’s just fine.” You immediately try to figure out from the previous conversation or immediate environment what “that” means, what is “fine” about it, and why it is “just” fine.

Tone and inflection in the way “That’s just fine” will be taken into account. You will recall that previously you had asked to taste your dinner host’s special reserve. You will have noticed since then the broken wine bottle on the dining room floor. You will draw upon your background information to understand that your host is ironic when angry.

You will, further, believe that the speaker understands all of these factors, too, and that he knows you also grasp them.

You will stop processing all these factors (intonation, recent memory, background knowledge, surrounding environment, theory of mind, etc) the moment the communication, “That’s just fine”, makes sense.

That’s significant. You stop processing and working out the right interpretation of the communication once its function is clear.

That’s not how one interprets a religious authoritative text, however. Such normal rules of communication — called “relevance criteria” — are bypassed.

Believers generally assume that the words in a sacred text

are authorless, timeless and true. As a result, people do not apply ordinary relevance criteria to religious communications. (p. 92)b


Since the divine text is essentially “authorless” — the author is thought to be a channel for the mind and wisdom of God — there is no thought or need to try to infer the intent from the way the words are spoken or the context in which they are heard, etc. (The preacher’s gesticulations and intonation are his own, not the deity’s.)

Interpreting what the speaker (preacher) intends by uttering the passage is one thing; interpreting what the deity intends can be indefinitely many things (expressed, in part, by indefinitely many speakers and interpreters).


Timelessness implies that cues from the surrounding environment, background knowledge, and memory are all irrelevant — or equipotentially relevant, which amounts to irrelevance.

And that is why God’s message can apply to any and all contexts in an indefinite number of different ways. Certainly believers do interpret God’s word in specific ways for specific contexts, but

they have no reason to ever stop interpreting.


Unlike normal communication that context, memory, surroundings, intonation, etc may lead you to understand as metaphor, satire, or lighthearted nonsense, etc. communication from God that is accepted as true on faith can never be false, deceptive or merely figurative.

(Of course the Gospels do have Jesus speaking figuratively, but the meaning or doctrine itself is always seriously literal.)

Ordinary preoccupation with lying and false belief in communication therefore plays no role in interpretation (or at least no consistent role). Neither can failed attempts at verification or confirmation of this or that aspect of the information represented in a religious statement, or inferred from it, undermine the audience’s belief in the statement’s truth. (p. 92)

This is not how ordinary communication works. It is a special type of communication reserved for religious faith.

Indeed, when disconfirming evidence is set before the believer, the believer’s faith remains unaffected because he or she is still processing this particular communication in a parallel universe, one might say. Normal communication rules where disconfirming evidence does produce a damaging effect do not apply.

So in the face of disconfirming evidence, the believer follows the logic of faith and

tries harder to understand the deeper truth and to strengthen religious beliefs.

We have seen a classic illustration of this in discussions with the Pastor of the Diamond Valley Church in the comment thread following the recent post How Literary Imitation Works. Evidence that demonstrates literary mimesis is an indicator or imaginative fiction even in ancient historical works is set aside by redefining “literary mimesis” or re-interpreting the challenger’s intent and motives or even revising and changing the terms of their original argument — efforts that would normally never be tolerated by either party in normal everyday communications. The rules of communication are quite different between a sacred text and a believer, and any attempt to try to make that religious communication subject to the rules of normal everyday communication will always be deflected by an invisible force-field.

(My own view is that the ability of the believer to deflect such challenges with this otherwise unacceptable response in normal communication appears to give the believer confidence in the truth of his or her faith, and a greater appreciation for the divine inscrutability of this truth to unbelievers.)

Atran cites an experiment that illustrates this. It is written up in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1975 (32:176-184), titled, “Rational processing or rationalization: The effect of disconfirming information on a stated religious belief”.

After reading a bogus article on a new finding from the Dead Sea Scrolls that seemed to contradict Christian doctrine, religious believers who also believed the story reported their religious beliefs reinforced.

For believers, then, confidence in religious doctrine and belief can increase through both confirmation and disconfirmation of any factual assumptions that may accompany interpretation of those beliefs.

Faith by Karl Bitters (1910) IAS WI000332 B
Faith by Karl Bitters (1910) IAS WI000332 B (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what, then, is faith?

So faith in religious belief is not simply another mechanism to somehow reduce cognitive dissonance by ignoring or reinterpreting information that contradicts one’s belief system.

Rather, faith is

the direct cognitive result of suspending the relevance criteria [context, inference, intonation, background information, etc] that universally apply to ordinary communication.

If faith is, in part, willingness to suspend ordinary pragmatic constraints of relevance, then beliefs held in faith become not only immune to falsification and contradiction but become even more strongly held in the face of apparent falsification or contradiction.

Atran opines that the believer who is faced with disconfirming evidence for his or her beliefs will assume that his or her current understanding or interpretation is incomplete and that he or she has more to learn and understand about the depths of those spiritual beliefs.

Or in other words, discussions with believers about the validity of their religious faith inevitably become little more than intellectual training exercises for both parties. Neither side ever will yield, nor can they. They are playing by quite different rules of communication.

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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “Fantasy and Religion: One Fundamental Difference (Or, Why God’s Word Will Never Fail)”

  1. Sorry, but I take issue with this:

    science fiction (which is a sub-genre of fantasy)

    They are two distinct genres, that get confused because often what it passes for science fiction is really thinly disguised fantasy.

    1. If anything, fantasy is a sub-genre of science-fiction. As far as I know, the latter came first.

      For me, the perfect amalgamation of the two is to be found in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth.

      And thanks to Neil. I loved this post.

      1. The Dying Earth is great! I fondly remember reading it through a bus-then-boat trip from Thessaloniki to Bari Italy. Not sure I finished the whole series in the trip though. Ah, those were the days!

    2. A definition I’ve fielded, to full approval, with fellow storytellers and sci-fi fans:

      Science fiction is that subgenre of fantasy in which fantastical elements are supposed to be scientifically explicable.

      Wikipedia asserts, “Fantasy is generally distinguished from the genres of science fiction and horror by the expectation that it steers clear of scientific and macabre themes, respectively,” but everyone I’ve talked to agrees those distinctions are unnecessary and unnatural.

      We and Wiki agree that fantasy itself is a subgenre of speculative fiction, which encompasses the broadest range of counterfactual themes.

  2. This is a very interesting post! I’m blogging about Ehrman’s DJE? and was attempting to touch on some of these issues between author and audience in my own rather less rigorous way. Obviously Ehrman’s book isn’t presented as fantasy or scripture, but there is going to be certain features of human communication which are in my opinion universal.

    I’m spending some time on the introduction because I think that as the author is introducing himself and introducing the problem his book is intended to address. While this is intended to set up what the reader is to expect it seems to me that the author also perhaps unintentionally reveals what he expects of his readership.

    As a recognized authority on Jesus matters Ehrman’s opinions are going to carry a lot of weight, and by repeatedly referencing the supposed universal opinion of ‘real scholars’ it appears that he is moving towards a kind of ‘authorlessness’ – that what he writes is unquestionably true.

  3. Since we are clearly talking about Abrahamic religions, I will focus on the foundation of all of them: the Old Testament.

    The Old Testament as literature is as problematic as the Old Testament as history. Neither tradition appears to comport with how the Old Testament was presented to and understood by those who originally received it (a process that began, I believe, in the third century B.C.E.), which is as the law of the state of Israel as given by God. The Pentateuch acts as the constitution of this state and provides the code of laws, while the “history” of books like Kings and Chronicles provide examples of what happens to those who comply with the laws, as well as those who transgress them. Post Enlightenment, we have come to believe that religion and state are two different things, but things were not always that way. And I would argue that most believers in Abrahamic religions intuitively understand their respective books as law, even if they are not devout.

    To compare the Old Testament to science fiction, then, is of no value. Science fiction, like all fiction, demands the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. The Old Testament, like all law, demands the “citizen’s” adherence to it and simply is not open to question. Moreover, because God was the lawgiver, this law is not subject to amendment. This law to the believer is, in fact, nothing less the Truth that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle claimed to seek, and it is completely rational for the believer to insist on the truth of his belief, provided that we define “rationality” by how humans actually reason (e.g., subject to cognitive biases, etc.) and not by highly utilitarian definition we most commonly use, which has proven to be false.

  4. I used to be here. I think many believers have questions but assume that someone more learned has already researched and figured out the answers. Practical faith is, in part, believing that people smarter than you have already dismissed the seemingly logical arguments against your faith. It was not until I spent several years seriously studying my own faith and reading the Bible that things started to come apart. Great post; I think I need to pick up Atran’s book.

  5. You are being a little too despairing here, for we know that some people when faced with the cognitive dissonance of reading the Bible and other works of faith do indeed realise that they have been taught nonsense and give up religion. They are of course few, and most people deal with it by just not thinking about it, however it does happen, if slowly. Exactly how this happens would be a fascinating area of study.

    1. Fortunately humans are malleable. I try to think of my own deconversion and cannot put it down to any single factor. It was a combination of questioning, seeing the reality of the foundations of the whole business, — but personal issues make for the right moment when such things click. One can see the raw truth of what one is involved in yet one’s faith can be made all the stronger for that. Then another time, nothing has changed, except happenstance, chance encounters and exchanges, and new perspectives crystallize.

  6. “Believers assume that sacred doctrine was first heard or transcribed in some long-forgotten time by chosen prophets or sages”

    Not long-forgotten for Baha’is.

  7. My own mother and “the Mother of God” are both imaginED, but one is imaginARY. How do we tell the difference? (My own mother is dead, and I cannot communicate with her any longer.) This is not a silly question. You could write a book on it.

  8. Speaking of religion in fantasy/popular culture, I saw the animated movie “Small Foot” at the theater on Sunday, and it was all about a clan of Bigfoot (Yeti) who lived in a society based on religious practices that were deliberately fraudulently set up to keep the Yeti separated from humankind. Nicely, the chief skeptic in the Yeti society was a Bigfoot called MeeChee (rhymes with Nietzsche). Great animated movie for kids!

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