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The Power of the F-Word: Fiction in Service of the Secular

There’s no denying it: we are, as a movement, somewhat suspicious of Fiction. Dangerous things, these stories, these products of human imagination. Why, most of them don’t even carry a warning label guaranteeing the reader that the author knows it’s all pretend. (There are amusing exceptions. I recently found a very nice secularist parable for kids online that begins with an earnest clarification: “This is a story that never really happened, but it could have happened.”) Secularist book lists are invariably 90-10 in favor of nonfiction works. Our distaste for the imaginary is well-founded, of course. One ancient work of fiction was found so appealing by so many of our ancestors that Western Civilization was derailed for more than a millennium. Think of the grief we’d have been spared by a simple little warning label.

We of the skeptical bent have also found greater satisfaction in the wonders of the actual universe than in the one of our ancient imaginations, so small and grey by comparison. Our resulting preference for actuality is understandable: facts have moved us forward, we feel, while fiction has so often held us back. Let ’em have their poetry; we love our prose. But in so doing, we forget that the human attraction to the dramatic narrative is a large part of why religion retains its appeal.

I adore nonfiction and probably read more of it than fiction. There are many things nonfiction can do that fiction can’t, but the reverse must also be recognized. Nonfiction is relatively static, expository, argumentation arrayed across space. Fiction is linear, unfolding over time. It evolves. And in all these ways and more, it mimics the actual experience of life better than nonfiction can. A similar relationship has been noted between visual art and music. Visual art can do many things, but when it comes to moving us through a changing emotional landscape, of evoking tears or laughter or joy, there is no contest: music moves through time and therefore communicates the kind of unfolding evolution that the human mind immediately recognizes as a mirror of its own experience.

Nonfiction tends toward monologue, fiction toward dialogue. Nonfiction generally has a single strong voice. In fiction there’s the opportunity to have a dozen different characters of varying strengths and opinions bouncing off each other. It’s like real life, but with certain advantages, since the author controls the outcome. In the hands of the ham-fisted, this can result in what we’ll call the Triumph of Righteousness, in which the opinion of the author ultimately rises up on its noble steed to lay low the trembling pretenders to the truth. A better author can present the rich and complex interactions of opposites that we so treasure, leaving the reader with some shred of self-respect and the right to decide things for him or herself.

In fiction, we can create the kinds of dialogues and situations that too rarely happen in the real world. Fiction creates ‘what-if’ realities and allows the logical consequences of that conjecture to play themselves out before our eyes. If the author has done a credible job, creating characters and situations that ring true, the conclusions drawn in the drama carry a force of conviction of which nonfiction can only dream. Readers can see the world through the eyes of a disbeliever, noting with surprise that–why, there are still colors, there is still a moral compass, still a sense of wonder in the nontheistic world. Likewise should the inanity and inconsistency of the fundamentalist be viewed from within his own skull for maximum effect.

Carl Sagan understood these unique strengths of fiction; that’s why, in addition to Cosmos and Dragons of Eden, we have Contact.

So where to begin?

No better start than Voltaire, the only Enlightenment figure whose most famous likeness was a bust with an actual smirk. Read the brief tale “Micromegas” to feel the incredulity of a mile-tall inhabitant of Saturn when, after traversing the galaxy, he hears from lilliputian humans that they consider themselves to be of central importance in God’s creation. Read “The Story of a Good Brahmin” to see that, regardless of time, place or culture, the life of the mind dooms its adherents to a muddle of complexity and uncertainty–while just down the road will always be a John Ashcroft, singing simplistic hymnlets of his own composition, smiling and certain of his conclusions, oblivious to complexity. And nothing rivals Candide for making a mockery of Leibnitz’ assertion that ours is the best of all possible worlds.

And who could hope to match the pre-Enlightenment satirists of religion for sheer courage and audacity? In The Praise of Folly, Desiderius Erasmus skewers the church from within–he was an ill-suited Augustinian monk–on the bleeding edge of the Reformation, and he does so with an eye to timeless human nature that makes a 21st century reader reel with the shock of recognition. It’s perversely comforting to know that we are no more or less an idiotic species with the passage of centuries. And Erasmus echoes in Fran’ois Rabelais, also a 16th-century monk, as Rabelais does much the same in the wide-ranging and ruthless satirical allegory Gargantua and Pantagruel. Round out the middle years with Jonathan Swift’s jabs at the Christian worldview, both veiled (Gulliver’s Travels) and overt (A Tale of a Tub). Readers who’ve been snagged in the thicket of 19th century prose might expect these earlier works to be even less accessible. The opposite’s often the case: much of pre-Romantic literature reads clean and clear compared to the Victorians, with a modern sensibility and hilariously recognizable sense of the absurdity of it all.

Want to imagine a trial of God for crimes against humanity? Read Elie Wiesel’s Trial of God or James Morrow’s Blameless in Abaddon. It’s one thing to note, in expository prose, that an omnipotent God would bear a crushing responsibility for evil and suffering, and quite another to see his creatures taking on the task of bringing the culprit to the bar.

But James Morrow’s range runs wider and wilder territory still. Blameless is the center of a breathtaking triptych of novels that demonstrate the sheer pleasure and power of fiction to turn the world upside down and see what falls out. In the first of the three, Towing Jehovah, what falls out (of the sky) is God Almighty himself. He dies, for reasons unknown even to the angels, and his two-mile-long body falls into the Atlantic. Something of a paradigm-buggerer for everyone: atheists are stunned to find he existed after all, and Christians are horrified to find he’s–well, corporeal, for one thing, and that the corpus is now mortis. Archangels secretly arrange for a tanker to tow the corpse to an Arctic tomb, during which voyage the crew descends into a series of allegorical trials and parables that manage to comment on the absurdity of theism while giving religion its thoughtful due–and all in the presence of the putrefying Corpus Dei. Then on to Blameless in Abaddon, where the body is discovered and, through the machinations of a Job-like sufferer from Pennsylvania, brought to trial in the Hague. Morrow engages in one of the most delicious intellectual delights of secular fiction: a constant, sensuous shower of references to other literature, to other thinkers, to mythic archetypes, and to scripture itself, all designed to reward those with tattered and flayed library cards. Defending Jehovah, for example, is a thinly-veiled stand-in for C.S. Lewis, while assisting in the transport of the body is one Father Thomas Ockham, who seeks the simplest explanation for God’s demise. And oh sure, at one point, without fanfare, apropos of nothing, the ship’s captain needs a shave