God-Stories vs. Godless Stories

I’m reading Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, a very well written novel in the fantasy genre (a genre I love and which I am writing in as you can see here). One his little side stories made me think about religious versus atheistic stories and what relation they have to love, goodness, and activism to help and change the world.

I’m not seeking to prove or even give evidence for or against any religion in this musing. I have to say honestly, though, that I am dissing the atheists’ story. So maybe I’m giving a subjective argument against the materialist-naturalist-atheist meta-narrative. But you be the judge.

I’m interested in the main Jewish and Christian stories. Some of what I say here could be equally applied to Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and I’m sure other religious stories. That’s irrelevant to me for now. Mainly, I’m interested in how the atheism story doesn’t line up in spite of the protests and feeble Vulcan logic of Hitchens and the other new atheists. (Actually, Spock would do far better, so I shouldn’t malign the Vulcans).

There are four stories I want to comment on:
(1) The Mount Sinai story.
(2) The Yeshua (Jesus) story.
(3) The world to come story.
(4) and the materialist-naturalist-atheist story.

The Mount Sinai story selects a people (the Jewish people) and appoints them as the priests of divine holiness to the world. Included in the demands of this story are ritual issues (the purity laws) and ethical issues (treatment of the poor, the marginalized, love of neighbor, etc.). I’m not saying the Mount Sinai story has no problems (slavery tolerated and legislated, divine warfare, etc.). But it is a story raising human beings up to a level of responsibility and inspiration through promises of union with God.

The Mount Sinai story inspires and motivates love, justice, and ultimately equality (the role of non-Jewish peoples in the Mount Sinai story enters in through the Abraham narratives and a few other themes so that, properly interpreted, the Mount Sinai story is not just a Jewish story).

The Yeshua (Jesus) story assumes the truth of the Mount Sinai story (a fact sadly distorted in Christendom as plenty of Christian theologians will agree). It is a story of a man who came healing and serving and who ultimately remained faithful to a vision of hard calling from his Father (God) who required death in the face of evil.

The Yeshua story, properly interpreted, leads followers motivated to join Yeshua in the work of healing, serving, and even sacrificial love. Just as Jewish history has examples of faithfulness as well as unfaithfulness to the story, so does this one. Judaism motivates many to loving activism and so does a vibrant, biblical Christianity.

The world to come story says that this world contains in it goodness that will endure forever and badness that will come to an end forever. Nothing good in this world will not be better in the world to come and nothing bad in this world will survive into the world to come. This is a Jewish and Christian story.

The world to come story, properly interpreted, is not about ignoring this present world but renewing it in stages along the way to the world to come.

By contrast with all of these, the materialist-naturalist-atheist story rejects any transcendent beginning for human beings and any goal or purpose for history or the future. We came from randomness and end in randomness. Feeble attempts at ethics include the idea that “we’ll be happier during out short, meaningless lives if we give to charity and/or work for peace and wellness.”

The points at which the atheist story actually works are the points which undercut and overthrow the story itself. For example, we might compare human life to a dying patient in a sick bed. And one kind of atheist story could go like this: to be ethical is a beautiful thing, like giving water to a dying child to ease their passage. That sort of story is moving. But it is moving precisely because it values something irrational and wonderful, something non-material and supernatural. It values love for love’s sake. It values comfort and nourishment. It looks beyond this life, admit it or not, and suggests that such values have enduring meaning.

Theoretically, religious faith leads to greater love and goodness and activism. In practice, we know that religious faith is linked to hypocrisy and evil as well. Theoretically, atheism leads to abandonment of values and ethics. In practice, we know that in many cases agnostics and atheists practice love, goodness, and activism.

The difference is that theory in the religious stories lines up with what practice should be.

And that makes the materialist-naturalist-atheist story a false one — if you believe in love and goodness and activism.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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11 Responses to God-Stories vs. Godless Stories

  1. flowfreetome says:

    You have studied the theist stories. Am not sure if you have studied the atheist stories. I wonder what makes you overlook those stories many of which have wonderful wisdom and truth as well.

  2. flowfreetome:

    Thanks for commenting. I’d be glad to consider that I am wrong. Please share a story with me.

    I warn you: I’ll likely say that what is beautiful in the atheism story is something which contradicts atheism. You see, one of the things I am saying in this very article is that atheists can’t help contradicting themselves. Randomness and meaninglessness are not built into us. I think this is because we are not random or meaningless.


  3. “But it is moving precisely because it values something irrational and wonderful, something non-material and supernatural.”

    You had me until the last word.

    I have no problem valuing irrational, wonderful and non-material things. But that doesn’t make it supernatural.

  4. NotaScientist:

    Got it. And I’m glad for pushback from those who perhaps lean more to the atheist side (is that where you’re coming from?).

    Super simply means “beyond” or “above” (as does supra). So, you would say there is nothing which transcends nature?

    Yet you believe in the reality of the non-material, you say. Do you really?

    If there is more than matter (energy, as you know, is matter and matter is energy), then what is there?

    So, why are you so convinced that beyond-nature is impossible?


    • “Yet you believe in the reality of the non-material, you say. Do you really?”

      Depends entirely how you define non-material. Concepts are certainly non-material, but I wouldn’t call them supernatural.

      “So, why are you so convinced that beyond-nature is impossible?”

      I’m not convinced it’s impossible. I see zero evidence backing up its existence, and therefor will not believe it exists until or unless there is.

  5. By the way notascientist, I really liked your information at your blog about water bears. Some time back I linked it here on Messianic Jewish Musings.

  6. notascientist:

    You believe in concepts as an example of something non-material. Good.

    Not too many months ago I started ad never finished a series on C.S. Lewis’s book Miracles. I made a point, derived from Lewis’s writing, that the mind itself refutes strict materialism.

    So, you already have evidence of something beyond nature: thought.

    Not a big jump to the idea of an infinite mind from our finite minds, is it? I do not offer this as some sort of proof for God’s existence, but I simply mean: the argument from materialism that God is not real falls flat.

    If you want, click the category C.S. Lewis here and find some of those posts. You may consider reading Miracles. It’s quite a good book.

    Not trying to go all evangelist on you or anything, but just as a “notascientist” loves showing people a glimpse of knowledge in his area, so I love sharing glimpses of knowledge in the areas I study.


    • “So, you already have evidence of something beyond nature: thought.”

      It’s not beyond nature. It is the interpretation of our physical bodies of the electrical activity in our brains. That’s very natural.

  7. I wanted to hear you say that (our thoughts are merely electro-chemical reactions).

    I think it is an absurd idea. I think the mind-is-merely-chemistry argument fails to explain a host of phenomena about thought-reason-intellect not to mention shared dreams, thoughts, concepts, etc.

    But, if you want to say that, then you run up against another C.S. Lewis idea: why trust reason (the mind) when it is nothing more than random reactions? Really, the only legitimate worldview from that presupposition is nihilism.

    Is that where you truly want to rest your philosophy? And if it is, can you blame those of us who might accept partial evidence for something more?


    • “I wanted to hear you say that (our thoughts are merely electro-chemical reactions).”

      Well, no. Our thoughts are our interpretation of electro-chemical reactions. There’s a slight difference.

      Pain, for example, is our interpretation of certain kinds electro-chemical signals created by our bodies to indicate harm or injury. The signals themselves aren’t ‘pain’. But it’s how our minds interpret those signals, that’s what we refer to by that name.

      “I think it is an absurd idea.”

      You’re free to think so. But I think you’re wrong. And I think the simple fact that we can alter thought and consciousness by using chemicals or electricity is a huge nod to the fact that that is what thoughts are.

      “why trust reason (the mind) when it is nothing more than random reactions? ”

      Two reasons: evidence and pragmatism.

      The collective shared observations and evidence of everyone will either back up or fail to back up the conclusions of our reasoning minds.

      Technically, I understand that there is a possibility that all of my experiences could be a hallucination, or that I’m actually a brain in a vat undergoing a Matrix-like virtual reality. But pragmatically, I have to act as though reality is real and I can at least somewhat understand it or else I would have no reason to get out of bed in the morning. And I’m fine using that very tiny bit of pragmatism.

      “Is that where you truly want to rest your philosophy?”

      I don’t know what you mean by this. Depending how you mean ‘philosophy’, I have no use for it. I rest my understanding of the universe in evidence.

      “And if it is, can you blame those of us who might accept partial evidence for something more?”

      I do not blame anyone who wishes to think there is more to themselves than just their natural bodies.

      I think they’re wrong. But I don’t blame them.

  8. Darlene says:

    First let me say that I am not going to try and convince anyone of anything. That is always hubris, and involves a sense of superiority that I just cannot claim. I hope to help people question what it is they believe and why, to either strengthen their conviction or inspire them to ask new questions and continue the journey of life on the planet and beyond (if that is what you believe.) A human flaw is always the embrace of the unworthy. What you believe is never a guess, but IS often something handed down from somewhere or someone else. Just make sure that it is what YOU believe and not what you THINK you believe simply because it makes sense or the alternative is worse. If you believe what you believe because you think it makes you smarter/wiser/righter/worthier than we need to ask ourselves a few question!

    This is not I believe a question on religion vs. lack of religion (atheism.) We may have made it that, but we all are just trying to make sens of things. “Atheism” may demand “proof of G-d’s “existence” but why shouldn’t they? “Religious” people have faith in G-d’s existence, why shouln”t they? “Proof” as a scientific idea (human solution) to questions is often valid. As is the “Faith” that others see as proof. This appears to be a schism that “all” sides MUST admit is not going to solves the “problems” of the world not make the world a better place for all. Superiority (of ideas or beliefs) leads people to such “certainties,” and in both those cases I can present a fallacy.

    Science minded people traditional use the scientific theory to advance ideas. Let’s be clear here: science is a process, not an outcome. It is the pursuit of truth. Early scientists were observers. They took notes, gathered data and came up with theories. A theory by it’s very nature is just an idea waiting to be PROVEN wrong. It is not fact or truth, just a way of evoking more questions for more scientists until it is proven wrong opening the way for a new idea. (This is “scientific” progress!) Early “scientists” were often religious. It is a testament to G-d’s glory to look at the “creation” they figured. Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius was an early Christian author (ca. 240 – ca. 320) who came up (and wrote down) with the idea that the earth was round. Copurnicus thought he was crazy. But it was this idea, stored in a church library and later read, that inspired the “Earth is round” as theory. It is still valid. From a mathematical perspective “proofs” are a matter of necessity, nothing more. They are “true” but only because they haven’t been shown otherwise and without them being true progress stops. Was Einstein wrong? Well with the discover of Quantum physics YES. However it all works in the world we experience. It’s just gets messy beyond repair when Quantum physics is taken into account. So scientists know “proof” is still a form a faith, as Einstein’s “proof” remains valid EVEN when a new theory came along. Chaos theory was “created” so these obvious contradiction questions would not beg answers.

    Religious folks in their turn know what they “know” and shun the requirement of “proof.” It’s ineffable. That makes it difficult for people to faith to “convince” anyone. How can you prove that you “love” your daughter or Mother? You can’t. Understand that the question of faith, while valid, can make people crazy, as will a Mother calling 15 times a day demanding that you PROVE your love. Because you cannot do you conclude that you do not love? However a myopic understand of “history” leads to no other “proof” than religion is bad and it’s ideas are wrong. When “Christians” down the street celebrate the newest war, how can some not be skeptical about their sanity?

    When your son says he “loves you” do you demand proof? When someone tells you they need your support to fix the problems of the world do you demand proof? What is free will? Isn’t “free will” the essence of spiritual thought AND the essence of the “freedom” we hold as importance as scientists? We are on the same side I believe. Just review the findings of the particle/wave duality of light! Is that not a glimpse into something beyond out understanding. it was a time recently that the more science discovered, the more it didn’t know. It was big stuff, and it’s been marginalized and replace with quantum mechanics that deals with “harmless” stuff like the spin direction of quarks. How can this be superior to the “unexplainable” experiences of creativity or intuition?

    Christian today go off to other countries to proselytize and make more “saved” people. How is this caring for the poor and unwanted? I don’t remember Jesus telling us that we must make others beileve in Him. He said we should walk in his shoes, and then he walked. He told us to care for orphans and widows, to visit the sick and the imprisoned. He didn’t tell us to convert the orphans, just care for them. So why are so many orphans starving? In regards to war he told us to turn the other cheek; to INVITE another “hit” and NOT hit back. He never said go kill those people because they make you mad nor because they believe differently. Not any reason. Yet hypocrites applaud war and government influence to decide moral issues for them. And anyone wonders why G-d is SO easy to deny??? How can they justify killing Muslims when they have more in the Quran about Jesus’ Mom Mary than the bible? And that the killing of a Jew or Christian is akin to killing a Muslim? BTW, the description of the “hypocrites” is a LOT like the way skeptics see Christians behaving!

    BYW I was looking recently into the computer v. person chess competition saga. Yes, a computer can FINALLY beat a person, but not all the time. It can do this with computer power that is increasing exponentially. I am not a computer person so I cannot tell you what that capacity is, but I CAN tell you that the computer NASA used had 36K of hard wired memory and 2K of RAM. Try buying a calculator with that little power! So people must be freakin’ clever, though I have no idea how they did it. They are no closer to a computer that can carry on a conversation with a person without them figuring it out in a short period of time. I think they are up to 15 minutes and it’s not convincing. But even an uneducated person or a person TRYING to be computer is deemed “human.” And science needs to show me a “smart” chemical reaction, though there are countless of profound and “wise” ones! Smart would be one that can solve a problem beyond it’s own. Modern science says that “the smart gene” theory takes care of all (more blind faith,) but then wouldn’t there be smart chemicals if it ensures the survival of the gene it works for? I have no answer, but I love the questions as they lead to ideas.

    I may have seemed to “beat-up” on science “more” than religious people but that’s only because coming up with ways to point out flaws in religion is not all that challenging! Their record through history appears to beat them up plenty, so I am avoiding redundancy. Questions of faith are VERY personal, science not so much. This may be why Science is appealing to many skeptics: it feels more democratic. While I think organized religion (at lest in the US) is SNAFU and a cause of many “problems,” it is NOT the teachings of the prophets that I find flawed. If Jesus had said “go forth and hoard wealth and your family and G-d will benefit” I would disagree.

    But I digress…

    We are more alike than we know, in more ways then we know, while maintaining a unique perspective, talents, and passions.

    Can we agree on the idea “treat others as you would like to be treated and it’s corollary: “treat others” children as you would want others to treat your children.” This idea has withstood the test of time, is a major idea of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism to name a few “religions.” (Though in Hinduism it’s a negative, as in do NOT do to others what you do NOT want them to do to you…

    Can this concept be proven right? Or wrong? NO! But does it offend the skeptic? Does it violate what you believe or want believe? Or the religious? If it were followed by everyone (please don’t bring in the insane) can you find huge problems? I haven’t, but my mind is open. I do not need to be right about everything not even anything! I often forget my name! But I like to think (and argue) for the sake and joy of the quest. I will happily debate both sides of an issue (not at the same time, but that might be fun) simply to encourage people to defend their beliefs! The rigor is what matters to me, not what they believe. Because I do believe we are closer than we think and the schisms are often illusory, and differences need not divide. I do have faith that the Universe is more amazing and (yes) benevolent than we can fathom. And I do believe that, like the Universe itself, that the “goodness” people want to believe is real, like the Universe itself. (ooohh I will go Eastern and say it “is” and it is “not! :} )

    WE MUST find a common place if we truly want things to be different and maybe better for ALL. And try build up from this common ground. The arguement and debate on who is right is a “fool’s errand!” If saying things that are the truth (assuming they are) then the world would be closer to what I know we all want. If spending money to fix things worked, nothing would be broken. If wars fixed things, then nothing would be broken. Let’s cast out what we know to fail and try things different, like not worrying about who is right, who is smarter, and what everyone else thinks must be stuffed down our throats for out own good!

    But what the heck do I know! What do YOU know! :}\

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