As I mentioned in an earlier TNET article (“Must H+ ALWAYS be Optimistic?”), I take issue with “painfully superficial and/or literal criticism of religion, mythology, and the arts”. I would like to take this opportunity to explore what I mean by that, and see what questions it raises.

Let me begin by saying: If someone asks me what I believe, and I have no reason to believe it’s going to be a richly associative or otherwise interesting conversation, I’ll keep it simple and simply say I’m an atheist. That’s probably closest to the truth, for most purposes. I don’t worship anything or anyone – I put my “faith” in the scientific method – and don’t need anything else.

But life isn’t all about need. For example, I don’t need art, but I love it. Similarly, there are many aspects to religious and spiritual thought which I admire on many levels. The details of my personal interests and predilections are a different matter, and incidental to my point here today… which is as follows:

Every once in a while I find myself confronted with a person who is a strident atheist (which is perfectly fine by me), but who also displays a disturbing lack of insight into the subtleties of reality and existence… which is a problem when that person is busily telling everyone else what is or is not real. I’m not talking about mysterious or esoteric things, just fairly simple phenomena like the word “real” itself, and its relationship with other basic concepts such as “fiction”.

To pick the most common example, particularly vocal atheists often say that “God is not real”, or “God does not exist”, which is fine by me… up until said atheist starts getting irritable because I dare to continue talking about [fictional entity X]. “But didn’t you hear me?” they say; “God isn’t real! You’re talking about Him/Her/It as if it exists!”. Whoa now, hold on there; I think we need to draw a distinction just to check you understand what these words mean, because you’re starting to sound about as rational and tolerant as your average ISIS convert…

The thing is, there’s a difference between something being (1) unreal, it (2) not existing at all, and it (3) being fictional.:

(1) is a messy term which could any number of things, which we don’t really have time to unpack here. Luckily it’s not the kind of term that overly-literal people tend to throw around in conversations like these.

(2) means that a posited entity does not exist on any level, in any way, shape or form.

(3) means that the entity exists, just in a way that makes it more like Donald Duck or James Bond than you or I.

Are you seeing the distinction, there? Between {nothing-at-all} and {character-in-a-book}? It’s an important distinction, because characters-in-books, such as Harry Potter or Allah, can have an awful lot of consequences in the “real” (whatever that means) world. And that’s the really interesting part, the reason why this was worth writing, and why it is worth reading and thinking about:

This idea, that even fictional entities are real in the sense that they have consequences is known as the Thomas Theorem, after D.S. & W.I. Thomas, being sociologists who stated that “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

In other words, if someone else believes in an entity’s existence and that belief is reflected in their actions, then you can get as indignant as you like but it won’t change the fact that on a certain level you are dealing with a real causal entity.

So, the next time someone tells you that this-or-that isn’t real, you may wish to ask them to clarify: Do they mean that it is fictional or in some sense less real than you and your conversational partner, or are they saying that the object of conversation enjoys no existence of any sort whatsoever and has no conceivable effect in the world?

If they don’t understand and you don’t feel comfortable simply running for the door, then ask them this question, to illustrate your point:

You: “Is Mickey Mouse real? Does Mickey Mouse exist?”

Exasperating conversant: “No, of course not.”

You: “Then why are you so sure that his shorts are red?