Of Stories and Beliefs

So far, there have been two topics that I’ve generally avoided on the blog: politics, and religion. And while I’ve skirted the “politics” rule a few times, now it’s time to skirt the “religion” one, because this is something I’ve wanted to write a post about for a while– not religion itself, but the relationship between truth, stories, and beliefs. Keep in mind this is just one fellow’s perspective on things. That said… onward.

It’s a question that I sometimes hear asked of writers: “how do your beliefs influence your stories?” It’s usually asked in a religious context, but even so, it’s still a broad question. And there are various ways to interpret and answer it, not to mention all the corollaries that spin off, like:

-“Do you let your beliefs inform your works?”
-“Do you try to avoid any appearance of bias toward your own beliefs?”
-“How does an atheist author write a Christian character, or vice versa?”

I generally describe myself as “nonreligious,” which is a more polite word for “atheist.” I’m not a strident atheist; my beliefs are my own, and I don’t begrudge anybody their beliefs as long as they don’t try to foist them on me (see: the religious right). In fact, my own beliefs tend more toward what most people would call “agnostic.” I don’t believe in a lack of god, so much as I lack a belief in god.

But I’m not writing this to debate labels, or to debate the wisdom of my own viewpoint. Rather, I’m writing this so you know where I’m coming from when I talk about how we tell stories.

When I first moved to Seattle, I dipped my toe in a few organized atheist and skeptic groups, looking to meet new people. But I realized that I didn’t relate to most folks there quite as well as I thought I would. Having more or less dedicated my life to creative writing, I was no longer as captivated by the facts of reality, as by the possibilities of reality.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that there are people interested in the rational study of how the world works. They become scientists, and researchers, and are responsible for a large chunk of modern progress.

But I’m a writer, and moreso, a writer of speculative fiction: I don’t write about how things are, I write about how things might yet be, or how things might have been, if the world or the universe had been a little bit different. My stories are mostly fiction, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have truth in them. I think fiction, in its highest form, is merely a tool to tell the truth about something: whether about the world, or our own humanity, or love, or… anything, really. All fiction does this to some degree– you can’t write a story without saying something— but in my opinion, the best fiction recognizes and harnesses it, and even amidst the elements of fantasy, it reveals truth.

A lot of religious writing– the parables Jesus tells in the Bible, for example– are fictional stories designed to tell truths. But unfortunately, most religious writing doesn’t present itself as fiction. It presents itself as history. And so the truth of the writing gets lost in a debate about the facts of the writing. Which, in the end, partly helps to explain why I’m not religious any more. Some religious stories do have truths to reveal, but to subscribe to a religion means not just to enjoy the stories it tells, it means buying into an entire worldview, and subscribing to various “facts” that are often only peripherally related to the truths within the stories. I’d rather leave facts to the world’s scientists, and truth– well, I’ll leave truth to the world’s storytellers.

One thing I often do as a writer is to change the nature of reality within a story– perhaps in one story God is a biological entity; perhaps in another God is a pool of consciousness, from which individual souls split off like droplets of water; and perhaps in a third story God doesn’t exist at all. Perhaps in one God is a bad guy. I love to experiment, to change these “starting conditions,” as it were, and see how the people and worlds in my stories are affected as a result.

I suppose, in a sense, this is my own exploration of reality, sort of a hybrid of imagination and rationalism. In the crucible of fiction, I perform experiments with the characters, and my scientific and creative sides blend. Each story is like its own little trial run of reality, a petri dish where I can add a mix of ingredients and see how they grow. And hopefully, in the end, each one will produce a truth– not facts, or beliefs, but little nuggets of truth.

At the highest level of storytelling, that’s what I strive for. Even when I’m throwing chupacabras in the petri dish.

So, if you ever want to have a discussion with me about truth, I’d rather you didn’t talk to me about beliefs. But tell me a story, and listen to mine, and then perhaps we’ll be a few steps closer to understanding each other.