The Fallacy of Fictionalism
Why would an atheist pretend God exists—and even pray?
Scott Hershovitz is a philosophy professor and director of law and ethics at the University of Michigan. He grew up in a practicing Jewish home, feels attached to his Judaism, prays in the synagogue, fasts on Yom Kippur, has a son studying for his Bar Mitzvah, and doesn’t believe in God. Neither does his son.
“I am a fictionalist about God,” he wrote in a New York Times guest essay titled “How to Pray to a God You Don’t Believe In.” “I pretend,” he said. “And I don’t plan to stop.”
Fiction can take different forms. It can transport us to Narnia (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Mordor (The Lord of the Rings), and the USS Enterprise (Star Trek). It can make us laugh, cry, and certainly relax with the Bennets (Pride and Prejudice) and the Dashwoods (Sense and Sensibility). For some of us, certain fiction was mandatory, as we spent time with Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare).
But fictionalist? I had never heard the term. So I went to encyclopedia.com to do a little research. A fictionalist is “one who aims to secure the benefits of talking as if certain kinds of things exist—numbers, moral properties, possible worlds, composite objects, or whatever—while avoiding commitment to believing in their existence.”
In other words, Hershovitz is an atheist who pretends God exists because it makes him feel better. He doesn’t know God. He doesn’t know how to know God. He may not even want to know God. Why? Because, like most compassionate people, he struggles with evil in the world, as does his son.
“The world is awful at the moment,” he wrote. “Millions have died of Covid-19 [sic]. Authoritarianism is on the rise, abroad and at home. And now there’s war, with all the death, destruction and dislocation that [it] entails.” His son feels that, if God existed, He would stop the suffering, or at least mitigate it. So, Scott Hershovitz seeks “refuge in religious rituals.”
Believers in Jesus Christ are by no means immune to suffering. But we have something Scott doesn’t have: a personal relationship with the living God that comes from reading His Word, which is “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). Taking God at His word is what we call faith. Reading the Bible and believing it leads to saving faith. God promises, “You will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
The Scriptures teach us who God is and how much He loves us. Through them, He tells us what separates us from Him (sin, Isa. 59:2), how to get close to Him (Jn. 3:3), the importance of repentance (Lk. 13:5), how we’re forgiven (Eph. 1:7), and what the future holds (1 Cor. 15:51–54).
Even those of us who have come to God through Christ often struggle with the existence of evil, pain, and adversity. But He tells us we’ll never understand everything:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9).
Once you have a real relationship with God, you don’t have to pretend and seek refuge in rituals. You can do as King David did and seek refuge in God Himself (Ps. 62:7).
Sadly, fictionalism isn’t confined to Hershovitz. There are church-going fictionalists as well. Philip Goff, a British philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK, says, “The contentious claims of religion, such as ‘God exists’ or ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ are all, strictly speaking, false.”
Though he doesn’t believe in the doctrines of Christianity, he believes the practice of faith is more important than believing in supernatural claims. For Goff, “God is a useful fiction.”1
Goff and Hershovitz believe religious pretending makes the world better. But pretending to worship a God you deny is dangerous business. The writer of Hebrews warned, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
This is the time of year our Jewish friends celebrate Hanukkah (December 18) and Christians celebrate Christmas. Lighting the hanukkiah (nine-branched Hanukkah menorah) reminds us that a promise-keeping God has vowed to preserve the Jewish people forever (Jer. 31:35–36). “And it shall come to pass, that as I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to throw down, to destroy, and to afflict, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD” (v. 28). “I will assuredly plant them in this land [Israel], with all My heart and with all My soul” (32:41).
God’s faithfulness to keep His promises is the only reason the Jewish people exist today. They’ve been among the most persecuted people on the face of the Earth and are so few in number that it’s truly by divine intervention they have not been destroyed.
Over the millennia, many have tried to destroy them. The Seleucids’ attempt and the Jewish people’s miraculous victory produced Hanukkah—which Hershovitz no doubt plans to celebrate. With that victory, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob preserved (yet again) His Chosen People, through whom the Messiah and Savior of the world would come.
This year Christmas falls on Sunday, the day Christians meet to worship. We will remember our Savior’s birth, along with the fact that God used the Jewish prophet Isaiah to reveal the event more than 700 years before it took place. Contrary to what fictionalists say, Jesus is capable of fixing the world—and will do so when He returns.
Currently, Jesus is redeeming individuals—not through empty, fictitious, religious activity, but through the power of the Holy Spirit. Those of us who come to faith in Christ have a relationship with the living God that brings us joy, peace, hope, and the assurance of life everlasting. Who needs to pretend? We have the real thing; and I can’t help but feel the real thing is what Mr. Hershovitz longs for as well. He just doesn’t know where to find it.
Genuine faith in the living God comes by God’s grace: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
Being a fictionalist may sound interesting and intellectual. But it cannot heal the human heart. Only the Lord can do so when we come to Him in faith. Fictionalism is just another sad commentary on the human condition. Pretending is no substitute for the real thing—a genuine relationship with the true and living God.
- Andrew Silow-Carroll/JTA, “Religion for non-believers: It’s a Jewish thing–opinion,” The Jerusalem Post, June 20, 2022 (jpost.com/opinion/article-709866).