On Knowing the Difference Between Fantasy and Reality

The Accommodation/Framing/Moderate/New Atheist/Whatever discussion rages on…

Greg Laden has written post about how Accommodationists and New Atheists Sail in the Same Boat. Jason, at Lousy Canuck weighs in with his analysis in Two boats tethered together on a lake. Stephanie Zvan has written an interesting take on a part of the discussion with Mere Factual Accuracy at Quiche Moraine. Tangled Up in Blue Guy has Accommodation and New Atheism in Brief. CyberLizard has Can’t we all just get along?. Many other excellent posts are out there, and if you follow the links from these and other posts, I’m sure you’ll find both the posts and the comments very interesting.

This post rambles quite a bit. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a philosopher. I’m a geeky atheist with a fervent interest in science and reality.

Where We Get Our Rules

I’d like to delve into another part of this situation that I’ve been thinking about lately. Recent polls from around the globe indicate that the number of people who consider themselves atheists has been on the increase for several years. There are a at least a couple of possibilities for these poll results: More people are becoming atheists, leaving their religious beliefs behind them; More people who already considered themselves atheists now feel more comfortable acknowledging the fact than they have in previous years. Some of the poll results indicate that younger generations are much more likely to be atheists.

Why are more people becoming atheists? Perhaps a better question might be “Why are more people not turning to religion?” I think part of the answer to these questions might have something to do with what people know about rules, and how they acquired that knowledge. This may be relevant to the question of how science can be presented to the public.

What kinds of rules am I talking about? I’m talking about all kinds of rules, whether they be something like “You’d better be home by eight o’clock or you’ll be grounded for a week!“, or perhaps “The sidewalk is hard concrete, and if you fall on it you’re likely to skin your knee.“, or maybe “Fire is hot, and if you touch it you’ll get burned.“, or even “Having sex before marriage is a sin, and if you do it you’ll go to hell!” or “If you get caught smoking that joint you’re going to end up in jail!“.

Where do we learn these rules that help guide our lives to one degree or another? Often these rules are dictated to us by a person who has some degree of authority in our lives, particularly our parents. Others in our lives also provide rules for us: teachers, religious leaders, political leaders, police officers, and employers for example. Sometimes these rules are presented to us by the media in one form or another.

Some rules, like those about physical dangers, or about going to jail for something illegal, can also be learned “the hard way”. We learn that some rules only apply if we “get caught”. Other rules, such as “If you let go of that rock, it will fall to the ground.” are based firmly in physical laws that govern our universe, and really can’t be avoided. A few rules, such as “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.“, may seem somewhat vague in terms of what effect they have on your life, somehow resulting in punishment after life ends.

Nearly everyone will freely acknowledge the rules that are readily apparent to us. Rules given to us by someone who we see as an authority figure are probably accepted to a degree that corresponds to the amount of authority we give to that person.

Rules Outside of the Real World

This is the point where I’m probably going to lose a lot of you with “What the hell is he talking about?” references. *grin*

Science Fiction and Fantasy are extremely popular genres in many types of media. The Science Fiction genre is sometimes called Speculative Fiction, as the stories presented are often seen as “what if…” situations. Both of these genres give users a glimpse into a world that the author has created for their story. Each of these worlds also have their own set of rules which may be vastly different from those we have learned in the “real world”.

Readers quickly find fault with a story that runs afoul of the rules the author has set up for their world. In Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of The Rings, Gandalf is a powerful wizard. What if he had simply teleported Frodo and The Ring to Mount Doom? Yes, the story would have been rather short, but Tolkien would have immediately lost his audience, as this would violate rules (though not specifically laid out) governing Gandalf’s magical abilities. In Star Trek, warp drive can transport a starship across vast distances in a relatively short amount of time. By its own rules, however, it still takes time. It is not instantaneous travel. (I believe it’s actually the velocity of light to the third power.) If a story involving travel to a position that should take 9 days instead shortened the time to only 4 days, the readers would, in time, spot the discrepancy and cry foul.

In modern video games (a media form that has been growing steadily for several years), rules also apply to the world in which the player finds him or her self. The player character may only be able to run at a certain maximum speed, or jump to a certain height or length. These rules are expected to be applied consistently throughout the game. If not, the gameplay becomes more of a frustration than the enjoyment the player was looking for. Sometimes the rules are laid out in a guidebook. Sometimes the player learns the rules and limits only by playing. Others who have already played the game can explain the rules and limits to the player.

Bringing Our Expectations Back to Reality

With several generations of people having grown up reading science fiction and fantasy, and now clamoring for the latest video games, people have come to expect a certain amount of consistency in the rules governing the worlds they find themselves in through the various media. Could they be coming to expect the same consistency from rules in the “real world”?

It has probably always been true that each older generation claims that the younger generation has a lack of respect for authority. In today’s world, where anyone with a cell phone camera can snap a photo that could be seen by millions of people around the world that same day, authority and the rules they dictate (and the repercussions of those rules) have become much more transparent. Lack of consistency in these “real world” rules is causing many to “cry foul”.

Is religion seen by more people as having rules which are not consistent with reality? Rules having consequences which are not even experienced in life seem to have little impact on reality. Rules which seem to have no true authority other than “God said so” garner respect only from the truly devout.

People who are brought up in life being told that “God’s Law” always supersedes the laws of man believe it fervently. The devout believe truly and honestly that Jesus Christ died and was resurrected three days later. In scientific circles, I doubt that you would find many biologists who believe this is literally possible. But what of those who become biologists after being raised in a religious home, where the Bible was described to them as the unerring word of God? How do they reconcile their scientific knowledge with their deeply held religious beliefs?

People who have no religious faith should have no difficulty in seeing that the rules for a world within a novel, movie, or video game only apply within that fantasy world, and not in the real world. What of those who are given rules from their religion? With a lifetime of indoctrination into a world where rules are given from an authority without any evidence, can they truly separate fantasy from reality? How do they deal with inconsistencies or lack of a basis in physical reality within the rules, other than to deny their existence?

I think that religion has created a set of rules that apply within their scripture in the same way that an author creates rules that apply to his fictional world. Unlike the author of a novel, religion expects its rules to be adhered to in the real world, outside of its scripture. Its rules are not to be questioned. To question them is “a sin”.

What Next For Science?

I think that in order for science to gain further acceptance today and by future generations, the authority of the scientific experts needs to be demonstrated to the public. People need to learn ways to understand the science behind the pronouncements in today’s news. The consistency required for acceptance needs to be shown to the general public. The rules of the scientific method need to be explained in ways that even a first-grade student can understand. Without that knowledge, and without the transparency, and without that understanding, science will be as useful to some as reading from the Bible.


  1. Yes, religion not only expects its rules to be obeyed in the real world, but because it is “Truth” and not fiction, its rules are to be followed by non-adherents. People should be allowed to stand up and say “I am not playing your game, I don’t need to follow your rules nor even agree that they make sense.”

    Good take on the issue, Dan, and thanks for the linkback.

  2. Likewise, since reality doesn’t have its own Game Genie / Action Replay, someone doesn’t get to rewrite the rules we’ve discovered and have to abide by.

    I have to wonder if it’s just because of my own video game predilections that I happen to love this post, or if it’s actually hit upon some wider truth that needs to be yelled from the rafters. “You religious folks are trying to cheat at the rules of reality with your crazy beliefs! That’s no fair to the rest of us that have to base our understanding of reality, on reality itself!”

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