Moral Fictions: Wanting What You Can’t (Won’t) Have

Moral fictions are concepts whose use is ironical but is not known to be so by those who use them.
Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, 24

Religion can easily become a moral fiction—this thing that we convince ourselves is truly true but beyond the confines of our holy huddle remains empty, a wish fulfillment, a self-projection. We want so badly for it to be true, so much so that we become religious hypochondriacs, believing something (or at least convincing ourselves that we do) to our own detriment.

In the show How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby is telling his children the story of how he met their mother. But eight seasons in, we still have caught nothing but a glimpse of her ankle and the myth of a yellow umbrella. The show claims to be about one thing (meeting your mother) but remains a moral fiction. It is a show fueled by desire, overcoming mishaps with the character’s hope of finding love and the viewer’s hope that the title will someday come true.

In our religiosity we fuel ourselves in the same way, creating God out of our desires, projecting the divine onto the daily with the hopes of attaining certainty and satisfaction. When all the while, as Peter Rollins writes in The Idolatry of God, “This idea of God as the fulfillment of our desires is so all-pervasive today that most of us take it for granted. Whether people accept the idea of God or reject it, they seem to be talking about the same thing: a being who satisfies our soul by filling the gap in our existence. The only conflict is that some people reject this god-product as fiction while others accept it.”

God is the Love that satisfies our wishes, our emotional wants; he is himself the realized wish of the heart, the wish exalted to the certainty of its fulfillment, of its reality, to that undoubting certainty before which no contradiction of the understanding, no difficulty of experience or of the external world, maintains its ground. Certainty is the highest power for man; that which is certain to him is the essential, the divine.
Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, 121

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  1. Chris Williams February 20, 2013

    I think I am guilty of internalising CS Lewis’ argument from need. If there is no eternal satisfaction to my deepest longings that cannot be fulfilled in this life then there might be no point in my existence where my longings are completely satisfied. Perhaps I can help satisfy the longings of others nonetheless. Emptying the ocean one thimble at a time? Perhaps, but that’s useful romanticism, and the best protest against the void, if that is all there is, I have.

  2. Rachel February 20, 2013

    God transcends any one person or collectivity’s (?) projection. I see God as the point of an umbrella. God is the summit and all encompassing. The parasol of the umbrella is humanity and our various ways to “be” and to celebrate our divine nature (humanity’s expression of religion). Those who are able to bypass the human definitions of God get to experience God who isn’t definable, and therefore not exclusive. As humans, we create convenient spaces for God that justify our collective identity our moral fiction. Religion, for me, was a stepping stone in my continuing journey of understanding God.

    • Dan February 20, 2013

      Thanks Rachel, it seems like we humans are more interested in getting it all “sorted out” while God is content to allow life to happen as it should with all of its complexities. Thanks for sharing.

    • Chuck February 20, 2013

      God who isn’t definable looks an awful lot like a non-entity.

  3. Dan February 20, 2013

    Early on in life I believed at a deep level that I was loved by God. But, then I began to run into walls of resistance in my life. My idea of loving God expressed itself in obedience to His commands. That was coupled with the belief that though I had received sonship in His family through faith in Jesus Christ, I could forfeit that sonship by my disobedience. Because it was always unclear when that might happen, I became very confused over when I was still God’s child and when I was on the outside… once again an orphan. My “moral fictions” revolve around a Father God who is generous and inviting and inclusive as long as you obey. Should you disobey, you are no longer His child and you are doing life outside of his blessing and maybe outside of His protection. This naturally results in much confusion and tons of energy being invested in managing and trying to control life on a daily basis as well as much condemnation, fear and shame. The narrative I have always longed for is a God who is on the side of humanity and the created world, who entered it most powerfully as a human being in order to restore it to life… not the type of life with no challenges but rather a life where challenges are celebrated and engaged with passion. There is a new hope rising in me that Jesus may be more than I thought he was :) There is new hope rising in me that I will work through my issues and that John 1:1-9 is real… If I receive Jesus without having to clearly define who He is… allowing Him to stay with me through all of my disobedience and mess-ups without condemnation… I will actually learn to live as a child of God and discover existentially what that means… heres hoping!

    • NateW February 22, 2013

      This is awesome Dan, thanks for sharing. I’ve been through a similar series of thoughts. This might sound weird, but I’d really encourage you to dive into the music of Bob Dylan, especially from his 1997 album “Time out of Mind” and later. His overall theme since then has been a sort of religionless Christianity, that is, an inexplicable faith in the love and mercy of Christ as one who holds the unfaithful rather than as one who is held in by the faithful.

      • Dan February 22, 2013

        Thanks Nate! I will check out some of his recordings from that time. i just started reading “How not to speak of God” and was taken with the idea that we are held in faith and we tend to do the holding when it comes to theology. Hope you have an awesome day and thanks for the comment.

      • Chuck February 22, 2013

        LOVE Bob.

  4. Chuck February 20, 2013

    It comes down to epistemology. Theology is not based on an objective methodology but rather it is a process of discourse that uses emotional appeals and subjective truth. This makes all religion (even this exercise in practicing atheism for lent) a fiction. Someone above referenced CS Lewis. It isn’t surprising that a professor of myth is one of the most quotable Christian apologists.

    Walter Kaufmann, a philosopher of religion states it well, “Indeed, [theologians] resemble lawyers in two ways. In the first place, they accept books and traditions as data that it is not up to them to criticize. They can only hope to make the best of these books and traditions by selecting the most propitious passages and precedents; and where the law seems to them harsh, inhuman, or dated, all they can do is have recourse to exegesis.

    Secondly, many theologians accept the morality that in many countries governs the conduct of the counsel for the defense. Ingenuity and skillful appeals to the emotions are considered perfectly legitimate; so are attempts to ignore all the inconvenient evidence, as long as one can get away with it, and the refusal to engage in inquiries that are at all likely to discredit the predetermined conclusion: that the client is innocent. If all else fails, one tries to saddle one’s opponent with the burden of disproof; and as a last resort one is content with a reasonable doubt that after all the doctrines that one has defended might be true.”

    What is the foundation upon which you assert that god is real? If it is the holy books of your religious tradition then it might be useful to interrogate that data and determine if its conclusions are justified.

    • Ecology-Man February 20, 2013


      You make some interesting points. I cannot deny that emotional appeals are often used in the development and furtherance of theology, however, your assertion that this “makes all religionn […] a fiction” hardly follows. Going off of your comparison between theologians and lawyers, if a lawyer defends an innocent person and operates using emotional appeals to convince the jury of his/her client’s innocence, does that negate the truth that the client is, in fact, innocent? I think we can both agree that it would not. All that to say, yes, theology is not something that can be objectively verified, but this fact does not in anyway speak to its actual truthfulness or lack thereof.

      You are right to point out the tendency of religious persons to ignore inconvenient evidence. We are often hesitant to deal with issues that may be uncomfortable, and that must change (part of the very purpose of this website, after all).

      As to the foundation upon which I assert that God is real (speaking only for myself), I suppose it’s as simple as waking up in the morning and seeing the sun in the sky, and thinking “what a marvelous universe, it must have been crafted by an Artist.” Of course, one can just as easily respond to the same stimulus without any such conviction, but again, the validity of this belief is thoroughly beyond the reach of argument.

      • Chuck February 20, 2013

        You assert god is real based on a subjective feeling that doesn’t correspond to facts. We know the sun will mature and consume our solar system in heat death. We also know through nuclear physics that stars do not require a creator. Your subjective feeling is just an emotional appeal you choose to be basic. Even if this were epistemically sound, you’d have trouble defining which god was the artist within your natural theology. Pick up a book on cosmology or biology and see how your argument is one of incredulity. It is a “just so” story you tell yourself. There is nothing more there for me to accept.

        • Ecology-Man February 20, 2013

          We certainly do know that the sun will consume our solar system. We also know that stars are formed spontaneously within a material universe. But where did that universe come from? You have no more facts to assert that it was self-generated or eternal than I have to assert that it was created by a divine being. The truth is, Chuck, that as much as my belief in a supernatural Being does not “correspond to facts,” neither does your denial of His existence.

          • Chuck February 20, 2013

            We live in an intellectual age that defines knowledge based on probability, not possibility.

            It may be possible that a supernatural being created the cosmos but based on what we’ve discovered of these cosmos it is not as probable as natural causes to that event.

            Your argument from ignorance to the origins of the cosmos is less compelling than the theoretical work done by men like Laurence Krauss.

          • Chuck February 20, 2013

            And I don’t deny the existence of gods. I am agnostic on that question. I simply live my life as if no god exists. I am an agnostic atheist. The evidence does not support the definition of the gods that have been presented to me thus far. Now, if you are arguing for Spinoza’s god then I could agree with that. But I don’t think you are arguing for that.

    • Alex February 20, 2013

      Chuck, many Christian seminaries or Christian schools do have this habit of trying to defend the gospel through emotional appeal and tradition, shunning all evidence that would discredit their beliefs. On the other hand, Christians are a diverse bunch. There are quite a handful of theologians who accept evolution, reject the too-much promoted idea that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, believe that sin and death are realities of human existence (NOT the result of a man named Adam. In fact, many debate whether he was historical at all), and so on. These theologians aren’t crackpots holding their own secret church gatherings on Sunday. They are evangelicals sitting next to you in the pew at church.

      • Chuck February 20, 2013


        I am well aware of progressive Christianity. I find it to be less intellectually honest than fundamentalism.

        The reverence it gives unfalsifiable tenets of faith is exactly that of the fundamentalists. The conclusions might be different but the reverence given gives cover to and provides social status to the fundamentalists.

        Sorry, the epistemology between the two is the same. Asserting on faith what is real. That process is a net-negative in an enlightened age that benefits from evidence based thinking.

      • Ryan February 20, 2013

        Chuck, I think you make a lot of broad claims to knowledge that are at best still areas of great debate. I mean nothing by this but to only make an observation that may help you see yourself better – your “god shaped hole” seems to be your own intellect, and you appear to be grasping at the same certainty (and satisfaction) that this project is aiming to dislodge us from. Perhaps I am off base, but it is an observation based on your comments. On the otherside, your critiques are obviously welcomed since that is the methodology of this event! Peace to you

        • Chuck February 20, 2013

          Please elaborate. I don’t understand your meaning

  5. Njb10e February 20, 2013

    Going by what I know from the teachings of Jesus, any notion I associate with God that interferes with my ability to see myself or others as valuable is probably a moral fiction. The biggest ideas I have had to get rid of in my life about God are the ones that make me see life as a burden, myself as a burden, and especially others as a burden.

    • Chuck February 20, 2013

      Which teachings of Jesus? You can’t be talking about those that separate humans into wheat and chaff in support of his Doctrine of Hell?

  6. Peter February 20, 2013

    The idea of God as Moral Fiction made me think of the use of the MacGuffin in Script Writing ~ an object or goal desired by the Protagonist that they will do almost anything to obtain or control with little indication in the script why they consider the MacGuffin important. The MacGuffin is actually incidental to the narrative as the characters develop, but becomes a convenient method to drive the plot forward at various points.

    Examples would be trying to find the meaning of Rosebud in Citizen Kane, the Maltese Falcon or the Crystal Skull in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

    What if the pursuit of God is simply the MacGuffin that drives our life forward at various points in the narrative, and the important thing is not God (with all the hope and satisfaction god puportedly brings) but the life that happens between these points?

    Hmmm I need to ponder this one.

    • Chuck February 20, 2013

      If that were true why would it god an ontological reality?

  7. Rev February 20, 2013

    I think God is humanity’s collective idealization of a supernatural parent. Once I got that off my chest I felt free to explore what’s going on with me without having to bounce it off the God sounding board.

    • Chuck February 20, 2013

      Psychological data indicates god is a heuristic derived from our brain’s pattern discernment and agency making abilities. It is by-product of those evolutionary advantages and motivates social bonding. You can see evidence in the % of Catholics who attend church while ignoring the anathema towards birth control. We crave belonging. It doesn’t mean god is real.

  8. Rudolph February 20, 2013

    I have created God to be my happy place. My security. My place of escape. I have been so busy creating god, instead of learning how god created me.

  9. Will February 20, 2013

    I believe the “moral fiction” of religion is based on mankind’s need to belong. The MacGuffin or the Idol of completeness that does not exist but is perpetuated by religious ideals, as well as Hollywood and every other manufacturers of fairy tales. Quite simply I do believe that a great designer exists, perhaps and very likely, not in the form many believe in but a better architect. Whether in the designer’s view mankind’s daily and mundane life is of any significance, I’m not convinced.

    I don’t know that the emptiness exists to be filled, it exists due to our tribal nature and our need to belong. By nature (or by design) mankind is not a solitary creature tribalism is alive and well and present all around us. What to do with the emptiness is my question. Moral fiction is still fiction, regardless of the shape it takes.

  10. Abe February 20, 2013

    To the moderators of this site, if there are any:

    There are discussions being held on this blog, but there doesn’t seem to be any like moderator, or person that is guiding the commentors to something. Or even trying to make a point out of all the things that are being said. And I think that would be important here.

    Just my opinion though.

    • admin February 20, 2013


      Thanks for the note. We weren’t quite sure what the online conversation for this would be. But seeing it take off as it has, we’ll regroup as a team and see what we can do to keep things as helpful and focused as possible.

  11. dudebernard February 20, 2013

    Sometimes I feel that if only God will grant me certainty THEN I will be able to anything. Without certainty, a guarantee, I feel as though I might be walking along a road that he has not intended. I’s so hard walking into the unknown. Best answer I have gotten was that it’s ok to be scared of doing things. Just do it, scared.

  12. Alf Barreiro February 21, 2013

    I think American Christianity, as it gathers weekly in buildings, is a moral fiction. Where they hope that as they focus on God and themselves that many (maybe even a few) would be attracted to what is happening and come to know God.

    I believe Christianity is more ‘real’ when the few go out, and bring God to those that don’t have God. As opposed to the many getting together to engage with God, and hoping that those not really interested in the activities of Christians would somehow come and meet God.

  13. Anthony February 21, 2013

    @chuck. Thanks for helping us give up ‘god’ for lent. Your thoughts on religion have been manna. Thanks.

    • Chuck February 21, 2013

      Thanks and you are welcome.

  14. Angelo February 21, 2013

    I can’t understand why when we talk about god it must all come to ‘evidence’, ‘data’, ‘science’ and ‘evolution’.
    Occidental history of thought and philosophy has – in some ways – separated these fields.
    Ever heard about Kant?

    But, even if we take atheists as Nietzsche, they also agree there is no such thing as ‘objectivity’ or ‘absolute truth’ or whatever.
    So please, even if the sharing here is being very helpful and interesting, let’s try to stay in the field of what we are discussing.

    We’re not talking about ‘objective evidence’ of god and, of course, we are talking about ‘feelings’.
    If we aim to be really ‘objective’, then we must start with the most objective thing in the world: our body – our bodies.
    Our bodies are feelings, sensations, perceptions – surely they are not math or numbers.

    ‘Cause, ultimately, the reality in which human beings live is a subjective construction
    (derivation of by body-to-body and body-to-nature interactions based on subjective perception).

    So no, we cannot prove god (even if Godel has done it, logically and mathematically – but that’s another story…),
    but we can not even prove ‘prove’ itself – the scientific prove/method, based on math, must be postulated and cannot be ‘proved’
    (as Godel has ‘proved’ that math cannot be itself ‘proved’) – ‘prove’ and ‘science’ is our culture’s way to relate to reality, not THE way.

    So we don’t need to prove god.
    We can just postulate him and be well with that.
    And then living with or without it – with or without god (theist or atheist).

    After that – and here I am with Nietzsche again – we start to deconstruct and to expose some ideas of god.
    We start to unmask them. And we do that in order to reconstruct and to define some others.
    Maybe going over this process again and again and again.

    I think that’s what we’re trying to do here.

    • Chuck February 21, 2013

      I can only speak for myself but practicing the principle of parsimony keeps me humble. Much more so than interpreting my numinous feelings as signals from supernatural agents. Sorry, based on the false positives attributed to dead gods throughout time, this era’s god is probably just as dead.

      And yes I have heard of Kant and Godel, neither of which make the probability that your feelings offer evidence to god reasonable.

      • Angelo February 21, 2013

        I think I wasn’t very able to make my point clear – English is not my first language.

        Still, you’re a great interlocutor, so thanks for your always clear replies.

        • Chuck February 21, 2013

          You were clear Angelo.

          Thanks for not getting angry with me simply because I have a different take on the issue.

          That is not always the case for people who claim a relationship with god (not sure if that what your claim is so apologies if I am wrong).

          I enjoy the dialogue.

  15. jcandito February 22, 2013

    With the death of God, Nietzsche wasn’t just burying the Christian God (as you know he was just pointing out that we killed God ourselves with the insistence on truth) but the sounding a death knell to modernity in all its expressions. Hegelian thought, Marxism, Darwinism, positivism and materialism, and traditional moral values have all lost their value and meaning and cannot offer the security and satisfaction of “certainty”.

    Relying on “evidence” or reasonableness can be just as much a crutch and illusion as relying on God to steady of nerves. We are thrown into a world we didn’t create and must do our best to deal with what is in front of nose.

    • Chuck February 22, 2013

      Interesting thoughts. Have you read any JJ Altzizer and his Christian Atheism?

    • Angelo February 22, 2013

      Excellent point.
      Exactly what I tried to say.

  16. Miriam February 22, 2013

    There seems to be a human sense of a creative force thats beyond our human existence because apart from sexual reproduction, there must be a creator that put us here to procreate in the first place mustn’t there? The moral fictions are the stories we create to explain ourselves to ourselves and there’s also the habit of invoking god as a dumping ground for all manner of misdeameanors and desires – blame, responsibility, assistance, rescue etc. When I think of life as us dependent on each other, with no god, life is more challenging, insecure. We have to mediate/negotiate our power imbalances & privileges. With god, no mediation/negotiation is necessary cos we are not on common ground with the gods. god is easy. With each other is where all the growing needs to get done.thats hard.

    • Chuck February 23, 2013

      The Burgess Shale work indicates that if we rewind the script then humans as we know ourselves to be would not be inevitable. It seems post-hoc to interpret the correlation of god concepts along evolutionary time as the cause of our evolution.

  17. Kid a March 8, 2014

    Modernity itself works with fictions/myths too: the primacy of repetition, the objectification of the human and subsequently, progress at any cost. Continue firing atoms at each other and creating irrevocable damage to the fabric of our universe. Continue using hoards of energy to further our knowledge of subjects to which we know no consequence. Continue building a Babylon of tech that we can intentionally and unintentionally use to destroy the less fortunate. That is the moral fiction of modernity: progress.

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