Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Faith and Imagination

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 9, 2010

I can well imagine an atheist’s last words: “White, white! L-L-Love! My God!”—and the deathbed leap of faith. Whereas the agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, “Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain,” and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story. (ch. 22)

The above quotation is taken from Life of Pi by Yann Martel. It tells the story of Pi, a deeply religious boy who embarks on a lifechanging spiritual journey.

Before I get to my thesis, I must point out that Martel has a poor definition of “atheist.” He assumes that atheists are faith-based or somehow irrational (I say irrational, he says “imaginative”), but agnostics are not. Atheism is not remotely faith-based. Nonbelief in God is a completely reasonable viewpoint, just as nonbelief is unicorns is a completely reasonable viewpoint. Why does Martel imply that atheists would have a sudden conversion on their deathbed? Are they, unlike agnostics, for some reason prone to blaming God for unexplained phenomena such as the white light Martel describes? That certainly doesn’t make any sense. It seems like all the people who blame God for unexplained phenomena are already theists. Neither an atheist nor an agnostic would so easily fall prey to the “God of the Gaps” fallacy as to see an unexplained white light and jump to the conclusion that it must be a divine intervention.

Yann Martel, or at least the character in his novel, does not seem to have a very high opinion of agnostics. He describes their rationality as “dry, yeastless factuality” and says that they “to the very end . . . miss the better story.” But to see the truth is not to miss the better story. The real world is quite an amazing place. I personally would be much more fascinated by the hallucinogenic effects of near death than by some strange supernatural white lights projected by God. Science tells just as good a story as religion, if not better. Those who are unable to see the beauty in the world are not lacking in imagination; they simply need to open their eyes.

As you may be able to tell, I am a big supporter of science, but that doesn’t mean I see anything wrong with imagination. I love reading stories (and writing about them). But there’s quite a difference difference between a story and a religion. When you read a story like Life of Pi or The Grapes of Wrath, you’re reading it in the proper context. You know that it’s not real. And that’s the problem with religion. Imagination by itself is just fine, and usually, more imagination is better than less; problems only start to arise when imagination gets in the way of the truth.

Imagination is a wonderful thing to have, but it’s important to distinguish fantasy from reality. When people are unable to tell the difference, they’re usually considered insane and put into mental institutions. It would seem that Martel is advocating insanity. He is not simply saying that we should exercise our imaginations — which of course is true — but that we should believe in our fantasies, and not to do so is to “miss the better story.” An atheist or agnostic could be lying on his deathbed and look at the white light and think, “imagine that that is God’s love shining down on me. What a wonderful story. It’s not true of course, but it makes for a great story.” That would be perfectly reasonable, but that is not what Martel is saying we should do. Martel, through Pi, tells us to lie to ourselves for the sake of a story.

Since Life of Pi is a novel Martel does not make any direct arguments, but gets his points across through Pi, his main character. Pi is deeply religious, but not in the conventional sense. He follows three religions simultaneously (Hinduism, Christianity and Islam) because he can see the advantages in each of them. People follow religion for many different reasons, but his reasons are particularly intriguing. He devoutly follows three religions because he loves the stories told by each of them.

How did Pi come to follow three faiths? Well, he was born a Hindu, and when he crossed paths with Christianity he was unimpressed — at first.

This Son . . . who goes hungry, who suffers from thirst, who gets tired, who is sad, who is anxious, who is heckled and harassed, who has to put up with followers who don’t get it and opponents who don’t respect Him — what kind of a god is that? It’s a god on too human a scale, that’s what. There are miracles, yes, mostly of a medical nature, a few to satisfy hungry stomachs; at best a storm is tempered, water is briefly walked upon. If that is magic, it is minor magic, on the order of card tricks. Any Hindu god can do a hundred times better. The Son is a god who spent most of His time telling stories, talking. This Son is a god who walked, a pedestrian god — and in a hot place, at that — with a stride like any human stride, the sandal reaching just above the rocks along the way; and when He splurged on transportation, it was a regular donkey. This Son is a god who died in three hours, with moans, gasps and laments. What kind of a god is that? What is there to inspire in this Son? (p. 70; ch. 17)

Despite his objections Pi finds Jesus’ story irresistible, and incorporates Christianity into his now-expanding list of religions. He doesn’t follow Christianity for any of the usual reasons: he wasn’t born into it, and he wasn’t attracted by the people or the principles or the philosophy. In the end, what really got him hooked was the story.

The story of Christianity is a very good one. But it is unacceptable for a story to get in the way of the truth. There is nothing “dry [and] yeastless” about reality; I would describe it as rich and diverse — or, if I were in a comedic mood, I’d call it wet and yeastful. Either way, it’s a great place to be. No matter what reality actually is, though, it’s important to stay grounded. Living in the clouds is a quick road to insanity. Realistically, most people with overactive imaginations could not be called insane; but substituting imagination for reality is nonetheless rarely a good idea. I hate to play this card, but I will anyway because it’s actually true this time: Hitler substituted imagination for reality by criminalizing the Jews. Dominant majorities often pretend that oppressed minorities are not really human, such as was done by millions of American slaveowners. If these people were in touch with reality, they would have been unable to justify their inhumane actions; it was only through creating fantasies that they were able to continue living at the expense of others.It’s not necessarily their fault: many white slaveowners were not malicious, they were just taught that blacks aren’t real people, and never had a reason to stop living in their convenient but inhumane fantasy.

Besides these injustices, living in fantasy is just less productive than staying realistic. Scientific progress does not come by living in the clouds. Imagination is an important ingredient in discovery, but there can be no discovery without a connection to reality. Even philosophy, which may seem to deal with the ethereal, cannot live off of fantasy alone. Instead of investigating the nature of life and death, as Martel’s agnostic does, he would rather that we simply insert God, thus bringing a halt to all further thought on the matter.

Imagination is a wonderful thing to have, but not when it gets in the way of reality. Yann Martel would have us discard the real world in favor of what he deems more interesting. I can hardly think of worse advice to give, considering all the injustices that have been caused by overactive fantasies taking the place of reality. Truth is far more important than “the better story.”


Martel, Yann. Life of Pi. Orlando: Harcourt, 2001. Print.


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