The Devil’s Advocate: On the Utility of Theistic Concepts and Myths for Psychologically-minded Atheists

Luc P. Beaudoin will present at the monthly Beacon Unitarian humanist meeting on Feb 27, 2022. From an atheist perspective, we will explore the Possible Utility of Theistic Concepts and Myths in particular for Personal Development and Leading a Good Life. Here we narrow our scope to deliberate self-directed learning, ignoring formal (top-down) education, politics and organized religion.

We will draw on integrative cognitive science in an attempt to systematically (but briefly) frame possible psychological responses to theistic fiction. Thus, we will

  • explore possible functions, personal benefits and evolutionary history of narrative and story (e.g., why do humans like stories so much? What benefits might outweigh the obvious costs of indulging in stories?);
  • consider obstacles to knowledge-based personal transformation (cognitive inertia, difficulties of transfer of learning, etc.) (cf. chapter 3 of Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective);
  • acknowledge that no story is intrinsically transformative, let alone usefully transformative;
  • consider means by which we can be transformed by factual [non fiction] knowledge (cf. chapters 7, 14 & 15 of Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective);
  • consider proposed means by which fiction (& narrative more generally) operates
  • discuss potentially useful theistic stories and how to learn from them.

There’s much more material than we can cover in a brief presentation and discussion! The information below provides some context for anyone who wants to prepare. The presentation itself might be recorded and published on youtube. This information will also expanded upon in Discontinuities: Love, Art, Mind (though there will only be one chapter on theistic fiction).

We will draw on ideas from psychologists of fiction/narrative including Agnus Fletcher, Jordan B. Peterson, Keith Oatley, Timothy Wilson, and Beaudoin. We’ll also reference Brian Boyd, Northrop Frye Stephen Fry, and French fries (just kidding). (See references).

What we are after here is whether we can, and if so then specifically how can one, use specific theistic stories to become in specific ways better people. And we wish to understand what the mechanisms of such benefits would be. For instance,

  • Agnus Fletcher proposes that effective stories involve technologies that operate on cognition and “emotions”. He claims thinking in general is narrative, rather than a mere subset of thinking.
  • Brian Boyd points to stories as operating via/on attention.
  • Geoffrey Miller suggests that the usefulness (and evolutionary cause) of producing and understanding art (including stories) is at least partly due to social signalling and sexual selection: the ability to understand and produce art is attractive to sexual mates (and peers); it is a proxy for competence and good genes.

Beaudoin will argue that there are significant obstacles to learning from any story which also apply to learning from theistic stories. The obstacles are particularly (and somewhat ironically) significant in the knowledge age, which now includes fiction on demand (film and music streaming services, cheap ebooks). He claims that art in general [including fiction] is sold on a doubly false bill of goods: that it is intrinsically transformative and that it operates on emotions. But there are means and there is hope.

Participants are invited in advance of the meeting to

  1. reflect on the questions above;
  2. bring with them a potentially usefully transformative theistic story from a bible or other mythical fictional text (e.g., Faust (devil), The Brothers Karamazov; The Great Gatsby (cf. the eye on the billboard));
  3. consider a transformative non-theistic story, or a non-theistic aspect of a story, such as The Sorrows of Young Werther (learning the folly of infatuation) or Cyrano de Bergerac (e.g., developing courage, sapioaffinity, and disdain for obsequiousness); and
  4. discuss the questions in relation to the particular examples they drew in #2 and/or the examples listed here.

An example potentially transformative story is the Binding of Isaac (Abraham being called to sacrifice his son) described by Søren Kierkegaard in a veritably opaque (existentialist) dissertation, Fear and Trembling. (And with F&T, incidentally, scholastic philosophy gave rise to equally opaque continental philosophy.) How can the original biblical story possibly be transformative? Neither exegesis, nor reading an exegesis, is the means. But nor is merely reading or viewing the target story sufficient for lasting transformation.

The Holy Grail

Meta-effectiveness is your ability and disposition to use knowledge to become more effective. The holy grail of effectiveness is

When you face an opportunity or danger to which previously processed (3rd world) knowledge is applicable, you recognize the problem and opportunity, and you sufficiently activate relevant knowledge (2nd world). In other words, you are able to apply, or consider applying knowledge when it is pertinent.
The end game is to use knowledge to avoid or solve problems.

This is immensely difficult to do with non-fiction, because simply processing knowledge (reading, viewing, reviewing, etc.) does not normally setup long-lasting perceptual, motivational, and ancillary mental machinery. It may be even more difficult to achieve with fiction.

To err is human, but to use knowledge appropriately is divine

whether the knowledge is derived from non-fiction or from fiction !

Cognitive “Productivity”

Meta-effectiveness (not productivity per se) is the big idea behind cognitive productivity books and the Learning from Stories project. It is in the subtitles: Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective, and Cognitive Productivity with macOS: 7 Principles for Getting Smarter with Knowledge


Story, in the objective sense, can be novels or other texts, film, plays, song, etc. (In Popper’s “World 3”)

Personal or subjective narrative is internal, more self-generated. (In Popper’s “World 2”).

By “theistic” we mean involving a particular “god” or demon from any culture. Zeus, Jupiter, & their friends, foes and family qualify for instance. We will exclude consideration of Jesus as a god per se; but his non-biological “father” (“NBF”) would count. So if choosing a story from the New Testament, please use one in which JC’s “NBF” per se is salient. E.g., the temptation of Jesus by the devil would count. Bo Derek doesn’t count either (Julie Andrews as Samantha Taylor & Lili Smith/Schmidt is worthy of a separate meeting on divinity, however.)

Sapioaffinity is a term coined by Beaudoin, which means affinity for sapience, intelligence and competence. It is a generalization of sapiosexuality (i.e., sapioaffinity is not necessarily sexual). It’s described here.

There will be content on this subject in Discontinuities: Love, Art, Mind, a book on which Beaudoin and others are (still …) working. This pertains more generally to Beaudoin’s Learning from Stories project.

More information will be published here in advance of the Feb 27 meeting. So please check back.

Recommended sources


Audio Visual: