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August 4, 2006

"We Like the Story with the Tiger Better"

More from churchgoer Bill Moyer's PBS interview with "strict agnostic" novelist Margaret Atwood:

MARGARET ATWOOD: A book came out called THE LIFE OF PI, by a guy called Yann Martel. And it begins by saying, "I'm going to tell you a story that's going to make you believe in God." Then he goes off on this...seaman's yarn about getting lost in a life boat with a tiger and so on and so forth. And many strange and wonderful things happen to him until he pitches up on the shore of...South America. Where upon, according to him, the tiger jumps off the boat and runs off into the woods. And he's found starving on the shore, and he's put in the hospital. And then these three Japanese insurance inspectors turn up to find out what happened to the boat that blew up at the beginning of the story.
Then he tells them this whole story. And they confer it among themselves and they say, "We think that maybe your story isn't true. And that there was no tiger." And you know he says, "Well that may be so, but tell me this, which story do you like better? The story with the tiger or the story without the tiger." And the other men confer amongst themselves and they say, "Well actually we like the story with the tiger better." And our narrator starts to cry and he says, "thank you."
So we like the story with the tiger better. We like the story with God in it better then we like the story without God in it. Because it's more like us, it's more understandable, it's more human.
BILL MOYERS: More human with God?
MARGARET ATWOOD: More human with God.
MARGARET ATWOOD: More human with God because the story without God is about atoms. It's not about somebody we can talk with in theory, or that has any interest in us.... Whereas the universe, with an intelligence in it, has got something to say to us because it's a mirror of who we are. How about that?

Is this how it is with the "strict agnostic" position: it is supposed to be about the impossibility of certainty, but it ends up being about the longing for a human-sounding story? How about that?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 4, 2006 6:32 PM


Yes, but we are much more likely to keep ourselves alive and happy if we leave the damn tiger out of it. It seems like such obviously sloppy thinking. "I like the tiger story better, it makes me happy to believe in things I know are not true." Yes, it makes it easier to get along with your spiritual friends. Lets all just pretend--pass the opium please.

If certainty was even the least bit hard for any of us we would be dead. To continue living takes constant acts of certainty. We long for it because we are paralyzed without it.

In my world Atwood is certainly confused. She is certain about her uncertainty. One can have no idea what the answers are to the BIG questions and know with certainty they are not to be found in human-centric religious myths of God(s).

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 4, 2006 9:57 PM

There was a time when I thought that religion was primarily the need for a father--a species that didn't want to grow up. I gave up that idea as too simplistic. There are many reasons for believing in god, I suppose, but maybe Atwood is right--humans simply don't want to feel that they're alone in the universe. We are, after all, with the exception of a minuscule minority, social animals. Tigers or gods--not much difference in the long run.

Posted by: Catana at August 5, 2006 10:10 AM

Think I'd rather go for other forms of intelligent life in the universe (which surely, there are, I feel confident saying, even without 'proof') and it has nothing to do with metaphysical longings for order, meaning or foundation *or* some need for a mirror. (Isn't getting up and reading the news about what this particular species is capable of doing to itself reason enough not to need a mirror? Atwood should read Lacan, I think.) Her comments are mostly about the power of *narrative* to provide consolation, though, aren't they?

Posted by: JM at August 6, 2006 7:47 AM

So we like the story with the tiger better
I'd like the story even better with lions and bears (oh my). The key word here is "story". I love fantasy, science fiction and even fiction generally. I engage in online games where magic and gods are real. I do that because I find it very enjoyable.

But we need to face reality and not confuse our musing with reality.

About 80,000 years ago (can't find the link right now) there was an event that reduced the human population to the thousands. How did those people survive? I imagine that they were the ones who weren't on their knees praying to an imaginary god but dealt with the reality they were faced with head on.

Posted by: Boelf at August 6, 2006 7:15 PM

""But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater. Life of Pi""


I think that there is more to this universe than that which can be detected by reason alone, by measures and weights and scientific measure.

I am not so very convinced there is a god. I use to be so absolutely sure. But that certainty could not stand as absolute when infiltrated by questions, doubts and disappointments.

Just as truly though, I cannot myself see absolute knowing in the atheist belief.

For me, The Life of Pi showed me that there are so very many things, no one knows. And whatever one might relate as their personal encounter with life, does not negate that which belongs to another's experience.

And that by giving a fair hearing to everyone in the family of man, we might just learn, if not about god, about each other and tolerance and love will be realized when we all admit that the moment of absolute certainty never arrives.

But I certainly did love reading Life of Pi myself! I would love to meet Yann Martel and find out just what he really believes and why, and if he makes reasonable room for the uncertainties of any belief he embraces.

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at August 7, 2006 6:13 PM

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