Were They Real? The impossibility of a neutral presentation of information

Elder son’s at it again, trying to determine whether certain people and characters are real or not. This time, he’s been set off by a book he brought home from school, called Were They Real?, which gives potted descriptions of various figures, and then asks the reader to say whether they’re fact or fiction.

He loved the process of discovery, and we talked a lot about the people and where the stories come from. He was particularly intrigued by the page on King Arthur, which slightly hedged its bets by saying that although the stories about him aren’t true, they were probably based on a real warrior king from around that time.

Taking my cue from that, when Robin Hood came up and was described as “not real”, I explained that there were many theories about possible inspirations for the stories, and that they probably originated with a genuine person or people before being augmented, adapted and mythologised into the well-established, almost archetypal stories we know today. Later, I also pointed out that even real people were often associated with events that were exaggerated or occasionally completely made up.

And shortly afterwards, I felt guilty.

It’s not that I think I did anything wrong, but I realise that my actions could be interpreted that way, from a certain perspective. I’ve previously heard comparisons between Jesus and Robin Hood, specifically relating to the nexus between people, the stories that are told about them and the problems of determining what (if anything) has a historical basis. I never mentioned Jesus, but there was a sort of connection in my mind, which made it feel awkward.

I wasn’t trying to make any sort of clever oblique point about religion. I was just discussing his book and some obviously related issues, even observing that supposedly “not real” people could have a basis in reality. And I doubt it will make any difference to his future beliefs, but after The Magic Incident, I’m quite wary of anything that could be interpreted as directing his thinking in any way.

It’s still my intention to allow my boys to make their own decisions, whatever I conclude, but this has shown me both how careful I must be to avoid misinterpretation, and also how easily my preferred factual approach can turn into something that could only be described as covert indoctrination.

Facts may be pretty unremarkable (although they’re rarely quite as settled and uncontroversial as that suggests), but used in the right way, at the right time, they can be every bit as one-sided as any campaign of indoctrination or propaganda. Context is all, and the same discussion could look very different if anything might have caused him to have religion in his thoughts at the time.

I’m feeling a little scared and depressed at how easily I can imagine this sort of situation fuelling arguments and breeding resentment between me and my wife. We’re both trying our best, but sometimes I wonder if that will be good enough.

Photos by David Spender and lifebeginsat50mm, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

5 responses to “Were They Real? The impossibility of a neutral presentation of information”

  1. unkleE says :

    I can understand, and respect, your concern, but it seems to me that you have behaved well, not badly.

    “I’ve previously heard comparisons between Jesus and Robin Hood, specifically relating to the nexus between people, the stories that are told about them and the problems of determining what (if anything) has a historical basis. I never mentioned Jesus, but there was a sort of connection in my mind, which made it feel awkward.”

    But the same principles of historical study apply to each, e.g. How close to the event are the accounts we have? Do we have independent attestation? Do the accounts ring true with known history and culture?

    On those basis, even secular scholars affirm many aspects of the gospels. Do they do the same for Robin Hood? (I don’t know.)

    If you stick to those approaches, facts and conclusions, you can hardly be biased or unfair.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Well, hold on a second. The point of comparison stems from “historical Jesus” discussions, pointing out that it’s not as easy as a person existing or not. Robin Hood didn’t exist as described, but there were various real people who probably formed part of the inspiration for the character we now know, and the stories about him. Not that I made any of those points.

      What concerns me is that anyone who recognised that parallel would be pretty well justified in assuming that I was raising the subject to make a subversive point. It’s not just about behaviour and personal caution, but trusting each other and continuing to communicate whenever we feel uncomfortable about something, rather than seething quietly about it.

      • unkleE says :

        Yes, I understood that was your main concern, and I think you are showing a good attitude to it. I was just making a secondary comment. Best wishes.

  2. Heretic Husband says :

    You’re not the only one worried that issues like this will breed marital discontent . 😦

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Anything specific, HH, or just everyday differences of perspective? It’s always going to be difficult. As I say, it’s not just being fair and honest, but trusting each other that matters if we’re going to make this work. I think there are enough of us to form a little support group.

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