Our site scope has established that both fiction and non-fiction can be on-topic, and so are questions about religious texts. The latter meta discussion included some asides about how religious texts should or shouldn't be referred to: the question says "stating that a particular religious text is fictional is pretty offensive to those who believe it" and posits making religious texts on-topic here precisely because our scope isn't restricted to fiction; the top answer says "I think we can take religious stories. By doing so, we wouldn't be calling them fictional". However, I don't think our meta has ever directly discussed this issue by itself: how OK is it to refer to religious texts as fictional, or for that matter to refer to them as factual?

Some extreme cases are clear due to violating the Be Nice principle: to quote again HDE's answer on religious texts, nobody should be able to say either "Oh, this is ludicrous and didn't happen, and people are stupid for thinking it did" or "This absolutely happened, and you're insane for thinking otherwise". But these are clear-cut cases of personal attacks, which are never OK. Let's consider other ways in which the issue could arise:

  • A question asking for the origin of a trope in fiction, and an answer explaining that it originates from a religious text.
  • A question asking for the earliest fictional story satisfying certain criteria, and an answer about a religious text.
  • A question about a religious text based on the assumption that it's factual, and answers based on the same assumption.
  • A question about a religious text based on the assumption that it's fictional, and answers based on the same assumption.
  • An ID question about a vaguely remembered fiction story and an answer (correct or incorrect) proposing a religious text as the answer.

What do we think about any of these (partly hypothetical, but some have actually occurred on the site already) cases? Where do we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable discourse on religious texts on Literature SE, either in questions or in answers?

  • The word "fiction" is often used in a slightly different way to the dictionary definition "something invented by the imagination or feigned". It can mean "literary" or "narrative-based" or "character-based". There are novels about Henry James or World War Two which are in the "fiction" section of the bookshop and say FICTION on the back in capital letters, but are largely accounts of true things that actually happened. Fact and fiction are maybe a continuum. So I wouldn't get too hung up on the specific word and maybe focus more generally on disparaging remarks about holy or religious texts.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 14:08

4 Answers 4


The difficulty arises because the distinction between fact and fiction seems very clear today (because writers and publishers assign texts to genres that are factual or fictional but not both), but travel back in time, as we are asked to do by any question about the earliest example of some trope, and the distinction gradually becomes harder and harder to make. Fact becomes mixed with opinion and theology and folklore that is partly invention, while fiction becomes mixed with tradition and legend and myth that is partly historical. The Iliad probably preserves some facts about the Trojan War, and the epic of Gilgamesh about Uruk, while Pliny and Herodotus probably contain many fictions, but we have no way to be sure exactly which parts are which. Look at this answer for how much research one can do and still not know for sure what Homer meant when he wrote “Ithaca”!

And in any case, the nature of the text may preclude any simple fact/fiction determination. Take something like Cicero's On Divination. This is fiction because it's written in the form of a dialogue between Cicero and his brother Quintus that they (almost certainly) never spoke. But it's also fact because Cicero is recording (probably accurately) common Roman beliefs about divination. But it's also fiction because you can't predict the future by looking at the entrails of sacrificial animals.

Because the Bible is the longest text surviving from antiquity, and because there are so many works of Western literature that were influenced by it, it is inevitable that early examples of many tropes in fiction are going to be found there. Whatever the precise mixture of fact and fiction in the Bible, it still influenced many later writers, and from the literary point of view it is rarely useful to make a determination either way: we can explain a biblical allusion without having to take a stance on whether the passage alluded to is fact or fiction.

Accordingly, my suggestion is that if we spot a question that relies on distinguishing fact from fiction in many works of literature, especially if it is asking about early examples of some trope, we encourage the OP to revise the question so that it no longer depends on this distinction, referring them here (or to some suitable FAQ) to explain why insisting on this distinction is unlikely to be productive when looking back to ancient literature. This will save us from the impossible task of having to make a fact/fiction determination on all the works under consideration (which, depending on the question, might potentially be all works ever written!), and so avoid contention. If someone does want to ask about the extent to which a particular text is factual, that that’s fine: it has a low risk of becoming contentious since the asker must be aware that there is some doubt about the answer.

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    "we encourage the OP to revise the question so that it no longer depends on this distinction" Am I correct in interpreting this as encouraging self-censorship? What action should be taken if the OP does not follow this suggestion? Should the question then be closed?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 23:02
  • 1
    If the OP does not want to follow the suggestion, then at least they are forewarned about the difficulty of the task they are setting, and the possibility that not everyone will agree with them about which texts are fact and which fiction. What I would hope will happen is that setting expectations initially will reduce conflict later. Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 10:19

As long as you are not directly insulting or attacking a fellow user, I would say that anything is acceptable. If you are willing to post about controversial topics such as religion, you have to be willing to encounter other opinions, even if they are diametrically opposed to some core belief that you maintain.

If we are willing to outlaw statements about religious texts because someone might be offended, where do we draw the line? Can I post a question or answer which states that Dostoevsky was the greatest writer of Russian fiction if it might offend someone who thinks that title belongs to Tolstoy? For that matter, can I write, as Tolstoy did, that Shakespeare's works are grossly overrated, when many students of literature take it as a scared truth that Shakespeare's plays are the greatest English literature ever produced?

This site is meant to be a repository of facts, knowledge, and analysis of literature, and we should want it to be the best that it can be. I don't think that systematically eliminating certain viewpoints is conducive to achieving that.

Gratuitously opining about the factuality of a religious text when it is not relevant to the question or answer is probably not useful, and direct attacks on a user should not be allowed, but everyone should be free to share and debate their opinions about religion to the extent that it falls under the site's scope.

As an example, I recently asked a question here about a connection between a religious text and a Homeric epic. I don't think such a question can be properly answered without some mention of the Biblical text's factual credibility. I would think that a good answer would cover both sides, but even that grants the possibility that the text might be fictional (or might be factual if you are coming from the other direction) which someone may find offensive. But you can't have a proper literary discussion without it.


Erring on the side that implying that religious text is a work of fiction is worse than the alternative.

I say this because 'implying fiction' is disparaging, whereas implying they're factual (or simply avoiding to imply fiction) is not.

Secondly, my rule of thumb is that if a book is not marketed as fiction then it should not be considered as such. Otherwise, if it's unclean, but the author of the work cannot be shown to have stated they intended the work to be fictional, then it should not be treated as such.

Treat them like you would autobiographies or technical manuals

Even if you suspected the events in an autobiography to be made up, but it's not marketed as fiction, it would be odd to imply it's in the same category as other 'Works of Fiction'. Likewise, even if a technical manual was full of errors and mistakes you wouldn't analyse it the same as a work of fiction.

With that in mind, you can use this maxim: Fictional is not the opposite of Factual.

A work can be non-fiction, and you can consider it to be unverifiable or factually incorrect, but that doesn't put it in the same category as an intentional work of fiction.

Here are my responses to the above scenarios:

  • A question asking for the origin of a trope in fiction, and an answer explaining that it originates from a religious text.

The question should/could be rephrased to 'Earliest use in fiction.' or 'Origin of the trope.' Because, regardless of religious texts, tropes can originate outside of fiction. Either way any answers should not need to imply the religious texts are fictional (but they can mention it's origin outside of fiction without saying either way). As an example (lets assume that there aren't examples from before The Bible, for the sake of argument):

Q: What's the earliest use of 'walking on water' in fiction? A: It's clearly from the bible, but besides that it's earliest use is...

Q: What's the origin of the trope where a monster swallows somebody whole? A: The first use of that trope in literature is The Bible.

Neither of those answers need to say either way if they consider the religious text referenced to be fictitious or factual or just inaccurate.

  • A question asking for the earliest fictional story satisfying certain criteria, and an answer about a religious text.

This might look like it's a tricky one. However, my rule of thumb still applies; religious texts aren't intended or marketed as fiction, so it's an invalid answer. Would an autobiography be a valid answer, if the events within it were suspected to be fictitious? I'd argue no. Would a book purporting to prove the moon landings are false be considered fictional? No. Again - fictional is not the same as factual.

  • A question about a religious text based on the assumption that it's factual, and answers based on the same assumption.

I can't see these as being on topic here. The closest I can come to see those are: Is Abrahamic eschatology utopian? and Which flood story was first: Genesis or The Epic of Gilgamesh? but both work as questions here without relying on whether the events in the religious text are verifiably factual - a story can be fictitious or factual.

If the latter question had been asking about, not which flood story but which flood, that's a question for history.se or earthsciences.se to deal with (and they're welcome to answer that no evidence survives to this day so it's conclusive, or otherwise).

  • A question about a religious text based on the assumption that it's fictional, and answers based on the same assumption.

Here is the clearest cut situation, but the one I feel we're least likely to see I believe. I can't even imagine what sort of question would require the assumption that a religious text was fictional, and I can't find an example to base an answer off of. As such I'd say depending on the body of the text you'd either vote to close, either as opinion-based (requires your opinion on if something is a work of fiction or not), or needs detail and clarity (makes a claim it can't support). Or, if necessary flag it as rude or abusive (obviously disparaging).

  • 1
    n.b. I wrote a similar answer on Sci-Fi meta: scifi.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/9523/… Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 16:17
  • Here's a question I asked on History where the answer required the assumption that the religious text was fictional. The issue, I think, is not so much about offensiveness as about whether you are truly answering a question if you assume that the text is fictional.
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 0:04

Refer to religious texts in a way that is in keeping with your own or scholarly analysis. This is allowed by freedom of expression

This is a discussion on site policy, not on whether it is factually correct to refer to religious texts as fiction, non-fiction or something else. A question on factual correctness would belong on the main site. The present question is about what would be allowed to be said on the main site.

I will begin by looking at a statement already quoted in the question, namely DJMcMayhem's remark that

stating that a particular religious text is fictional is pretty offensive to those who believe it.

One issue with basing a policy on this position is that the verb offend has multiple meanings, such as (ignoring the intransitive meanings):

    1. To hurt the feelings of; to displease; to make angry; to insult.
    1. To physically harm, pain.
    1. To annoy, cause discomfort or resent.
    1. To transgress or violate a law or moral requirement.

The second issue is the definition of "religious text". According to Wikipedia,

The terms sacred text and religious text are not necessarily interchangeable in that some religious texts are believed to be sacred because of the belief in some theistic religions such as the Abrahamic religions that the text is divinely or supernaturally revealed or divinely inspired, or in non-theistic religions such as some Indian religions they are considered to be the central tenets of their eternal Dharma.

The phrase "religious text" is sufficiently vague to allow the inclusion of religious literature such as John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, the 15-th century morality play The Castle of Perseverance, John Milton's Paradise Lost (based on the biblical story of the Fall of Man) and apocalyptical literature such as that part of the Edda that describes Ragnarök.

I will use the two issues described above as the starting point for a number of arguments against limiting what we can say about religious texts. I will try to make this arguments more general than the question whether religious texts can be referred to as fictional, factual or something else, since other meta questions about what we can say about religious text may pop up later.

  1. When religious speakers say, "I am offended" (a statement that was sometimes heard in debates with the Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse), they clearly meant they felt insulted. Hence, I interpret "offensive" in DJMcMayhem's remark as meaning "insulting". This implies that someone can feel insulted by proxy, more specifically (in the context of this meta question) as a proxy for a text that a specific statement is about. How a person can feel insulted instead of a text is unclear, since texts aren't sentient beings and can therefore never feel insulted.

    What lies behind statements such as "I am offended" and DJMcMayhem's remark is that the speaker is at best feeling uncomfortable or at worst angry because a specific statement, and that they rely on the ambiguity of "offend"—especially the meaning "insult"—to get that statement retracted. In other words, the rely on the fallacy of equivocation in order to limit the freedom of expression.

  2. In addition to relying on equivocation, the phrase "I am offended" is also an appeal to emotion: strong feelings, instead of reason and argument, are invoked in order to make some retract a statement. However, Stack Exchange is a network of sites where answers are (or should be) judged based on arguments and evidence. Votes should be based on the quality of the arguments and evidence provided in answers, not on feelings. Basing a policy on how certain people feel about certain texts would conflict with how Stack Exchange is meant to work.

  3. Religious texts (perhaps not all, but certainly a large portion of them) make epistemological claims; they are used as a source of "knowledge", e.g. about how the Earth was created. Epistemological claims can be evaluated using criteria such as logical consistency and empirical evidence. Factchecking both fictional and nonfictional texts is something we consider legitimate on this site; see for example the questions Was Philip Larkin factually correct when he implied that in 1955 the streets in Ireland were "end-on to hills" more often than those in England?, Is Paul Fry correct in saying that modern hermeneutic approaches largely developed due to the Protestant Reformation? and Is Hamlet correct when he says "it is an honest ghost"?

    There is no epistemological reason to exclude a specific category of texts, e.g. religious texts, from this type of scrutiny. Setting religious text apart is, today, a strategy to protect those texts from certain forms of scrutiny because such scrutiny may lead to outcomes that contradict received ideas and dogmas. This contradiction can cause discomfort or stress, or what psychologist call cognitive dissonance. Psychologists also observe that people may try to cope with cognitive dissonance by ignoring information that conflicts with existing beliefs. However, the goal of Literature Stack Exchange and other sites in this network is to learn from each other, and this implies that we sometimes need to deal with information that proves certain of our beliefs and assumptions wrong. Prohibiting certain types of scrutiny or statements about a specific type of texts conflicts with the concept or reciprocal learning supported by Stack Exchange.

  4. The definition of "religious text" is too vague to base a policy on. DJMcMayhem added the condition of belief, but that does not help a lot: many people no longer believe in a large number religious texts (including many creation myths and presumably all of the Greek and Scandinavian mythology) and many other people have been made to believe texts and other claims that were later shown to be fabricated. The "belief" condition creates a moving target instead of pinning the category down.

  5. Religious texts are very diverse. As the question whether religious texts are fact or fiction cannot be settled for all such texts in general, it is unproductive to try to turn an "is" into an "ought" (see "Hume's guillotine") and thereby legislate what can be said in this regard on the main site. For statements about whether a specific religious text is fact or fiction (or something sui generis, the main site already has a mechanism for expressing agreement or disagreement: upvotes and downvotes, respectively.

  6. It is perfectly normal for scholars of religion to evaluate the historicity or, conversely, the fictionality of religious texts. A few examples are listed below. For this reason, similar judgements should also be allowed on Literature Stack Exchange.

    • Genesis, especially the Genesis creation narrative:

      Scholars do not consider Genesis to be historically accurate.

    • Exodus:

      The overwhelming consensus among scholars is that the story in the Book of Exodus is best understood as a myth and cannot be treated as history in any verifiable sense.

    • Crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus:

      No archaeological, scholarly-verified evidence has been found that confirms the crossing of the Red Sea ever took place.

    • Joshua:

      The prevailing scholarly view is that Joshua is not a factual account of historical events.

    • Judges:

      It is unclear if any of the people named as judges existed.

    • Samuel:

      The Books of Samuel are considered to be based on both historical and legendary sources, primarily serving to fill the gap in Israelite history after the events described in Deuteronomy.

    • Kings:

      Kings is "history-like" rather than history in the modern sense, mixing legends, folktales, miracle stories and "fictional constructions" in with the annals, (…)

    • Esther:

      The apparent historical difficulties, the internal inconsistencies, the pronounced symmetry of themes and events, the plenitude of quoted dialogue, and the gross exaggeration in the reporting of numbers (involving time, money, and people) all point to Esther as a work of fiction, its vivid characters (except for Xerxes) being the product of the author's creative imagination.

    • Jonah:

      Mainstream Bible scholars generally regard the Book of Jonah as fictional, and often at least partially satirical, (…).

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    I see the point you're trying to make here, but your solution seems to boil down to telling to "suck it up" to all who believe in those sacred/religious texts, however we define them and whatever we include in them. If we were to adopt your solution, how would we sell it to those who were offended by our categorisation of religious literature as fiction in the first place? How would that work with SE's policies? Would we, perhaps, put up some sort of a disclaimer on relevant questions/answers? Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 0:09
  • 1
    On another note, I seem to remember a recent incident between a few US politicians and Twitter, in which the former claimed their freedom of speech was violated, and the latter told the former to bugger off. Given that SE/SO is a US-based private company, I assume they're entitled to suspend someone's freedom of expression at will. Given that, our solution would have to fit into that paradigm as well Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 0:14
  • @Gallifreyan Regarding "how would we sell it to those who were offended by our categorisation of religious literature as fiction in the first place?" My answer isn't doing that. I am merely claiming the freedom to analyse texts and write up my conclusions. What these conclusions are depends on the text being analysed. This answer does not categorise religious texts in any way.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 0:24
  • 2
    @Gallifreyan I don't use the phrase "suck it up" and reject it. What I argue for is doxastic openness: 'a technical term related to humility that basically means “I am willing to change my beliefs based on a new or better understanding of evidence”'. My answer defends freedom of expression against doxastic closure. Doxastic closure is not an appropriate attitude on a site where we try to learn from each other.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 15:49
  • 1
    @Gallifreyan The comparison with those infamous US politicians and Twitter does not hold, since those politicians incited violence and spread claims that were shown to be false. Nothing of what I wrote justifies or defends violence, insulting people or spreading false information.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 15:50

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