Sunday, April 8, 2012

My Existence Is Not an Attack On You

You may have noticed a trend in my recent posts. I don't consider myself an activist or "evangelical atheist," but circumstances over the years - like those I've related in the "Damaged Ones" stories - have shaped me and when I feel provoked, I don't usually hesitate to respond.  With increasing frequency I have felt provoked, and the reactions people have had to my responses have been interesting; most of my friends stay silent, while some express relief that they aren't alone. And inevitably, a few react as though I'm attacking them personally, or they at least find my position to be threatening. I'd like to take a whack at explaining why they should not feel that way.

I've used Doctor Who to illustrate points about religion before, and I'm about to do it again. I will tell you this now just so you won't feel shocked and betrayed later: I don't "believe in" the Doctor.  Meaning, of course, that while I thoroughly enjoy the program, I don't think he's real - he does not exist in any concrete way. Of course, I derive a lot of inspiration from the show, and love the stories. I have even purchased "action figures" (aka, "idols") to display in my workplace and my children have created Who-inspired things with Legos and various other media. We all enjoy the time we spend together watching and laughing over the episodes (aka, "worship").  And as you read this, you're witnessing an act of Who-vangelism... sort of.

But let's say you aren't into the Doctor or his story, and you don't understand its value to the millions of fans. Maybe you can't fathom why people would spend time and money going to Gallifrey One to pay homage to the immortal British nerd-god.  Maybe it disturbs you that Dr. Who (or at least his TARDIS) is omnipresent (can travel anywhere in time and space) omniscient (can find anything out) and omnipotent - at least, he hasn't been completely beaten, yet.  The character borders on immortal, and finds his way into the history of our little planet, constantly saving us from disaster (and occasionally causing it) and sacrificing himself because he loves us. Sound familiar?

If you're reasonable about the whole thing, you either get hooked, or you make your nerd jokes and move on.  Maybe you enjoy the shows but ignore the rest of the fan culture as harmless fun. At least no one insists that you believe all of this fantasy to be literally true, and no one insists that you respect their beliefs in a real Doctor by pretending to lend them credence. It's all good, harmless fun! Allons-y!

Or maybe you've run across that one Rabid Super Fan(tm) who ruins it for everyone around him. The guy who wears the 20-foot rainbow scarf and trenchcoat everywhere, and shows everyone his scrapbook of "actual" Doctor sightings; the guy who insists that the whole premise is real and that the Doctor is going to show up and take him away some day.  Nutter, right?

Consider though: what if everyone was that guy? What if everyone you knew believed at some level that the Doctor was a real person? Maybe they don't all dress up and go to the cons, but they get uncomfortable when you question their belief system - which is clearly built on nothing but a TV show. What if they all treated you like an amoral outsider, and when you ask for evidence backing up their claim that the DVDs and numerous fansites and BBC-produced encyclopedias are all factual they accuse you of attacking them.  How frustrating would it be to watch them get angry at you for not believing in what, to them, seems so obvious and logical - and for that anger to become irrational when you ask them to tone it down, or not bring it up in schools, courtrooms, or other public arenas where it really has no place.

Sadly, it's not much of a stretch to suggest that this could happen. It has happened before - fantasy intruding on reality.  Take the lady who insisted on showing up for jury duty in Starfleet uniform in 1996. Or take the example of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard's fabricated faith, against which a French court upheld a fraud conviction recently. Or consider the Mormon church... and at what point do you stop me and say, "But you're not talking about something that's made up for entertainment any more. You're talking about religion!"

You would be right to ask where the line between the two is located, and if you saw that coming from the second paragraph, good on you.

You see, from my point of view, there isn't any substantial difference between religion and sci-fi/fantasy fandom. I can't blame you if my saying that makes you mad; emotions tend to run high when you appear to slight something that someone else holds dear. I've seen the heated arguments that can break out after someone confuses Star Trek and Star Wars around a pack of nerds.

Consider, though: to the intense Trekkie and the Old Republic padawan there is a huge difference between their chosen worlds, just like there is a huge difference between being Catholic and Protestant, or Shiite and Sunni. To the objective outside observer, it's all just spaceships and weird aliens, or different flavors of Jesus or Allah.

And that's supposed to be Okay! As long as no rogue Jedi show up to the Star Trek Hilton strapped with thermal detonators and a yen to join the glowing line of martyrs on Dagobah, we should all be able to get along. There is room in the real world for your chosen fantasy role play - and in that real world, it's okay for the objective observer to call it that.  Or at least it should be.

Because while it should be perfectly acceptable for me to say that all of this fiction IS fiction, many of you with deeply held religious faith will inevitably take it as an attack on your identity. In reality, though, my failure to buy into your fantasy world is not the same thing as hating, attacking, or attempting to legally ban your freedom to enjoy it as you see fit. If you were to strip away the artificial status and respect that is reserved for religion, it would be no more or less valuable to me - a non-believer or non-fan - than Doctor Who is to someone who doesn't like the show.

I am sorry if that comparison offends you, but all I can offer you as consolation is the assurance that I don't say that in order to mock you. After all, I really like the Doctor, remember? It's not like I'm comparing your holy faith to something I find repugnant - like WWE.

Regardless, by this point the Faithful are already complaining about a lack of tolerance on my part. This is not fair, because really, I already tolerate quite a lot of fandom around me every day. There are plenty of cultural touchstones that I ignore because they simply don't do anything for me; I shy away from Dungeons & Dragons, Mech Warriors, and various other fad franchises even when they are being constantly thrust in front of me.

But I don't have to leave "Thundercats, ho!" out of the Pledge at Scout meetings, and my money doesn't change value depending on the roll of a 20-sided die. And after marketing campaigns wind down, most of these cultural pleas for my fealty fade away.  Religion is different, because no matter where I go or who I talk to, I have to face it - and I have to give it a layer of respect that I don't feel, and don't have to pretend to hold for these other cultural artifacts.

There is another wrinkle: I used to be one of the Faithful. If you read my stories, you should be able to see how painful that was for me, and how hard it was for me to leave behind. And it's never really gone, because of all of the well meaning friends and family who think they are helping me by trying to "win me back to the Lord". That's something that's not an issue with other kinds of fandom. But I put up with that behavior as politely as I can for their sake. I don't yell or argue with those who care about me; heck, I'm even nice to the strangers who show up on my door step with leaflets.

If you saw the earlier post about my little Foursquare stunt, you see that if I really couldn't tolerate religion, I wouldn't really have many options for leaving my house. In our culture, I'm surrounded by churches, church people, and Jesus at every turn. If I "hated" religion or religious people, I couldn't enjoy a lot of things I enjoy doing with my family, like taking the kids to Scouts; I couldn't enjoy old gospel songs that mention God or Jesus.

But I do those things, and mostly don't complain. I only really get angry about it when there are clear lines drawn - like the U.S. Constitution - which are supposed to keep one group's fandom from intruding on everyone else's reality. Or when my sons are faced with a false choice between "duty to God" in their Scout requirements and their own reasoned non-belief. When it comes to a point where I either have to lie and say "sure, I believe" or tell the truth, I will tell the truth - and that's when things seem to go wrong.

All I really want is the same tolerance I show all the time - which isn't often forthcoming.

You see, for all of the unreality that people embrace, there is a common ground we should all be able to agree on. We have a universe around us in which we all live, and it has rules we can see and prove. You may take great comfort in your belief in an afterlife, and you may require an ancient authority to compel you to be good, and that's fine. But you can't belong to them and ignore what they do in your name. Even if you aren't personally forcing your beliefs on people like me, you need to recognize that your church often is - and by extension, I'm perfectly right to ask you to stop trying to make me pretend that your beliefs stand on the same solid ground that the rest of our real universe stands on.

That's what science is supposed to be for - establishing that common ground.  It doesn't require any "belief" or "faith" - just study.  When we learn things about the world around us, and can demonstrate through repeatable experimentation that certain physical laws hold true, that makes it possible for us to understand the real world. Some concepts are harder to demonstrate than others. Some experiments you wouldn't want to repeat. Some ideas involve complex systems that defy conventional wisdom. Too often people who don't understand how all of this works confuse the worlds of science and fiction, or they begin comparing the acceptance of scientific facts they don't understand with taking them "on faith." It is this confusion which allows them to start classifying reality as just another set of beliefs.

"Believing in Science" is not about belief - there's no leap of faith, there's not really any need for it. You observe, you predict, you test. Sometimes you have to accept a specialist's word for things you can't test or observe for yourself, but that's about trust, not belief. Trust, but verify, if possible. Of course, I can attest that when you start doing that and applying even a little bit of rigor to your less concrete beliefs, the mystical tends to suffer.

It's worth recalling the case against Scientology in this context. Very few of the religious folks I know would consider that to be a "real" religion, and because of that, it makes a good candidate to test the legal waters. If people of faith are willing to punish Scientologists for conning followers, doesn't that open their own churches up to the same legal inquiry? If we all band together - believers and non-believers alike - to protect Scientologists's beliefs without challenging their validity, doesn't that leave us all vulnerable to any con man who "sincerely believes" his own con? And how do you measure or prove sincerity?

A lot of people making this point come off as if it's a foregone conclusion that you have to accept Science and abandon Religion - but I still think that there is room in our society for that to be up to each individual. Because I understand how people use faith to get through difficulty, I would not presume to force them to give it up - no matter how uncomfortable it makes me. And because I know how much everyone values imagination and fantasy, I wouldn't take those things away, either.  They are a part of us that I value, too.

So while I will push back when I see your chosen fandom intruding on my life, I have no intention of "attacking" your faith. I would never deprive you of your lofty dreams, your exciting tales, or your darker escapist fantasies.  But at some point, everyone has to decide what world they actually live in.

And in reality, we don't really have a choice in that matter.

(Note: this has been edited for grammar and to update/remove dead links.)

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