SERMONS

Making Believe: Fiction and Fantasy

Remarks delivered at the April 5th, 1998 services of the North Texas Church of Freethought Clarence Darrow said that:

"I don't believe in God because I don't believe in Mother Goose."

And I think most us would agree with that. But we live in an age now when anything that anyone says, any position that might be asserted, and any argument about anything, it seems, is subject to being exaggerated and distorted for the purpose of turning it into a straw man that can be the easier attacked and destroyed.

Suppose that you say you like bananas, for example. Your enemies can suggest that the only thing you will eat is bananas. It can be said that you have an irrational aversion to anything else. Perhaps it's because bananas are yellow, you coward. Or perhaps it's because of their shape, you pervert. Or maybe you just like to exploit the poor underpaid workers in the "banana republics" of the world. And your kids should probably be taken away and put in foster homes because of the danger of malnutrition from such a bizarre diet. Probably we should lock you up, too. Probably we need to put you on some powerful antipsychotic drugs or give you electroshock treatments … Bananas! How can you say you like bananas? You're weird! Or worse!

Something like the same sort of thing happens if you identify yourself as a Rationalist. If you say that you trust facts and reason instead of creeds and dogmas, if you dismiss all the god(s) as being in a class with Mother Goose, there will be those who will conclude that you are a dour and humorless clod at best and a sullen and soulless menace at worst. A prominent journalist in this very town accused us of being merely "a science club," though he favored the notion that we practice brainwashing. At one time, of course, washing any part of your body was considered sinful. I only wish I could wash my brain clean of errors and bad habits.

Still, there is a danger in dismissing such criticism without even considering it. For when those who hold views with which we disagree rely on those views to condemn us, there is a temptation to accept the condemnation as a badge of honor. "If they say we're ignorant fools, it's only because we refuse to accept their standards of ignorance and foolishness," we may tell ourselves. And we may well be right. But it will never be right that we are, by virtue of the fact that we reject their standards, thereby magically rendered immune from the danger of ignorance and foolishness.

For the same reasons, we should not allow the error of theism to justify the smearing of Mother Goose. Or of any other sort of make-believe besides that which insists that it really is possible to make oneself " or someone else " believe something.

For the truth about many, if not most Rationalists, though surely not all, is that we do like Mother Goose. We do like fiction and fantasy. Indeed, it's a rare Freethinker who doesn't enjoy flights of fancy and of the imagination. There may not be a numeric Idea Industrials Index, or a Suppose and Postulate 500 for us to follow, but Freethinkers tend to be speculators in ideas of all kinds. It's in our neurotransmitters.

It's just that we like to keep our facts and reason separate from our fiction and fantasy. Why? Because, like Everest, it is there for us to do. Why? Because, like going to moon, it is not the easy thing. Rather, it is the hard and difficult thing that challenges us and tests our mettle. It makes us feel alive. It makes us human. And, besides all this, it is the mainspring of human progress. To forget the distinction between facts and fiction, between reason and unreason, and between sense and nonsense, is to forget the difference between right and wrong. And all of human history shows that this is what turns dreams into nightmares.

This is our only real objection to the Bible isn't it: that some people are inclined to take it seriously as an ultimate statement about the nature of reality? After all, Zeus and Poseidon and Loki and Shiva are said to have done things every bit as revolting and reprehensible as Yahweh is depicted as doing in the Bible.

It's just that no one runs after others pestering them about whether they "believe in" these other deities. Indeed, I think a good — if not a compelling case " can be made to the effect that the reason that fundamentalist believers are so obstinately opposed to so many items of literature and entertainment is that somewhere, deep down, they realize that these other fantasies are in competition with their own.

Think about that. Many of us are fans of science fiction, for example. And it irks us when we read a book or see a show or movie, even if it's otherwise a good one, that is marred by some absurdity that makes the fantasy aspect too implausible. But I don't think any of us would do more than lament the presence of elements in such bombs that depart too far from our view of how reality works or could work. In fact, there is a point beyond which such defects turn what may have been intended as a serious statement into a joke. That is why no Freethinker ever picketed "Plan 9 From Outer Space." No Atheist or Rationalist organization has protested the release of the movie Sphere. Why, we don't even bother to boycott the companies that pay for advertising on the ridiculous Touched by an Angel, much less put pressure on video stores for carrying religious-themed works, whether The Greatest Story Ever Told or The Last Temptation of Christ.

Our concern is not with the what of belief so much as with the how and the why of belief that determines whether it is a reliable or unreliable reflection on the nature of human experience. What this really means is that, while we Freethinkers disbelieve in gods and devils, fairies and leprechauns, and all the other spooks and spirits alike, we also believe in them all alike, don't we? So that we can truthfully say that we believe in God and Jesus and Allah and Brahma. We believe in them in just the same way that we believe in Mother Goose and Paul Bunyan and Caspar the Friendly Ghost and Captain James T. Kirk and the Klingon civilization in Star Trek. Perhaps it can be said that we are imaginatively promiscuous. But there is no harm in this. You cannot even catch any diseases from it. In fact, there is only much pleasure and, often, practical benefit in it, so long as somewhere along the line we remember that it matters a great deal whether our ideas are possible or impossible, probable or improbable, true or false.

I think it is accurate to say that Freethinkers, while we reject the truth claims of the faith-based religions, are nevertheless interested, if not fascinated by, the question of how religious superstitions came to be. It's a rare Atheist who does not harbor some favorite idea about the "true nature" or origin of religious faith and its teachings. Many of us have heard a variety of these ideas.

Some say that god(s) and god's laws were the result of a deliberate and cynical plan by rulers to control their subjects. Others say that supernatural beliefs arose out of efforts to make sense of and exert control over natural forces. I have myself suggested that chance might have played some role in the genesis of religious superstition.

Suppose there was a tribe of starving Paleolithic people. There's a drought and there's nothing to eat. "Where has all the game gone? Why have all the fruit trees and bushes withered?" they ask. The primitives ponder their situation and try to use their one distinctive natural resource " their brains " to come up with a solution. Finally it's suggested that there's some being, perhaps a prominent member of the tribe who's recently died, who's up in the clouds and either holding back the rains or capable of interceding with them. One, or perhaps more than one suggestion is made as to how to propitiate this being. And either it ultimately rains or it doesn't. If it doesn't, there are no survivors to propagate the proto-superstition. But, if it does, there are. Repeat the process over and over, with variations and modifications that make it "work" better, and voila, a full-blown theology. Moreover, once such proto-superstitions gain some standing, they acquire a structure and social status. This sets the stage for the operation of additional selective forces, including the familiar human drive for gaining an advantage over and manipulating others for both good and ill. The winners of this trial-and-error speculative lottery become the chieftains and shamans, who become the kings and wizards, who become the pharaohs and priests, who become the holy emperors and divine dictators. And those humans who resist the process tend to be driven out and/or eliminated.

Many others have credited such speculations as well. 300 B.C.E., Euhemerus recorded in hisSacred History that it was widely believed even then that theological systems were distortions of history and that gods grew out of the glorification of dead heroes.

One can easily see how such ideas neatly fit with everyday experience today. Many things with which we have an ordinary acquaintance are accomplished through a chain of command. Someone does something because someone else has directed that they do so. Even more often, someone does something because they are told that someone else has told them to do so. It's a "Simon Says" sort of game for grown-ups.

The proverbial space-alien might well be impressed with how much happens in human society by this means. Two envelopes are delivered to a mailbox, for example. One, inviting the addressee to send money for a water purifier, is summarily trashed. But the other requests that funds be sent to "The Municipal Water Company" and is promptly paid. Now we well know the different understanding and assumptions that underlie these circumstances. But the plain fact of the matter is that one solicitation is paid and the other is not, solely because of which entities are invoked as their sources.

To people for whom society and its constructs were cultural novelties, this way of doing things may well have seemed magical. For the same person could command that something be done but, when it was commanded in the name of the ruler, the something actually was done. One can even imagine the awe that might have followed the observance of some official decree that, it was later discovered, was issued after the leader had actually been deposed or had died. It is plausible, perhaps, that when language was new, its immaterial power seemed uncanny. And perhaps something of the same thing may have been the case when the written word was invented. Indeed, we need look no further than the familiar Bible (and the ideas and works from which it borrowed) to see the mystery and magic that was at one time attached to the power of The Word and to The Name.

It's all speculation, of course. We know of no way to look back into the mists of time and see exactly how it all happened. But that does not mean that reasonable conclusions about the past cannot be made based on what evidence of it we may find. It is not unreasonable to suppose, for example, that Alexander the Great chewed his food, even though we cannot now watch him do so and it is perfectly possible that he always cut everything he ate into pieces small enough to swallow whole. But people today chew their food and people then had teeth and, if anything, ate even coarser food. So it is reasonable to believe that Alexander the Great chewed his food.

In addition, we have many examples today of superstitions being invented and promoted, some of which are more successful than others. Why, for example, do so many people believe in UFO's despite any credible physical evidence that we are being visited by armadas of alien spacecraft? How is it that people can believe that AIDS is the result of a germ warfare experiment gone awry, or worse? What are the psychodynamics, even, that cause a group of people to follow their leader from Taiwan to Garland in expectation that God will be showing up there on March 31st of 1998? Understanding the how and why of such questions is, at least in my humble opinion, directly relevant to the question of the origin and maintenance of the most durable of superstitions that operate under the cover of religion.

Just as fascinating a question, I think, besides that of the hoariest of fanciful notions, is that of the origin of more useful imaginative endeavors. For the essence of innovation — and really of all human progress — is fiction and fantasy. No undiscovered new world can be found unless someone can first imagine its existence and a possible route to reaching it. Asking speculative questions, culminating in that of "What if?" has always been at once both the opportunity and the challenge of recreating ourselves. But how this happens is only beginning to be considered more systematically.

For now, we must face the disappointment that this is about as far as things can be taken, at least from an objective point of view. That will almost certainly change in the future. Meanwhile, fiction and fantasy have a subjective side to them that is arguably the unseen submerged underside of the fabled iceberg. And so it possible, and I think rewarding, to consider the personal and social meaning of make-believe even though we can scarcely do so in a strictly scientific, let along a quantitative way.

Probably the most celebrated recent student of myth and superstition from the standpoint of subconscious symbol and poetic meaning was the late Joseph Campbell. His book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, is well worth reading and almost certain to take its place as a classic alongside Frazer's The Golden Bough. In Hero, Campbell begins by saying that:

"Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the magic, magic ring of myth.

The wonder is that the characteristic efficacy to touch and inspire deep and creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fairy tale " as the flavor of the ocean is contained in a droplet or the whole mystery of life within the egg of a flea. For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source."

Campbell goes on to argue for the idea, which he further develops in a very convincing way, that all myth " which is to say all great and enduring fiction and fantasy " is a reworking of, or, at the least, borrows the key elements of what he calls "the monomyth." The word "monomyth" he actually borrows from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. But the basic idea is that of the story of blissful comfort and innocence being grievously threatened, lost, or corrupted. Then the hero, usually with the aid of a mysterious stranger, succeeds in passing through a life-threatening crisis, or even death itself, only to be reborn into or recreated as part of a new, improved, and more authentic world.

It should sound familiar. The stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Ark, Moses and the Promised Land, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus are obvious examples. But so are the stories of Pandora's Box, the Labors of Hercules, Jason and the Golden Fleece, Alladin, and even The Three Billy Goats Gruff and Star Wars. Think about your own favorite works of fiction and consider how well they follow the monomyth. To my own mind, I think it might even be argued that important historical events like the American Revolution are remembered, and continue to enjoy the power to inspire, to the degree that they can be seen in such epic form.

Campbell makes a fascinating case for the idea of a central mythic theme. But even more striking, again in my humble opinion, is his recognition of the unfolding of the monomyth in our individual lives. He gives due credit to Freud and Jung for uncovering the significance of dreams and recognizing such recurring symbols as that of security, danger, the enigmatic guide, the journey, and, finally, the resplendent destiny. But Campbell goes on to suggest that:

"Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche. But in the dream the forms are quirked by the peculiar troubles of the dreamer, whereas in myth the problems and solutions shown are directly valid for all mankind."

The Australian aborigines' term for the long-ago time of their ancestors can be translated as "The Dream Time," and Campbell calls attention to this fact. But the modern-day meaning of dreams includes, if it is not actually dominated by, the idea of achievement and accomplishment in the present and future. In this country, especially, we speak of "The American Dream." We are enlivened by such assertions as "I have a dream!" But again, it seems to me that these large-scale ideas and the rhetoric associated with them, gain all of their power from the individual mind. For, as Thoreau said, "Dreams are the touchstones of our characters."

This, to me, is at least an important part of the shape of the answer to the "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" of religious superstition. It is the wholesaler of dreams in which one size fits all. But the "one size" of their immutable and absolute truth comes in an embarrassing variety, some of which appear as harmless daydreams, others as confusing hallucinations, and yet others "too many others " as gruesome nightmares. Each one of them, moreover, if their particular theology doesn't happen to fit, is more than happy to alter you until it does.

But the religion of Freethought " forgive me, please, if you don't like that turn of phrase " is the ultimate retailer where depersonalized dreams and personalized myths are concerned. That is, you are free to explore the realms of fiction and fantasy from an analytic, rational, and a more-or-less objective point of view. But you are also free to make what you will of the epic and enduring themes of fiction and fantasy in your own life.

We Freethinkers are thereby freed from the necessity of passively absorbing a body of doctrines and dogmas that must be taken entirely on the basis of faith. But freedom always comes with responsibility. And I want to suggest to you that, in the terms of Campbell's monomyth, we have a responsibility to try to see how our lives may have become, in one way or another, bogged down in the innocent comfort of supposing that we already know what is important. If we can do that, we should consider what it is that, for us personally, is the difficult and challenging thing, probably even a scary thing. What is your personal Mt. Everest right now, today, and in the coming days and weeks? What is your moon-shot that will begin" or renew " your personal journey of self-transformation?

Realize that we are all each other's mysterious guides in this journey. For we cannot know from who and where or how the help we need will come. As the Buddhists say: "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear."

The desired result, of course, is leave our old selves behind, to emerge from what we are into something better, even as we anticipate our next metamorphosis. For the only things that fail to grow are those things that have already died.

It is a daunting challenge. But how much better it is than being an inert receptacle for the aims and purposes of others and their god-puppets. The tools of others, whether those others are human or superhuman, are the ones who are truly dour and humorless and sullen and soulless.

In the haste and hurry and the mountain of obligations with which we all struggle every day, I hope you will take what time and energy are necessary to consider these things. Your life " your real life " depend on your doing so. And let your life, the life of your dreams, spill out of you. If you can, give a nudge to others who are toiling away on their own journeys. Whether or not they thank you for it or reciprocate, your own growth will resonate with theirs.

And so perhaps we have run through a version of the monomyth now. We began by acknowledging, as Rationalists, our preference for and emphasis on facts and reason. But this exposes us to accusations of being emotionally or imaginatively impoverished, which opens us up to the danger of supposing, through misplaced pride, that we are, in reality, not in any danger of being so deficient. It is only by recognizing and confronting that threat that we can make use of our undiminished and unfettered faculties, which include that of the imagination as well as of knowledge and reason. And, in this way, we recreate ourselves, though perhaps scarred and bloodied. The All-Father Odin, according to Norse theology, paid for his wisdom with an eye. But we are nevertheless better for the struggle, and have left ourselves better able to manage the challenges of the future that lie ahead, even the Final Battle of Ragnarok " Norse theology again " in which we know we will be ultimately and eternally defeated.

So let us learn and know the facts and use and enjoy the many benefits of reason. But let us also dream our dreams, the emphasis being on our dreams. For life is but a dream, and death is nothing at all.

Thank you and Good Morning.

© 1998 by Tim Gorski