Why Religion Is Like Fanfic

I was reading some unusually wacky Christian theology in Disinformation’s new book, Everything You Know About God Is Wrong (more on the book when I’m done with it — the thing is great, but it’s huge). Specifically: In the Middle Ages, there was all this theology about the immaculate conception virgin birth and how exactly Mary got impregnated by God, with several theologians putting forth the theory that — get this — the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary in her ear.

No, really. In her ear.

What’s more, there’s other theology of the period seriously discussing the question of how, physically, Jesus was born. Did he just teleport out of Mary’s womb, or was he born out of her ear (since he was conceived there, after all), or what?

Because, after all, the pussy is a disgusting, putrid font of sin and evil, and God would never go there. Or be born out of there.

But I digress.

I was reading this, and I was suddenly struck with how familiar it all seemed.

It reads exactly like fan-written blueprints for the Enterprise in “Star Trek.” Or fan-written explanations for discrepancies in star dates, or why the Enterprise has completely reliable lie detectors that they only use in three episodes.

Or fan discussions of whether butterbeer in the Harry Potter books is alcoholic (and if so, how much). Or fan-written explanations for why that whole wand-ownership thing that was so pivotal in the last book never showed up in the first six books.

Or long fan discussions of why some vampires in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” are so much more powerful than others, and whether it’s somehow passed on from sire to recipient. Or how vampires can get hard-ons when they don’t have a working circulatory system (no heartbeat). I’ve even seen an ecological analysis of the predator-prey ratio in the Buffyverse (which came to the conclusion that, rather surprisingly, the show actually came quite close to getting the numbers right).

Not to mention the fan philosophy. Are the politics of “Buffy” liberationist or fascistic? What do the characters of Snape and/or Spike tell us about good and evil? Is there a consistent moral philosophy in the application of the Prime Directive in “Star Trek”? Etc., etc., etc.

And then, of course, you have the stories. Oh, so many stories. A nearly endless stream of stories. Not all of them dirty, either. Backstories, front stories, mid-stories… all fleshing out the characters, and filling in the gaps in the narrative, and rationalizing away the flaws and inconsistencies in the story.

And it suddenly looked so much like religion that I was shocked.

I don’t just mean the goofy “Mary getting it in her ear” part of religion, either. I mean all of it.

Here’s what I mean. Given the rough outline of a narrative, human beings are unbelievably good at filling in the gaps, fleshing out the characters. And if the basic outline of a narrative has flaws and inconsistencies, we are unbelievably good at creating explanations and rationalizations and apologetics. We are unbelievably good at making the inconsistent consistent, making the indefensible defensible.

And that’s exactly what religion looks like to an outside observer. It doesn’t look like an internally consistent, evidence-based description of a consistent, reasonably predictable world. It looks like an unbelievably complex — brilliant, even — attempt to make sense of a story. And while the stories it’s trying to make sense of are often fascinating and compelling, they’re still stories: made up by people, with the inherent inconsistencies and gaps, cultural blind spots and flat-out mistakes, that any story made up by people is going to have.

The thing you have to remember is this: The nature of religious belief is that it’s made up by people. Every single thing that people supposedly “know” about God, the soul, Heaven, Hell, what God does or doesn’t want us to do, reincarnation, karma, what have you… it all comes from people. It comes from visions people have, stories people tell, traditions people have passed on, sacred texts people have written down. There is not a single piece of it that is based on a carefully gathered, double-blind-tested, control-group controlled, replicable set of evidence taken from the world around us. There is not a single piece of it that comes from anywhere other than the inside of our brains, and one another’s brains.

Not one.

And the nature of religion is that there are some ideas you simply can’t question. The divinity of Jesus in Christianity, for instance, or the Virgin Birth in Catholicism. Even in fairly open, progressive religions, there are a few basic tenets that you have to believe in order to call yourself part of that religion. Just like fanfic writers are stuck with their beloved narratives as they’re written/filmed, and have to work with Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy or the Harry-Ginny romance no matter how contrived and out-of-place it seems… so do religious apologists have to work with the basic tenets of their faith, no matter how many intellectual and ethical contortions it makes them go through.

(Which, of course, makes for one of the major differences between religion/fanfic and science. In science, every theory is only as good as the last piece of data supporting it. In practice, of course, very powerful theories, ones that have historically done an excellent job of explaining and predicting, will need a hell of a lot of evidence against them in order to be torn down. But there is no theory that is sacred; no theory that can’t be given up if a preponderance of evidence shows it to be wrong.)

Put this all together, and the whole history of religion looks an awful lot like a two-thousand-year long attempt, by some of the most brilliant minds in human history, to explain why it was so easy and commonplace to beam people to another spaceship, but so difficult and dangerous to beam people to another room inside the Enterprise. It looks, as I’ve written before, very much like a self-referential game of Twister. I wish I could find it now, but there were some hilarious comments on an old Pharyngula thread about how the New Testament was Old Testament fanfic, and the Koran was Old Testament fanfic with Muhammad as the Mary Sue character.

Of course, there’s a major difference between fanfic and religion. And that’s that fanfic writers understand — usually — that they’re writing fiction. They understand that they’re embroidering on a fictional story, a story written by people, and that they’re doing it for their own entertainment and the entertainment of other fans. Many people take these activities very, very seriously. In some cases, rather too seriously. But except for the certifiably crazy ones, they don’t think they’re describing the real world.

Which leads me to the other major difference between fanfic and religion:

There aren’t bloody wars being fought between the Buffy fans and the Trekkies. The “Snape is good” and “Snape is evil” crowds aren’t tying each other to piles of wood and setting each other on fire. Nobody is blowing themselves up in a crowded public place to defend their belief that Picard is the best starship captain of any series. Nobody passes laws saying that Buffy/Spike slash fans can’t vote; that Buffy/Angel slash fans can’t hold public office; that Buffy/Giles slash fans have to live in ghettos. Nobody refuses to see their daughter because she married a Doctor Who fan — or worse, someone who doesn’t watch television at all.

And won’t someone please think of the children? Nobody is showing their children the “Angel” DVDs and telling them it’s a documentary. Nobody is teaching their children that Potter fans grind up Trekkie babies into their Every Flavor Beans. Nobody is teaching their children that the last three Potter books are the Only True Books, and that fans of the first four books are wicked and they mustn’t play with them. And nobody is teaching their children that they’re going to be burned and tortured in the afterlife for all eternity if they ever question the perfect rightness and truth of “Babylon 5.”

None of this happens, because fanfic writers understand that what they’re writing is fiction. They don’t think they’re describing the most important truths of humanity and the universe. Their fundamental understanding of the world and their place in it is not shaken by the existence of other fictions.

And they therefore don’t feel the need to suppress, demonize, or stamp out all other fictions that contradict their own.

Why Religion Is Like Fanfic
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33 thoughts on “Why Religion Is Like Fanfic

  1. 1

    By the way, the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has nothing to do with the so-called virgin birth of Jesus. The doctrine holds that Mary was conceived in the womb of her mother without original sin.

  2. 2

    You’re not the only person to make this observation. Bishop John Shelby Spong (the very liberal and gay-friendly Episcopal Bishop) has written books about how the New Testament stories about Jesus are midrash commentary to connect Jesus with important Old Testament figures (e.g. Jesus is the new “Moses” in the Gospel of Matthew).
    Once the Bible was written and viewed as a “sealed” text that cannot be changed, other texts that reflect on the meaning of the “sealed” text were written. Here’s a quote from the soc.culture.jewish usenet newsgroup FAQ that describes this process:
    ” … once a canon (i.e., approved scriptural text) is closed, the problem facing the community is the problem of “searching out” the canon. Midrash is a method of reading the Bible as an Eternal text, and is the result of applying a set of hermeneutical principles evolved by the community to guide one in reading the canon, in order to focus one’s reading. The ultimate goal of midrash is to “search out” the fullness of what was spoken by the Divine Voice.”
    It’s easy to see places where the Gospels are early Christian facfic that tries to connect Jesus with the Jewish tradition that gave rise to Christianity.
    Both Jesus and Moses have to escape a king who is trying to kill them while they are infants. Both find refuge in Egypt. Both go to a high place and bring back a set of laws (ten commandments, sermon on the mount). And so on.
    Basically, the Bible is a collect of a few stories with many variations on those stories. And much of it is facfic … I suppose that David and Jonathan might be the first “slash” fanfic story. The Bible describes their intimate relationship as surpassing male-female relationships. You might want to check out this link describing their relationship and how liberal and conservative religious leaders interpret it:

  3. 3

    “By the way, the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has nothing to do with the so-called virgin birth of Jesus. The doctrine holds that Mary was conceived in the womb of her mother without original sin.”
    You’re right, Rascal. I always get that mixed up. Thanks for the correction.

  4. 4

    >>>There aren’t bloody wars being fought between the Buffy fans and the Trekkies. The “Snape is good” and “Snape is evil” crowds aren’t tying each other to piles of wood and setting each other on fire. <<<
    Give them a couple thousand years…
    "Man is not a rational animal. Man is a rationalizing animal." — Robert Heinlein

  5. 5

    “Give them a couple thousand years…”
    Maybe. But nobody’s fighting wars or setting each other on fire over Beowulf or Chaucer or Shakespeare. Maybe the occasional bar fight…

  6. 7

    This is brilliant Greta. Religious texts boiled down to the desire to have a simple, coherent narrative of how the world works. Now why isn’t science this compelling? Of course, I personally find science very compelling, but it’s clear it doesn’t grab most people that way, or we wouldn’t have this silly cultural argument about evolution. Is it because ordinary people don’t feel connected? Like science is something weird guys in white coats do? Or is it just not romantic enough?

  7. 8

    “It’s fun to imagine a future Harry-Potter-based religion.”
    I agree, actually. And I’ve been entertaining myself all day with the mental image of a bar fight over Chaucer. Maybe in that Oxford pub where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis used to hang out…
    And Kris, I think the question of why our society doesn’t find science as compelling as religion is an excellent one. I do think a big part of it is cultural or even political. We went to see the moon landing movie this weekend, “In the Shadow of the Moon” (great movie, btw, a total must-see), and one of the things that struck me was how, in the 50s and 60s, science was considered very romantic: discoveries, adventure, pioneering, all that stuff. Very high-status.
    But somehow the anti-intellectual strain in American history has been taking over for the last few decades. I try not to be all paranoid and tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist about it, but it’s hard not to think that the Powers That Be don’t actually want an educated and informed populace: an uninformed and apathetic populace is easier to manipulate. (Also, we don’t have the whole “beat the Russkies” impetus that we had with the space race.) I dunno. Thoughts?

  8. 10

    Right on! I love this post – this is such a perfect, clear exposition of a beautifully compelling idea. The twisting, shifting path of reinterpretation that religious theology has taken through the ages is strikingly similar to the way any other fictional corpus evolves under the prodding of its fans. In both cases, there are lots of different people adding their input, most of which don’t have all the same ideas and conclusions in mind, and the result is numerous inconsistencies that mostly just get swept under the rug.
    And as long as we’re going to extend the fan fiction analogy, I don’t think the New Testament is Old Testament fanfic. I think a better term is “retcon”. Those prophecies about the messiah uniting Israel politically and defeating all its enemies? Oh, those weren’t canon. 🙂

  9. 11

    And that’s that fanfic writers understand — usually — that they’re writing fiction.
    What is this fiction you speak of? I’ve been waiting so patiently, for them to beam me up from this hell hole, no bursting my bubble dammit! I figured it all out one night, after having ingested fairly copious amounts of LSD. It’s not fiction, not a bit of it. It’s all very complicated, made a lot more sense on acid really, but there’s lots of quantum’s in, with a few singularities, stirred up with some telepaths and transporter accidents. Bottom line, eventually they’re coming to take me away!!!

  10. 12

    I’d be almost willing to bet that the originators of Christianity knew perfectly well that they were writing fanfic, and all it took was a few gullible morons to believe it.

  11. 13

    “And Kris, I think the question of why our society doesn’t find science as compelling as religion is an excellent one. I do think a big part of it is cultural or even political”
    Great post as usual. i think the reason that people dont find science as compelling is because they feel like it excludes them. They will never be as smart as those guys in the white coats. Maybe even that the guys in the white coats will laugh at them. But a “personal” relationship with a sky fairy, who listens to every whinge, who is really concerned that you win that bet, loose those pounds,find that vein, well that’s like santa claus or chocolate.
    In addition you become members of a club of like minded people with an instant out group (believers in other things). Science doesnt appear to offer that to non practitioners.

  12. 14

    PS people also used to believe that weasels and stoats conceived through the ear. I’m not sure what the connection is tho.

  13. 15

    Hi Greta,
    Actually there is a coherent reason why the star dates in the original Star Trek series are inconsistent. The episodes were not televised in the order they were filmed.
    Interestingly, when you read the Gospels not as eyewitness accounts but as fiction, you notice that they read like stories with a third person omniscient narrator.

  14. 17

    Here’s another example of why I enjoy your carnival posts. This treatment of the inscripturation of religion was deft as usual, and apologetics get nailed as well.
    But somehow the anti-intellectual strain in American history has been taking over for the last few decades. I try not to be all paranoid and tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist about it, but it’s hard not to think that the Powers That Be don’t actually want an educated and informed populace: an uninformed and apathetic populace is easier to manipulate.
    This dovetails with my interpretation of the framing debate; I don’t know if it is a conspiracy to keep us stupid, though. I think it may be an unintended consequence of market economics. More people will watch stupid skateboard tricks on YouTube than a great video on the workings of protein synthesis inside the cell.
    Since you are hosting the CoG next, watch for my entry on framing.

  15. 18

    This reminds me of:
    Are There Really Any Contradictions in Star Trek?
    which uses apologetic-style arguments to explain them away, and my own post in IIDB on Retcon Apologetics:
    “Retcon” is short for “retroactive continuity”, and refers to various ways of altering a fictional universe to produce continuity. A common way is the “comic book death”, in which some character reappears after what seems like their death. Yes, Sherlock Homes, Mr. Spock, and Jesus Christ all suffered comic-book deaths.
    I pointed out such retcons as:
    Genesis 2 is what happened when God created humanity in Genesis 1.
    Luke’s genealogy is for Jesus Christ’s mother instead of his father.
    Jesus Christ threw two temple temper tantrums, one near the beginning of his career (John) and one near the end of his career (Matthew, Mark, Luke).
    The Koran tells us that Jesus Christ was not crucified, but some fake was crucified that seemed like him.

  16. 19

    Ah, yes, the magic of the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retcon retcon! And you’re right, people are amazingly good at it. Of course, it’s easier if it’s just “that’s what so-and-so saw”, and you can explain why someone else saw something else. Proclaiming something unalterable truth makes it more difficult.
    Oh, and J.C. is an underachiever. Superman died and got reborn fourfold!

  17. 20

    “Oh, and J.C. is an underachiever. Superman died and got reborn fourfold!”
    Pff. Only four? The Doctor’s died nine times so far: http://www.homeonthestrange.com/view.php?ID=212
    And yes, it’s funny how the Abrahamic religions seem to be fanfic of each other, although the Koran (Quran?) also retconned Christianity, reportedly the Nestorean branch (which repudiated the Trinity, among other things).
    I guess if you’re trying to convince other people your fiction is true, you have to tie it back into other fiction that people believe is true.

  18. 21

    A while ago, I watched the _Left Behind_ movies.
    Besides the Apocalyptic nonsense, and the actual-showing-people-praying scenes which I swear are the Fundie equivalent of porn, what struck me was the way Christianity was represented as a set of super powers. “They can’t hurt me,” you can practically hear Kirk Cameron boast, “I’m a Christian!”
    I was able to enjoy the films by putting on the same willing suspension of disbelief that I use when watching an X-Men movie. Of COURSE mutations can let people fire energy blasts out of their eyes and walk through walls! Of COURSE worshipping a 2000-year-dead cult leader from Nazareth will cause pop stars to materialize next to you and deflect incoming bullets aimed at your head! If it’s good enough for the comic books, it’s good enough for me!
    Your article drawing a parallel with fanfiction reminded me of that experience.

  19. 22

    Great post, and great comments. One thing, though, I thought the Ginny/Harry romance made perfect sense. Young girl has admiration for friend of big brother, and who doesn’t know she exists.
    They create a connection when he saves her life.
    He doesn’t think much of her until he’s confronted in a few years by her now post-puberty, sexualized, boy-crazy self and sees her anew.
    He does the manly thing, she being his best friend’s kid sister, by staying away and suppressing his desire and jealousy.
    Finally they declare themselves to each other, again after a terrifying, exhilarating experience that again connects them, this time on an adult level.
    He gives her up to go in the quest.
    They fight the climactic battle together and live to tell the tale.
    It didn’t seem false to me, at all. Rowling is creating a fantasy world, and this story deserves a happy ending. I also like how delicately she handled issues like sexual jealousy and desire. The metaphor about the “beast in his chest” was really right on, speaking from my own experience with such emotions.
    Great going, Greta!

  20. 26

    Wow, really good analogy, very perceptive of you.
    This makes me rehash the difference between Open Magicians (Copperfield, Randy, Derren Brown) to “Closeted” or Psychic magicians (Uri Geller, Edwards, Sylvia Browne, etc)
    In the same way that Psychics create fiction and sell them as truth, so does Religion.
    EntertainmentClaimed Truth
    They really are the same thing, the difference is that the first know they are working in a Fiction framework, and the last don’t.
    Perhaps even further, Religions can be thought of as the fossils of Psychics. Institutionalizing the Creed generated by the original Psychic, or group of Magicians trying to scam ordinary people.
    What do u think?

  21. 27

    Nobody passes laws saying… that Buffy/Giles slash fans have to live in ghettos.

    Perhaps not, but I’d probably support them on this one if they did.

  22. DA

    Great article. I think there’s a good case to be made that Buddhism started off as Jainism fanfic and then actually “sold more copies”, kinda like the original Dune vs those awful prequel books by Herberts son.

  23. 29

    This is just… brilliant. Beautiful. I wish I’d come up with this argument! I may seriously end up posting a link to your blog on mine under the “awesome blogs I read” section. I’ve been meandering through this for a while, and I haven’t found a bad post yet!

  24. 30

    Not all theologians/prophets are so respectful of previous scriptural testament. New testament was not particularly respectful of the old (making circumcision non-compulsory for instance and revoking the “chosen people” status of the Jews) and the Koran was not particularly respectful of the New Testament, denying such basics as the divinity of Christ.
    Likewise all fan-fiction is not so respectful of “canon” stories.

  25. 31

    “And nobody is teaching their children that they’re going to be burned and tortured in the afterlife for all eternity if they ever question the perfect rightness and truth of “Babylon 5.” ”

    It would be a vastly better world if they did.

  26. 32

    Just found this key, crucial essay again!

    It’s not a coincidence that both fandom and religion refer to certain writings as “canonical”, or “part of the canon”.

    And of course fight over what’s actually canon vs. what’s apocryphal.

    Religion has aspects other than the stories, of course: it has rituals and it has club meetings and conventions. Fans have club meetings and conventions too — and we sure do develop rituals!

    There are even different forms of organization, with some fandoms being very top-down, with a living “creator” or “authorized leader” given authority and heretics who disagree with the leadership shunned (the term “Voice of God” comes to mind, with people who disagree with JMS’s interpretation of Babylon 5 not popular within Bab 5 fandom) — while others are much more congregational (whatever your wild, out-there interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is, the Holmes fans will at least tolerate it).

    I think the similarities are truly extensive. The only difference is whether we can tell what is literal reality vs. myth and storytelling. Interestingly, some of the most “liberal” religious groups have settled into the admission that none of their stories are literally true, thus making them more intellectually honest — and more like fandom, in a good way.

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