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.
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.