A Failure of Imagination

In the comment thread to my recent post “A World in Shadow IV“, theist commenter Jarrod expressed the following objection to the atheist argument from evil:

I have nothing to say against the point that there is much horrible suffering going on; take that and run with it, if you want. But I don’t think we can start making claims about possible worlds with more or less pain. We have one world with a lot of pain. No need to talk about other worlds God should’ve created.

Interestingly, at the time I saw this comment, I was reading the book Piety and Politics by the Rev. Barry Lynn, director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Lynn made an observation that I think quite accurately describes Jarrod’s comment:

“It’s as if to the Religious Right, any attempt to even imagine an alternative world or other realities is an offense against God.” (p.216)

The context of Lynn’s remark was a discussion of the frequent attempts by religious conservatives to ban or censor books whose message they disagree with, especially science fiction or fantasy books depicting worlds whose basic rules are not in accord with the human-centric, God-dominated model of Christian cosmology. As Lynn says, “I’ve had Religious Right activists tell me that any book that features aliens from space should not be read by children because it could give them the impression that God did not uniquely create life on earth!”

Eric von Laudermann, author of the deconversion story “The Joys of Christianity” hosted on Ebon Musings, describes how he held very much the same viewpoint in his fundamentalist days:

My ability to draw is not God’s gift to me. It took years of my own effort to gain that ability, and it’s still not always there when I want it. My art is therefore sinful. After all, I specialize in fantasy artwork: things that God did not create. How dare I enjoy something that God did not create! How dare I create! That’s God’s job! I’m trying to be like God! I’m going to Hell!

So, why is it that religious fundamentalists are often leery of sci-fi and fantasy? One possible answer is that they feel all creative work should pay proper homage to God, which most genre fiction does not. But then again, there are sound narrative reasons for this: it’s almost impossible to write a compelling, suspenseful story when God is a character. The certain knowledge that he will miraculously intervene whenever the heroes are in danger robs the narrative of dramatic tension. (Witness the Left Behind apocalyptic fiction books, which mostly feature their bland, white-bread main characters driving around and making phone calls while they passively watch each item in the end-times prophecy checklist unfold before them.)

However, I think this answer doesn’t go deep enough. A better one is suggested by Lynn’s comment: in the circumscribed imaginations of fundamentalists, even imagining a world where God is not actively in control is dangerous. It is a recurring theme in the speech and actions of religious conservatives that the best way to ensure ideological purity is to cut off people’s access to all sources of information that convey a message different from the one those religious conservatives seek to convey. (See also: abstinence-only sex education.)

Objecting to sci-fi and fantasy is a logical extension of that practice. In contrast to rationalists and friends of free speech who trust that the truth will emerge from open debate, fundamentalists evidently fear that their dogmas are fragile, and must be protected from collision with inconvenient facts – or even alternative possibilities. Merely imagining a world that does not begin with their faith-based tenets, in their view, is a dangerous step toward doubt and questioning. The self-appointed gatekeepers of dogma do not trust people to make up their own minds, and would rather bias the process of belief formation by only teaching those people about the viewpoints they want them to reach.

In essence, what they fear is a competing narrative. (This was discussed in my last summer’s review of The Da Vinci Code.) The stories of organized religion are adapted to resonate with people on an emotional level, and a story that taps the same feelings and inspires the same emotional reactions can all too easily dislodge the religious memes. To the degree that lay believers use their imaginations at all, fundamentalists and church authorities want those people only to imagine their symbols, to possess a mental world as ideologically sterile as the creeds that inspired it. Permitting other ideas and symbols to flourish in the mind alongside the symbols of one’s chosen religion could very likely lead the believer to think of their religion as just one more story among many – which it is – and that is an outcome that defenders of dogma seek to avoid at all costs. In the marketplace of ideas, they do not want fair competition, but victory guaranteed by the possession of a monopoly.

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