Parables of Belief: A Beautiful Mind, Watchmen, and Castaway

Parables of Belief: A Beautiful Mind, Watchmen, and Castaway September 6, 2014

stargazingJust because I self-identify as an atheist doesn’t mean I consider opposing all forms of religion a worthwhile use of my time. For me it depends on which species of religion we’re discussing. Personally, I’ve come to oppose Fundamentalism (Christian or otherwise) because I see it doing real harm in people’s lives.  Sometimes you’ll notice I also lump Evangelicalism in with Christian Fundamentalism because I’ve come to see that it often takes the exact same beliefs and merely restates them in bigger words. The difference is primarily stylistic. It seems to me the watershed issue is whether or not you consider a book (whether the Bible, the Qur’an, or the Book of Mormon, etc) above reproach. The thought processes which accompany that single belief are unhealthy, and they ultimately require a suspension of critical thinking skills.  The implication is always that people aren’t fit to think for themselves, so they have to just “trust and obey.” I smell coercion and control in that mentality, and the only reason everyone else doesn’t is because their noses have become too accustomed to the scent to detect it any longer. Because I see evidence of real harm among the adherents of such religion, I’ve decided to speak out against it.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to spend much time trying to convince people who believe in a Supreme Being that he/she/it doesn’t even exist. You want to know why? Because I spent many years believing in a Supreme Being myself, and I know by experience that I myself was the active agent in my experience of this person, who I had convinced myself was real. In other words, I created my creator myself. It wasn’t always easy, either. It takes years to learn how to do it well. It also works best if you are taught how to do it at a very young age. You learn how to listen to the Bible, both written and spoken aloud, as if hearing God himself speak (it usually has to be male, for some reason). You learn to take at least some of the words of your pastors as the words of God himself. You learn to interpret as a message from God the warm fuzzy feelings you get when you hear beautiful music. You even learn how to decipher your own thoughts as if they are laced with instructions from the creator of the universe. How very flattering! How utterly subjective, too, and yet how very convincing to those who believe it. It’s as if you’re performing a magic trick on yourself; only in this trick, you do such a good job of it that you forget it’s really a trick.* Only you could fool yourself that completely, which is why I know better than to spend much time trying to convince people that they’re just imagining things that aren’t really there. They’re the one creating the illusion.

Each of Us Has A Beautiful Mind

In A Beautiful Mind, the protagonist John Nash [**Spoiler Alert**] spent years laboring under the delusion that he was working for a top secret government agency tracking encoded Russian communications embedded in magazines and newspaper articles. He was a brilliant mathematician and could spot patterns even amidst apparent randomness and chaos. At one point in the movie, it appears that he may have legitimately been called in to decipher a communique for the military, but from that point on, his own brain began to generate all the excitement. His delusions gave a sense of eminent importance to his life, which otherwise had become mundane, tedious, and seemingly insignificant. What he did not realize was that he was developing schizophrenia, and the exciting adventures and classified conversations he was having were all just inside his head. He spent years cultivating relationships with people who weren’t even there. They were the creation of his own brain. But they served a crucial psychological function for Nash, which made them very stubborn: They gave him steady companionship as well as a sense of crucial national importance. Eventually others tried to tell him he was imagining things but he wouldn’t hear of it. The delusions had their own protective mechanisms (they always do) and they taught him to view as a hostile enemy anyone who challenged the authority and the credibility of the delusions.

The turning point finally came when Nash was sufficiently motivated to ask the hard questions about his delusions. He frightened his wife one day and she threatened to leave him. This crisis finally forced him to take a harder look at these friends of his to whom he had grown so attached, and he finally asked himself a question that broke the spell: Why don’t they age? All other people age but these three friends never do, even after decades. That means they’re not real. It finally dawned on him that these were hallucinations. But nobody else could tell him that. He had to get to a place in his life where he was desperate enough to ask himself those kinds of questions and not shy away from the answers. Boy, can I identify with that!

I’ve written before of how I had already begun to ask myself the hard questions about supernatural things several years before my deconversion but I couldn’t bring myself to follow the questions through to their logical conclusions. The emotional cost was just too high. I had to eventually get to a place in my life where my hunger for reality and for objectivity outweighed my need for psychological security and peace. That day eventually came, but I had to be ready for it. If someone had come to me and tried to push me through that door before I was ready, I would have just pushed back (and I can be stubborn as hell). No one else but me could have made me face those hard questions head-on. That’s why I don’t try to convince people that the person they believe in isn’t real. Since they make him real, there’s no use in telling them that he is not.

And yet…

A reddit commenter made an excellent point not too long ago in response to my post about Toy Story. He said:

While Buzz was not convinced by Woody’s frustrated attempts to get him to see reason…Woody did plant the seed that helped Buzz figure out the truth for himself.

The number of upvotes that comment received tells me that others have discovered the same thing. It’s not a lost cause to plant seeds of discovery in the minds of others, even when they’re not yet ready for the full awareness of the truth. Because Woody had introduced the truth to Buzz before (“YOU…ARE…A TOY!!”), when he encountered that commercial, instead of closing his eyes and ears (as many do when life experience contradicts their beliefs) he was able to process what he heard and  he saw the truth much more quickly because of that. Woody’s input wasn’t in vain after all. The same holds true in A Beautiful Mind. Nash didn’t discover the truth about his hallucinations entirely by himself. People who cared about him had been telling him the truth for a long time. That foundation was there to build on when the time came. So I guess the lesson we learn from this is that you can’t push people too hard toward a discovery of the truth, but you can introduce the idea of it and let that simmer a while. It’s like Inception, which you can be sure I’ll talk about in here before too much longer.

Religious belief is like learned schizophrenia. Nash’s hallucinations were natively generated by his aberrant brain chemistry. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are intentionally taught—imposed on people from sources external to them—and drilled into people’s minds, usually while they are still too young to evaluate the merits of the ideas for themselves. It’s best to get ‘em while they’re young. If you introduce an idea to a child early enough, it will stick with him his entire life. It will become his ideological bedrock, the default to which he will return whenever life overwhelms him. Unless he machetes his way through the jungle of protective rationalizations surrounding the dogma of his youth, stories about women turning to salt and men walking on water and coming back from the dead will always seem more intellectually valid than the alternatives. But the good news is: If these beliefs were imposed on you to begin with, once you’ve made your way out of them, they no longer control your perception the way they once did. Nash had to live with his hallucinations for the rest of his life because they were based in his own peculiar neurochemistry. Discovering that they were fictitious didn’t make them go away. I find that religious belief dies a surer death when its time comes. There may be a transitional phase wherein you cling to things like prayer or a refusal to critique whatever other sacred cows you were taught to revere. But most who seriously critique the fantastical beliefs of their youth do not find these things hounding them later in life because the beliefs were originally imposed on them from the outside after all. They labored to maintain their own delusions (“God spoke to me today”) but this was a learned behavior, which means it can be unlearned as well.

Meaning Makers

One more interesting aspect of Nash’s psychology aptly illustrates something which we all do but don’t all recognize. Nash could find patterns even where there were none at all. He could decipher (or rather create) messages in random arrangements of words and make them mean something. In a charming romantic moment which hindsight surely revealed was an early warning sign, Nash showed his future wife how he could find any shape she chose in the random arrangement of the stars above them. In reality, any patterns we see above are subjective impositions of order and structure where there is none in reality. If we were to stand at another vantage point in our own galaxy, the arrangement of the same stars would look completely different.

This reminds me of a character from yet another story. In Watchmen, Rorschach was a demented vigilante who was tortured by the horrendousness of his own past. He had learned from experience that nothing ensures that life’s events go “the way they’re supposed to.” Haunted by this realization, he decided to mock the world’s foolish belief in purpose and order by wearing a mask with an ever-changing inkblot design on it. He called himself Rorschach in mockery of humanity’s vain obsession with finding design where there isn’t any. Taking matters of justice into his own hands, he fought crime with crime because why not? He figured that if law and order were social fictions anyway, he might as well do as he pleased; and what pleased him was seeing criminals suffer (Dexter, anyone?).

Incidentally, Alan Moore, the creator of Watchmen, is one freaky dude. He is a brilliant writer and I enjoyed reading that series because it was both intricately developed and deeply thought-provoking. Each of the characters wrestled with the meaninglessness of life in his or her own way, and the bleak and despondent world Moore created will undoubtedly lead Christians to suck their teeth and shake their heads. “See? See how the world falls apart without God?” Before anyone rushes too quickly to judge the whole of non-believers based on the dark fascinations of one comic book writer, let me clarify that not all who believe we create our own meaning in the world wear holocaust cloaks and paint their nails black. Many of us would argue that if we help create the world we live in, why not try to make a world that’s better than the one we inherited? If we can make social structures out of whatever principles seem to promote the greatest good for the most people possible, then we have reason to hope that we can make a better world for our children (and I don’t mean just in one demographic at the expense of several others). It’s altogether possible that we won’t be successful.  But I say if we’re going to fail at something, I’d rather fail at trying to make the world a better place.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

I can’t leave the subject of imaginary friends without mentioning Castaway, the movie in which Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks) washes ashore on a deserted island [***More Spoilers, BTW***]. He lives there for four long years, learning to survive on coconuts and seafood caught with rudimentary spears and nets made of chiffon. More than half of this 143 minute film transpires with no dialogue at all, highlighting the protagonist’s utter loneliness on the island. But human beings are a social species, and complete solitude doesn’t suit us. As a remedy to the deafening silence of his circumstance, Noland created a friend out of a volleyball. “Wilson” became his constant companion for the bulk of his time on the island, and by the end of his long stay there, he had learned to have lively conversations with this inanimate object, projecting his own inner dialogue onto it in the same way that we do with our own imaginary friends. Like Calvin did with his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, Noland learned to meet all of his own social needs through psychological projection.

Wilson became a friend as real and as meaningful to him as any real person would be, even though he knew good and well it was really just a volleyball. Unlike John Nash, Chuck Noland always knew his projection wasn’t real, but it felt just as real as any real person would have felt. At one point in the movie, Noland got mad and kicked Wilson out of the cave they were inhabiting. Even though he had just openly admitted how pathetic it was to have a sporting good as your only friend, he panicked the second it sank in that his inanimate friend may have been lost. He ran to find him, rescued him, embraced him, and painted his artificial face back on. Then he smiled at his friend and said, “Yeah. I know you. I know you!”

Perhaps the most heart-rending moment in the entire movie came when Noland had finally escaped the island only to be separated from Wilson by unruly ocean waves. Helpless, he could do nothing but watch as his only friend in the world floated away, never to be seen again. Noland curled up into a ball on his raft and wept and wept as if a real human being had just died. This was heartbreaking, and it was perhaps the climactic moment of the entire drama.

Like most movies by Robert Zemeckis, this movie, too, was about creating your own meaning in life (an utterly unsatisfying prospect for anyone programmed to believe that life is structured according to a transcendent purpose). Virtually all of his movies are existentialist parables set to the music of Alan Silvestri. But the movie was also about the human need for companionship. We didn’t evolve to be loners, taking care of our own needs all by ourselves. We evolved to be in relationships with others, so that if we can’t find a real relationship to fill the spaces when we are alone, we will create one to meet the need ourselves, projecting our own internal dialogues onto some other object, real or imagined.

Making Our Maker

This explains why we were taught that God is always “whatever you need.” Our need is what creates him in the first place. Do you need a friend? God will be your friend. Do you need a father? God will be your heavenly father. Do you crave a lover? Guess what? He can be that, too (no, really). You need a counselor? Therapist? Advocate? Life coach? Disciplinarian? Whatever you need, God will become that for you. He/she/it is your one-stop source for every psychological and emotional need you have, providing both the hard side and the soft side of love simultaneously. He will be the inexplicable explanation for any unsolved mystery of nature. And he will be the perfection of whatever category he inhabits. Because that’s just how he rolls.

It’s all just too convenient, isn’t it? It all sounds exactly like what people like us would come up with in order to answer our own questions and meet our own psychological needs. Of course people would imagine a much bigger Person behind everything that happens in the universe. That’s exactly what I would expect a person to think. I call it the Giant Invisible Man hypothesis. I’ve got plenty to say about this (big shock), but it will have to wait for another time. What I want to point out right now is how difficult it is to part with a person—even one which you yourself create—when that person meets so many needs. It can be heartbreaking. In the case of our religious faith, we aren’t any more aware that we created this Person than John Nash was that he had created his own ubiquitous companions. But Chuck Noland’s grief at the loss of Wilson illustrates how it hardly even matters how aware we are of our own active agency in the creation of our own imaginary friends. Losing them is just as hard and as painful as losing a real person. This imaginary person still met a need, and maybe even many needs. So giving him/her/it up is no small feat.  That’s why in the end many will never be able to do it.

It helps at some level to become aware that this person is indeed imaginary. But for some people, even that discovery doesn’t invalidate the existence of this Person in their lives. While I don’t personally understand it, some seem content to find a way to keep their friend around because the loss of him would be too painful. Surely one of those folks would do a better job explaining how that works than I could. For me personally, I need relationships with people who I know are real, and I mean outside my own imagination.

________

* This thing about doing a magic trick on yourself and then promptly forgetting that it was a trick to begin with makes me think of yet another movie: Memento. I’d love to talk about that one, too, but I’ve already squeezed three movies into one post and there’s a long queue of other movies to get to as it is. But pretty much anything by Christoper Nolan is awesome.

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