In which Richard Dawkins tells me why I enjoy theology

So, as you may be able to tell, my Interwebs are functioning again. Turns out all I had to do was take the cable running from the Internet jack in the wall, unplug it from the “Internet” jack in the back of my router, and plug it into the adjacent, but completely wrong jack. I don’t know why it works, but I’m not planning to question it too deeply. At least, not for a few days. I’ll just chalk it up to the mysteries of the tubes.

Anyway, you may have noticed that I updated that little thingy in the sidebar that tells you Net-stalkers what I’m doing with my free time. It’s a little disingenuous, I know, since I’m watching more than just Scrubs (but Law & Order: SVU kind of goes without saying) and listening to more than just Bad Religion, but my current book list is relatively complete. I started reading The Color of Magic because I wanted something I could read openly at home. You might vaguely recall that I was working on a novel about the Armageddon. Well, I’ve picked it up again (after way, way too long) and I decided I should get some more background in the Bible. I’ve tried in the past, but I’ve been hindered by a number of things. The last time I dove in I was working with the King James Version, and I decided to start at the beginning and work my way through. Several pages into the begats, and even after filling a notebook page with a family tree to try to keep myself interested, I gave up. The combination of the archaic (but pretty) language and ancient genealogy led to a critical mass of sheer boredom.
But Misquoting Jesus gave me some more background with which to work, and some advice for picking a good translation. Ehrman recommended the New Revised Standard Version, so I headed off to Borders and picked one up (along with Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow, for some balance). It’s a much easier read, and while I miss the pretty language, I like knowing that it’s a quality translation of the best available texts. So I’m going to work my way through the Gospels (in roughly chronological order, if I can find out when Matthew, Luke, and John were written with regard to each other), Revelation, the Book of James, Ecclesiastes, and probably Psalms.

And, of course, I’ve started into The God Delusion, which I’m finding very entertaining. I’m hoping to have it finished in the next couple of weeks, and I plan on writing about it whenever something strikes me as interesting. Case in point, this post. See, early on, Dawkins makes an off-hand, rather flippant remark about theology that I found to be quite revealing. But to get to that, we have to make a quick stop in Tangentville, by way of the Train o’ Thought Express.

When I was exposed to the Intertubes oh so long ago, one of the first things I did was to join up with several mailing lists and newsgroups devoted to a variety of cartoon series from the ’80s. I was pretty active on these lists, with a penchant for being able to explain inconsistencies in continuity or to develop large and complicated theories regarding how certain concepts function. I wrote pages, with cited sources, arguing that “Grayskull” is properly spelled with an “a,” not an “e,” and that such a distinction is important. I wrote lengthy essays explaining how Queen Marlena’s spaceship could have two different names (one was the mission, the other her specific module), or whether He-Man could best Superman in battle. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve got at least one copy of that latter argument saved to a file somewhere on my hard drive. I wrote a huge essay detailing the theory and practice behind “subspace,” a concept invented by Transformers fans to explain how their favorite robots change sizes and where their weapons and trailers and other various parts go when they transform. I could tell you how a 20-foot-tall robot like Soundwave could turn into an average-sized 1980s boombox, or how a 7-foot-tall robot like Cosmos could become a spacecraft large enough to accommodate a full-grown human with lots of room to spare.

It was on these forums, in these minutest of topics, that I honed and developed my debate skills, specifically my tendency to do detailed, point-by-point rebuttals of others’ arguments. And these forums helped me develop my ability to draw connections between various data points, explain how seemingly contradictory elements might fit together, and familiarized me with the concept of canon. Hell, I could still go on for hours about He-Man’s canons, how I’m something of a pluralist in that regard (I recognize multiple equally-valid but separate canons: FILMation cartoon, MYP cartoon, Marvel Minicomic, Marvel Comic, DC Comic, DC Minicomic, Movie, etc.) and how absurd I think it is to try to synthesize all the canons into one coherent whole. There are inconsistencies within any individual universe, but those are relatively minor; trying to reconcile Movie Skeletor and MYP Cartoon Skeletor would be darn near impossible.

And I could even regale you with an explanation of my own personal canon, one which I recognize is not valid by the standards with which I’d judge “official” canons, but which incorporates all the elements I feel are good and accurate representations of the He-Man universe. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to accept my personal canon, and I certainly couldn’t justify it rationally, it’s just a matter of my own preference.

But it wasn’t just He-Man and Transformers. At the same time, I was involved in a Star Wars RPG, which prompted me to research the intricate details of the Holy Trilogy (which at the time, was still just a trilogy) and to understand how all the characters, important or unimportant, came together and behaved and whatnot. My favorite books at the time were compilations of short stories about the various Bounty Hunters or the patrons of Mos Eisley cantina, going into excruciating detail about the personal lives of characters who only existed for a few brief moments on screen.
And I’ve always considered myself a Trekker (far cooler than a Trekkie). I followed TNG pretty closely as a kid, and I even watched Voyager (though various factors prevented me from seeing much of DS9 until the later seasons. It’s okay; I prefer bald-and-bearded Sisko). And I remember being incensed when I saw the episode that explained how Seven of Nine got assimilated, because it didn’t fit with prior continuity regarding how far out Voyager was and when the Federation first encountered the Borg. Clearly, there was an irreconcilable contradiction.

You see? I haven’t talked about this stuff in years, and it still comes back easier than riding a bike (as the scabs on my arms can attest). Some people just have a knack for continuity issues, and I’m most certainly one of those people. But back to the point, Dr. Dawkins said something which stuck out to me, in light of my prior experience:

The other thing I cannot help remarking upon is the overweening confidence with which the religious assert minute details for which they neither have, nor could have, any evidence. (p. 34)

Upon reading this, I made one of those connections that years of nerd quibbling has so adequately prepared me for: theology is fanboy debate writ large. Or perhaps not even really writ large, so much as writ legitimate.

The similarities are really quite striking, which I imagine owes much to the scope of the debate. Dawkins isn’t quite right when he says that the debaters here have no evidence; it’s true that they have nothing that we would really call “evidence,” but that’s because they have a different standard for what qualifies as evidence. Whether you’re talking about the Bible or He-Man or “Star Trek,” the vast majority of the “evidence” is textual (used here in the broader literary sense of “any work in media”). The canonical texts become the primary source of evidence. It’s not difficult to see why this is the case: the texts are the only source which testifies to the existence of the subject matter. When you’re trying to explain how Warp Drive works, your primary source will have to be the “Star Trek” series, because there’s no other source which would describe the functioning of a Warp Drive. Similarly, when you’re trying to explain where the water for the global flood came from, your primary source will have to be the Bible, because there’s no other source which testifies to the existence of a global flood.

Other evidence may come into play; non-canonical texts may be consulted (such as the Star Trek novels or the Gnostic Gospels), though their inclusion may be grounds for dismissing the argument. Secondary texts might be used, such as the technical guides and “history of” or “science of” books that try to explain things within the context of the canon, or theological texts that promote specific arguments. Science and real-world observation might come into play as well, the sorts of things that Dawkins and I would consider “evidence,” but only insofar as it serves the primary sources, the canonical texts. Nevermind that warp drive is a technical impossibility according to General Relativity; we start with the a priori assumption that everything in the canon is true, and we then pick and choose what science or evidence will support it. Anything which doesn’t fit, we chalk up to errors in our current understanding of the world, or futuristic science that we don’t yet understand, or divine mystery.

So, while a scientist going into this would start with questions like “does the warp drive work?” or “was there a global flood?” a fanboy or theologian has already covered those topics in the initial assumptions. Of course warp drive works, they use it in every episode! Of course there was a global flood, it says so right there in Genesis! Given that the canon is true, how do the details work out?

I’ve tossed the word “canon” about a bit here, because it’s a matter of concern for both fanboys and theologians. In nearly all cases, there’s a variety of available texts, some of which are considered “official,” and some not. How that is decided really differs from fandom to fandom, and sometimes, from person to person. I discussed one option above, a pluralistic sort of canon, where various sets of texts are considered canonical among themselves, and those sets are roughly equal to one another. I’m not sure whether or not that really has an analog in theology, except for those pluralistic sorts who claim that there is only one God, but many manifestations, such that Christians and Buddhists and Hindus all really believe in the same thing, but in different ways.

There are many different options, however. Some fandom communities have an absolute authority; take “Star Wars” for instance. The position of Lucasarts was, for many years, that despite the wide variety of books and TV shows and supplemental materials, the only true “canon” was the Trilogy, and that Pope George I reserved the right to contradict any of the other texts with his future films (mainly because he didn’t have the time to read the other books). Eventually Shadows of the Empire became canonical, and I understand that the New Jedi Order books are considered “official” for the time being.
But ever since the beginning, there have been alternate canons. While the first book and first film are reasonably similar, there are some significant inconsistencies between the two (such as whether Luke was “Red Five” or “Blue Five”), giving rise to Orthodox and Novel Reformist fandoms. After the first movie, there was a book called Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, the first Star Wars spin-off novel, in which Luke and Leia made out and Darth Vader was killed. Naturally, the events of this book were contradicted in the following two films, and so it has been largely considered apocryphal since around 1980. But I know there are fans out there who consider it continuity, either by rejecting everything that came after, or by explaining away the inconsistencies. And then there are as many “canons” as there are stories, where some fans reject the authority of Pope George and the alterations that came with Trilogy II, some embrace texts like Heir to the Empire, and some reason that if the “New Jedi Order” books are considered canonical, then several key books leading up to them, like the Thrawn Trilogy, the “Jedi Academy” Trilogy, and The Courtship of Princess Leia must also be canonical, as they explain events that occur in the NJO.

And then there’s the matter of extra-textual consensus: things that are considered by the majority of fans to exist, even though they are not represented in the text. I mentioned “Subspace” above, as a Transformers example. Fans invented the concept and generally agreed on its existence based on its ability to explain apparent contradictions or inconsistencies or observations in the official texts. Star Trek fans may discuss with you the rules of Three-Dimensional Chess, which are never mentioned in the show, but which we reason must exist since they play the game. Or they might tell you that the scale of Warp Speed was changed between the Original Series and TNG, in order to explain why Kirk could regularly go over Warp 10, but later series treated it like an upper bound. They might tell you that Scotty suffered some signal degradation over the decades he was locked in a transporter loop, which is why he didn’t remember seeing Captain Kirk’s apparent death on the Enterprise-B. Christianity has this sort of thing in spades, whether it’s the existence and composition of the Trinity (never mentioned in the Bible, and only alluded to in a disputed passage), the existence of the Rapture (never mentioned by name), or the concepts of Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. Fans explain away inconsistencies or holes in the text, and those explanations may gain wide acceptance. Naturally, there will be some who reject those explanations (at least one of the post-Generations Star Trek novels contradicts the explanation about Scotty, for instance) and some who accept them as equal to the text.

Squabbles over canon, text as primary evidence with all other evidence subordinate to the text, lengthy and heated arguments over minute and trivial details, and the widespread acceptance and legitimization of adherent-created explanations. It seems to me that the attitude, the methodology, and the near-complete uselessness are completely consistent between the two traditions. Theologians are simply Fanboys whose chosen area of geekiness is the Bible. I’m not meaning to denigrate them, necessarily. After all, I’m a Fanboy as much as anyone, and I understand deeply the entertainment value of pursuits like theology. Even now, I could launch into a deep and overly complicated explanation of how Superman’s powers work, within the context of his particular universe, or why I reject the Midichlorians, even though I recognize that all of Star Wars is fictional. These arguments and points may be petty and completely lacking in utility, but they are enjoyable, at least to some degree. Whether that enjoyment value overrides their divisiveness and tendency to incite anger is another argument entirely.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the only difference between the two traditions is one of prestige. When a fanboys think that these arguments and distinctions are of vital importance and devote large portions of their lives to exploring them, we consider it sad. When theologians think that these arguments and distinctions are of vital importance and devote large portions of their lives to exploring them, we give them degrees.

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13 Responses to In which Richard Dawkins tells me why I enjoy theology

  1. Brendan says:

    Nice! This explains quite a lot about a great many things. I’ve never thought about it like this, but it makes a lot of sense. Well written, too.

  2. Greg says:

    Great post. Theology as fanboy debate, fascinating connection.Oh for the day when everyone considers theology and its “arguments and distinctions” sad.

  3. Infophile says:

    Very nice post, though a little quibble with the conclusion: I think the difference between the two comes down more to the fact that deep down, fanboys know it’s fictional, while the religious don’t.

  4. Bronze Dog says:

    You summed up my thoughts better than I ever could.So… was it a transgender transporter accident that turned Spot female?

  5. Doubting Tom says:

    Infophile: I think the difference between the two comes down more to the fact that deep down, fanboys know it’s fictional, while the religious don’t.I agree, and admit I was being a bit flippant. I can, however, remember those halcyon days when my friends and I would speculate that maybe “Star Wars” really did happen, a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, and we’re the descendants of humans from that region who colonized various worlds, and maybe George Lucas just tapped into some kind of racial memory to make the movies. Or maybe if there’s an infinite number of universes with infinite possibilities, then all fiction is based on signals somehow received from other universes where those things already actually occurred.You know, I see now why they call it Junior High. I didn’t need any mind-altering chemicals to achieve the same stupid philosophical conclusions, just way too much Mountain Dew. Bronze Dog: according to my (mercifully out-of-date) Star Trek Encyclopedia, that’s the running hypothesis. Seems to me she got off lucky; she could have been merged with Neelix.

  6. Dikkii says:

    You’ve got me thinking now, Tom.We’re just getting Torchwood on the tube down here, and I’m worried that at some stage, it’s going to contradict events from Doctor Who.Fortunately, the BBC have never publicly stated what’s canon and what is not. This potentially gets them out of a hole if stuff starts contradicting other stuff (like the creation of the daleks, for instance).

  7. Akusai says:

    Or maybe if there’s an infinite number of universes with infinite possibilities, then all fiction is based on signals somehow received from other universes where those things already actually occurred.I seem to remember that I once met somebody who claimed exactly this, though specifics are not forthcoming.If I did, I hope I told him or her off.

  8. Doubting Tom says:

    dikkii: At least with Dr. Who stuff, there’s always the out of time travel. When you muck with the timestream, you can foul up all sorts of stuff.And, while I’m no expert (I’ve watched the show sporadically for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never actually been able to see it regularly), it seems like some stuff has been retconned and changed already. I mean, isn’t the Doctor past his limit for reincarnations? I thought he had one more after the TV movie several years ago, and I know he’s been through at least one since then. Akusai: You might remember that from DC Comics; it was the basic premise behind introducing the Multiverse. The writer of the Flash comics on Earth-1 was actually subconsciously tapping into Earth-2 to get his inspiration. Also, I forgot before, but thanks to Greg and Brendan for the kind words.

  9. Infophile says:

    And, while I’m no expert (I’ve watched the show sporadically for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never actually been able to see it regularly), it seems like some stuff has been retconned and changed already. I mean, isn’t the Doctor past his limit for reincarnations? I thought he had one more after the TV movie several years ago, and I know he’s been through at least one since then. As the local Doctor Who geek, allow me to address this: Time lords (of which the Doctor is one) can have twelve regenerations, for a total of thirteen bodies. The first doctor we saw is, in the current continuity, the actual first form of the Doctor. However, one early episode implied otherwise, showing what were intended to be more past forms of the Doctor. This part has since been retconned to say that the first we saw was the first period, and unfortunately no out of time travel will resolve this dilemma.Now, counting all the canon bodies we’ve seen (seven in the original run, one in the movie, two in the new run), the Doctor is currently in his tenth form. We can potentially have three more actors come in to play the part (and possibly one more if the Valeyard makes a return), though I wouldn’t put it past the writers to come up with some way of extending it even further if necessary (the mechanic of transferring regenerations from one Time Lord to another has already been established).

  10. Anonymous says:

    Very interesting! I agree wholeheartedly.Can I ask a rather off-topic question, though? Why are you talking about “fanboys” (ie and not “fans”) — is the genderedness deliberate? If it is, I’m trying to figure out why….

  11. Infophile says:

    The problem is that “fanboy” and “fangirl” have connotations that extend far beyond simply the gender of the fan. A lot of it is mixed in with boy/girl stereotypes, but not all.

  12. Hypocee says:

    I hope I’m not too late for relevance, but as a Pratchett fan I think you may be missing your perfect target slightly. I would recommend Good Omens if you haven’t read it already. Not only is it more mature Pratchett, not only is it independent of the Discworld canon and humor, not only does it have Neil Gaiman as unobtrusive coauthor, but in a spooky coincidence with your aims…it’s about Armageddon.

  13. Anonymous says:

    "For centuries, theologians have been explaining the unknowable in terms of the-not-worth-knowing." -H.L. Mencken

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