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Magic, Fantasy, and Atheism

March 25, 2012

I am not ashamed to admit that I like reading fantasy as well as science fiction (I’m 100% sure that I’m not as well-read as anyone who would call themselves a real fan of fantasy though…but that’s because I’m functionally illiterate anyway, haha). In fact, perhaps it might seem strange to you that I would preface that statement with the idea that there could be anything shameful about that. Within many of my circles, I know a lot of people who love fantasy, and as I mentioned, people who have a lot better “credentials” than I have — so it doesn’t seem really weird to me. Years ago, on Boy Scout camping trips, I played (in a very loose, unofficial, heavily modified sense) some sort of Dungeons and Dragons kind of game (I wouldn’t be able to tell you the details of versions or editions or whatnot, and so that’s why I qualify the statement with the previous parenthetical comment.) I’ve gone to Ren Fest with others who have dressed up for it (although I didn’t, but whatever.) I’ve watched a few (but most likely more than a “few” to someone who never watches them) animes and played a few RPGs (but as mentioned before, there are people with better credentials).

I’d like to think that maybe the fantasy nerd stereotype is outdated and these kinds of things are more broadly acceptable. But I suspect that instead, the case is that I just hang out exclusively with nerds and so I can’t internalize beyond mere suspicion how outlandish these things are…

Nevertheless, I’ll talk about a few weird things I find about my reservations. Maybe they are just my hangups and they don’t really apply to anyone else, but here goes nothing.

First, I want to elaborate on that first sentence. I already talked a bit about what some people might find shameful about liking fantasy (from a “mainstream” vs. “nerd” point of view), but I think the sentence says something else as well: I am not ashamed to admit that I like reading fantasy as well as science fiction.

In other words, I like science fiction…but I also like fantasy.

What could be strange about this?

Well, if this article’s title didn’t already give it away, I’ll just say that atheism isn’t usually tied with magic and the fantastic. It’s tied to rationalism, empiricism, and science. So, it would make sense for a scientifically minded atheist to like science fiction (and the harder the science, the better), but what would there be to say about an atheist who likes fantasy? Let me quote a passage from another blog post (that also quotes G.K. Chesterton) that will set up more of what I would like to discuss:

I found Chesterton’s book and–lo and behold–he had written this mind-blowing chapter on the importance of fantasy.

I will just mention a few things in this post, but here are some of the words that spoke to my heart and changed my life:

“We all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment . . . .Here I am trying to describe the enorous emotions which cannot be described. And the strongest emotion was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstacy because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an opportunity . . . . It was good to be in a fairy tale.”

Chesterton shows how, when he was young, the world contained magic, and that somehow, that magic implied a magician–someone who conjured up all the wonder in the world and gave that wonder meaning. He speaks of how we lose that wonder, how we forget we are living in this magical, awesome world, and what fairy tales do for us is return us to that wonder we have lost. When I read that, I was like a woman dying of thirst, only just realizing that thirst was there. When I had finished reading the chapter, I knew God had spoken to my heart. He said, “write fairy tales. Tell the world about me in the wonder you see and feel and touch. For in doing so, you will rediscover your own wonder and find healing for your soul.”

Now, I completely understand that people can frame the astonishing and wonder-full quality of the universe in which we live from scientific perspectives (e.g., Carl Sagan), and I’m not trying to say that skeptics or atheists cannot appreciate fantasy. But for me, while I can really appreciate fantasy, it doesn’t seem to speak of something more in this world, whereas for Chesterton (there are other quotes from him that go to this effect, but I forget where to find them), fantasy affirms the worth and value of religion and the spiritual realm. Rather than being an escape from the tedium of every-day life, fantasy is a way of awakening and becoming reacquainted to something that has been around us all along, but which we have taken for granted.

When I think of fantasy universes, I sometimes try to think of where I would fit inside those universe. Assuming that I wouldn’t be some random peasant (or, more likely, slave…[let’s just say that there are not a lot of eras, either in our universe or most fantastical universes where someone of my complexion would be treated too kindly…), and daring to assert that I would become a character of note to begin with, I would *like* to say that I would be a mage or something (because, despite my fencing, I surely wouldn’t be a fighter…I guess rogues can use rapiers [I guess?], but nothing like that really calls out to me either), but the magic path seems unlikely.

How could I expect to see (and develop expertise in) the magic of a fantastical universe when I don’t even see the magic of spirituality, religion, etc., in this world? I mean, I guess in those fantastical universes, there is usually a lot bolder evidence for magic (even if explanation of the mechanics may not be completely forthcoming.) I think some of the best fantasy universe are ones that weave magic in to the fabric of the universe and its physical laws, turning into something more like a different branch of the sciences than anything else.

Anyway, what drove this post was something written by a friend on Facebook (I still don’t know what the right protocol is for addressing this friend, since he blogs under a pseudonym, and I think he kinda wants to keep things in separate spheres). I’ll post a snippet:

Why do I want my children to be religious?

I am pretty happy where I am spiritually as an agnostic pragmatist religious humanist Mormon. 🙂 But I have been wrestling intensely (personally and in conversations with my wife and even ex-wife to some extent) with what I want for my children. One of my models of religion is that it is a good thing to grow out of.

I am happy now, but I also loved being raised Mormon. I really took it seriously. And for me, it wasn’t primarily a social thing, it was the theology. I loved living in a magical world of angels and miracles and a potential literally godlike in its scope. I loved being a central player in a cosmic drama. I loved the continuity between the myths of the past and the mundane present. I felt close to characters in the scriptures. I took seriously the magic of Mormon ritual and priesthood. I loved the idea that all of us are not only connected, but family.

So now that I have deep ambivalence and concern regarding the institutional Church, I am at a loss about what is best for my children. I realize that we are all made up differently, so what I would like to do ideally is to raise my children as liberal Mormons. I realize that puts them somewhat at tension with the community that is one of the benefits of organized religion, but that is better than allowing harm to come to them without intervention.

What struck me about this was that for me, I never really felt the magic of Mormonism. I never felt as if I was “living in a magical world of angels and miracles.”

The Non-Magic Hero

Gustave SaGa Frontier 2

Gustave the Steel of SaGa Frontier 2.

When I played SaGa Frontier 2, I thought that one character was particularly interesting: Gustave XIII, the heir to the Finney family and heir to the throne, fails the family’s “Firebrand Ceremony” and is banished from the kingdom. But what is this ceremony and how does Gustave fail? The Firebrand Ceremony determines who is the worthy successor to the throne in a kind of sword-in-the-stone-esque manner: the candidate for the ceremony lifts the family weapon (the namesake Firebrand) and channels his “anima” (a force that actually permeates throughout all living beings and all of nature, but which humans can only manipulate through tools) so that the blade glows fire-red. If the candidate is burned by the blade, he fails.

…But if the candidate cannot even channel anima through the blade, and thus cannot make the blade glow, then he fails even more spectacularly.

To the horror of his father (the King), Gustave has utterly no control of anima.

Gustave is able to remain relevant in the game through his use of steel, which is dead to anima and therefore well-suited to those who cannot use anima like Gustave. The thing about steel is that in contrast to the materials that make anima-infused tools (e.g., stone, wood, fangs, things like that) is that it’s more physically powerful and more durable (oh yeah, in the game, you have to worry about using most weapons too much, because they will break…metal weapons have infinite durability). In a way, Gustave’s adoption of steel tools vs. the dominant non-steel tools is like the introduction of guns to a world that had previously fought with swords, spears, and bows. (Is it interesting that Mustadio, the character who first introduces guns to the game Final Fantasy Tactics, also is an avowed atheist?)

So, it works for Gustave, but would this work for other series or other books?

Although Harry Potter did feature “squibs” and “muggles,” it would be difficult to imagine Harry Potter as *being* a squib.

Certainly, in other series, if magic isn’t ubiquitous, or there are other things about it that place limits on its power, then there will be non-magical characters who can still hang with the best of the magic users. However, so often, it seems instead that without being inclined to magic, the non-magical characters are the ones who are limited.

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10 Comments
  1. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    I think I’m the only religious person in my D&D group… Four of the five others in my group are pretty hardcore atheists, and one is agnostic/nominally Protestant. A sixth member of the group who is no longer with was a very outspoken atheist.

    Four out of five members of the group are also professional computer programmers. For whatever reason, the game does seem to appeal to guys who have a strong interest in math or the sciences (nerds)? We actually informally call our group “the nerd pod.”

    When I was in high school, a lot of religious folks looked at the world of science fiction/fantasy — and specifically Dungeons & Dragons — with a pretty jaundiced eye. A lot of conservative Christians saw (some still see, I guess?) D&D as anti-Christian or even Satanic… I guess I’ve always kind of laughed that off by replying, “Hey, it’s just fantasy!” But some religious folks seem to see fantasy as competing with religion.

  2. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    D&D, of course, probably wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for The Lord of the Rings, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s devout Catholicism is — I think — common knowledge. And the Peter Jackson movies were pretty popular among religious folks.

    Funny how Harry Potter inspired the opposite reaction… A lot of outrage among conservative Christians against the books and movies. They saw it as promoting witchcraft! Again, seeming to see fantasy as actually competing with religion.

  3. John,

    Yeah, I guess even if I don’t see that pattern often offline, most of the people I know who are avid fantasy enthusiasts online are secular in some way.

    I heard something the other day that said what you alluded to: people are more strongly against things that are *close* to what they believe, because those are real competitors. So evangelicals fight harder against Mormonism than atheists or even liberal religious people because evangelicals and Mormons are basically going for the same crowds of people.

  4. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    From my perspective, a person of faith who feels threatened by science fiction or fantasy must not be very secure in their faith. Someone who knows of God through actual, personal experience won’t get wigged out by fiction.

    When I was in junior high, my parents were a little concerned about my involvement in D&D, but not for religious reasons. They just noticed that I spent a lot of time on it, and they were worried my grades in school would suffer… As long as I pulled straight A’s, they had nothing to complain about. 🙂

  5. Seth R. permalink

    I always saw atheism as a denial of possibility in the universe. Kind of an attempt to make the universe fit inside one’s head through predictable rules and force it all to behave manageably. And I always viewed religion as being more open to the possibilities and therefore – more agreeable to sci-fi and fantasy. The story of the Exodus plays great in space by the way.

    But, on second thought, close-mindedness and fundamentalist thinking (defined as – the attempt to get the universe to behave itself) is an affliction you find in BOTH the religious, and the atheist. It’s only logical that openness would be found in both camps as well.

  6. Seth,

    I always saw atheism as a denial of possibility in the universe. Kind of an attempt to make the universe fit inside one’s head through predictable rules and force it all to behave manageably.

    That naturally leads in to another G K Chesterton quote:

    The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

  7. Seth R. permalink

    Right – that’s right after Chesterton’s observation that over-use of logic is a trademark attribute of the clinically insane.

  8. Rob permalink

    I’m an atheist too and I love fantasy and fairy tales. Maybe I’m a “spiritual atheist”?! I don’t know… I’m a rational thinker but I also have big imagination and believe in possibilities… Does it really matter? I don’t think so…

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