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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Atheism in the DCU

In the comments to my JSA post, Phil posted something interesting:

I didn't like the Mister Terrific scene much. It read like dialogue written by a person who's never spoken to an intelligent atheist in his life. Johns' written him well before, so I'll be patient with this character arch, but I really hope it doesn't turn into Michael "filling that God-shaped hole in his heart".

Can't we have one pop culture atheist who's not either a self-centred misanthropic prick or a tragic soul who's "mad at God"?


This stuck with me over a few days so rather than replying in a comment, I thought I'd make a blogpost about it. Hope that doesn't offend you, Phil.

Anyway. On one hand I sympathize a lot. Atheist characters are already rare and it's difficult to see someone who shares your beliefs caricaturized. But there is an element to consider that makes the portrayal of atheist characters that aren't either self-centered pricks or tragic souls very difficult in the DCU...

Because in the DCU, there is clear evidence of God/Gods. Wonder Woman was created by the Greek Gods and interacts with them on a semi-regular basis. Sand is favored by Dream of the Endless, who even stirred off his ass to get the JSA to save his champion's life. Supergirl (Matrix-version) became a celestial being. Zauriel was an angel. Etrigan and Neron tend to imply the existance of a god/gods/heaven as their opposites. Ragman and the Spectre definitely imply the Judeo-Christian deity's in place...and I'm sure I'm missing other examples.

I myself am not atheist, but I do think that atheism in our world is perfectly rational and reasonable. Neither the existance of a God/gods nor his/her/their acts have anything more than circumstantial evidence. If you're a person who requires proof, well then, it's perfectly logical to not believe in that sort of thing.

But the DCU HAS a god/gods. Many of them even. And witnesses and evidence. People can communicate with celestial beings. Mr. Terrific himself had interaction with the Spectre, if I recall correctly. So to be an atheist as we define it is probably not very rational in that world and requires a certain measure of defiance of certain elements of (their) reality. There needs to be an element fuelling the defiance. Be it misanthropic anger or tragic angst.

Actually, thinking about it. I think there is a way to rationally be an atheist in the DCU, though I think it does blur the line a bit between atheism and agnosticism. But it might be logical for DCU-atheist to accept that there are "god" and "gods" but doubt that those figures are more than just extremely powerful human-types. After all, how do you define "God" anyway? I don't recall seeing this perspective pop up in any of the atheism/religion discussions in comics yet, but I could very well be misremembering. That would be a way to be an atheist character without the character needing some sort of anger/tragedy fuelling their disbelief.

15 Comments:

  • At July 17, 2008 8:08 AM, Anonymous Jeff said…

    Good points. I think athiests in the DCU fall into the same boat as Doctor 13's role as a sceptic does. To hazard a guess: I'd say an athiest in the dcu would have to acknowledge the existince of "higher powers", especially if they've met/worked with some, but deem them not worthy of worship and/or not responsible for creation/judgement. Anyway, insightful post as always.

     
  • At July 17, 2008 9:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well, like the Christians in that comic said about Gog, "He is as much our God as Superman". Most religious people in a comic book world would dismiss other Gods as cosmic beings or "sufficiently advanced aliens" or some such, while believing their own religion's God to be the real deal.

    An atheist in the DCU would just take that a step further and say that about all of the so-called Gods. I mean, mortal supers frequently beat up Greek Gods, Superman's wrestled with angels, the New Gods seem to integrate fully into the superhero community. There's no real reason to think that the presence that powers the Spectre isn't just a really powerful super being, or something along the lines of the Speed-Force, and not a genuine creator.

    The hand at the beginning of the universe puts a dent in that theory, but I guess that could be chalked up to mortal eyes being unable to cope with the situation and so seeing what they want to see. Uh...work with me here, people.

    Obviously atheism (and religion too) in the DCU would be different than in the real world. Someone like Doctor 13 is clearly nuts (he doesn't even believe in aliens, for crying out loud), but I don't think he would be terribly representative of atheists everywhere.

    The most recent Doctor Who *mild spoilers* had planets appearing in the sky. It actually had a cameo by Richard Dawkins theorising about what was going on. I think that's how most rational atheists would think in a world with fantastical goings on; they wouldn't deny the situation, but they would look for a scientific answer beyond "God did it".

    That bit in JSA just bugged me a bit because I see that line of reasoning used all the time about how broken people like me must truly be, and it was annoying seeing it come from a character that I kind of identified with. I guess it's kind of petty of me though. I liked the issue otherwise.

    -Phil

     
  • At July 17, 2008 9:55 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I don't think it's petty.

    I do think part of the problem with Mr. Terrific is that he was introduced in the Spectre, already with a lot of built in tragedy. So the atheism/tragedy gets linked a bit more than they probably ought to.

    So I definitely sympathize with the frustration there. :-)

     
  • At July 17, 2008 10:14 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    Hanging out with gods and godlike beings didn't change the minds of Ted Knight or Dr. Thirteen either, so I guess that Michael is in good company.

     
  • At July 17, 2008 10:31 AM, Blogger Rich said…

    Not sure about your reasoning on this, actually - I think your average guy in the street might assume that Zauriel, Angel-Supergirl, WW's gods were just more metahumans claiming names of gods or affiliation with God more than anything else.

    I think the preponderence of aliens and superbeings would actually reduce the number of religious people as the next inevitable question would be 'What if (insert name of deity) is just another alien of superhuman?'

     
  • At July 17, 2008 1:04 PM, Anonymous suedenim said…

    As an atheist myself, I think your last paragraph is the right answer.

    Atheism in the DCU wouldn't necessarily be about belief in the existence of gods, per se. If I'm living in the DCU, I might say "OK, sure, gods exist. But, y'know, how 'divine' are they if Superman can kick their asses, and has done so on several occasions?"

    But the point would be more, why are any of these guys worthy of *worship* or submission? They're powerful, sure, but so are the President, Oprah, and Donald Trump, and I don't run out and do everything they tell me to.

    Slightly trickier would be the implied existence of Yahweh, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic entity who supposedly is the one *all* powerful God. But his existence in the DCU isn't as explicit as that of, say, Zeus (and I'm not sure the big Z would agree with Yahweh's claim to supremacy, at that.)

    On a slight tangent, I think a skeptic like Doctor Thirteen would be more useful than you might think in the DCU. Since the existence of "magic" and aliens and other weird stuff is proven fact, people pretending to have such powers might be more readily believed.

     
  • At July 17, 2008 2:09 PM, Anonymous Joshua R said…

    Hey there...Just poking around your blog, kalinara--you've done some interesting stuff here.

    I'm currently pursuing a sociology degree with a concentration in sociology of religion; and as a comic book fan, I've thought about this question a lot.

    As you guys have already noted, the real question is not whether God/the gods exist in the DCU or the Marvel Universe; they do. The most pertinent question is really the one jeff mentioned in the first comment: is any of these gods "worthy of worship"?

    It's very similar to the problem we see in premodern polytheistic societies. There are few atheists in these cultures (they exist, but they're few in number); what is also rare is a truly fervent devotee. No one has been recorded in history speaking of doing something for the "love of Zeus" in the way that Muslims today regularly speak of doing something for the love of Allah.

    This is because there are typically three requisites for intense, devoted religiosity: 1) the god must be believed to possess great power; 2) the god must be believed to be benevolent or caring towards its followers; and 3) the god must require exclusive interactions for the greatest rewards.

    Monotheistic religions like Christianity can easily promise all three. Jesus is almighty, eternally loving, and the only Son of God. A rational person (who believes in the supernatural) has every reason to become a committed follower of Jesus. Polytheism has it harder. Polytheistic gods are limited in power, often amoral, and competing for worship with the other gods in their pantheon. Thus, while a polytheistic person might appeal to the gods or a specific god for aid, there's no rational reason to develop a long-term, devoted relationship to any one deity.

    The DCU is almost certainly polytheistic. You can argue that Zauriel and the Spectre's "Source" is a monotheistic God, but the fact remains that non-monotheistic people like Wonder Woman or Zatanna are able to reap material and supernatural rewards just as easily as a monotheist, if not more so. And none of them apparently go to Hell or somesuch underworld for lack of participation in an exclusive relationship with a particular deity.

    So, I think, everyone in the DCU should believe in the supernatural (even if, like Dr. Thirteen, you just believe it's really advanced science). But no one should bother with monotheism; it's blatantly untrue (in the DCU).

     
  • At July 17, 2008 3:15 PM, Blogger Patrick C said…

    Did we ever learn whose hand that was that Krona saw at creation? It could be Spectre's or Alexander Luthor, Jr's moving the universe around.

    I'd like to see a church try to worship Damage. He did create the universe at the end of Zero Hour, didn't he?

     
  • At July 17, 2008 3:22 PM, Blogger False Prophet said…

    Thing is, if the DCU is supposed to be like our world, but with aliens, magic and "gods", then scientists would be trying to learn how all these guys tick. They'd revise the laws of physics to explain how Superman and Spectre fit into them. Psychologists would be writing articles on metahuman thinking. MDs might have to do a rotation on metahuman physiology. Insurance adjusters might need courses in metahuman damage claims to get certified.

    And there would have no lack of funding--you think the Department of Defense doesn't want to make 200 Flashes, all working for the Pentagon?

    Star Labs does this kind of thing, but for the most part normal people in the DCU just seem to accept the existence of powerful beings who occasionally destroy large parts of their civilization without trying to understand their fundamental natures at all. Which is pretty brainless and sheeplike of them. Even the ancient Greeks questioned their capricious gods. Existential angst just seems non-existant in the DCU.

     
  • At July 17, 2008 7:02 PM, Blogger Stacy said…

    God in the DCU is the Source, natch. ;p

    I do agree that Michael's continued aetheism in the face of the gods and God of the traditional DCU is a bit off. But I think there's room for any sort of faith in the DCU, much as there's room for any sort of faith on Earth. I mean, beyond the Source and the Presence of Zauriel and the Spectre, you have the Elementals, the Green, the New Gods. . .the list goes on and on.

    I do think it telling that in the major portrayals of this divine power, the actual physical presence of the divine has been left nebulous. The Source has it's voice in the Source Wall, but the actual Presence has long since left it's room in the top of the highest tower in Heaven.

    Me, I tend to follow George Carlin's dictum of 'Thou Shalt Keep Thine Religion to Thyself', but I do admit it is kind of fun to see these ideas played with through the medium of capes 'n tights funnybooks.

    Stac

     
  • At July 18, 2008 1:49 AM, Blogger Will Staples said…

    @patrick c:

    Did we ever learn whose hand that was that Krona saw at creation?

    It was the Anti-Monitor's, I believe, in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

    As for Mister Terrific being an atheist even in the face of Zeus and the Spectre... well, one thing no one's brought up so far is that when you can see a god up close with your eyes instead of "feeling" it with your heart, it loses some of its majesty.

    If the Spectre only operated off-screen he'd have some godlike/angelic/whatever mystique, but as he is, who can say he's any different from Mxyzptlk? How is Ares different from Doomsday? They can be seen, they can be touched, and presumably they can in some way be measured, which should be enough to foster some sort of reasonable doubt in a lot of people.

     
  • At July 18, 2008 1:40 PM, Blogger ticknart said…

    I think being an atheist in a place like the DCU would be much easier and rationally argued than it is in our world.

    The DCU has people like Superman and Power Girl and Dr. Fate and Morgan le Fey and none of them call themselves gods or God. Two are aliens who gain strength from the sun; the other two are humans with gold helmets. None of them claim to be divine.

    So, why should anyone living in a place full of beings with powers and abilities comparable to the gods and demi-gods of legend believe a guy who calls himself Atlas is really the titan who held up the heaven and not some guy or an alien with super strength? Why should I believe him when I can see a guy like Red Star on TV and Red Star can do more than just be strong?

    Someone wants me to believe that they're an angel sent by God or a demon of the pit, prove to me that you're not from Thanagar wearing Nth metal wings or you’re not just a stuntman who got trapped in your costume because Hawkman and Blue Devil have never claimed to be creatures of the divine.

    And even if the Zauriel and Etrigan continue to insist they are Christian mythology brought to life, why should I believe them when there are people like Maximillian Zeus running around Gotham claiming to be part of the Greek Pantheon?

    Mr. Terrific spends most of his time with men and women who can fly, control the elements, harness the power of the stars, and could crack the Earth in half with a thought, but none of them claim to be divine entities sent to Earth. They're all just men and women, some are human, some are alien, some are a mix of the two, and some aren't sure. Isn't it logical for him to look at Circe and think it makes more sense that she's a powerful being who's no more divine than Etta Candy?

    A man like Michael Holt to believing that the people who say they are gods just because that's what he's told is a silly as a kid trusting that the guy in the rusty van who says he has ice cream and video games in the back actually does. Michael's a scientist; he's spent a large portion of his life looking for scientific and rational explanations for how the universe works.

    As to Mr. Terrific's tragic origin, I never saw it as a force that drove him to atheism, only the suicide attempt. He had advanced degrees in engineering, physics, math, and chemistry before his wife died and any person with that many science based degrees is more likely to be an atheist. I always assumed he was before he met his wife and way before he ever came into contact with The Spectre or any other supernatural beings of the DCU.

     
  • At July 18, 2008 7:37 PM, Anonymous joshua r said…

    ticknart, I agree with you on all points (I agree that monotheism is for suckers in the DCU) except the last one.

    Michael Holt is a natural scientist; those have been shown not to be less religious than the average American. Social scientists (anthropologists, economists, etc.) lean heavily towards disbelief, though.

     
  • At July 20, 2008 2:25 AM, Blogger Joe - fourhman.com said…

    Brilliant discussion! I wrote about this back when Mr. Terrific and Ragman had that page in Infinite Crisis, and would add the following (I'm excerpting from my own weblog, please forgive me!):

    If I may put words into Mr. Terrific's mouth, I don't think he is in any way denying the reality and power of characters like the Spectre. Nor is he denying their metaphysical origins. What he's denying - what any atheist denies - is that some intelligent guiding persona created the universe with some unknowable purpose in mind. And in the DCU, where we can visit the anti-matter world of Qward, hold parley with the superintelligent primates of Africa's Gorilla City, and then travel to the 31st century to the galaxy-spanning utopia of the Legion of Super-Heroes... I'm just not seeing One Single God's Divine Plan in that. Neither does Mr. Terrific.

    This goes for Hell as well, which we visit pretty regularly in DC books. Is Hell really rooted in Christian folklore, or is it just another dimensional plane full of demons and monsters? Maybe this is why Terrific doesn't buy into it: he knows guys who have been to Hell and fought their way out of it... which doesn't sound like the unescapable damnation sold in the Bible.

    If I were Mr. Terrific, with the abilities and powers of the JSA at my disposal, I'd hop on the ol' Cosmic Treadmill, travel to "biblical" times, and see once and for all just what went down. I've read several stories where everybody goes back to "the beginning of time"... but none where somebody decides to go suss out the true Jesus. For crying out loud, I don't think anybody's even asked Vandal Savage about it, and he's an immortal caveman (The World's First Murderer, according to his resume.)

    If "God" existed in the DCU, Darkseid would have found him and kicked his ass by now.

    I suspect that's how atheism plays out in the DCU: the Christian mythology is no more worthy of reverence than the Cherokee or the Atlantean or the Martian. Asking for blessing and guidance during the Infinite Crisis is, in Mr. Terrific's opinion, a waste of time. In a world where myth is real and ultra-powerful gods show up every month, what is to prove that this particular God is any more important than Zeus or Odin or Highfather? Suppose he is just another self-proclaimed charlatan - with an army of "angels" and a kingdom of "Heaven" - like any number of alien beings the Justice League battles on a regular basis. A recent JLA Classified storyline had a techno-sentient alien whatsis go after the JLA to imprison them in their own private hells... and although at first we thought, wow, are they actually in Hell, it turned out to be a techno-sentient alien whatsis. How can a skeptic like Mr. Terrific not apply that reality to Christianity? The whole thing - Spectre included - could be easily explained by the same kind of junk he sees every day on the job. That's what he tries to point out to Ragman. Amazing things may happen in the DCU, but they don't indicate a Creator (as named by humans, anyway.)

     
  • At July 25, 2008 6:45 PM, Blogger ASK said…

    Kalinara:

    I think you make some great points here. It seems next to impossible to maintain an atheistic worldview in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary in the DCU. In fact, within the DCU, atheism seems like the religious choice that requires the most faith, the most rationalization than any other religious choice.

    Any man of science, particularly one as gifted as Mr. Terrific, should be able to look at the evidence and come up with the logical conclusion that there is some sort of spiritual force behind the universe. The consequences of Mr. Terrific's atheism is that he always seems terrifically [that's a pun] stupid and frankly unscientific. He also appears mopey as the motivation for his atheistic conviction stems from his family's death.

    Give the man some faith already and give him some credibility; or give the sacred a more mysterious quality in the DCU and make his position more valid.

     

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