Saturday, July 6, 2013

There Are Atheists in Plot Holes Pt 2: The Impossibility of Faith in a Superhero Universe

You're not getting off easy either, Slick... (art by Tom Fleming)

The gentleman pictured above is Dr. Pieter Cross, better known in the DC Universe as Dr. Mid-Nite.  Dr. Mid-Nite lost his ability to see in normal light conditions in a car accident, but this same accident somehow also gave him perfect night vision because comic books. Using "black-out bombs" that blind his opponents while simultaneously allowing him to see, Dr. Mid-Nite became a costumed crime fighter.

All of that is cool, but that's not really why we're here.  The real reason why we're here is that Dr. Mid-Nite is one of the only "out of the closet" religious believers in comics.  As the name "Pieter Cross" might indicate, Dr. Mid-Nite is a devout Catholic. (If  that seems unsubtle, keep in mind the original Dr. Midnight's real name was Dr. Charles McNider. So, we're making progress.)  Dr. Mid-Nite participates in one of the most fascinating friendships in all of comics with Mr. Terrific, aka Micheal Holt, the ardent atheist discussed in our previous installment.  A brilliant mind in his own right, Dr. Mid-Nite often engages in friendly intellectual sparring sessions with Mr. Terrific on matters scientific and religious.

Like most of the comic-book-reading world, Pieter often questions his buddy Micheal on how he can be an atheist given what he's seen.  Micheal generally offers only a single brilliant, insightful retort, which will form the basis of today's discussion: "How can you tell the difference between someone with a lot of power, and divinity?"  How indeed?  What enables one to know a god when one sees one?

Historically, that question has only had one answer: miracles. Miracles are the signatures of the gods.  It's how they establish their existence, and how they authenticate their messages.  When God first introduced Himself to Moses, he spoke through a miraculous burning bush.  When He wanted to introduce Himself to the unnamed Pharaoh holding the Jews in captivity, He sent the Pharaoh Ten Plagues. He showered the Egyptians with blood and frogs that rained from the sky, sent them swarms of locusts, and even blotted out the sun for three straight days (Exodus, Chapters 5-12). And when the Pharaoh and the ancient Hebrews still doubted Him, he parted the Red Sea.  With every successive miracle, Moses and his followers were more and more sure that the force leading them out of activity was the true and living God.

A similar trail of miracles followed all of God's important messengers, culminating in the life of Jesus.  Jesus' birth was heralded by angels, he was born of a virgin, he healed the sick, multiplied loaves and fishes, resurrected Lazarus, and finally rose from the dead himself and ascended into heaven.  By all accounts Jesus was a powerful, authoritative preacher, but what ultimately convinced his followers that he was the Son of God was his miracles.

The centrality of the miraculous is not restricted to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Miracle claims also served to authenticate the claims of Muhammad and the life of Buddha.

Miracles not only serve to announce the presence of deities, they are also used to adjudicate between competing religious claims.  When it comes time to decide who's god is the real God, it usually comes down to who can produce the most impressive miracle. Moses famously out-dueled the Pharaoh's sorcerers, and in one of the funniest moments in the Bible, Judaism's premier trash-talker, the prophet Elijah, single-handedly out-miracled 400 prophets of Ba'al. (In some translations, when the Ba'al prophets were unable to produce a miracle, Elijah questions whether this was because their god was busy taking a dump.)

Critics of religion often question whether miracles occur.  They claim that miracles occurred frequently in Biblical times (they most certainly did not, by the way) so why don't we see them anymore?  But the whole point of miracles is that they're rare.  If they happened often, if they were routine, they wouldn't be seen as miraculous anymore.  They would lose their power to inspire awe, and to convey reliably the presence and will of God.

See where I'm going with this? If my arguments in the previous installment were accurate (and it's me, so... you know... of course they were) then the residents of the Marvel and DC universes regularly witness events that are indistinguishable from miracles.

Moses was impressed by a bush that was on fire but wasn't consumed?  The Human Torch can do that, and he can fly.   God sent Plagues of insects? The Swarm is a plague of insects. Sure, Moses can part water, but can he turn water into a dope-ass dragon like the homie Aqualad?

You can pick any Biblical miracle, any miracle in any religion, and I can find you a superhero in one of the Big Two universes who can perform it.  And not just once, thousands of years ago, but in the present.  Live.  On demand.

Even the ultimate miracle, resurrection, is commonplace in comics. In the DC Universe alone, Green Arrow, Barry Allen, Jason Todd, Donna Troy, Elongated Man, Hal Jordan, Metamorpho, Superman,  and Batman have all publicly died and returned from the dead.  In the Marvel Universe, Jean Grey, Captain America, The Red Skull, and The Thing have all experienced resurrections.  To be fair, in some instances the deaths are explained away via alternate universes, time travel, and other such ret-connery. But it is not uncommon for characters to really and truly and actually come back from the dead.  For example, Green Arrow and The Thing both spent time in an actual, literal Heaven before returning to life on Earth.

So, say, like Dr. Mid-Nite, you're a Christian in the DC universe.  Why do you worship Jesus, and not Superman?  They both returned from the dead.  They're both moral exemplars.  And while Jesus did some impressive miracles in his time, did he ever move a giant frickin' star with his breath?  If you insist that Superman is not a god, but just a really powerful humanoid, then why not conclude the same about Jesus? Maybe he wasn't the Son of God, just the world's first superhero.

The other problem is the sheer variety of sources of supernatural power.  In our world, miracles tend to be attributed to the God of one of the three monotheistic religions.  But in the Marvel and DC universes, people have actually seen Greek gods, Roman gods, Japanese gods, Chinese gods, Norse gods, Celestials, Elementals, Lords of Chaos, Lords of Order, humanoid embodiments of abstract concepts like Fate, Destiny, Karma, Death, and Vengeance.  So, with all those sources of supernatural power which are confirmed to exist, how do we know who to credit for any given miracle?

Of course, our situation in the real world isn't much better.  Even if we aren't witness to dueling miracle battles,  rival religious groups have always had to deal with competing miracle claims.  The most efficient way to deal with a rival miracle claim is to deny the other guy's miracle happened. But certainly a Christian in the Big Two universes will have a hard time denying that any supernatural events except those spelled out in their holy book have ever occurred.  In antiquity, when the denial of a rival miracle wasn't possible, religious leaders turned to syncretism: finding a way to incorporate the miracle into their religious world view.  The Pharisees claimed that Jesus worked miracles through the power of Satan, not God, so why couldn't a Catholic say that Superman is just a fallen angel?

This would seem to be a desperate, hopeless move, something on the order of claiming that dinosaur fossils were placed in the ground by Satan.  And contrary to popular opinion, most religious believers have too much intellectual integrity to believe such a thing.  So, what's left?

 A believer could make recourse to the traditional arguments for monotheism, like the Design Arguments, the First Cause Arguments, and the Moral Arguments.  But in the Big Two universes, there are nearly omnipotent beings whose existence is known who would seem to have equal claim to being the entity identified by those arguments.  In the Marvel Universe, the Beyonder is known to have created a universe.  If he created one universe, why couldn't he have created ours? In the DC universe, the Anti-Monitor verifiably destroyed 3,000 universes the size of our own, and was thought to have the power to destroy all of the infinite parallel universes in existence. If the existence of a being of that magnitude of power is known, why think it necessary to make recourse to a being whose existence is unknown?  Just as the more mundane superheroes would seem to provide defeaters for any argument from miracles, the nigh-omnipotent beings in the Big Two universes would provide defeaters for the traditional religious arguments.  With both the miracle claims and the traditional arguments left in shambles, what could the religious believer do to recover his belief?

Maybe some religions could avoid these problems altogether, like the pantheists, the ancestor worshipers, and those belonging to purely ethical religious systems like Confucianism.  But for the believers in the three main branches of monotheism, some 3.6 billion people,  the proliferation of the superhuman would seem to herald the end of belief in any sort of supernatural personal god.

I was accused of theistic bias for concluding that belief in science is irrational in the Big Two universes.  So, allow me to confound that accusation with this statement - belief in traditional monotheistic religion would also be completely irrational in the Big Two universes.

But that's not to say religion per se would be entirely dead. Like the scientist, the believer, instead of giving up, could try to rebuild from the new evidence. He could use the actual superhuman in front of him, rather than the stories of the supernatural from the distant past, to form the evidential bedrock of his new beliefs. And I argue that that's exactly what they would do.  It makes no sense that there are so many Jews and Christians and Muslims in the Big Two universe, but it hasn't occurred to anyone to worship the gods right in front of them.

The reality is, if there were superhumans, they would be worshiped.  They're powerful. They're bigger than life. They're better looking than most movie stars and more moral than most saints.  Maybe Mr. Terrific is right, and there's no way to tell the difference between a very powerful being and a god.  But where Mr. Terrific goes wrong is in thinking that matters.  For all intents and purposes, what makes a being a god is the fact that people worship him.  So, if there were superheroes, there would be gods, because we would make them into gods.

Previously I argued that people of science, when confronted with the superhuman, should be primarily concerned with how they work.

I now contend that people of faith, when confronted with the superhuman, should be primarily concerned with why they're here.

Again, in the Big Two universes the only question about superhumans that matters is routinely ignored: should they be objects of study or should they be objects of worship?  

If we found a Man who might be a God, should we treat him as purely material, a biological machine whose body held the key to amazing scientific discoveries?  Or should we treat him as primarily spiritual, a supernatural being who could finally tell us who we are and why we're here?

And what will be lost to science or to faith if we choose incorrectly?

Theodicy #1 is the beginning of  my answer to these questions.  If you're curious come along for the ride.


  1. My copy of Theodicy #1 arrived today. It's very good. Looking forward to the remaining issues.

  2. Thanks, Scott! Glad you enjoyed it.