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Austin Cline

Tolkien and Atheists

By December 19, 2003

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I write much about atheists and their atheism on this blog site; partly because I cannot fathom what it must be like to live without any sense of transcendent purpose and hope in life; partly because I am genuine bemused by the kind of person who is more militantly and dogmatically god-obsessed in their denial of God than most believers are in their affirmation of God; partly because I find it bizarre that there are people who would project such an intensity of hatred and expend such a force of energy upon something which they claim does not even exist; and partly because of the realization that it is not the idea of “god” so much which really disturbs these guys but specifically the God of the Bible, as revealed in Jesus Christ and as worshipped in Christianity that really makes them madder than a junk yard dog

Thus sayeth Tertius, trying to figure out why atheists enjoy reading fantasy and science fiction, like the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Personally, I have trouble fathoming why a person would need "transcendent purpose and hope" in this life in order to appreciate this life - what's wrong, for example, with purpose and hope in this life? Why do so many people need to reach beyond this life, arguing that anyone who doesn't can't possibly appreciate this life? It's really quite nonsensical and self-contradictory.

There's nothing about being an atheist that would cause a person to be "militant" in the "denial" of Tertius' god, although it is true that some atheists are. But when you have people (say, people like Tertius) who spend a lot of time trying to tell atheists how they can't be moral, how they can't enjoy life, how they can't understand what "real love" is, and so forth, it's only to be expected that some atheists will get pretty annoyed and start spending a lot of time returning the "love" and attacking back. If there weren't any militant theists who felt it was their duty to convert everyone to their brand of theism, you'd have a hard time finding militant atheists.

The "intensity of hatred" that Tertius sees is not, however, directed at his god. Atheists don't have any more hatred for nonexistent gods than they do for nonexistent villains in fantasy novels. No, the feelings are much more personal, being directed at self-righteous theists who make a nuisance of themselves. It doesn't matter what god is involved, all that matters is the attitude of the believer. Unfortunately, the primary problems lie with Christians - other theists, like Jews and Wiccans, hardly ever cause trouble.

I have noticed how may footsoldiers for atheism are big fans of fantasy and sci-fi, how many of them are fascinated by computers and programming, of gaming and role-playing, of the kind of dressing up that goes with medieval and civil war recreations. I have often been struck by how many of them use names of characters from various fantasy and sci-fi epics as their online monikers. My point is that many of these guys - and guys they mostly are - immerse themselves in the fantastic and the mythic in a way that runs counter to their professed rationalism and commitment to philosophical naturalism. ... It all seems rather contradictory but it also is telling in that one can apparently chase God out of one's life but one cannot get rid of the God-shaped vacuum that remains, so one attempts to fill it up with all sorts of little gods, perhaps the kind that inhabit books, and movies and computer games, perhaps some more malevolent ones...

Like so many, Tertius has difficulty distinguishing between reality and fiction - but that's exactly the sort of distinction that is obvious to the atheists being criticized. You see, there is no contradiction between a commitment to philosophic naturalism and the enjoyment of fiction when you know that it is fiction. It's called "using your imagination" and taking pleasure from books, movies, theater, and even role-playing games.

The enjoyment of Tolkien is much like the enjoyment of Shakespeare. Literature is not filling a "god-shaped vacuum" because there is no such vacuum - except, perhaps, for those with too little imagination to conceive of not having any gods around. But that's their problem. For the rest of us, separating reality from fiction allows us to take pleasure from (and even learn something from) fiction without also constructing a religion around it.

Of course Tolkien does not hit the reader over the head with his religious or spiritual concerns but the person for whom the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be is not a person who can inhabit Tolkien's world. But it says something about the human spirit and the religious impusle that the committed materialist and atheist can indeed feel at home in Tolkien's world even when rejecting the very basis of Tolkien's worldview. Perhaps, in a corner of his heart, behind a door he fears to open, the atheist really does believe in the myth of the gods after all...

Actually, atheists do believe in the myth of gods - that is to say, we believe that god are myths - not unlike elves, dwarves, and wizards. We can "inhabit" the stories of elves and wizards the same way we can "inhabit" the world of gods. We read the stories and enjoy them if they are well-written. The fact that we are atheists can't prevent us from appreciating a good story - both on the level of pure reading pleasure and on the level of taking some interesting lessons from it, if it is good enough. Shakespeare wrote fiction, but his stories have lessons about life and human nature. Tolkien wrote fiction, but his stories have lessons about life and human nature. You don't need to believe in the supernatural to appreciate any of that.

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