A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the movie Dogma, an old favorite of mine. At the end of it, I promised to write something about my journey figuring out how to follow advice from a certain character; advice to try having ideas, instead of beliefs, because an idea you can always change if you need to. I also hinted that it would have something to do with my experience watching this with my friend RJ, who is in the process of becoming an Episcopalian nun. This post ended up being harder to write than I expected, because the conversation RJ and I had about the movie quickly became very personal.
What RJ and I ended up talking about (other than squeeing over all our favorite bits) was theodicy, and the question of how atheism answers the meaning of life. These, in my opinion, are two of the most difficult questions in all of religion, because they can’t escape being incredibly personal. I can put my meaning of life in the most beautiful prose, and I have, and I can’t make that feel meaningful to someone else. In turn, I can hear explanations for evil that I can intellectually acknowledge are at least internally consistent, but I can’t find any of them satisfying. One of the things I appreciated about the conversation with RJ was how she admitted that she’s still figuring things out, and that the answers she has work for her, but she doesn’t expect them to convince anyone else.
I’ve been involved in a number of discussions about faith, evidence and belief, and it seems the one point that is consistently overlooked, by religious and non-religious people alike, is the influence of community. Not just the influence of community on what we believe, but on what we don’t want to change our minds about. I remember vividly from my Christian days how much that affected me. There was fear of ostracism, but even more than that, there was fear that if I stopped believing, I wouldn’t know who I was anymore. From birth, I had been raised to make religion an integral part of my identity, and how I saw the world. It was difficult to leave religion, even when it completely failed to make sense to me, because it would mean leaving behind my entire sense of what the world was and where I fit into it.
When I ventured out, in search of a new worldview, I found myself both drawn to and afraid of communities that were similarly agreement-centric. I was used to relating to people by believing the same things they did, and defining myself that way as well. At the same time, I was evolving very rapidly, and every time I bonded with someone over shared ideas, I felt like I was glimpsing a future where I was rejected for someday having a new idea. I’ve now started to realize certain things (like people being quick to insult those who disagree with them, or trying to bond with me over ideas instead of actions) as anxiety triggers.
After a few years of drifting through social circles and philosophies, I met RJ. One of the things I noticed early on was that she talked about other people she liked by listing their faults, not as insults, but as endearing quirks. This made me finally relax around someone. Perhaps without realizing it, she was saying, “be different from me, be irritating, show me your worst side, and I’ll still like you.” I try to be open with people as much as possible, but that still comes with a certain degree of anxiety most of the time. RJ is one of the few people who I can be as open as I want to be without any anxiety.
The other reason I had trouble writing this post is that I felt it would in some way become an advice post. I didn’t think I could tell about my journey away from beliefs and towards ideas without giving some pointers to people on that same journey. So here’s the only thing I know; find people who you know will care for you even if you change your mind. It takes a while, but it’s worth it.
When I first watched this movie, I was a bit disappointed. On each subsequent viewing, however, I’ve enjoyed it more, and now its one of my favorite comedies.
At the time, I was right at that in between space, between belief and disbelief. I had grown up with a religion full of answers. This is why bad things happen. This is how forgiveness works. This is how we know God is real. I had been assured so many times that if my faith was tested, it would always be found true, and so I had plunged into testing it, researching and arguing with unbelievers in hopes that I could save their souls. Instead, I found that the simple, tidy answers I had been given were not so satisfying. They held up well to the straw men portrayed in my childhood literature, but real humans had more complex, thought out ideas, more probing questions. I didn’t know what to believe.
So when I watched this movie, I hoped I would find those answers. Instead, I found something better. I found permission to not have answers.
I’m not going to try to recreate the experience of this movie, because I think jokes are extremely vulnerable to spoilers. I’d hate to ruin the humor for someone who hasn’t seen it, so I’ll just briefly summarize the plot. A pair of fallen angels find a way back to heaven, but unfortunately a side effect of their plan is obliteration of all existence. God is mysteriously MIA, so Metatron (the angelic voice of God) resorts to the oldest, most reliable plan in the book; assemble a ragtag team of unlikely misfits. The protagonist is Bethany, a Catholic who still goes to church, but has essentially lost her faith. She is helped by Jay and Silent Bob, a muse named Serendipity, and Rufus, the previously unknown black apostle.
When I most recently rewatched it, I expected to be frustrated by the fact that it teases you with doubt and complexity but ultimately concludes that God is still the bestest ever, but I actually don’t think it’s that simple. God does cause suffering, or at least allows it to happen, and nobody says you have to worship her. Her characterization allowed for a number of interpretations, and I decided mine was that she is a being of power who sustains the rest of the world by her infallible assertion that it exists, but she herself is a flawed and evolving person, just like the rest of us.
I said its one of my favorite comedies, but it would be more accurate to say its one of my favorite films that happens to be in the comedy genre. I think some of the jokes are great and others just aren’t my preferred style of comedy. What I appreciate most about Dogma up is the empathetic attitude towards those in a place of doubt. There isn’t really a genre of atheist movies out there, so when you see discussions of religion onscreen they are invariably from a religious perspective. This means that those who doubt, or who have been wounded by their religion, are typically treated very callously. They are given pat answers and regarded as imbeciles for not having thought of them before. The opposite happens in Dogma. Bethany talks about her struggles, and people listen sympathetically. Metatron not only doesn’t have answers for her, but feels bad that he doesn’t. Rufus and Serendipity, who both have actually met Jesus and God respectively, claim that the former was black and the latter is a woman. But they also accept that nobody gets everything right, and argue that trying to understand everything is pointless. Ultimately, Bethany’s character arc isn’t meant to restore her faith. The closest the film comes to a “state the theme” moment is the following exchange about Jesus.
Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.
Bethany: Having beliefs isn’t good?
Rufus: I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…
This line about ideas came back to my mind, over and over, as I struggled with my faith, and it was a source of comfort greater than any aphorism or Bible verse I had heard. It ultimately lead me to skepticism and atheism, but I’ve found that even there it can be complicated advice to truly follow.
But that’s another topic, for an upcoming review where I watch this movie with a nun. Stay tuned, let me know your thoughts and, as always, thanks for reading.
I should start by explaining that my parents never let us believe in Santa Claus. They were afraid that when they told us he wasn’t real, it would make us wondering if other mythological-sounding ideas might be questioned, like the entire Christian religion. It was a Nativity-only household. In retrospect, I still experienced the same story as my Santa-believer friends. We were both taught about a man who comes to bring wonderful gifts, but only if you’re very good and believe in him. Disbelief meant you were cynical and coldly logical, incapable of true joy and goodwill toward men. Disbelieving people like that are the whole reason the world sucks. If you don’t believe, it’s your own fault. Jesus/Santa loves you, and the fact that he won’t prove his existence but still will punish you for not living up to his standards in no way contradicts that.
Of course, the difference is that Santa is bringing toys that you want, but can live without, and kids aren’t actually expected to believe in Santa past early childhood. Still, I can’t shake the association. The parallels run too deep, and I have no nostalgia to fall back on. The first (and last) time I watched The Santa Clause with my boyfriend I think I ended up crying.
My other issue with Santa Claus movies is that the moral is usually that life is meaningless and depressing if fairy tales aren’t true. Unfortunately, once the credits roll we return to a world where they aren’t. The ultimate message of such stories is that if we aren’t delusional, we are nihilists.
The only Santa movie I can appreciate is The Miracle on 34th Street, because at least that way I can pretend there is no magic and Kris Kringle is just a high-functioning schizophrenic. Wait, wait, bear with me. That’s not as awful as it sounds.
For those who haven’t seen it (and you really should), Miracle on 34th Street is about a kindly old man, an old man, Kris Kringle, is hired as a last minute replacement to be Macy’s Santa Claus. He turns out to believe he really is Santa, Father Christmas, Sinterclaas, Saint Nicholas, the whole mythology wrapped into one person. The movie opens with Kris discovering that the man hired to play Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade is intoxicated. He immediately finds the organizer, Doris Walker, informs her of the problem, and despite his reluctance is talked into being the replacement. In his words, “the children mustn’t be disappointed.” This establishes him as a kindly, responsible person; if you have a soul, he’s nigh impossible to dislike.
When that same organizer offers him a job being a full-time mall Santa, he can’t resist the opportunity to, as he says, combat some of the commercialism that has taken over Christmas. While on his throne, instead of recommending nothing but Macy’s toys, he informs customers of other chains that can provide what they really want. Oh, he’ll shill Macy’s when they’ve really got the product the kids want, but if he knows a better deal can be found somewhere else, nothing can convince him to hide that fact.
His employers are upset by this, for all of about ten seconds. Then they realize the kind of publicity their new Santa is bringing them, and suddenly he’s their most valuable employee. This becomes a problem when Doris discovers Kris’ delusion.
Doris is a very nuanced character. She is a single mother in the 40s who, contrary to what you might expect of that era, is portrayed as both a professional employee and an attentive, caring mother. Her only flaw is that she insists her daughter Susan be raised in an entirely practical way. This means not only no Santa Claus, but no fairy tales, tooth fairies or fantasies of any kind. Doris’ reasons are sympathetic. What happened to Susan’s father is never explained, but it seems he abandoned the family in some traumatic way, and that Doris blames fairy tales for giving her an unrealistic image of the knight in shining armor. She’s trying to protect her daughter from that. Instead of letting us assume that of course Doris is wrong, despite her good intentions, the movie bothers to show us the effects of this on Susan. She’s a very nice, intelligent girl, but her social life is stunted because she doesn’t know how to engage in imaginative play, even at a developmentally appropriate level. This means she’s missing out on creative and social skills that will be important later on in her life.
In addition to changing things at Macy’s Kris has another mission. He wants to teach Doris and Susan to open up. Doris is wounded by her loss of faith in people, and Susan is learning a reflexively cynical attitude from her. The interesting thing is that while he insists he is Santa Claus, he also doesn’t seem to care too much whether or not other people believe him. If other people believe in him, that’s a nice bonus, but its more important that they believe in what he stands for. His interventions with Susan aren’t centered around proving his reality, but on giving her imagination lessons. The scene where he teaches her to pretend to be a monkey is one of the most delightful things I’ve ever seen.
While Kris is trying to spread joy, optimism, childish creativity and the giving spirit, the department store psychologist is trying to get him committed as a lunatic. This movie has a remarkably nuanced approach to psychology. Unlike some movies, where the medical professionals would be creatures of unadulterated evil for daring to convince children that they shouldn’t believe in fantasies past when it’s developmentally appropriate (the nerve of them!), this film has two doctors. One, Dr. Sawyer, has clearly entered the profession because it gives him license to see the worst in everyone, which distracts him from his own small, petty character. A bit of an exaggeration, but we’ve all met people like this.
The other works at the nursing home where Kris lived previously. Dr. Pierce also believes Kris is delusional, but he doesn’t think Kris should be locked up. As he explains, mental illnesses don’t make someone inherently dangerous. Kris is gentle, intelligent, and his whole psychosis is centered around a desire to help people. All he needs is someone to keep an eye on him in case he takes a bad turn, and otherwise he should be treated just like anyone else. This is completely accurate. Mental health is complex, and the real world has many people whose situation is similar to Kris’s. Dr. Pierce’s reaction is not only humanitarian, but practical, especially in a world just prior to the invention of effective antipsychotic medication. An asylum couldn’t do much for him, so why not let him have the best quality of life that he can?
I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s a delightfully happy one… and also lacks convincing proof that Kris really is Santa Claus. There’s a minor miracle, but one that has potential mundane explanations. Many of the good characters end up believing in him, but not all, and several seem to be at a point of agnosticism, or tell him they believe he is Santa Claus but seem to mean that metaphorically. The real lesson of the film is in the triumph of optimism and kindness over cynical self-interest, and whether characters end up believing in Santa as fact or as a metaphor for the Christmas spirit is not really important. The standard interpretation, that Kris Kringle was Santa all along, is fine if you prefer that, but it is based more in genre conventions than anything else.
So why don’t I find the interpretation that Kris Kringle is mentally ill depressing? Because even if he is, it means he’s a mentally ill person who still leads a fulfilling, happy life surrounded by people who care about him. It means that even in a world without magic, pragmatists and capitalists can see the value of kindness, cynics can rediscover hope, mean spirited trolls can lose and love can win. It means that even without fairy tales being real, imagination and joy can triumph.
This episode opens with Larry stumbling around blindly because he’s got an oven mitt on his head. He is doing so because an article in a magazine told him this was the latest fashion. Bob the Tomato is skeptical of the practicality of this. While rebutting Bob’s arguments, Larry trips and falls into the kitchen sink. Bob figures that watching him try to get Larry out for thirty minutes isn’t the best use of our time, so he sends us to watch the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, or as they’re called in this episode, Rack Shack and Benny.
In the Bible, that trio, along with the better known Daniel, are captives of Persian king Nebuchadnezzar. He is trying to raise them as Persian dignitaries, and part of that means giving them non-kosher rich guy Persian food. They choose to eat vegetables instead. The vegan diet does well for them, as they end up healthier than all the other Rich Important People in training, which causes Nebuchadnezzar to promote them to be his most trusted advisers. This goes well until Nebuchadnezzar decides that everybody should start worshiping a big golden statue of him, and those who don’t should be thrown into a fiery furnace. This kind of thing happens a lot in the Old Testament.
In the Veggie Tales episode, Rack, Shack and Benny work in a chocolate bunny factory which routinely violates standard health code regulations and employee benefits, as indicated in the opening song, “Good Morning George.” It’s a fun song, and it also introduces us to Laura Carrot, one of the few female characters who gets her own name. She won’t do much in the episode, in the narrative sense that nothing she does has lasting consequence, but later on she will lead a rescue attempt for Rack, Shack and Benny that will give the world one of the best chase sequences in the history of animation. That is an entirely objective judgment that has nothing whatsoever to do with my personal affection for the Veggie Tales franchise.
Anyway, Mr. Nezzar, a giant pickle, is the stand-in for Nebuchadnezzar. In celebration of the factory’s sale of its two millionth chocolate bunny, he gives everyone an hour to eat as many chocolate bunnies as they want. Everyone chows down, except Rack, played by Jr. Asparagus, convinces Shack and Benny to only eat a few bunnies, because that’s what their mommies would want them to do.
This decision pays off when, at the end of the hour, they are the only workers not doubled over in agony. Mr. Nezzar promptly promotes them to junior executives, which means they have to wear ties. No really, that’s the explanation given in-show as to what their new responsibilities will be. God I love this show.
The other part of their job is standing around while Mr. Nezzar rattles off whatever idea has popped into his head. In this case, he’s decided that, because chocolate bunnies are the best thing ever, he’s going to make a giant bunny statue for all of his employees to sing the Bunny Song to. Oh, here’s the Bunny Song. It’s way better than any of the goody two shoes songs Jr. sings in this episode, which just goes to prove yet again that the devil has all the good music.
Whether this is bad because it endorses an unhealthy diet, is an act of idolatry, or violates employee’s freedom from religious discrimination is unclear. I mean, probably the writer’s weren’t going for the latter, but you never know. In any case, it is Bad, and the protagonists have no intention of singing it. This is unfortunate, because the consequence for not singing is being thrown in the furnace. They have a furnace on site. It’s for defective chocolate bunnies. This is a totally non-wasteful and reasonable thing to have in in your chocolate bunny factory.
Naturally Rack, Shack and Benny refuse to bow and are sentenced to the furnace. Laura Carrot comes along for a rescue that is both awesome and fruitless. They all end up in the furnace, but an angel comes down, just like in the Bible story, and prevents anybody from getting burned up.
This proves that you absolutely should not stand up for what you believe in. You very well might be wrong and trying to incinerate people the divine creator likes.
I mean, the stated theme of the episode is the opposite of that. You should stand up for what you believe in, because Rack, Shack and Benny did that and they got to be part of an awesome miracle. But weren’t Mr. Nezzar’s actions equally informed by his beliefs? He clearly thinks chocolate bunnies are the best thing ever, and that burning up people who don’t agree with his Chocolatebunnitarian beliefs is a reasonable and justified action. The protagonists are challenging him, and he’s standing up for his beliefs, right?
All over the world, people are standing up for their beliefs. Richard Dawkins is standing up for his belief that evolution is true and wonderful, and also that religion is toxic. Fundamentalist Muslims are standing up for their beliefs that women should not be educated, while Muslims like Malala Yousafzai are standing up for women’s rights everywhere. In some places, people are standing up for their beliefs by marching under rainbow flags to Lady Gaga; in others, people are standing up by their beliefs by picketing soldier’s funerals because our government isn’t homophobic enough. People who don’t vaccinate their kids are standing up for their belief that vaccines are poison. People who write letters to government officials about displays of the Ten Commandments are standing up for their belief in separation of church and state.
All of our actions are informed by our beliefs, and sometimes those actions take us into direct conflict with those who disagree with our beliefs. Typically, we applaud those who stand up for the beliefs we happen to share, and decry those who stand up for beliefs we happen to reject. This shows that, at our core, when we praise people for standing up for what they believe in, we are actually praising them for standing up for what we believe in. That’s not just tribalism. It also comes from the belief that our beliefs are true. By definition, it’s impossible to believe your beliefs are false. This is why it’s important to consider how we come to our beliefs, what the implications of our beliefs are, and whether we could be wrong.
Since becoming an atheist, I’ve come to see the value of the reverse of this moral. Question your beliefs. Try to falsify your belief, or, if that is impossible, think of something that could falsify what you don’t believe in, and go look for that evidence against. Think about how other people might form their beliefs, and do this with compassion. Try to make room for multiple interpretations in your world, and learn how to cooperate with people who you think are probably wrong about some things. I don’t take this to the radical extreme of refusing to consider anything “true” or “false,” but I do think being willing to let go of my beliefs, in exchange for something that seems more likely to be true, has done me as much good if not more than all the standing up I’ve ever done.