Do you like fiction in books, theater or the movies?
|Most readers would agree that religion is fiction — especially if it comes from a religion they don’t embrace. Many Atheists look down on the fiction in religion as deceptive and self-delusional. Would those same Atheists also agree that fiction outside of religion is bad for you? For certainly fiction puts false ideas in our heads, stirs our emotions about events that have not happened and can cause us harmful delusions — like the false notions that come from romance novels, the paranoia that remains after watching horror movies and the dreamy idealism of some science fiction.|
|Does fiction weaken the mind and corrupt society like many atheists think religion does? Well, Robert Hanson over at OverComing Bias seems to say “Yes!”. Further, he thinks that just as people embrace religion to gain social status by signaling “I’m safe”, people who are otherwise non-religious do the same with fiction. I find Hanson’s position a bit extreme, but speaking about movies, TV shows and sports in public, does seem to be a social signaling method.|
I have always been leery of fiction. I have long been scolded by my friends (and now my kids) for blurting out criticisms while watching movies. Movies are mostly about making money and we have been studied — Hollywood knows how to manipulate our emotions. The stories are made to trick us. Fiction can be like alcohol — but maybe we can use it wisely.
I am a pro-story Atheist — and the more stories the better (see One-Story Atheism). I even love the mythology in religions. The part of religion I detest the most is their use of sanctimony — the manipulation of the taboo side of the mind to control thought. I think we need to consume fiction with a discerning mind — something Hollywood wants to numb and turn off.
But I am not as pessimistic as Hanson. I think we can consume fiction safely because our minds can compartmentalize sufficiently well to live many different lives successfully. We can, if we are diligently discerning, keep the lies isolated. Or can we?
We should stay suspicious of fiction and be careful what we allow our minds to feed on. Here are examples dangerous ideas that fiction (religious or otherwise) can fill our heads with:
- life is full of simple good-vs-evil conflicts: that is why I love all the stuff by Miyazaki for my kids and myself which has complex characters.
- life is out to harm us: conspiracy stories feed this part of the mind
- others are always to blame: many films use this theme
- perfect love awaits us: false expectations of relationships abound
- others are stupid, evil…: racial, sexist, jingoist films themes
- happy endings are always possible: no, life is messy
Humans are story-telling animals. Stories are a fundamental method of human communication. Just as yoga has discovered that breath is a valuable physical tool to work with the mind, stories are also valuable mental tools to observe ourselves. If we watch our stories, or those of others, we can see behind both our foolishness and our wisdom. But often we are unconscious consumers who are being trained by the fiction of others. Even what we call non-fiction is wrapped in a narrative that often escapes our awareness. Stories are pervasive. Without stories, it is difficult to pass on information. Stories are also our source of much fun!
Tyler Cowen, an economist, agrees, that we should be suspicious of stories. He suggests that we need to be more comfortable with an agnostic/skeptical approach which recognizes life as messy and not settle for simple stories. We also need to understand that even though we may be brilliantly skeptical in one area, we should not assume we aren’t self-deluded in other areas. We need to pay attention to deeply inspiring, seductive stories — they may be deceiving one of those compartmentalized areas of life where we are not skeptical. Those films may be re-enforcing our blind, destructive self-deception.
Questions to commentors:
- What themes do you see as destructive in films?
- Do you discriminate in your story consumption?