Imagine if someone said this to you. Imagine how absolutely taken aback you would be by what they were saying. For someone to say that they acknowledge that a work of fiction is a work of fiction and yet that one of the main characters of that work of fiction, who was invented in order to fulfill a role within that narrative, was nevertheless a real entity. Would that be more ridiculous or less ridiculous than a person who believed the story itself to be a true story? At least someone who believed Lord of the Rings was a historical tale could be forgiven, on some level, for believing that the people described within it to have been real people; after all, the events could hardly have been real if the people who enacted these events did not actually exist.
“I’m not saying he literally wears a red and white suit. That was an invention of an advertising campaign for Coca Cola. I know fiction when I see it. I’m not saying that I know what his Reindeer’s names are, and I know that Rudolf is entirely imaginary. I’m a rational person, see? But at the same time, for me to deny that there’s a jolly old fat man who lives at the north pole and who delivers presents to all the good little boys and girls of the world every December 25th? That would require more faith from me than saying that there’s NOT.”
It would still be bizarre that they thought that this fantastical tale were a description of actual events, but at least the lesser assumption that the people within it were real would logically follow from that initial, faulty assumption. But for them to acknowledge that the tale is a man-made construction but that one of the characters explicitly invented for the sake of that story remains real is one which is puzzlingly without any basis or reason whatsoever.
“Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that Megatron LITERALLY transforms into a gun. I’m not saying he actually sounds like Frank Welker. I’m not one of those crazy Transformers literalists who insists that everything you see in the cartoon is literally true, and a hand-drawn transcription of actual documentary footage. I know it was just a cartoon created in order to sell cheap Japanese toys to children. Obviously. I’m just saying that he’s a giant transforming robot that comes from somewhere out there – and I’m not claiming to know where; we humans don’t know almost anything about what goes on on other planets! – that came to Earth, leading an army of other giant transforming robots, in search of some sort of exotic energy source. You tell me that nobody’s ever SEEN Megatron? That there’s no proof of his existence, and so there’s no reason to believe he’s real? What part of ‘robots in disguise’ don’t you get? He’s taken on the form of some sort of mundane earthly machine or device or possibly animal, and lives among us. The fact that we’ve never seen him only PROVES that he’s good capable of flawlessly transforming into a terrestrial disguise. If anything, you’re strengthening my faith by pointing this out!”
And yet, this is a stance, roughly, that I hear all the time, presented as though it were somehow reasonable, and that indeed, it is beyond debate or discussion, and must be taken on faith.
“I realize that the bible is just a collection of man-made stories. I don’t believe in the devil. I don’t believe in hell. I do believe that the god figure which was invented for that set of myths is a real entity, though, and I believe that he has specific expectations explicitly for our particular species, and offers rewards for those of us who live up to those expectation in some sort of an afterlife which I have no proof of and not even any first, second, third-or-later-hand accounts of, but which I nevertheless fervently believe exists. I’m not crazy, though! I don’t imagine he has a white beard or did the flood or anything! My position is completely reasonable!”
When I hear this, it always leaves me scratching my head in puzzlement. The people who make this sort of claim naturally don’t express it in specifically these terms, but that seems nevertheless to be the core of what they’re saying. They’ll claim that the god that they worship is not the christian god at all; he’s just some nebulously-defined monotheistic ruler/creator of the universe who is well-disposed towards humanity and in some way invested in the behaviour of individual human beings, with promises of some sort of eternal afterlife awaiting those who live up to his standards. How could I ever mistake something like that for the christian diety character?!?
The thing is, monotheism is pretty much specifically a trait of the abrahamic faiths. Before the earliest Jews decided to amend their tribal folklore into roughly what we recognize as their creation myth, “Genesis”, their god was a part of a small pantheon of polytheistic gods. When he became the singular and sole lord of all creation, he became distinct from his previous incarnation as El, and thus monotheism is essentially his biggest defining trait. While other cultures have here and there flirted with a monotheistic god – the Egyptians with their temporary worship of Amon-Ra, the sun-god and only-god, and later, the Roman mystery cult of Mithras, who was also a sun-god, for example – there’s really no pretending that the people who today claim a sort of ambiguously-defined monotheistic creator god are in any way inspired by either of these figures. They’re directly inspired by the christian god which permeates their culture and which they can’t quite seem to tear themselves completely away from.
These are people, by and large, who have, for their own reasons, pulled away from christian dogma and ritual, but for whom the concept of there being some puppeteer in the background pulling the strings of existence is so deeply ingrained, so fundamental to their concept of what existence is all about and how they relate to it that, even having acknowledged that there’s no Sauron watching the world with his crimson eye, that Megatron probably didn’t kill a giant robot that turned into a truck, and that the idea of a flying sleigh seems a bit far-fetched, still cannot quite seem to find it in themselves to admit that the character described in these stories is no more real than the fanciful and imaginary stories for which they were invented.
I never quite know what to say to these people, nor quite how to articulate the fact that in some ways, their claims seem even more absurd and ridiculous to me than those of the christians who they have rightly recognized the fictional nature of the stories of. They often seem to take pride in having spotted the inanity of these tales, and then having maintained that the core of the stories remain true, even absent any of the buttressing ideas of those stories. For me, they come across as people who have stopped wearing diapers around their groins, and are very proud to now wear their diapers around their ankles. I want to say to them “You’re almost there! Just one step further, and you’ll have arrived at true respectability!” And yet, for some reason, the comfort of having those diapers there remains compelling enough that they cannot quite find it in themselves to let go of this last vestige of that childish behaviour, nor see any reason why they might like to do so.
And of course, their beliefs are essentially harmless. They’re so broadly defined that they have little impact upon their lives as individuals, the lives of those around them, or society as a whole. My objection is purely born out of my own frustrated confusion and outraged desire for consistency. I don’t pretend otherwise. But still I find it so baffling that so many people who have shaken off 90% of the shackles of primitive superstition can nevertheless proudly display that last 10% and expect me not to treat them as though they were completely daft.