A Load of Bright
An atheist's views on religion and the supernatural

Supernatural TV


I use Google News Alerts to keep a steady supply of material coming in. Among other things, I have a list of any news stories containing the words “paranormal” or “supernatural” emailed to me every twenty four hours. But I rarely find a topic to write about in them, the reason being that nearly all of them are actually something to do with a TV program featuring a supernatural or paranormal theme, rather than a report on actual alleged activity.

My friends and family who know that I don’t believe in anything supernatural (which is all of them) often ask me what I think about supernatural fiction. This is often when we’re watching something like Lost, and at any mention of say, “psychics”, they look nervously around the room or take a sudden fascination with their fingernails, and edge slowly across the sofa away from me as if waiting for some sort of explosion.

The truth is that it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. In fact, I enjoy supernatural fiction. In July, the seventh and final Harry Potter book will be released in the UK, and I’m not ashamed to tell you that I will be in the queue outside the bookshop at midnight on the Friday (although I may not bother with the wizard costume this year), and that I will finish the book before I go into work on the Monday morning (just in case some pillock decides to tell me the ending). Fiction is a medium in which our imaginations should be allowed to run wild and free, and far from having a problem with supernatural stories, I fully support them.

What does bother me, is people getting confused between fiction and reality. Contemporary TV guides are bursting with paranormal phenomena in fiction, and it isn’t hard to see why. As human beings, we all have a penchant for magical thinking. We would all love to think that the impossible could be possible. Personally, I think that fiction is a wonderful outlet for those fantasies, provided that the people who enjoy them have the critical thinking skills to understand that just because it happens in a TV show, doesn’t mean it happens in real life. I do wish the general public would temper their love of the paranormal on TV with a healthy dose of scepticism.

For example, The X Files, in my opinion, did much to fuel the conspiracy theories regarding UFO’s. I don’t think there was anything wrong with the program, as fiction, I just wish that the viewers could have enjoyed it without actually believing that it represented reality. Sadly, the media has no interest in the truth, only in money. As long as people enjoy these programs, they will continue to make them. They wouldn’t dare encourage critical thinking as a side dish, for Satan forbid, people might lose interest then!

I also find it interesting that fundamentalist Christians seem very threatened by supernatural fiction that contradicts it. They, too, seem to have noticed that people can be taken in by magical stories. Notably, in the documentary Jesus Camp, the pastor Becky Fischer took great delight in telling the children in her care that Harry Potter would have been put to death had he lived in Old Testament times. The incredible irony that the Harry Potter books are infinitely more suitable for children than the tales of the Old Testament (and not much less plausible) appeared to be lost on her.

A commenter on one of my first articles, Astrology – the real ones, said this to me:

…the masterful orderliness and logic of nature behind truly well designed astrology…which has an intellectual and mathematical gradeur beyond your wildest dreams, or perhaps, in your case, since you do not truck with dreamers, we should say your most expanded logical theorem…

As is so often the case, I didn’t think of the best reply until it was too late, which would have been, “I have no problem with dreaming, I just prefer to do it when I’m asleep”. I think that is the best way I could sum up my feelings about supernatural fiction.

16 Responses to “Supernatural TV”

  1. Hehe, I love this article. Especially the end movie. Is it alright if a post a blog about Harry Potter and The Religious Fanatics?🙂 I agree with your stance on the supernatural, though we’ll never completely understand the world.

    It’s amazing how defensive religious folk get about Harry Potter–it’s just a book, come on.

  2. Yvette

    It’s amazing how defensive religious folk get about Harry Potter–it’s just a book, come on.

    It’s just realised how seamlessly you could substitute the words “The Bible” for “Harry Potter” in that sentence.🙂

  3. any mention of say, “psychics”, they look nervously around the room or take a sudden fascination with their fingernails, and edge slowly across the sofa away from me as if waiting for some sort of explosion.

    LOL! It’s just the opposite with my wife. Any mention of god on TV results in a head-turn in my direction so fast you can hear the “swoosh.” I just look at her and shrug, as if to say, “…what?”
    Just What does she think I’m going to do??? O.o

    Seriously, though, I have asked myself this same question. I’ve seen the public’s reaction to the conspiracy theories in the Davinci Code. Seeing how easily people can believe the fantastic even with Dan Brown stating that IT’S FICTION, it occured to me while watching some fantasy movie, that maybe this is something I should be opposed to?
    I don’t see the harm in it for myself, but I wonder if we aren’t encouraging “magical thinking” in the general public. Thinking that allows garbage like The Secret to gain quick acceptance by millions of otherwise (clinically) sane people.
    Elitist? Me? li’l bit, I guess.

  4. @ Polly,

    Lol at your wife’s reaction. Sounds like a sort of preemptive strike!🙂

    I don’t see the harm in it for myself, but I wonder if we aren’t encouraging “magical thinking” in the general public.

    I do know where you’re coming from. My friend ellis14, who I dare say will put his 2 cents in when he finds his way to this post, would agree with you.

    The truth is, we probably are encouraging magical thinking. But I spent many years as a literature student, and it’s very hard for me to condone the imposition of laws within fiction. It’s the one place where there just shouldn’t be any (in terms of the laws of the universe, etc).

    It all comes down to the power of the narrator: if he wants psychic powers to exist in the world he’s created, well, that’s up to him. As long as people don’t use that idea to try to reason that they exist in the real world.

    For me the solution is not to stop or control the supernatural within fiction, it’s to increase critical thinking so that people know the difference. The Da Vinci Code is a good example (although it is slightly different, as it entails an actual theory that Brown himself claims to believe). It’s so easily refuted with even a superficial examination of the evidence. If only people would look!

  5. For me the solution is not to stop or control the supernatural within fiction, it’s to increase critical thinking so that people know the difference.

    You are absolutely right; but how do you make that fun?

  6. Tobe, have you read the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman? It’s an absolutely lovely set of books. The best way I can think to describe is as a set of faerie stories written by an atheist for atheists.

  7. Polly asks if it’s possible we are encouraging “magical thinking” with our books like Harry Potter. I think we aren’t encouraging it, we are simply reflecting the appetite of the readers. The brain has no problem compartmentalizing fact from fiction. But we also have the innate ability to suspend disbelief, which is necessary to become engaged in almost any fiction. In a way, we fool ourselves into believing something that, in reality, we would never believe.

    People who believe in religion, gods, angels, anything supernatural for that matter, I think, have either lost the ability to turn on and off this suspension of disbelief, or never actually had it in the first place. I know this might sound condescending, but I find a lot of very religious people do not read fiction (with the exception of one book, hehe). If they did, I think they would be more discerning when they are confronted with supernatural claims. I know I read voraciously when I was a kid, and have kept up with it to this day. I’m very involved in mystery fiction, and the writer and fan community that goes with it. I wonder if that helped me become the skeptic I was as a teenager.

    So I guess, in a sense, critical thinking and fiction reading sort of go hand in hand. It’s fun to lose yourself in a magical world, where anything your imagination can conjure up is true. It’s probably therapeutic for the brain to suspend disbelief in a frivolous and innocuous setting, when letting down your guard in the real world could be deadly.

    If only theists could acquire that ability, we would need these blogs.

  8. That last phrase should be:

    “…we wouldn’t need these blogs.”

    Damn.

  9. I remember haaving a dicussion on a forum for somebody’s online original fiction, I have the link for thebrights.net in my signature there and somebody expressed surprise that I was reading this person’s fiction when I have a naturalistic worldview, as this person writes about gods, demons, magic, psychic powers, and other fantasy/sci-fi stuff. That kind of confused me, I like reading fantasy books, I like loosing myself in those kinds of stories. Just because I don’t believe that that kind of stuff exists in the real world doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy reading about imaginary worlds where they DO exist.

  10. My mother always seriously denigrates my love of science-fiction movies and is especially vituperous with regard to horror movies – love those undead!
    Anyway, her main bone of contention is that there’s nothing REAL about any of it. (you see where I’m going with this?) She prefers “reality” not somebody’s stupid imaginary world filled with evil monsters and weird characters with unnatural abilities…
    Unlike oh, another fantasy book that she’s very wrapped up in!
    She believes strongly in demons, angels, and every miracle reported in the Bible. The irony just hit me after listening to her take another swipe at science fiction a few weeks ago when I was watching TV at her place (she has cable, I don’t – do the math). At least (a) I don’t actually believe in zombies, et al. and (b)at least the science in sci-fi may actually one day become reality.
    The cognitive dissonance is truly amazing! But, it goes back to what Spanish Inquisitor said, the religious generally don’t like fiction for entertainment…but they have no problem with it as a basis for understanding the world. It’s that nasty religion meme crowding out potential competitors.

  11. Actually, if you think about it, the stereotypical reader of fantasy and science fiction is the nerdy teenage boy — not a stereotypically credulous type! Of course, stereotypes prove nothing.

    Still, it’s possible that taking your magical thinking in fictional form might reduce the need for manufactured magic in real life. It could also make you more aware that a story’s emotional impact doesn’t have to be connected to its truth value.

  12. @ Alex, FCD

    Tobe, have you read the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman?

    No, but I’ve added it to my (ever growing) reading list. Thanks for the tip.🙂

    @ Polly, Spanish Inquisitor and Lynet

    You’ve all made excellent points carrying on from what I started in the article. As Lynet said:

    Still, it’s possible that taking your magical thinking in fictional form might reduce the need for manufactured magic in real life.

    This is basically what I’m getting at. Sceptics often get accused of wanting to deprive the world of its wonder. Personally, I think the universe is full of natural wonder, but, I admit that humans naturally love the idea of magical thinking, so rather than stifle it, let’s have an outlet, a forum where it can exist and run free. Then maybe, just maybe, you won’t need it so much in the real world, and you can enjoy it for all the natural wonders it has to offer, and go through life without being conned by charlatans. That’s what is great for me about fiction – escapism!

  13. Fiction also serves another important purpose–building imagination. Once you can imagine what a god-created and god-managed world would look like, you can make a comparison with what this world is actually like, and realise that it doesn’t fit. That’s basically how I managed to avoid being converted to Christianity when I was younger (13-14ish), before I had any real critical thinking skills.

    ~T

  14. @ Pastbyer,

    Excellent point! I hadn’t thought of that.🙂

  15. I think christians love having villains and imaginary anti-heroes to scram and blog about. Life would be so boring without imagining that invisible angels protect them and their houses… and invisible demons are all over the place planting things.

    They have a lot of fear for a Harry potter becasue they actually seem to believe witches and warlocks exist.

    Mad world.

  16. Great point Mothandrust,

    It’s been said before, but if God really existed and were all powerful, there would be no need for angels, demons or the devil. God needs the devil like superman needs Lex Luthor. Without him, there’s no story.


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