Mastering the Art of Misbelief

disbelief

That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment,

which constitutes poetic faith -Coleridge

I wrote this in response to a question about why some denounce the existence of a deity, but then ascribe to even more outlandish conspiracy theories, alien intervention tales, and other implausible scenarios and belief systems.  It got me thinking about the nature of belief, and the art of storytelling and movie making. As storytellers, are we actually  “suspending disbelief” as Coleridge suggests, or now, as neuroscience and evolutionary psychology inform us called upon to master the art of misbelief?

Dr. Richard Carrier points out he is more often attacked by atheists for his scholarly reexamination of the Jesus story than by true believers. I’ve experienced it as well. I’m sure you most of us have in one form or another. When Sigmund Freud dared to turn his mythopoeic analysis to the Moses story, he was denounced as a self-hating Jew. When Joseph Campbell deconstructed the historical context of the Old Testament, he was viciously labeled an anti-Semite. One only needs to consider the intense rivalry between Jesus historist, Bart Ehrman, and mythicist, Carrier, to see how two atheists can disagree so vehemently.

As Carl Sagan wrote, “You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep seated need to believe.”

The truth is we are all, non-believer and believer alike, subject to misbelief. We form false narratives about ourselves, family, ancestry, politics, history and the world at large. It is not a function of ignorance or brainwashing, as some will claim, but more of the result of “the side-effects of a suite of cognitive mechanisms adapted for other purposes. (Dennett and Mckay) In other words, human beings are neurologically and genetically predisposed to misbelief.

As Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggests in his wonderful essay “Suspension of Disbelief”, what we call belief or faith is neither belief nor faith, but promiscuous and prolific teleology and misbelief. Humans detect patterns and make shit up about them. Every storyteller, filmmaker, shaman, theologian, or priest throughout history knows their job is to “suspend disbelief”, or perhaps more correctly to master the art of misbelief.

 Prof. Matt McCormick details this at length in his Biases and Heuristics of Religious Thinking. The psychiatrist Dr. Andy Thomson delves deeply into this phenomenon in “Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith” So, no, just because one atheist has cast off a belief in a Supreme Creator, does not holus bolus relieve them of that evolutionary mandate. As we all have experienced, many atheists and theists, are equally prone to transfer the impulse to believe in one thing, but then readily and irrationally choose to misbelieve another. As theists typically claim that proof of god exists, because humans have always believed in some form of god, it is no doubt, they will be disappointed to learn that neurologically, as far as the evolution of the human nervous system, the exact opposite is true.

Cecil, We Hardly Knew Ye!

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“Where are the legs with which you run?
Hurroo! hurroo!
Where are thy legs with which you run?
Hurroo! hurroo!
Where are the legs with which you run
When first you went to carry a gun?
Indeed, your dancing days are done!
Och, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!
With drums and guns, and guns and drums,
The enemy nearly slew ye;
My darling dear, you look so queer,
Och, Johnny, I hardly knew ye!

Traditional Irish Folk Ballad

There’s an interesting element to this that is not being discussed, and that is the notion of a tipping point, or cultural shift in the zeitgeist. The demise of the big game hunter, matador, the great white Bwana, or Raj, as the heroically rugged adventurer conqueror. Certainly we grew up reading or watching films where this archetype was lionized — everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs, to Isak Dinesen, to Hemmingway, to John Wayne’s Hatari. And then something remarkable happened, and I don’t think it can be laid at the feet of animal rights activists and conservationists. Something visceral shifted in the collective psyche where these characters morphed into anathemas; literally shrank from heroes to zeroes. To shift into the politics of this, when I hear the feckless whining of those who say we have bigger “game to hunt” than to lament for this poor great beast with a human name, they seem to miss the much larger point: human consciousness is moving on while they themselves are the Luddites of a rejected ideal the rest of us have committed to the dung heap of the past.

Was Orpheus the Original Jesus?

Orphic 2

Dr. Robert Eisler in Revue d’assriologie et d’archéologie orientale 1905, p 57; Orpheus the Fisher (London: J.M. Watkins, 1921) Plate X describes this as an Orphic Sacramental Bowl. The central figure is indeed female, but the 16 surrounding stations around her, beginning with the first station and proceeding clockwise depicts Orpheus the Fisher with his fishing pole with the line wrapped around it. He holds a mesh bag in the other hand.

The bowl is representative of a widespread and popular Orpheus-Christos Cult throughout the Greco Roman empire ( rivaling Mithraism) with unique religious, artistic, and literary influences of the West.

Joseph Campbell traces the mystic fisherman motif back to a Babylonian seal known as ‘The Warden of the Fish’ (2nd millennium B.C.E) Many believe this is evidence of the early origins of Christianity predating Jesus by centuries, where Orpheus, “The Good Shepherd and Harrower of Hell” was the model for what would become Jesus many centuries later. ( see The History of Hell, by Alice K. Turner p. 24 Harcourt Brace and Company 1993)

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers

Orphic Sacramental Bowl; Buzau, Romania. 3rd or 4th Centuries

Mad Max Fury Road: Political Manifesto or Religious Metaphor

Mad-Max-with-Five-Wives-Total-Film

Through its surrealistic landscapes, bizarre archetypal characters, and edge of your seat, non-stop action and stunts, it is possible to completely miss the more central and salient theme to Mad Max Fury Road, and that is, religion.

George Miller, as with his cinematic counterpart, George Lucas, has been one of the more profoundly creative interpreters of the principles of mythology as established by Joseph Campbell in his many scholarly books on the subject.

Miller, a self-proclaimed enthusiast of Campbell, has often acknowledged his deep creative debt to the late cultural anthropologist, and has proven this time and again in his entire corpus of work. Perhaps, it is this deeper understanding of myth, religion, and evolutionary psychology that distinguishes Miller (a former physician) from his contemporaries, and more specifically, the Marvel pantheon.

Fury Road is not so much dystopian science fiction, political rhetoric, or anti-Marvel, as it is metaphorical for another kind of revolution: the mythical journey through the underworld to achieve emancipation, not from world-dominating tyranny, but from our personal prisons of belief.

The Screenwriter’s Jesus: A Roadmap to the Future of Myth and Movies

Jesus and Scribes

“Even if there was a historical Jesus lying back of the gospel Christ, he can never be recovered. If there ever was a historical Jesus, there isn’t one any more. All attempts to recover him turn out to be just modern remythologizings of Jesus. Every “historical Jesus” is a Christ of faith, of somebody’s faith. So the “historical Jesus” of modern scholarship is no less a fiction. Dr. Robert M. Price Jesus: Fact or Fiction

Unless you’ve been tucked away in a confessional these pasts few years, it is impossible to have missed the Jesus historicity debate raging through Western academia and the Internet. For all the handwringing and vitriol, it could lead to one of the most impactful upheavals of the information age. [1]

While there are those who wonder why it matters: biblical scholars, historians, mythologists, and theologians have jumped into the fray for a full on Manichaean donnybrook.

Leading the charge against a conservative consensus of historists who, “claim the prestige of the university while following the rules of the seminary”, is a growing guild of academic upstarts, including: Dr. Peter Boghossian, Dr. Richard Carrier, David Fitzgerald, Sam Harris, Raphael Lataster, Dr. John W. Loftus, Dr. Matthew S. McCormick, Mark Paulkovich, Dr. Robert Price, and Dr. Valerie Tarico.[2]

To the lay audience, much of the exegesis will sound like Tolkien geeks parsing over passages of The Lord of the Rings, arguing for, or against, the existence of Hobbits. Upon further investigation, one will find a stimulating debate that is likely to knock the nimbus off the two thousand year old body and church of Jesus Christ.

No longer content to argue messiahhood or divinity, these scholarly skeptics are waging unholy war on whether the person Jesus ever walked the earth; let alone on water.

Applying Bayes’ Theorem of historical probability, Dr. Richard Carrier, the author of On The Historicity of Jesus, rates the chance of a blood and flesh Jesus as low as six percent. [3] So, if you’re betting on the risen Christ vouchsafing your voyage to Valhalla you may want to rethink your odds.

As legions of horrified Christians rise to forefend their beloved savior from the graveyard of the gods, and understandably so, the evidence is so compelling, we have to consider whether this is a belief system in its death throes. [4]

Ironically, from the storyteller’s point of view, Jesus is much more valuable to us as myth than as the messiah of faith, or star-crossed rabbi of dubious history.

Once recognized as a marvelous creation of humankind’s irrepressible imagination, Jesus may be better poised to save humankind — not from temptation, or the “original sin” of an errant ancestry, but from fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism, and the mesmerizing thrall of magical thinking.[5] [6]

 “For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie– deliberate, contrived and dishonest– but the myth– persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forbearers. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” John Fitzgerald Kennedy Yale Commencement Address 1962

 Indeed, we may yet learn the ‘truth that will set us free’. Not from some expiating act of human sacrifice, but from Jesus’s forensic journey from myth to historicity, and back again.

“It is one of the great lessons of our study [of religions] that for the vulgar, ill- or uninstructed mind, myths tend to become history.” 

Joseph Campbell Myths to Live By.

[1] Did Jesus Exist? The Trouble with Certainty in Historical Jesus Scholarship | Thomas Verenna -Academia.edu

https://www.academia.edu/1825948/Did_Jesus_Exist_The_Trouble_with_Certainty_in_Historical_Jesus_Scholarship

[2] Jack Tsonis’ interview with Professor Dale Martin cited in “Is There a Christian Agenda Behind Religious Studies Departments?” By Raphael Lataster, University of Sydney Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 23 January 2013

[3] Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus– April 24, 2012 by Richard Carrier Prometheus Books

[4] From the Internet: Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss: Religion could be largely gone in a generationhttp://www.salon.com/2014/11/04/cosmologist_lawrence_krauss_religion_could_be_largely_gone_in_a_generation/

Why the Internet is slowly strangling religionhttp://www.salon.com/2014/11/14/why_the_internet_is_slowly_strangling_religion_partner/via @Salon

The Internet: Where religions come to die http://youtu.be/0Rqw4krMOug

The End of Christianity John W. Loftus Prometheus Books; July 26, 2011

[5] The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a sin Kurt Eichenwald Newsweek”

“When the illiteracy of self-proclaimed Biblical literalists leads parents to banish children from their homes, when it sets neighbor against neighbor, when it engenders hate and condemnation, when it impedes science and undermines intellectual advancement, the topic has become too important for Americans to ignore, whether they are deeply devout or tepidly faithful, believers or atheists.

http://www.newsweek.com/2015/01/02/thats-not-what-bible-says-294018.html

[6] Hence it was Suetonius* speaking in the language of his party, who calls the Christians Genus hominum superstionis maleficae, ‘the men of the magical superstition.

Excerpted from The Screenwriter’s Jesus: A Roadmap to Mass Storytelling and Future Myth

© Copyright Michael Chase Walker Mentor Press 2015

Letter To The Frustrated Screenwriter

Leonid_Pasternak_001

I wrote this in reply to a fellow scribe going through a particularly rough time. I publish it here for what it might be worth so that others facing their own dark night of the writerly soul will not despair.

Dear Fellow Screenwriter

I’m sorry to hear of of your heartbreak and disillusionment, although I can certainly understand it. When it comes to Intellectual property rights, copyrights and ideas, Hollywood has always had a freewheeling proprietary attitude, but it does seem to be more prevalent and brazen these days. Personally, I take great interest in the legal issues on both sides and I’m amazed by some of the more glaring examples of late ( Elizabeth Bank’s Walk of Shame and Tess Gerrtisen’s Gravity lawsuit in particular.) I suppose in some perverted way there is some small solace in knowing your ideas are good enough to rip off. Most screenwriters are not so fortunate. Still, I would encourage you not to lose heart. The business is in turmoil and it is always prudent to cultivate other directions for your writing in such times. There are some terrific movies being made, and even more so in television, so I would caution you to not withdraw entirely. I guess I would just advise you to step back from it, as it sounds like you have, and consider other options until such a time as your spirits and creativity are renewed. In my career I’ve always found there were those who were overly protective and suspicious and never got anything made, and there were those who were probably too cavalier about it. (Myself included) Finding the right balance is the key.

As a producer, I sold a project to ABC television written by a truly great screenwriter — with very few credits. The execs at ABC “didn’t know him” and demanded immediately to replace him with their own in-house fave whom, in my estimation, was not nearly as talented. As I fought to keep him attached to the project, they grew ever more insistent they wouldn’t work with an unknown writer. I remember challenging them, “What’s to know? You just have to read his script to know he’s one of the best screenwriters out there.” In the end, they won, but instead of removing him from the project I made him a Co-Executive producer with me. The movie turned out to be a god awful mess, and he went on to reexamine and retool his career, vowing to stop writing scripts for everyone else, and write the movie he always wanted to see on screen. A few years later, he did just that, and not only wrote one of the greatest films ever made, he won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Good luck to you all. Don’t despair, and carry on! I’m sure the muse that brought you this far will return and inspire you forward.

Best

MCW