October 20, 2018

Suspending Disbelief

the horror of church
I am a fan of horror films, especially those with ghosts and other supernatural forces. When I explain this to Christians, it is fairly common for me to get a reaction along the lines of, "But how can you enjoy such films if you don't believe in demons, devils, ghosts, etc.?" It is as if the believer thinks that I must watch the film while picking apart every supernatural aspect. I suppose if I were to watch such films this way, it probably would limit my enjoyment of them. However, I have little trouble temporarily suspending disbelief for a good scare when that is what I'm after.

I think that many atheists are probably capable of suspending disbelief in instances like this when they want to do so. I have little difficulty muting the rational part of my mind for a couple hours to heighten my experience of watching a good horror film. It is not that different from turning off the lights beforehand. And kind of like the lights, it is easy enough to turn back on at the end.

Where atheists and religious believers seem to part ways is that I reactivate the rational part of my mind after the movie is over and use it to the best of my abilities. In fairness to the religious believer, he or she does the same in most contexts that do not involve his or her religious beliefs. The believer seems to engage religion as I might a horror film, with the rational part of the mind muted.

Christians are fond of claiming that they cannot understand how we atheists could possibly enjoy life. They perceive us as coldly intellectual, blind to their "truth" by our pesky need for evidence, and incapable of experiencing awe in the face of beauty. They think that a world stripped of mystery through the application of science is somehow less inspiring. Such misconceptions are unfortunate, and I am saddened by the thought of anyone thinking that the experience of awe, inspiration, or joy has anything to do with nonexistent supernatural entities. When atheists embrace reality over delusion, we often find that our appreciation for the beauty of nature is enhanced.

We are perfectly capable of suspending disbelief, but we recognize that doing so in real life (especially when faced with complex decisions) would be a mistake. When the movie is over, we return to reason. I can't help feeling sorry for the Christian who does not do this, preferring to dwell in a fantasy world where imaginary forces of good and evil are in constant battle for one's "soul."

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was revised in 2018 to improve clarity and correct some typos.