Friday, June 13, 2014

On Horror and Atheism

When I became a member of a local horror writer’s association, I completed a questionnaire as a means of introducing myself to other members.  The questions were not intended as a litmus test for membership so much as a way to open up discussion of shared interests and aspirations.  Here were a few of the questions: 

“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Have you ever seen one or had an encounter that you would like to share with us?”
(Haven’t seen one, but I have heard them…)
“Are you superstitious?”
“What truly scares you?”
(Any threat to private property or personal liberty.)
“Have you ever seen a psychiatrist, or has anyone ever thought you might need one just because of what you write?”
(No, but it has been suggested.)

These questions make me think of others that I now direct to you, my readers:  Do you feel there are things in this universe that are still beyond our understanding?  Do events at least occasionally seem affected by supernatural forces or entities?  Are some of these forces good while others are evil?  Do you feel that dreams are more than the random firings of neurons in the visual cortex of the brain?  Do dreams appear to have psychological and spiritual significance?  Do you have any religious beliefs or insights about how the world is sustained, and what purpose your life serves in it?

Of course, the correct answer is yes to all of the above. 

But what if you answered no to any or all of these questions?  I imagine I would be inclined to do so if I were more of a materialist, or my faith lay with science and objectivity, or if I were an atheist.  It seems that one’s belief about the possibility of supernatural forces acting in the world—beginning with the Big Guy in the Sky—could have an impact on one’s ability to appreciate, criticize, or create horror literature. 

Time for a disclaimer:  your humble blogger is an unreliable Christian, very susceptible to Calvinist notions, who believes that
1.  There are no random or meaningless events anywhere in the universe.
2.  Humankind is the crown of creation, the only intelligent life form in the cosmos—a self-evident fact that is horrifying all by itself.
3.  The world we know is sustained and moved by both the love and wrath of God, whose primary concern is our personal welfare.
4.  Earth is not our final resting place—not for our souls, nor even for our bodies.
5.  There is a lot that we do not understand, even about ourselves—another disquieting, self-evident fact.

(Not everyone would agree.) 

In short, the world view espoused here is the exact opposite of H.P. Lovecraft’s, (and S.T. Joshi’s) cosmicism. 

Seriously, would you rather believe that you and the rest of humanity are insignificant victims of implacable forces rampaging a tiny speck of a planet somewhere in the cosmos? Do you feel you are inconsequential and powerless when you look at the stars above?  There are medications to help with this.   There are prayers to help with this.  It is the devil whispering the ancient lie:  “You do not matter.”

Cosmicism in its various forms seems indicative of insecurity, low self esteem and lack of faith—an amalgam of atheism, depression, and lack of confidence.  If one truly believes humanity is insignificant and powerless in the face of cosmic forces beyond our control and understanding—why struggle?  If you are a writer, why have a plot?  Why not simply acquiesce in passivity and anxiety, as so many of Lovecraft’s characters do?

Seriously, would you not rather believe you are the Crown of Creation, an immortal and all powerful Deity at your side throughout the fight, with a destiny that includes bringing earth life to all the dead planets that surround us in the heavens?  (To be fair, there are medications and prayers for this condition, too.)  If one believes in human agency, supported by an ever vigilant and omnipotent Creator, why not struggle against the darkness—or read and write about characters that do so?

Your humble blogger has long believed that horror and religion are two halves of the same coin.  Sociologically speaking, it seems that the primary concerns of horror—death, what happens immediately before and after death, and the significance of human life in the face of death—have been displaced from religion, their traditional venue, to horror entertainment.

Without an abiding faith and appreciation for the supernatural and for the religious, what would be left as objects of horror?  What type of horror is possible for an atheist or materialist?  Exaggerated biology?  Graphic depictions of human violence?  Well intended experiments gone dangerously awry?

A thoroughly materialist world view would seem to allow only for those horrors that can be objectively explained and demonstrated:  hyperbolic chemistry and physics, machines running amok, Westerns with lasers—in other words, science fiction.  Can those who deny the possibility of the supernatural honestly write, appreciate, or seriously critique horror entertainment?  Are we not commanded by Mark Twain and others to “write what we know”?
What would happen to horror if it were completely emptied of supernaturalism?  There would be no vampires, zombies or werewolves—unless they were substantiated by weird biological science.  The field would be completely devoid of demons, wizards, witches, witch doctors, ghosts, and necromancers.  Vitally—or perhaps morbidly—important processes and procedures would be lost:  exorcism, reincarnation, psychic possession, and “justice from beyond the grave”. 

Much of horror literature is unintelligible without religious understandings about the afterlife and the consequences of transgressing “the rules”.   Even the officially atheist H.P. Lovecraft filled his stories with churches and biblical references.  In the context of American horror fiction, what would we have now without awful discoveries like that of Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown?

One could ask what would attract thoroughgoing atheists and materialists to stories about supernatural horror.  Would they not be prone to denying the assumptions which underlay such work?   Yet they are undoubtedly attracted to this material, whether in the form of literature, film, role-playing games, or graphics.  It must be acknowledged that some atheists—Lovecraft among many others—are also quite adept at creating it.

And in this there is hope and solace for us all.  Horror literature that contains a supernatural element, which speaks to justice and the eternal struggle of light against darkness, which is life against death, will always engage a readership. It addresses the deepest anxieties of the human condition, just as religion does.  Certainly the field of horror is diverse and broad enough to encompass a plurality of world views, even those that may incur the risk of eternal damnation. 

My advice, if I may be so presumptuous, is that writers of all metaphysical stripes ponder their walk with whatever they conceive their Savior to be—“Just a Closer Walk With Thee”.  And then write passionately about all the horrible things that will happen if they do not.


Some of the ideas touched on in this article are developed further in these earlier posts:

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Lovecraft and Cosmici...                                


  1. What someone would *rather* believe is irrelevant. For me, it has nothing to do with believing what makes me feel "good" about my place in the world. My atheism—that is, my lack of belief in God or gods or anything supernatural—has everything to do with a lack of convincing evidence.

    Now, why would an atheist such as myself—and a skeptic at that—find horror fiction to be scary, interesting, intriguing, inspiring?

    A lot of the subjects that the horror genre deals with would be terrifyingly jarring to the worldview of a skeptical atheist. Just imagine—you hold the scientific method to be the only consistently reliable mode of discovery, the only tool that anyone's devised to make SOME small measure of sense of the world. Imagine that's turned upside down by the confirmable intrusion of forces beyond the scientific method's investigative power. Even if those forces are benevolent, that's a jarring disruption to the scientific skeptic's worldview. But if those intruding forces are either uncaring or malevolent, well, that truly is horrifying.

    Also, there is something to be said about Arthur C. Clarke's rule that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In horror terms, we can say that any sufficiently advanced and capable being/intelligence is indistinguishable from divinity. That idea figures into cosmicism to a great extent. What is natural and explainable to some advanced being may easily be so beyond our understanding as to appear supernatural.

    That being said, certain supernatural horror falls flat. Religious horror, usually, including all the possession/exorcism stories and films. If the supernatural exists (one step of disbelief suspension), then it's especially preposterous to believe that a specific religion (two steps), and that that religion is Christianity (three steps), has the unique ability to fight it.

    I have to return the question to you—if you have an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present deity looking out for your personal well-being, what's there to be afraid of? If you buy the Christian worldview, demonic possession is a normative part of the human experience. It's a confirmation of that worldview, of the existence of the devil, and the successful exorcism is a sort of confirmation of the existence of God. It should be an exhilarating and comforting experience.

    Interested in reading your response.

  2. Thank you for your very thoughtful response. You make several good points and provide some balance to the arguments I offered in my post. I’ll try to address your comments in the order presented.

    I say “rather” because a choice is always involved: whether to ground beliefs on so-called objective evidence or on some other manner of perceiving the world. Different circumstances or different kinds of questions call for different modes of perception. These are end points of a continuum of belief, and all of us fall somewhere on it. In my view humans are primarily believing creatures, using their reasoning abilities to serve whatever belief they subscribe to, whether it is religious, supernatural, scientific, political, economic, or whatever.

    It seems more important to ask “What do people believe?” than “What do people know?”—which is probably very little in any case. And what they believe is relevant to the content of horror, science fiction and fantasy entertainment.

    An overwhelming challenge to the scientific method could certainly be terrifying to someone who devoutly believed in it. But this reiterates one of the arguments in my post. If horror is deprived of its supernatural elements, what is left to terrify except exaggerated science, or perhaps extreme human mayhem? I am familiar with Arthur C. Clark’s rule—it makes sense that unknown technologies or beings become magic or divine—at least until more data comes in. This is what the human race has done historically.

    I agree that supernatural horror “falls flat”, especially for nonbelievers, which would be expected. But I think The Exorcist is a different experience for a devout Roman Catholic than it would be for an agnostic or atheist. For those outside the Judeo-Christian cultural sphere, the film may even be incomprehensible. Enjoyment and appreciation of this and similar films is a function of beliefs about the supernatural.

    Your last point is quite astute, and I wish I had more time and space to do it justice. It is indeed true that supernatural horror is in some sense “a confirmation of that worldview…It should be an exhilarating and comforting experience.” Except that it’s not!

    You are probably aware that much of American horror entertainment is imbued with Christian morality and imagery, both Catholic and Protestant. Even the work of an avowed atheist like H.P. Lovecraft contains many examples of this. From a Calvinist perspective, the tradition I lean towards, the horror comes from the Biblical insight that “not all will be saved”—not in this world, nor in the next. We have free choice, but that “all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present deity” already knows what we will choose in the way of good or evil, salvation or doom—so we are “predestined”, though ignorant of our future. This uncertainty is an important source of suspense and terror in supernatural literature.

    Finally, I must agree whole-heartedly with your second sentence: “For me, it has nothing to do with believing what makes me feel "good" about my place in the world.” From my perspective, religious belief should not make you feel “good” or complacent at all about your place in the world. To quote Paul: “—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling…”

  3. What surprises me most about this article is that you can say you are a Christian on the one hand, and on the other say that the thing that truly scares you is "any threat to private property"... it seems you are much more "materialist" than you are prepared to admit to yourself. Your claim to know that "the correct answer is Yes" to the questions you posed is laughable, but much less surprising - "humble blogger"? I don't think so...

  4. Well, I never said I was a "good" Christian. Whatever disagreements separate believers from atheists are probably not resolvable--we have world views that do not overlap, and experience reality differently.

    But I do not see any significant challenge to what I propose in the essay: that appreciation of much of the horror genre is diminished by a lack of supernatural belief.

    Nevertheless I appreciate your thoughtful comments and the time you took to make them.

  5. And I thank you for your thoughtful reply. As it happens I am an atheist, and also a huge fan of "supernatural horror". I don't see any contradiction - I read "horror" for entertainment (I am not a fan of Lord Of The Rings type fantasy, but I don't expect those who are to actually believe in elves, etc). I don't see how you can ever hope to support your thesis that "appreciation of horror is diminished by a lack of supernatural belief" (unless you are able to somehow abandon your own supernatural beliefs and see if your "appreciation" of horror is changed) and you perhaps need to consider the fact than many writers (and therefore, presumably, appreciators)of horror fiction have had absolutely no truck with supernatural beliefs. In fact, I have a very strong impression that actually believing in any of this stuff often diminishes the quality of the writing (e.g. because the writer has a "theory" that constrains their writing).

  6. I am not a fan of Lord of the Rings type fantasy either. One of my most memorable disappointments at the movies was discovering that the first Lord of the Rings film was only "part one"--this after sitting and watching hobbits for three hours.

    Do you think that reading horror for entertainment requires a "suspension of disbelief" as perhaps all fiction does? If you are reading about vampires, zombies, necromancy etc., would this not involve at least a temporary acknowledgement that such things could possibly exist and so be effective elements of horror fiction?

    What do you think of Lovecraft's notion that horror involves "a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space." (You probably know that Lovecraft was also an atheist.)

    Without a sense that supernatural beings or forces may at least possibly exist, it seems that horror writers and readers of a materialist bent would be limited to stories of exaggerated human mayhem or exaggerated biology. (Unless they were capable of a "suspension of disbelief.")

    Joseph, who commented above, suggested that the inability to apply the scientific method to some phenomena would be horrifying to someone who shares his view. This would seem to drastically limit the range possible in horror entertainment.

    If you believe as I do, that horror, religion, and nightmare are derived from the same underlying material--fear of death, fear of meaninglessness, and a sense that other realities exist beyond the one we know--then the scope of horror is quite wide, able to fill every corner of our lives with what the disciple Paul calls "fear and trembling".

    1. Sorry, I forgot to say that your question about differences between the (physiological) responses of "believers" and "non-believers" cuts both ways - if "non-believers" have the same (physiological) responses as "believers", then clearly the (physiological) response isn't dependent on "belief", which is what I have been saying all along.

  7. I've never taken the "suspension of disbelief" line literally: There is a sense it which it is sort of true, in that I know wouldn't really enjoy reading any work of fiction if I was continuously reminding myself that it wasn't "real" - but that process seems to happen quite naturally and effortlessly (to me, anyway) rather than it being a deliberate, conscious choice to "suspend disbelief". So... No, I don't think it actually involves "a temporary acknowledgement that such things could possibly exist" - it's more like a temporary willingness to "just go along with it for the ride". Similarly, I don't think that enjoying something like a Disney cartoon (not that I would) requires you to "temporarily accept that talking mice/dogs/ducks could possibly exist". In general, I just think people are able to "entertain" themselves with imaginative/playful fictions, without ever actually having to "believe these things could possibly be true".

    Yes, I know HPL was an atheist, and I've read a fairly large part of his writing - though I wouldn't say he is a particular favourite of mine. There are so many different approaches to "horror", I am reluctant to accept any simple definition - I think there is something in the quote from HPL, but I also think it is simultaneously too restrictive and too vague. "Horror" for me definitely involves some sort of "defeat" of "laws", but I would have to insert a qualifier or two somewhere in there ("apparent defeat" or "apparently fixed", for example) - and I would also point out that (in my opinion) there really is such a thing as "non-supernatural horror", which then would also need to involve some sort of "challenge" to what we (normally) take to be "laws of Nature". So, I wonder if stories involving "animal threats" only qualify as horror when the animal is acting in a way that seems to be "against its nature" (e.g. showing human traits, like seeking revenge); similarly (but conversely), maybe stories involving human "madness" work as "horror" when actions are "explained" by motivations that are so far away from "normal" perceptions of what drives human behaviour that they may as well be "supernatural".

    As I've already said, I enjoy supernatural horror without believing and I know there are many writers of supernatural horror who say they don't believe. Your entire thesis seems to be based on the observation that: (1) you enjoy supernatural horror and (2) you do believe. You then seem to make an astonishingly self-obsessed leap, and simply generalize from yourself to the entirety of humankind, while turning a completely deaf ear to anyone who says "no, I am not like you".

  8. You qualify your reaction to horror literature by saying that it involves only an "apparent" defeat of "laws". You then go on to describe the possibility of "non-supernatural horror" which presumably includes explanations of phenomena that might initially be perceived as supernatural, but aren't--in fact, can't be, given your world view.

    But isn't this another name for science fiction? A mystery that is solved through (yawn) an application of reason?

    In my view, the best horror literature achieves its effects because of the inexplicable, unknowable or supernatural elements it contains. By definition it seems that horror deals in matters that cannot have an explanation ever; it is an encounter with phenomena that are impervious to reason or science.

    I'm not persuaded that you can enjoy horror or fantasy in general without at least "a temporary acknowledgement that such things could possibly exist", at least within the context of the fictional work, and more generally in your universe.

    Wouldn't an atheist find conventional horror trappings, say witchcraft, voodoo, "justice from beyond the grave" and so forth, simply tedious and laughable, and not very engaging? Because if an atheist actually experiences the anxiety or suspense of a horror entertainment, where does that fear come from? Why would it be there?

    Finally, while I acknowledge occasional "astonishingly self-obsessed" leaps, I am not generalizing to the entirety of humankind at all. But I am generalizing to the majority of humankind. As you well know, atheism is in every age a minority opinion; the default position--we are genetically wired for it--is belief, not reason. (Or that reason serves faith, as Thomas Aquinas once said.)

    As for turning a completely deaf ear to anyone who says, "no, I am not like you"--well, I'm listening to you aren't I?

  9. Well, one reason for saying "apparent defeat of apparent laws" is that, if they are actually defeated then (logically) they are not "laws of nature". Another problem with your basic argument (as I think someone else may have pointed out earlier) is that it isn't clear why someone who believes in the supernatural would be "horrified" if they were presented with evidence that the supernatural exists... Also, you say that you are a Christian - so shouldn't you also find "conventional horror trappings" tedious and laughable? Or are you saying that (as a Christian) you do believe in vampires, werewolves, etc? If not, why aren't they laughable to you?

    I don't think there is anything peculiar about people who don't believe in the supernatural having emotional experiences when they engage with horror entertainment - it is no different to people having emotional experiences when they engage with many other forms of fictional entertainment - we have the capacity to respond emotionally to certain "inputs" whether we "believe" they are real or not, otherwise we probably wouldn't bother with any sort of representational art (but I'd also say the "fear" you might feel in this case is actually nothing like real fear, so that response is also a sort of "fiction" or "simulation").

    Finally, though we may be "hard-wired for belief", that hard-wiring doesn't specify the content of our beliefs - it simply means that we will form beliefs, based on whatever inputs we have (and, therefore, those "beliefs" should be seen as necessarily provisional, and open to change when the inputs get updated.) I certainly agree with your point that "religion" is, at source, a product of fear - but, for me, that is a reason to be suspicious of its claims, and not a reason to embrace it.

  10. I think your points are well taken. And I would have to acknowledge that simply believing in some aspects of the supernatural would not predispose one to be frightened by conventional horror trappings. In my view, shape-shifting, (e.g. werewolves) is ludicrous, but vampirism a little less so, (since there are people out there who actually practice a form of it). When we get to ghosts, some types of paranormal phenomena, possession, and the suspicion that evil may be an active, even personified force in the world--well, now we are into more disturbing territory.

    I don't think there is anything peculiar either about people who don't believe in the supernatural but are still able to enjoy and be affected by horror entertainment.

    However, I suspect if you hooked up nonbelievers to some sort of biofeedback sensor you would find physiological reactions very similar, if not indistinguishable from those of people who believe in the reality of the events. My question would be why this should be so. Wouldn't a materialist or atheist world view be a sort of inoculation against susceptibility to this effect?

    You will probably not agree with my next post, which is very likely to involve even more astonishingly self-obsessed leaps and broad generalizations from myself to the entirety of humankind. Nevertheless I must say I have enjoyed your mostly reasonable and astute remarks, which have helped me see where I should strengthen some of my arguments. Agreement may not be possible on this side of the veil, but I will settle for a modicum of increased understanding. Thank you for your time.

  11. Well, I have to say, I have enjoyed it too. Bottom line is... I don't think "belief" has any straightforward relationship to "behaviour" - and, so, extrapolating from one to the other is bound to tie you (or me) in all sorts of knots. Looking back over our conversation, I can see that I have sometimes been a bit confrontational - I don't apologize for that, but I do appreciate that you've always tried to address the points I've raised in a thoughtful way. Generalizing from one's own point of view is always a problem in any discussion, and (really) all I was trying to say was "I am not like you" - i.e. I have no religion, and yet I like horror, and I don't really appreciate someone (apparently) saying my "appreciation" must (somehow) be inferior to theirs. I found your website accidently while googling something or other, and I appreciate that you've taken the time to engage in this discussion with me (and you haven't just deleted my posts, which has happened before in similar situations).

  12. Sorry, I forgot to say that your question about differences between the physiological responses of "believers" and "non-believers" cuts both ways - if "non-believers" have the same physiological responses as "believers", then clearly the physiological response isn't dependent on "belief", which is what I have been saying all along.


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