Saturday, November 13, 2010

The theological No-Prize

One of Marvel Comics' greatest strengths when it first started gaining popularity in the mid-sixties was the interconnectedness of its fictional universe, and characters from one book would pop in and out of the pages of another's with unprecedented regularity.  As the backlog of stories grew, however, errors and irregularities began to pop up as it became harder for Stan Lee and the small editorial staff to keep track of minute and relatively inconsequential details of the "lives" of Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and their supporting cast.    The fans, the folks Lee called the "True Believers," however, seemed to put these books under the microscope, and they began to point out piddly and major discrepancies.  More, they wouldn't take "it's a work of fiction" as an answer.

The famous envelope that was mailed out to winners
of the No-Prize.
Anybody who's read comics as long as I have doesn't have to be told what the solution Lee came up with was- The Marvel Comics No-Prize.  The No-Prize was a clever little bit of public relations.  Lee told the readers it was up to them to come up with explanations for the discrepancies.   If one of the True Believers spotted an error in Captain America, then it was up to him to explain how it wasn't really an error.  The fans ate it up, and they frequently went into ridiculous contortions of logic to make the stories internally consistent, at least to their own satisfaction.  Marvel even went so far as to mail No-Prize winners an envelope emblazoned with the announcement of their status as a winner.  The gag was that the envelope was empty.

No-Prize...get it?

No-Prizes were so popular that Marvel
eventually put out a one-shot book
highlighting their "best" goofs
and errors.

I even sent a couple of letters to Marvel as a kid in an attempt to get a No-Prize.  It was fun trying to hammer out the silliness of those early comics with even more silliness of my own.  I never won one, but I can assure you that if I had, I would still be in possession of that envelope, and it would likely adorn the wall of my classroom right next to the replica of Captain America's shield. 

As fun as it all was (they stopped giving No-Prizes a number of years ago), I doubt that most fans felt creating an internal consistency for the fictional Marvel Universe made it any more real.  Reading an explanation for why the Hulk always wore purple pants didn't make the Hulk a more realistically viable being.  Making a fictional story internally consistent, even with evidence from within the story, doesn't mean that there is evidence that the story really happened.  Anybody who uses the No-Prizes to make the case that Spider-Man really does swing through the streets of New York City on incredibly strong artificial spider webs would be instantly be consider at best charmingly eccentric and at worst an utter lunatic.

But that's exactly what many religious apologists do.

Much of religious apology focuses on trying to smooth out continuity errors or logical inconsistencies within the confines of the religious texts and dogma it belongs to.  Most of them that I've heard or read require as much bending and twisting of logical thought as explaining away a comic book gaffe, but even those that do smooth over the story internally do nothing to prove that the events in the text actually happened.

The first time I recall reading a Christian apology, I was probably about ten.  The discrepancy at hand was one of the first from the Bible.  The setup: Adam and Eve were the first humans, and they only had two kids, Cain and Able.  Cain killed Abel and was then condemned to wander the Earth until he settled in the Land of Nod.  There he married and had kids.  If there were no other humans before Adam and Eve, then where did Cain's future wife come from?

The particular explanation not only tried to smooth over that Bible pothole but attempted to merge it with the theory of evolution.  Adam, Eve, and their progeny were the first humans with souls.  Those that dwelt in Nod were the offspring of natural selection.  When Cain mated with the monkey people of Nod, he imbued the future mankind with a spiritual essence.  I remember thinking at the time that made a lot of sense.

And it did...from a No-Prize frame of mind.

But it does nothing to prove that the story is true in the slightest.  There is no evidence of any of the people mentioned.  There is no evidence of the existence of the Garden of Eden or the Land of Nod.  There is proof of evolution, but there is no evidence of the existence of the soul.  In short, while I can see how that story can make the story of Genesis more palatable as a work of fiction, it doesn't do a bloody thing to make it more acceptable as historical fact.

Apologetics like this are part and parcel of the arguments I get hit with whenever the subject of religion comes up.  One of the examples I've been hit with several times is the story of the atheist college professor and the Christian student.  There are numerous versions of this story out there, several versions even have the part of the student played by a young Albert Einstein (odd, since Einstein was very outspoken about his non-theistic beliefs).  I've had discussions about this story with several people, including family members, and I've pointed out the fallacies with even the internal logic of the story. But for the sake of argument, let's assume the exemplum is logically consistent internally.  Assume there is no viable argument with the student's explanation as given.

So what?

The argument still requires we take as a given the existence of a god, just like in order to accept that the Hulk always is wearing purple pants, we have to assume as a given that there is a Hulk.  Now, we don't sweat that aspect of the story of the Hulk's pants because we know we're talking about a fictional character, so there's an implicit hypothetical acceptance of his existence.  The ante is raised with the notion of a supposedly real deity, though.  It's not out of bounds to now ask where the proof that such a being exists is.So far there isn't any.

So in that regard, most apologetics seem to be no more sophisticated than comic book fans adding their own non-canon stories to a fictional universe.   They may make the over-arching story more consistent on some levels, but they do nothing to add credence to the acceptability of the story as given fact.

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