The Fundamentalist Backlash Against Avatar


The following is a guest post written by my friend and colleague, Jon Cleland Host:

Yesterday the emotionally powerful and visually stunning movie Avatar surpassed Titanic as the highest grossing movie of all time.  For many people of any faith or none, it’s just a great movie, and that’s fine.  From a spiritual standpoint, many moderate and liberal Christians find the movie completely in step with their Christianity.  However, with its lush forests and noble aliens (the Na’Vi) it has, like Harry Potter, been the target of a vitriolic backlash by fundamentalist Christians.  By the way, for those six people in the country who haven’t seen it yet, the main plotline is that a big scary corporation is mining unobtainium from the land of the Na’Vi, who, being a  primitive tribe, are unable to stop them.  The Na’Vi have a spirituality based on the (scientifically verified) web of life, on a moon (not our moon) where this takes place.  A former marine is assigned to infiltrate their tribe to learn how to destroy them, but after doing so, decides to defend them instead.

The most common charge against Avatar by fundamentalist Christians is that non-Christian religions are evil by definition, and that charge is so religiously bigoted that it requires no refutation, and deserves no discussion.  Other charges are that the natural god of Pantheism is undeserving of veneration because nature can be cruel, and that only Christianity offers hope.  Each of these should be examined, along with the basics of the conflicting worldviews presented.  The objection that Avatar is a re-hashing of the “white savior” story is heard sometimes from the left, but in Avatar the antagonist is killed by a native woman (who then rescues Sully), and the battle is finally won not by Sully and the Na’Vi (who are heading for defeat), but by Eywa herself.

A common objection against Avatar’s naturalistic, pantheistic worldview—where the divine infuses all of the natural world, and there is no Heaven or Hell—is that nature is, at it’s core, all about suffering and death.  While it is true that the real natural world contains a lot of suffering and death, this ignores the beauty and joy that is just as real in the natural world.  Our universe, which includes all of us humans, is endlessly creative and glorious. Our universe has evolved love, joy, beauty, wonder and communion as much as it has evolved pain, death, suffering, and cruelty.

More importantly, death and life are not the two different, opposing substances of the dualistic worldview that traditional Christianity borrowed from Zoroastrianism, but rather are two sides of the same coin.  Suffering and death are often the very things that catalyze and enable the creation of beauty and life.  For instance, without the difficulty of raising children, committed, monogamous love would not have evolved.  Without the pain of a change in climate or a tough new habitat, many of today’s most beautiful species would not have evolved.  Death too is a requirement for much of the wonderful things we see.  Without the death of animals, including ourselves, children could not exist.  Suffering and death are not aliens from another universe, nor are we humans responsible for their existence. They are essential parts of the cosmos, and often the very catalyst that brings the wonderful into reality.  Would these fundamentalist Christians really like a world of sterile tedium, with no children, no challenge, and no life more complex than bacteria?

By making suffering and death out to be some kind of separate substance, fundamentalist Christianity is left with having to explain them, as God, if good, should not have created them in the first place.  Yet they stubbornly exist, dispelling any illusion of a micromanaging designer, and causing fundamentalist Christians to come up with convoluted and contradictory excuses to for their existence.  Worse still, fundamentalist Christianity multiplies the suffering and death to literally unimaginable heights, far beyond what actually exists in the real world.  By proposing the existence of a Hell of eternal torture, where most people are cast, their God becomes the ultimate cosmic terrorist.  If causing a few thousand people to suffer for a few hours earned Mohammad Atta and the rest of the 9/11 perpetrators the label of “terrorists”, then what should we call someone who creates a system where untold billions of people are intentionally tortured for literally quadrillions of years?  With a God who creates infinite torture (see Jn 1:3), these fundamentalist Christians then turn around and accuse nature of being cruel?  Wow.  It seriously boggles the mind.

Moderate people of many religions (including Christianity) see nature as a harmonious part of the divine, and I’ve heard many of them wish that there was more pantheism (or at least panentheism) in their religion.  Christians and many others have nothing to lose by moving past the idea of the vindictive, cruel god like that is described literally in the Bible, toward a more vast, more pantheistic vision of God, consistent with the scientific evidence of the world.

What about hope?  Many of these fundamentalist voices accuse naturalistic spiritualities, and Avatar in particular, of failing to provide hope.  Instead, they say that their Jesus is the only route that offers hope.  But their own scripture provides, on average, little hope.  The synoptic gospels are quite clear that most people will go to Hell, and those few that are “saved” by this “loving” god, are doomed to know of (or even watch? see Lk 16) the fiery torture of many of their loved ones for trillions of years.  That’s hope?  Surely not!

So we see that naturalistic spiritualities do quite well when compared to literalistic Christianity, even when both worldviews are assumed to be equally likely to be true.  But are they equally likely to be true?  A growing number of people the world over are rejecting the literalistic Christian worldview as simply not plausible.  After the space programs disproved the existence of a literal firmament and the geological sciences disproved the idea of a literal subterranean Hell, many other of the beliefs of literalistic Christianity have been shown to be simply incompatible with mounting evidence from many different fields.  It’s no coincidence that many of those denying various scientific findings, such as evolution or medical treatments, are fundamentalist Christians.

So in addition to arguing for the worldview that actually gives less hope, and casts the human race into the clutches of a cosmic terrorist, these fundamentalist Christians make the mistake of assuming that any scenario, however unlikely, is on equal footing with naturalistic worldviews, which are based on evidence.  If we are going to compare the real world to fantasy scenarios, and then trumpet the fantasy scenarios as more pleasant, then why stop with the cosmic terrorist?  Why not simply pretend that when we die, we all go to the Big Rock Candy Mountain?  A rational person’s worldview is based on evidence, not on wishful (or worse, fearful) thinking.

It is our great fortune that the worldview that's supported by the evidence, the worldview of naturalism (including naturalistic versions of Christianity), contains incredible joy, powerful purpose, and deep meaning.  The real world is much richer than the limited, three story worldview of Hell, Earth, and Heaven, and a naturalistic God is much more vast than a petty, jealous, vindictive, cosmic terrorist.  The existence of death in the real world makes so much possible—the deep love of husbands and wives, the joy of children, and the wonderful cycles of nature.  By realizing that we are part of this world—not just observers of it—we see that we are all connected to each other and to the rest of our precious Earth, and that it is up to us to build a sustainable, just world for future generations.  People today as well as our Ancestors in the past have experienced the ecstasy of this realization—one that is available without the need to conjure up imaginary cosmic terrorists or devils, and one which provides real-world hope for the future.

Jon Cleland Host