The Contemporary Religion of Fandom

The other day I came across this quote from Joss Whedon:

“I guess the thing that I want to say about fandom is that it’s the closest thing to religion there is that isn’t actually religion.”

 I was thunderstruck because I had just been thinking this same thing! OK, probably lots of people have thought this, but just let me enjoy the feeling that Mr. Donovan and I are destined to talk with Mr. Whedon about writing and geeky things over cocktails someday.

All scifi and fantasy fandoms are based on sacred text–a novel, comic book, TV show, movie, or some combination of them. They’re short on rules and regulations, but they tell big stories of good versus evil, they inspire wonder through magical and supernatural elements, and uphold traditional values like loyalty, honor, love, and self-sacrifice. (Many fandoms also add “intelligence” or “cleverness” into the mix, which is probably a good thing.) It’s no wonder that ancient Norse religion fits in so well with the Avengers story; both legends serve many of the same purposes.

These stories make our lives more exciting, and they make us feel like we can be heroes, too. We may ask ourselves questions like, “What would Martha Jones do?” I know of at least a few cases where fandoms have organized to do substantial real-life works of charity.

The myths we love, like Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and The Hunger Games, inspire massive amounts of art and literature. Fans participate in cosplay the way Christians might participate in a passion play or direct their children to act out the Nativity story.

Sometimes fandoms fight with one another, though instead of bloody crusades or suicide bombers, it’s generally not anything more dangerous than, say, an online voting war for Best SciFi Show. Fandoms quarrel among themselves, forming schisms and denominations. Mostly, though, these stories bring people from different countries and different walks of life together. People make lasting friendships over them. When I started dating Mr. Donovan and I found out he liked the same terribly obscure fantasy author I did, I knew I’d been correct in thinking he was my soul mate.

So why isn’t fandom a legitimate religion? Why can’t we give a new episode of Supernatural the same respect as a worship service? Doesn’t a trip to ComicCon bear some similarities to a pilgrimage to Rome or Mecca?

One could argue that with fandom, the disciples know the story is made up, but even this is blurry.

True fans often waver on the verge of accepting the myth as reality. If anyone saw the old movie Galaxy Quest, you might remember the TV actor informing the superfan, “It’s all real,” and him responding, “Oh my God, I knew it!” People have told actor Misha Collins that when they were seriously ill, they imagined his angel character, Castiel, standing by them, which brought them comfort and strength. Many of the people who write down “Jedi” as their religion in censuses across the world are not joking.

At the same time, some contemporary followers of Christianity and other religions are not especially preoccupied with literal truth. They love what the stories stand for, and they value their familiar rituals and community. Like Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus, they choose to believe. I’m also reminded here of Brideshead Revisited, where Charles tells Sebastian he can’t believe in things “because they’re a lovely idea,” and Sebastian assures Charles that he can.

I think it’s reasonable to consider fandom a religion. It’s not one that necessarily conflicts with other faiths; it can even enhance them. If you’re a Christian and you love Harry Potter, for instance, Harry’s willingness to sacrifice himself may make Christ’s story more immediate and relatable.

I’m biased, but I believe fandom attracts some of the best people in the world, possessing both idealism and vivid imagination. For whatever reason, they often have some experience with being different or ostracized, making them a little more likely to accept others (though they still have miles to go in this regard.) Our contemporary mythologies are powerful forces for good in the world, and I think it’s fantastic that any of us can add to them or create new ones at any time.

Note: The stained glass artwork is by Marissa Garner. Pretty awesome, yes? You can check out more of her work here!

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Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

13 thoughts on “The Contemporary Religion of Fandom”

  1. I am fascinated by this argument. Fandom definitely has the community of faith, even the weekly ritual of a service in the weekly viewings of their favorite shows. That phrase, community of faith, is one I used in college, and I think it is descriptive here.

    I’ve never become as into a program to consider it a religion, but fandoms have definitely brought me closer to others. Buffy, in particular, has been a place where I found things in common with other people. And there is also the instant friendship discovered when someone recognizes my TARDIS mug at work and exclaims, “You watch Dr. Who?”

    I’m not sure I’d take this to the point of religion, but it’s definitely a community of some sort.

  2. If I remember correctly, some of the recent studies on our brains while we read fiction show that when we read phrases that describe, say, spatialmotor activity, parts of our brain that govern spatialmotor activity are reactivated…even though we’re reading about it rather than doing it!

    I know that all my favorite books were ones that I feel and experience, rather than simply read it as words. I wonder a lot about the power of metaphor to our lives, to how we function. We do know that learning language is essential for human cognition to function as what we might call “human.” And metaphor is full of spatialmotor references. If fiction reactivates these bits of our brains…what does that entail?

    I think about these sort of things a lot, because they’re directly relevant to the specific field of philosophy I’m currently really into pursuing.

    1. That’s a cool study. I’m going to try to find it. I was thinking the other day as I was trying to remember a children’s song that it’s kind of weird how I can’t remember important numbers or to-do lists or even memories of things I’ve experienced, but things like fiction stories I read when I was 10  I can recall with perfect clarity. What kind of evolutionary advantage is it to remember totally made-up things and to feel so strong about them but have so much less connection to the real stuff in my brain? I’m sure there is a reason but in moments like that I decide that being human is more than the sum of our parts.

  3. This is an absolutely fascinating thing to me — I think mostly because I’m as turned off by rabid fandoms as I am by the rabidly religious. I do think that the deification of pop culture is a definite thing that’s been happening for quite some time, and like any religions, you have your non-believers, your casual viewers/attendees, and your zealots.

    Fascinating.

    1. Rabid fans make me just as uncomfortable as rabid religious types. There was a sad moment with my boyfriend the other day when I discovered he doesn’t think the Doctor “ought” to regenerate as female. Much mansplaining followed. I was not impressed.

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