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.