The world is full of things to be afraid of. The dangers of wild weather, bush fires, freezing cold, or of vicious animals stalking in the high grass. Then there are our own frailties: hunger, thirst, illness and old age. And there is the fear of the other, the stranger in the night, those people in the next village over. These are, to a greater or lesser extent, real things to be frightened by.
Monsters and Religion
Atheist and author Matthew Kneale, writer of An Atheist’s History of Belief and Booker-shortlisted novelist, has recently described religion as one of humanity’s greatest imaginative projects. The main purpose of this creative wonder is to offer reassurance. “From the earliest times every religion has given people comfort by offering ways … of keeping their worst nightmares at bay.” A world of angry weather and wild fires becomes less terrifying if it can be managed through the correct rituals. And the fear of death is eased by the idea of a continuation of existence and dedication to a higher cause. It is even a comfort to belong to a chosen people, whose enemies are heathens barred from the afterlife. In other words, Kneale argues that at the heart of religion is fear, which must be fended off by imagining powerful beings that are prepared to help us if we plead.
If religion helps us resolve our fears, then what purpose does the creation of monsters serve? “Hic sunt dracones” says the Lennox Globe, dated 1505, or “Here be dragons.” Always on the edges of the map, it’s common in the history of cartography to see the dangerous monsters on the outskirts, in the unknown lands, filling in otherwise blank parts of the page. The real dangers are “out there,” in terra incognita, where true evils remain uncivilised.
In a world with such material concerns, why do we insist on populating the shadowy parts with monstrous creations?
We conceive of monsters—and here you can insert dragons, evil demons, or any contemporary notion of a monster—as existing on the edges of the sensible, controlled and mundane world. They’re under the bed, over the seas, or just beyond the reaches of sanity. Today, in most science fiction films, aliens are precisely the same phenomenon; once the world is rationalised and explored, monsters must come from the unthinkable realms of deep space. It would be easy to dismiss it all as fancies—merely fiction. Yet monstrous creatures appear to have been with us as long as stories themselves.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, conceivably the earliest work of literature we have, dating back at least to roughly the second millennium BC, the epic hero encounters and subdues a man of the wilds, Enkidu, before they set off together to destroy the creature Humbaba. Enkidu warns Gilgamesh against hunting the monster: “His teeth are dragon’s fangs, his countenance is like a lion … with his look he crushes alike the trees of the forest and reeds in the swamp.” Yet on they go, eventually felling the creature in three strikes.
One of the reasons monsters have staying power might be revealed in the name itself. “Monster” stems from the Latin monere or monstrum, meaning both “monster” and “to warn,” which is where we get the word “demonstrate.” Monsters are a means of warning where not to venture, and the consequences of misbehaving. They show what’s normal and what’s abnormal; what belongs and what doesn’t. In other words, they can be seen as a kind of guide.
Kneale is quick to point out that the same is true with religious tales. The story of Noah and the great flood is a clear moral lesson to obey the will of god. This, according to Kneale, was “famously plagerised from the already ancient Mesopotamian masterpiece, the Epic of Gilgamesh.” And on an individual level, demons and witches, capable of consuming flesh and condemning the soul, are clear reminders of what is at stake, what Kneale calls an “imaginative rendering of profound human terror.” As moral guides, it would seem the distinction between monsters and religion are not so clear.
The inference one can take away from Kneale’s book is that, as human civilisation progresses we become better at removing things that cause us anxiety. The pursuits of science and the development of new technologies are slowly prolonging our lives, with some estimating that the number of centenarians will increase tenfold between 2010 and 2050. For instance, after recounting the horrors suffered—mostly by women—during witch-hunts that lasted centuries, Kneale asks what finally put them to an end. “Put simply, Europe grew up.” The steady progress of enlightened thinking will apparently banish those dark corners in which lurk our fears and the relevance of things like religion and monsters might fade away.
If Kneale’s argument sounds reductive and simplistic, it’s because it is. An earlier work drawing from a much broader research base shows that the creativity of the human mind—myth, religion and monsters included—is inspired by much more than just our fears. Joseph Campbell’s seminal The Hero With a Thousand Faces assesses a huge range of myths from across the world—from Buddhist stories and Christianity to the beliefs of Ancient Greeks through to those of the native peoples of North America and Australia. From these impressive readings he concludes that all stories and myths take the same essential forms and serve particular psychosocial functions. For instance, “the happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man.” This tragedy, that everyone dies sooner or later, becomes in myth more than a grim source of fear and uncertainty to be relieved by a literal reading of after-life stories. The tragedy is exposed to us through tales that help resolve our deep anxiety in a social and psychological framework.
What Campbell reveals is that what—or who—we see “out there” and what we encounter on our journeys through strange lands are in fact reflective of ourselves. “The passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward—into depths where obscure resistances are overcome.”
The things that scare us tap into the wellspring of the human psyche: they can inspire us to create, and they can set us some useful boundaries. If Kneale is correct, some of the broadest ranging social institutions—complete with moral rules and gruesome monsters—have been generated from a place of anxiety. And whether or not his argument has some elements of truth, and if perhaps it seems a cynical view on humanity, the point is that it’s not all bad. “It has always been the prime function of mythology,” says Campbell, “to provide the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back.”
We tell each other stories about those things that frighten us, and in doing so learn not only about ourselves, but gain some insight on how to overcome such fears.
Monsters and Science
Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned around, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
These lines from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner come to Frankenstein immediately after he flees his newly animate creation. He’s running not from the creature itself, which has yet even to speak, but from the hideousness of what he has accomplished. Mary Shelley’s classic shows the interplay between fear and creativity, and makes an excellent example of frightfully demonstrative stories.
Frankenstein is the quintessential mad scientist driven by the need to know nature’s deepest secrets, regardless the cost. And though he claims no unhealthy fear of death, it’s no accident that Shelley chose it—one of the most universal and profound fears faced by people everywhere—for science to gain mastery over it in her gothic novel.
Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed? It was a bold question, and one which has ever been considered a mystery; yet with how many things are we upon the brink of becoming acquainted, if cowardice or carelessness did not restrain our inquiries.
Frankenstein boldly shucks off this cowardice to master human mortality and in a material world unfettered by a divine code of ethics he’s free to do so. Moreover, without an afterlife, this pursuit makes all the more sense since scientific rationalism offers little comfort to those who fear death.
It is his fundamental need to master a deep anxiety that drives Frankenstein to create such a ghastly thing. Yet he quickly learns his mistake. He works with “an ardour that far exceeded moderation” until at last the creature was alive. Then “the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” Shelley’s clear lesson of the necessity for scientific restraint is personified by the creation, but transgressing moderation isn’t itself what creates a monster.
Here Shelley plays on the notion of physiognomy - the idea that the creature's morality is reflected in its appearance. No sooner is its once-dead flesh twitching and alive, Frankenstein sees it as brutish and ugly, and therefore evil.
Yet in the beginning, Shelley's creature is a peaceful thing, wanting only companionship. If not from Frankenstein, at least from another creation like itself. Only, after much labour, when Frankenstein finally refuses to complete the companion and therefore condemn the creature to loneliness does it become monstrous, murdering Frankenstein’s love Elizabeth so that he might experience the same despair. Together, the monster forges a companionship of hatred and murder with its creator.
Put another way, Shelley’s story is of a man venturing out into the murky extremes of science—the blank spots on the map—where he encounters something unknown and, like so many before him, lets his fear conclude it to be a monster. The lesson we should draw from Frankenstein, though, is that we craft our own monsters; they're dredged out of our limits, frailties and failings.
This is why Frankenstein’s monster might not excite our fear anymore. Pity seems a more adequate response. Almost two hundred years since Frankenstein was first published, the notion of a single, intelligent but forlorn reanimated corpse on a quest for personal vengeance seems almost irrelevant to mass society. Instead, we now have the more popular hordes of zombies presently populating our TV screens and cinemas. The monsters we create tend to reflect the aspects of ourselves—and our society—we find most troubling. And the fear is more acute when it reflects mundane aspects of our lives, the things we tend not to think about. Once conditions change, so too do the shadowy places in which creatures lurk.
Monsters and the Unknown
It might seem that the successes of scientific rationalism may one day banish those dark corners of the mind. From mapping the genome and better understanding the complex functions of the brain, medications and treatments may one day make history of needless anxieties. Ignorance and bigotry might also be abolished. But to presume that a scientific stance is commensurate to an enlightened and unfearful worldview is a mistake. The polemicists of atheism and scientific rationalism have been in a steady campaign for some time to use the politics of fear to demonise those they disagree with.
In 2004 Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, wrote an article riddled with fear educing rants about Islam. For instance, he warned that “all civilized nations must unite in condemnation of a theology that now threatens to destabilize much of the Earth.” The political assumptions inherent in the kinds of arguments made by the New Atheists, people like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins, have been shown as attempting to appear outwardly culturally liberal “while embracing positions and causes that are manifestly illiberal.”
In western scientific history, physiognomy and its cousins, phrenology and social Darwinism, are just some examples of how a "rationalist" worldview can be boldfaced imperialism and highly politically motivated. To make an argument claiming that such bogus theories have been victims of the scientific method and ought to remain in the past ignores the ongoing arrogance within much of the New Atheist movement. “Suggest always put Islamic “scholar” in quotes, to avoid insulting true scholars,” says Dawkins in his increasingly vitriolic Twitter feed. “True scholars have read more than one book.”
There is more at stake here than merely causing offence. The New Atheists contemptuously disregard other forms of knowing, of learning, and of coming to terms with the unknown.
Faith in science is not enough to resolve tensions and anxieties felt in modern society. Scientific advancement will continue to progress, hopefully improving humanity’s quality of life. It needn’t stoop to the lows of Harris, Dawkins and the rest, nor should we conclude that a wholly materialist worldview is necessarily the most enlightened. But this doesn't imply that the alternative is a religious outlook either. There is another path.
In a recent article in the New Yorker, writer Adam Gopnik opens out the arguments around atheism to a another approach. Reflecting on the lack of discussion about the “lived experience” of atheism, Gopnik also points out that the arguments from these kinds of polemicists are designed “not to persuade but to stiffen the spines of their supporters and irritate the stomach linings of their enemies.” There’s no serious expectation that the clash will sway many minds either way nor that we should expect from the New Atheists any considerable progression of ideas.
What’s left for atheists to do is not bicker with the religious devout about who is or isn’t right. A far more interesting approach, for atheists and believers alike, would be to embrace human complexity and creativity in all its unexpected wonder. And these creative exploits—held neither within the purview of science or faith—are central to the human experience. “The plausible opposite of “permanent scientific explanation”’ Gopnik proposes, “is “singular poetic description,” not “miraculous magical intercession.””
This important argument applies not only to ongoing debates between believers and atheists but more broadly to the human endeavour to understand and create the world we inhabit. Creativity is as important to understanding life as pursuing knowledge, not in a mystical way but in the real sense that it demonstrates or reveals important aspects of human experience and allows us to better understand ourselves.
As something that inspires creation of many kinds, fear is a good example. Where the politics of fear make us think of canny polemicists plucking at social ignorance to achieve their goals, what might be called the "poetics of fear" unveils something much deeper, more profound, and potentially constructive. If we start from a position that recognises how fear—and other core aspects of human experience—can be a creative process as well as a suppressive one, we may be able to explore some dynamic possibilities.
What does this actually mean? The poetics of fear are literally the things we create out of a place of anxiety, and an acknowledgement that we’ve created them—that they come from within us and not “out there.” Frankenstein is a tidy example. As a classic novel, it warns that unchecked scientific expansionism can have monstrous consequences. But digging deeper into the text, it also reveals that the creation of a monster was not an individual and physical act of construction, but a broader social act of exclusion and alienation. Unlike politics, which exploits the projections of our fears, exploring the poetics would mean digging into our selves and asking honest questions about what it is that really scares us and why.
If there is any truth to Kneale’s argument, mythology and religious stories could be considered poetic manifestations of fear. They offer deep parables that help guide believers in how to live. But reducing these to “mere” stories or believing that by proving them wrong makes the world a more rational and therefore less monstrous place to live is simplistic. Demonising the faithful, as Harris has attempted, is also a mistake. Something much more creative will be necessary. Campbell reflects:
schism in the soul, schism in the body social, will not be resolved by any scheme of return to the good old days (archaism) or by progress guaranteed to re-enter an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements. Only birth can conquer death—the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.
If we take, in this case, “the good old days” to be the dominance of religious faith and the “ideal projected future” to be the sway toward atheism and scientific rationalism (or what Gopnik phrases as the “ayes” versus the “noes”) what might this “something new” be?
To answer this question, it will be necessary to journey inward, to a place that may best be explored by creative minds so they can bring back stories and images of what they find. Poetic description may be a more viable alternative worldview to permanent scientific explanations, able to unveil rather than exploit or demonise those we feel represent our anxieties. But it must always be remembered that when exploring unknown territories it is common to find dangerous monsters. The question that then follows is: what will we create? What kind of monsters are we prepared to live with?
A version of this essay was originally published in Upswell Magazine's 2nd Edition on 25 May 2015.