Saturday, August 9, 2008

Why Batman is Catholic, Pt. 1

For starters, let me be clear that this discussion is not the most thorough treatment of this topic. For that, check out this site. I will candidly admit that most of the information that I'm using is pulled from its contents anyway.

Now that that is out of the way, let me set some parameters here. I am going to be distinguishing two different Batmans. I will be focusing on what I consider as the "traditional" Batman for the most part. This is what I consider to be the picture of Batman that one gets from viewing the history of the character as a whole. Yes, I know that Batman has a pretty diverse past, ranging from camp to psycho, but I think that what I'm doing here should be fairly non-controversial. The second Batman is the one who is sometimes jokingly referred to as "The Batgod." This is the Batman to whom I was referring in my previous post as the botched attempt to follow-up on Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. In that work, Miller gave us a possible (some would even say probable) future in which Bruce is an angry, bitter man who has become irreparably cynical due to the all-consuming corruption around him. Modern Batman writers have decided to impose these feelings on the current Batman, usually to an even greater extent than what we see in Miller. The result is a Batman caricature. He is a paranoid, narcissistic whacko in many respects. This is the guy who basically has no friends, no weaknesses, and no real semblance of humanity at all. Where Superman and Batman were once the stars of their own team-up book, they are now usually depicted as uneasy and uncomfortable with one another. A consequence of all this is that you really don't see any Bruce Wayne at all. This has led to the oft-expressed view that there really is no Bruce Wayne. There is only Batman, who uses the mask of Bruce Wayne to give himself some security with the rest of the world. Again, this is all a very recent development and is even inconsistent over the last decade or so. Hence this portrayal can only be cast as, at best, the minority view, or at worst, the work of hack writers who are just offering pathetic attempts to make Batman "grim and gritty" at the expense of his established history and characterization.

The foremost crime of these innovators has been to claim that Batman is an atheist. This view, as you can see from the article linked above, seems to be most closely linked to the writing of Joe Kelly during his run on JLA, specifically during The Obsidian Age storyline. Judd Winnick would later pick this up when Jason Todd returned in the Under the Hood arc. Let me get it out of the way and say that I think Kelly's writing is atrocious and Winnick's isn't much better. That being said, let's take a look at the evidence and arguments presented that might justify such a characterization of Batman. I think these are an accurate summary:
  1. Batman is a scientist.
  2. Batman has experienced a lot of bad things. (aka, the problem of evil)
  3. Considering what Batman does (meting out vengeance/justice on his own), he at least couldn't believe in a Christian god.

Of course, none of these are very good reasons. Number 1 is a rehash of growing stereotypes regarding atheists and theists. Atheists must be highly intelligent, while theists are living a delusion. There is a negative corollary to this that scientific atheist types must be cold, unemotional a-holes. Naturally, this view meshes quite well with people whose Batman experience is limited to the "Batgod" version. The problem is that these are nothing more than stereotypes unworthy of any really complex character, which I think everyone believes Batman to be. It is an interesting societal comment on the effects of fundamentalist and atheistic propaganda that some would automatically assume that a character with a scientific background would necessarily not believe in God. Let's also not forget another important detail. Batman has always been a good scientist. He knows all sorts of CSI-ish tricks for solving crimes. It's part of his being a detective. The "Batgod," though, is really just a heroic Lex Luthor. Batman used to need help from guys like Lucius Fox or the savant from The Penguin Affair for really complex items. Not anymore. "Batgod" is capable of single-handedly whipping up devices that can not only annihilate the entire JLA but also space weapons powerful enough to threaten the existence of the whole world. Yeah, I know. Sounds stupid, doesn't it? My point is that we shouldn't get too carried away with this "Batman is a scientist" BS since it is clearly not keeping with the established identity of the character.

Number 2 is just as empty a proposition. It basically says that, since Batman has had a lot of bad stuff happen to him and people he cares about, he no longer believes in God. Somebody get Job on the phone. Or any martyr for that matter. Considering all the historical witnesses contradicting this view, it is rather easily shelved. For that matter, it can be a pretty convincing argument for Batman as a theist. It seems much more logical that someone who has experienced Bruce's level of badness, yet continues to endure continued badness for the sakes of others, must be driven by a belief in something beyond the world he slogs through on a daily basis. I am reminded of a comment from Wormwood to Screwtape:

Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round on a universe from which every trace of Him has vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Number 3 is not a common argument, yet I included it because it comes up several times in the above article. For one thing, anybody who claims that Batman is about vengeance is so full of crap that they immediately lose all credibility anyway. Batman is about justice. He's not The Punisher or Ghost Rider or whoever. How somebody pays for their crimes isn't something he deals in. Making sure they pay is his business. If one is willing to keep this third argument in terms of justice, it still makes no sense. The proponents of this view claim that a vigilante's pursuit of justice is somehow contrary to what a Christian God would demand. This might be convincing if Batman was engaged in some sort of utilitarian ends/means analysis (eg, "If I have to waste a few informants to find The Scarecrow, it's Ok because it will save more in the long run"). St. Paul is quite clear that we can't do evil in order to further good. We don't see that, though. Batman apprehends criminals, then turns them over to the lawful authorities for disposition. I guess one could make some argument that Batman does "evil" to further good by, say, breaking into the homes of criminals and gathering incriminating evidence against them or by intimidating them into confession, but there is an equally valid argument that those things gained by illicit means are not rightfully possessed by the criminal owner anyway, hence it is not an injustice to deprive them of it. I don't want to push this too far, so I'll just close it out by saying that, for the reasons I mentioned under Number 2, there is an equally strong claim that Batman does what he does precisely because he believes in God.

So what are we left with to show Batman as an atheist? A line from Joe Kelly and a scene from Judd Winnick. If you are willing to accept that, there's no hope for you anyway. Note that I haven't even gotten to the specific examples that Batman is a theist, specifically a Catholic one. That will be coming up shortly.

One last thing, though. If you had been to Heaven, had colleagues go to Heaven, fought demons, been allied with angels, etc., just as Batman has, could you still be an atheist? Could even the "Batgod," when faced with all this confirmation, have the wherewithal to reject faith in God, knowing the potential peril to his soul? My response: Only if he is utterly insane.

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