See You In The Funny Pages

In my discussion about Rob Port’s “God was the first libertarian” theory, comments went wildly — and predictably — askew. But one particular digression got me thinking — when DaveK and James H. (I feel like I’m back in elementary school) started discussing morality both with and without religious underpinnings. DaveK, in particular, said this:

In the interest of keeping this discussion going (and with no offense
intended whatsoever) I am curious to know, referencing your comment at
#25, as to what motivation an atheist might have in doing charitable
works? What would be their justification for acting thusly? I am not
inferring that atheists cannot be virtuous or charitable, I am just
interested in their motivation behind such works.

As an agnostic who’s closing in on his 8th gallon pin for donating blood, I thought about fielding that one myself. But that was too blatantly self-serving, even for me, so instead I took the meta angle he seemed to be implying: how can people get ideas of Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, and other such concepts without God and religion?

Speaking strictly for myself, I found myself educated on such matters from a rather unlikely source: comic books.

]]>< ![CDATA[Yes, comic books. Specifically, superhero comic books, from the 1970's and 1980's (with occasional back issues -- thank you, yard sales!). Go ahead and mock these, a genuine American invention and art form. But think about it. Comic books — especially from the pre-90’s days (when things really started changing, I’m told) — could be relied upon to emphasize certain things: Clear definitions of Good and Evil. The heroes
were clearly good — sometimes not totally good, sometimes in error,
sometimes in conflicts with other heroes — but they were almost always
on the side of good. Likewise, their foes were pretty much unabashedly
evil. Later, the theory that “no man is a villain in his own eyes,” we
were treated to explorations of why the bad guys were bad, and we could
sometimes even understand why they did bad things — but they were still
bad guys. Occasionally, they could be rehabilitated, but there were
bad.

Sometimes good deeds had to be their own reward.  Simply
being a hero and doing heroic good deeds didn’t mean that things went
well for the heroes. Heck, sometimes that made things even tougher for
the hero. One didn’t do the right thing in the hopes of rewards, they
were their own reward. And sometimes there had to be a price to be paid
for doing the right thing, but that was OK. Sometimes, it would have
been easier and more convenient to not do the right thing, but you
should do it anyway.

Help others when you can.
If given the opportunity to help someone else, take it. Inconvenience yourself if necessary.

Let’s take a couple of examples of lessons learned from superheroes:

Spider-Man.
Everyone knows Spidey’s origin story. Nerdy high school kid is involved
in a scientific accident and gains superhuman powers. He immediately
uses them as a masked professional wrestler, to make money. He goes on TV, and is becoming a big star — so big, that when a robber runs past him, he just ignores the guy instead of stopping him. Why should he care? He’s in it for the money.

Then he heads for home, and finds out that his beloved uncle (and father
figure — Spidey’s an orphan) has been killed in a botched robbery. He
chases down the thief and catches him — and it’s the same robber he’d seen at the TV studio. If Spidey had stopped the guy, his Uncle
Ben would still be alive. He vows to never let that happen again, to
stop the bad guys at every opportunity in the future.

Just look at the moral lessons imparted in a mere eleven pages of pictures and words:

Good things can happen to nice guys.

Help others, even if you’re mad at them.

Stand up to and stop bad guys doing bad things.

Learn from your mistakes.

And there is one more lesson in those pages, at the very end. For a
couple of centuries, we’ve all known Lord Acton’s famous observation:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” At the
very end, Stan Lee wrote the counterpoint to that truism, one way to
help keep that from coming true:

With great power, there must also come great responsibility.

There. Solid values, decent moral principles, good life lessons — all
wrapped up in the story of a teenage nerd who gets bitten by a
radioactive spider and runs around New York in a red and blue spandex
costume.

As the series continued, other lessons were taught. A newspaper
publisher went on a crusade against Spidey, trying to turn the entire
city against him. Spidey learned that he could not only not expect to be
rewarded for his good deeds, or even thanked. He might be resented and
even hated for his fight against crime and villains. He had to accept
that simply doing good deeds would be its own reward, because he
couldn’t count on much else.

Other comics taught lessons, too — sometimes the same ones, sometimes
others. But, in nearly every case, they imparted them without invoking
God or religion. And for a very simple reason:

You don’t tick off parents. Because in that time, kids depended on their parents for the money to buy the comics.

When you start bringing in certain topics into entertainment, like
politics or religion, you run the risk of alienating your audience —
and for no good reason. Oh, it can be done, gracefully and thoughtfully
and balanced, but it’s tricky as hell to pull off. Better to just play
it safe and avoid the whole thing — because your goal, your job, is to
entertain — not persuade. (That’s for folks like me, in fora like
this.)

As noted, the superhero comic is a uniquely American creation, an
exemplar of American culture (like jazz music). And they — especially
the older ones — could and often did act as modern-day morality plays,
showing the readers — usually young and impressionable ones — that
there are such things as right and wrong, and that they should always
try to do the right thing.

And all without a single mention of God, of heaven and hell, of Jesus or
Mohammed or Buddha or even the Great Green Arkleseizure or Hairy
Thunderer. (Well, OK, maybe “Hairy Thunderer” — Thor, the Norse god of
thunder, has been a Marvel Comics character for over 40 years, and has a movie coming out this summer.)

Now, I’m not saying that comics are a replacement for religion. I’m not
even saying that they’re an adequate substitute for religion. But they
can — and have — provided a way utterly apart from religion that
allows us as a culture to define and impart moral values.

We could do a lot worse. Hell, just looking at the last couple of decades, I think we have.

A Crash Of Symbols
"I accuse"