Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Toy Story and Religion

I just saw the wonderful Toy Story 3 with my wife and daughter, and it put me in mind of an argument I read years ago at the Internet Infidels. I haven't been able to find the article (it was in the "Agora", which they no longer seem to have), but the gist of it was straightforward. Toy Story, the argument goes, is a parable of atheism. It is the story of Buzz Lightyear, a man living in a false world of imaginary Space Rangers and Evil Emperors, finally brought back to reality when his illusions are punctured. Buzz hangs on to his illusions as long as he can but, finally summoning the courage to find out the truth one way or the other, puts them to empirical test. One of his "special powers" is supposed to be an ability to fly, so he jumps off a second floor bannister in an attempt to prove it. Naturally, he falls to the floor, and is broken both physically and spiritually. But the story has a happy ending as Buzz is not only physically repaired, but learns to accept the non-dramatic and mundane truth that he is but a child's toy. Would that the Buzz Lightyears attending Mass every weekend could follow his example.

The argument is a good example of how atheist arguments can be perfectly sound but miss the target. The Christian can accept the argument in its entirety, and even applaud with the atheist Buzz's breakthrough to a true understanding of his nature. For it is not in his dreamworld as a Space Ranger battling Emperor Zurg that Buzz has found religion (or, at least, religion in the sense of a metaphysical religion like Christianity), but rather when he recognizes the true cause and source of his being; and that cause is a Creator who made him in light of a final cause: To be of service to a child in providing him joy in the form of a toy. And it is only when Buzz comes to terms with his destiny (a destiny created for him) that he can be truly happy.

Buzz Lightyear is no product of an atheist universe. If Toy Story were an atheist parable, then Buzz and the other toys would be the accidental result of a brute physical process. In those terms, their destiny as a child's plaything would have as much purchase as any other destiny; which is to say, none. Indeed, it would have no more purchase than Buzz's Space Ranger worldview. We can reimagine Toy Story in atheist terms in the following way: Finally tiring of Woody's attempts to "enlighten" him out of his Space Ranger fantasy, Buzz pulls Woody aside and lets him in on something. Of course, Buzz says, I know there is not an Emperor Zurg in the sense you think I think there is, and that I can't defy gravity. So what? Your insistence that I am "meant" to be a child's plaything is as much a fantasy as my Space Ranger worldview. The difference between us is that I know whatever purpose I give my life is purely of my own fantastic creation, while you are under the illusion that you "know" the "true meaning" of every toy's existence. You are, in a word, naive.

Why isn't the atheist version of Toy Story produced? It certainly isn't because Hollywood is afraid of offending religious believers. It's just because few people would want to see it. The story is boring. It's a story that can be told only once, and it was told long ago. It's the story of the discovery that, in the end, there isn't really anything worth discovering; a discovery that, if it puts an end to anything, it puts an end to storytelling.


Joshua said...

This made my frikkin' day. Great economy and a terrific point.

David T. said...

Thanks for the kind words!

Colin said...

Very well written.
Concise, clear, yet quite illuminating.