These are a few of my favorite things
"You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You're being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you're going to be slightly changed."
- Neil Gaiman, Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013
The Sandman: Book of Dreams (1996)
Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders (2006)
Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990)
Stories: All-New Tales (2008)
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Always be different, even when you're the same
"No story is exactly the same twice," observes a figment with paper lips. "Even written down and printed in a book."
"Everything is the same as itself," says another in a dry, whiskery voice. "That's the way it is, man."
"It's not the same story because you're not the same person," says the first figment.
— The Sandman: Book of Dreams (edited by Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer)
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So I bought this book:
It's a book of short stories based on The Sandman, one of the best graphic novels I have ever read. I've been looking for this book in stores for over a year, and I've finally found it. Suffice it to say, I'm very excited.
So I open it up and the preface is by someone with whom I'm not familiar, Frank McConnell. And right away he says (forgive me for the long quote):
"...humankind can no more live without gods than you can kill yourself by holding your breath.
(Of course, you just may be the kind of arrant rationalist who huffs that modern man has finally freed himself from ancient enslavement to superstition, fantasy, and awe. If so, return this book immediately to its place of purchase for a refund; and, by the by, don't bother trying to read Shakespeare, Homer, Faulkner, or, for that matter, Dr. Seuss.)
We need gods-- Thor or Zeus or Krishna or Jesus, or, well, God-- not so much to worship or sacrifice to, but because they satisfy our need-- distinctive from that of all other animals-- to imagine a meaning, a sense to our lives, to satisfy our hunger to believe that the muck and chaos of daily existence does, after all, tend somewhere. It's the origin of religion, and also of storytelling-- or aren't they both the same thing? As Voltaire said of God: if he did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him."
"It's often been said by literary critics that our age is impoverished by its inability to believe in anything save the cold equations of science."
Christ. (Excuse the pun.) Spare me, Mr. McConnell.
One of the things I love and admire about Neil Gaiman is his fondness and respect for mythology. His work is heavily influenced by it, but no one really knows his personal beliefs. He wishes people a Merry Christmas, a Happy Solstice, but never disrespects nonbelievers. He is a gentle sort (despite what his characters may have you think), and would never write something so hateful and science-negative to introduce a book. It sets a terrible tone, and it was impossible to get it out of my head when I was trying to read the first (very pleasant) story.
Listen, Mr. McConnell. I'm an atheist, and I love mythology. LOVE it. I think taken too far, it can certainly be harmful, but we'll not get into that. I love the stories of Greek mythology, I love the Norse tales, I am just now learning about Hindu gods and goddesses and it is fascinating and beautiful. No one's trying to take away your, or anyone's, right to believe what they want. But you have to accept that I, and many others, live without gods daily, and we make our own meaning in our lives. Certainly, we indulge in fantasy. We watch movies, read books (why do you think I love Sandman so goddamn much?), and write our own fantasy.
Science doesn't take away your meaning. It doesn't take away love, or beauty, or awe. Many people would argue that it adds to it, magnifies it. It teaches us where we came from, how we began. It doesn't limit us the way you seem to think. These "cold equations" were discovered, invented, pored over by human beings passionate about the world and each other, overjoyed by each new discovery, each new breakthrough in understanding.
I do think humanity has freed itself from "enslavement" (your choice of words) to ancient gods and rituals. I think we now have so much information about the world around us that we don't need the explanations they give us. But you are always free to choose. Everyone is always free to choose.
You say yourself that gods are just more stories. "'In the beginning God made man?' Quite-- and quite precisely-- the reverse."
Humans created these wondrous gods you speak of. Thus, humans created their own meaning, the meaning you say the gods gave us. Then, aren't our own minds, the ones capable of such fascinating feats, more worthy of study than their creations?