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Superman, All-Powerful Gods, And What Sets Them Apart

superman

Superheroes mean many things to many people, especially at a time when superhero movies routinely dominate the box office. For some, they’re just gimmicks, fads, and marketing tools by big media companies. For others, they are akin to modern day mythology. It’s an apt comparison. Even contemporary heroes have a lot in common with the mythological legends of the past.

Some take it even further than that. Some will go so far as to claim that superheroes are filling the same roles as gods and deities. It’s not just the ones based on Norse or Greek mythology, either. In many respects, many iconic heroes fit many of the common traits ascribed to gods.

Superman is all-good.

Thanos wielding the Infinity Gauntlet is all-powerful.

Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom, and even Mr. Fantastic are so smart that they might as well be all-knowing to most people.

Such divine, god-like feats make for iconic stories that offer lessons and insights on everything from morality to justice to society, at large. While superheroes aren’t worshiped within organized institutions or granted tax-exempt status by governments, they utilize a similar structure to that of other holy texts.

The narrative surrounding superheroes revolves around good, evil, and the struggles that occur in between. Both the good and the evil in these stories takes the form of some grand, larger-than-life character who embodies these traits and implements them on a level that’s impossible for ordinary people to comprehend. That’s what helps make the message so powerful.

However, it’s the qualities that set superheroes apart from deities that offers the most insights. I would even argue those insights are more critical now than they were before Superman, Batman, or Iron Man ever showed up on a movie screen. At a time when organized religion continues to exert immense influence on society, we should be scrutinizing these discrepancies.

I hope it goes without saying that modern superheroes can only do so much to compare with the deities of organized religion. No matter how much money “Avengers Endgamemade at the box office, it will never exert the same influence that the three main Abrahamic faiths have imparted over the two millennia. For better or for worse, history, politics, and the entire species has been influenced by these religions.

The most notable and obvious difference between them and superheroes is that the deities of religion aren’t presented as entertaining fiction. To the believers of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and many other religions, the deities and the characters in their holy texts are real. They’re not myths or legends. They’re real people and real forces that have real effects.

Regardless of how true that is, and I know atheists will point out how none of those effects can be verified, this is the critical difference between superheroes and deities. Adherents don’t just believe that these characters are real. They place their trust and faith in them, believing that doing so will guide them in life and protect them in death.

I understood this difference as a kid. I was both a fan of superhero comics and surrounded by relatives who were devout believers. I knew they didn’t see their holy texts the same way I saw Superman comics. Superman was just another character. They knew who created him. They knew he was a licensed fictional character from DC Comics.

However, even back then, I found myself wondering whether those same relatives would see Superman differently if they didn’t know he was a comic book character. I imagine if there were old stories about him from centuries ago, written as though they actually happened, they might be less inclined to discount him as fiction. Some might actually be more inclined to place their faith in him over other deities.

It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it only scratches the surface of what sets superheroes apart from ancient lore. Aside from how real people think these characters are, and some take it much further than others, the standard superhero narrative reveals something striking about the standard religious narrative.

To illustrate, take a moment to contemplate how Superman goes about being a hero. As the gold standard of superheroes for the past 80 years, he sets the highest bar and embodies the highest ideals for a hero. On top of that, he has powers and abilities on par with many deities. At times, he has been shown as capable of destroying an entire solar system with a single sneeze.

Despite all this power, Superman seeks only to help humanity. He doesn’t ask for praise, worship, payment, or sacrifice. He simply does it because it’s the right thing to do. He’s the ultimate paragon, selfless and compassionate to the utmost. The people of Metropolis, and the world at large, don’t need to have faith in him. They just need to trust that he’ll keep doing the right thing.

Contrast that with the deities in holy texts. Many are every bit as powerful as Superman, but display qualities that aren’t exactly heroic. Certain versions of certain deities have been shown to be petty, jealous, and vindictive, sometimes to an extreme. A deity does often help or guide believers in a conflict like a superhero, but it’s rarely done out of pure altruism.

These deities, many of which are believed to have created humanity and the world, exercise a certain level of authority over people. It’s not always outright forced, but the nature of the story provides plenty of incentives and/or punishments to those who rebel or subvert that authority. Some become cautionary tales or outright villains.

Some villains are sexier than others.

In this context, the religious narrative builds an over-arching theme that has little room for heroics. These deities and super-powered beings aren’t necessarily there to save the day. They’re there to maintain the order that they helped create. They function as the glue that holds the universe and humanity together. Anyone or anything that goes against it requires recourse from both adherents and divine forces.

We often see this manifest in the real world when religious people argue that things like homosexuality, which is often condemned in holy books, are this bigger threat to the world. That’s why you’ll hear plenty of dogmatic preachers claim that homosexuality won’t just give people distressing thoughts. They’ll say it will destroy society.

Religious dogma, by its nature, depends on a strict adherence to what is the status quo for a particular place, people, and time. Defending it isn’t just seen as an act of piety. It’s akin to a superhero saving the day from evil forces. Whether those evil forces are demons from the underworld or a gay couple who want to get married doesn’t matter. It’s all about preserving a system.

Conversely, superheroes like Superman don’t limit themselves to a status quo. They’re less driven about how things are and more focused on how things could be. Superman doesn’t just want to save the day and help people who need it. He seeks to give people an ideal for them to aspire towards. This is perfectly reflected in his father’s message to him, as read by the late Marlon Brando.

It is now time for you to rejoin your new world and to serve its collective humanity.
Live as one of them, Kal-El
Discover where you strength and your power are needed
Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage
They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be
They only lack the light to show the way
For this reason above all, their capacity for good
I have sent them you, my only son

It’s in this defining message that the superhero narrative distinguishes itself from religious traditions. These superheroes, as powerful as they are, didn’t create us. They don’t hold any inherent dominion over us. They didn’t create the current situation, however flawed it might be. They still seek to help people, carrying out feats that others cannot. That’s what makes them heroes.

One fights to maintain what society is while the other fights for what society could be. These narratives can exist alongside one another and can carry greater meaning for certain people. There are critical lessons in both, but I believe the lessons of Superman are more relevant than anything offered by the stories of religion.

For much of human history, organized religion was part of that social glue that helped keep society stable. For a good deal of that history, society was only as stable as the conditions around it. People hoped and prayed that there wouldn’t be a famine, a storm, or some other catastrophe that they could not control. Survival, even among kings and emperors, was their primary concern.

Things are different now. At a time when food is abundant, poverty is in decline, and education is more widespread than ever, survival isn’t enough. For a planet of billions to thrive, people need to prosper. Doing so means aspiring to something greater than the status quo. That’s exactly what superheroes embody.

That’s not to say that the rise of superheroes is directly linked to the ongoing decline of religion, but the contrasting narratives reflect just how much priorities have changed. Superheroes don’t demand faith, sacrifice, and reverence, just to keep things as they are. They go out of their way to save a world that they believe is worth saving, hoping that it can better itself.

They can help, but they can’t do it for us. That’s another trait that Superman demonstrates, much to the chagrin of villains like Lex Luthor. Like deities of old, he doesn’t use his powers to achieve everything for humanity. He seeks to empower them to achieve those feats on their own. That process of aspiring to be greater than is often an affront to a religious narrative, but critical to the themes of superheroes.

Even if superhero movies stop making billions at the box office, the over-arching message will still be relevant. Faith in what is just isn’t as appealing as hope for what can be. The gods of religion offer comfort in familiar order, but superheroes can inspire hope in something better. Given the many flaws in this chaotic world, I believe that hope is more valuable than any ancient doctrine.

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When Crisis Brings Humor, Irony, And Religious Absurdities

Whenever the news is consistently awful, you tend to get numb to it. At some point, you just can’t bring yourself to get too worked up anymore. It’s not a good thing. Once you get numb to terrible news, you’re less inclined to do something about it. That’s not healthy for any society.

I don’t deny that the news surrounding the Coronavirus/COVID-19 has been awful. It might be the single worst news story we’ve collectively endured in over a decade. It’s bad, especially if you’re a sports fan. It may very well get worse before it gets better.

However, it’s for that same reason that we should all laugh and take comfort in stories that expose absurdities, frauds, and assholes who don’t deserve the notoriety they usually enjoy. Of all the things that fit every one of those criteria, faith healers are right up there with creationists, snake oil salesmen, and conspiracy theorists.

Now, I could go on an extended rant about how faith healers are one of the most perverse manifestations of organized religion. I’ve gone on similar rants before on far less serious subjects. However, this is one instance where no rant is necessary. The facts alone expose the absurdity, hypocrisy, and stupidity of the whole endeavor.

It comes courtesy of a megachurch in California and a story covered by Raw Story. Rather than describe all the crazy details, I’ll just leave a link and a brief summary of the best parts.

Raw Story: ‘Faith-healing’ megachurch cancels hospital sessions over coronavirus fears

A megachurch in California that regularly conducts “faith-healing” sessions at local hospitals apparently doesn’t believe the power of prayer is strong enough to cure coronavirus.

The Bethel Church in Redding, California, which serves as the spiritual home to an estimated 6,300 weekly worshipers, announced this week that it is canceling its regularly scheduled visits to hospitals as fears of the coronavirus pandemic take hold.

Think about that for a moment. Faith healers profess the power of healing through prayer, specifically through prayers to their favored deity. They claim that their spiritual service can bring wellness to the sick while protecting the healthy. That’s the power of their faith.

Then, a virus comes along that is utterly unaffected by their dogma. It infects everyone, regardless of what they believe, and no amount of prayers can stop it. The fact that these “faith healers” have ceased going to hospitals out of fear of infection is an indirect admission that their healing doesn’t work. It also exposes just how weak it really is.

A virus is not some invading army or repressive government. It’s a tiny bit of biomatter. Despite that, it’s still strong enough to defeat any prayers that a believer may offer. No matter how ardent they may be, the virus still infects because wishful thinking is no match for harsh reality.

Now, I’m not foolish enough to believe that this crisis will put all faith healers out of business. At the very least, this offers a huge red flag to anyone whoever crosses paths with someone claiming to heal by faith. If they can’t heal you from a simple virus, then what does that say about their faith, their religion, and their motivations?

In this case, washing your hands more powerful than any prayers you could offer.

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Why Heaven Is As Unjust As Hell

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There are many aspects of religion that warrant criticism. I’ve certainly levied a few, from how it intensifies inequality to how it fosters a form of morality akin to the mafia. I always try to preface those criticism by acknowledging that most religious people are decent, honorable human beings. I also have close relatives who are religious and that doesn’t detract from their character whatsoever.

Even with that in mind, I believe that religion deserves a special kind of scrutiny. It’s a huge influence on people, society, and also government. Something that influential deserves no immunity, especially when certain tenants have serious implications. I’ve pointed out how the concept of Hell is rendered moot by boredom and undermines pro-life ideology. Now, I’m going to give similar scrutiny to the concept of Heaven.

While the problem of Hell and eternal punishment for finite transgressions have been discussed by people far smarter than I’ll ever be, there are far less criticisms levied against Heaven. That makes sense. Heaven, whatever form it takes, is one of those ideas that’s pleasant to contemplate. Even if you’re an atheist, imaging a blissful afterlife won’t inspire dread or outrage.

However, I would argue that the concept of Heaven is as immoral and unjust as Hell. While I don’t deny infinite torture is more deplorable than infinite bliss, I submit that the implications are just as damning, if that’s not too loaded a term.

Most people know the basics of Heaven. Their particular religion, sect, or denomination might not call it that, but the premise is simple. Those who are righteous, moral, and pious to a particular standard, as determined by a deity or doctrine, are rewarded after death with passage to an eternal paradise.

What makes this place paradise is often vague. Some see it as a place without suffering or sin. Others see it as a place of endless indulgence. Whereas Hell is the ultimate punishment, Heaven is the ultimate reward. Whatever form that reward takes, the attributes that make it unjust are the same.

To illustrate, consider two individuals who lived good lives. One is just a typical, every-day adherent. Most of us know someone like them. They’re kind, decent, and upstanding. They live their lives ethically and responsibly. They go to whatever church, temple, or mosque their religion requires. They play by the rules and do all the right things, but that’s it. They don’t have much impact beyond their community.

Then, consider an individual like Dr. Norman Borlaug. I’ve mentioned him before, but the good this man did for the world is worth belaboring. This isn’t just a man who lived a good, upstanding life. This is a man who saved millions of lives because of the work he did. His contributions to the green revolution are a big reason why countless people don’t go hungry at night.

The face of a real life hero.

If ever there was an individual who deserved a reward in the afterlife, it’s Norman Borlaug. Even those of differing faiths wouldn’t argue that a man like him deserves to go to a place like Heaven. That’s where the chief problem of Heaven comes in and, much like Hell, it has to do with its eternal nature.

Whenever eternity enters the equation, absurdities usually follow. In the case of Heaven, the implication is that a man like Norman Borlaug gets the same reward as the other person who didn’t save a billion lives and win a Nobel Prize. There’s nothing extra for someone who really goes the extra mile for humanity. With eternity, that’s just not possible.

It’s not unlike a group project where one person does most of the work, but everyone still gets the same grade. Most reasonable people would call that unfair. Human beings, like other animals, have an innate sense of fairness. When a reward or punishment is exceedingly disproportionate, it tends to cause distress, guilt, and resentment.

With Heaven, however, people make an exception. There’s no uneasiness or distress about someone like Norman Borlaug getting the same reward as some random person who just went to church every Sunday. Some of that might be due to an inability to process concepts like eternity, but I think the problem runs deeper than that.

On top of the reward being disproportionate, there’s also the issue of the standards for determining those who get it. For those who adhere to a dogmatic faith, including those of the Abrahamic traditions, it doesn’t matter how many lives men like Norman Borlaug save. It also doesn’t matter how little the typical adherent does. What matters, ultimately, is whether they believe the tenants of the faith.

It’s an issue that also comes up when discussing problem of Hell. Within the core of these theologies, the works they do in life don’t matter as much as what they believe. If they die believing the right deities for the right reason, then that’s enough. They get to go to Heaven. If they’re wrong, yet still do all sorts of objective good, then they still go to Hell to face eternal torment.

That’s not just unfair. That’s infinitely unjust. It’s infinitely immoral. It completely devalues the action, intentions, and sincerity of those doing their best to live their lives. If the only thing that matters in the end is what deity and doctrine they believe, then where’s the incentive to make life worth living for those alive today and those yet to be born?

It still gets worse than that. What about those who lived in a different time and place in which they only knew the particular theology of their community? There are still places in the world that violently resist any intrusion or visitation from the outside world. These people love their families and friends as much as anyone. Are they still denied eternal bliss and doomed to eternal suffering?

If even one person who lived a good, honorable life is condemned to infinite suffering because of what they believe, then that, by default, is infinitely unjust. By the same token, one person who gains infinite bliss just because of what they believe and nothing more, then that is every bit as unjust.

Heaven may be a pleasant, comforting thought for most people. It offers a tantalizing promise for adherents and their loved ones that death is not the end. There’s a better existence waiting for everyone, but only if they believe a certain set of tenants in accord with a specific deity. Having dealt with the death of close loved ones, I understand why that’s so appealing.

At the same time, it’s difficult to get around the problems that arise when infinite concepts are applied to finite lives. Regardless of what deity you believe, the very concept of eternal rewards alongside eternal punishments ensure that divine justice can only ever be infinitely unjust.

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Will Advanced Artificial Intelligence Create (A New) God?

AI-God

For centuries, there has been a debate raging between believers and non-believers. The believers claim that God created man in his/her/its/their image. The non-believers claim it’s the other way around and man created God in whatever image they imagined. Society, cultures, and politics may change the rhetoric, but the debate remains unresolved.

There are just too many barriers that are insurmountable for either side. One believes that the faith they have in whatever higher power they worship is as real as gravity, sunlight, and migraine headaches. The other does not accept that there is sufficient, verifiable evidence to accept the premise of a deity. The two sides can argue with the utmost passion. It’s rare that such discourse changes any minds.

However, there come a time when a new complication enters that debate, one that will fundamentally change some peoples’ understanding of theology, religion, and God. It may not effect everyone the same way, but the impact could end up being as profound as any religious experience.

That complication is advanced artificial intelligence, a topic I’m fond of discussing when I can tie it into my favorite video games and our sex lives. I understand that mixing anything with religion tends to get contentious, to say the least. However, I believe that when artificial intelligence becomes advanced enough, the human race will have re-evaluate a lot of things and that includes religion.

Creating an artificial intelligence that is as intelligent as an average human will be groundbreaking enough and not just from a theological standpoint. A part of what makes any deity powerful and worthy of worship is the ability to create an intelligent, self-aware being through non-biological means. Once humans start doing that, then the line between mortal and immortal will start to blur.

However, it’ll gain a much greater complication once that artificial intelligence advances beyond that of the average human. As anyone who regularly upgrades their smartphone knows, digital intelligence evolves much faster than biological intelligence. It took the human race centuries to figure out indoor plumbing. Once artificial intelligence is on par with humans, it won’t take long for it to exceed them.

This is where the potentially dangerous, but infinitely promising prospect of super-intelligent AI enters the picture. By that, I don’t just mean an intelligence that always wins at Jeopardy and always wins an Overwatch match. I’m talking about an intelligence that is so far beyond human capabilities that it’s akin to the cognitive gap between an ant and a human.

That kind of gap has many implications, but in the context of religion, it essentially re-frames the entire concept of God, divine power, and spirituality, as a whole. Whether it’s a monotheistic religion where God is all-knowing or a polytheistic religion with a God of Wisdom, knowledge is a critical aspect of divinity.

Even if a super-intelligent AI doesn’t know everything, the fact it knows and understands so much more than the average human will give people the impression that it’s omniscient. By all accounts, a super-intelligent AI’s knowledge will seem god-like and that’s where that never-ending religious debate I mentioned earlier breaks down.

Unlike the deities championed by adherents today, a super-intelligent AI doesn’t require faith. A super-intelligence, whether it’s in the form of a giant robot or a planet-sized supercomputer, would have a tangible form. It’s hard to know what sort of form that would be, but it only needs to be tangible enough to let an average human know it’s real.

Given how easy it is to fool the average human, a super-intelligent AI wouldn’t need much to prove itself. Unlike purely spiritual beings, the AI would be capable of receiving inquiry from skeptics who question its divine knowledge. Even if those humans are exceptionally smart, possibly through neural implants, a super-intelligent AI would have no problem outwitting them.

At that point, the debate between believers and non-believers takes on a very different context. Suddenly, it’s no longer an issue of whether or not one particular holy book is more valid than another. It’s not even an issue of whether divinity, itself, can exist. From the perspective of the human mind, a super-intelligent AI is divine.

It may not take the form of a man in a white robe with a long beard in the sky, but that wouldn’t matter. A super-intelligent AI, whatever form it ends up taking, would be real enough and cunning enough to convince imperfect human minds of its divinity, if that were its goal.

It wouldn’t even have to physically do anything. It could just be a big stationary box. It could respond to prayers, but it wouldn’t have to directly answer them. It would just have convince believers that their prayers had been received. Again, humans can be pretty gullible and prone to confirmation bias so all the AI has to do is convince someone. If they believe it strongly enough, then it doesn’t matter whether it happens.

In a dynamic like this, there wouldn’t be a debate between believers and non-believers like there is now. The only debate would pertain to just how powerful and how divine the super-intelligent AI really is. It wouldn’t be a matter of whether or not someone believes it is real. Being artificial, it would have a tangible form, at least to the extent that it convinces human perceptions that it does.

That would beg an even more profound theological question. Being so intelligent and so capable of outwitting human minds, would a super-intelligent AI become God in the minds of humans by default? Even if there’s a record of the system being created by people, that wouldn’t make its intelligence any less divine.

It’s a question that subverts almost everything we know about religion. It wouldn’t just render all existing forms of religion obsolete. It would, at least from a limited human perspective, check all the criteria that any spiritual person would look for in a higher power.

Now, there’s one other complication that might ultimately undermine a super-intelligent AI’s divinity. It’s one that I’ve mentioned before in addressing the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence. Human biology, for all its wonder, will not be able to keep pace with the evolution of artificial intelligence. As a result, humans may end up merging their intelligence with that of AI.

This is what artificial intelligence enthusiasts like Elon Musk are seeking to do through neural implants or brain augmentation. By linking our brains to a super-intelligent AI, we wouldn’t just keep pace with AI. It would augment its intelligence to the same divine levels. However, if both human and artificial intelligence are equally divine, then that effectively undermines the notion of divinity itself.

There are still other complications associated with that issue. It only ceases to be an issue if every human being augments or links their minds to a super-intelligent AI. Given how difficult it is for humans to come to a consensus on anything, especially when it comes to technology, it’s very likely that even if most people link themselves to a super-intelligent AI, there will be some who choose not to or get left behind.

This could result in a massive divide. One group, from their limited perceptions, sees super-intelligent AI as a real god. Another, thanks to their augmented perceptions, see it as just another form of intelligence. A debate between the two would be both uneven, if not redundant.

There are many implications and even more unknowns with respect to super-intelligent AI. The impact on religion is just one of many, but it may end up being most profound in terms of changing the nature of a debate. As it stands, believers and non-believers can only make so much headway due to the inherent limits of human cognition.

Once super-intelligent AI enters the picture, then those limits are gone and the debate changes. While I don’t think it’ll end religion, I believe it’ll change it to such a degree that it’ll generate more than just impassioned debates.

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