I’m currently working on a screenplay about our 15th President, James Buchanan. The setting shifts back and forth between the present and 1863. How do I get the audience to believe that they are going back and forth between the present and 1863? I can’t. But I don’t have to make them actually believe it. Audiences are conditioned to “suspend disbelief” in order to enjoy the show. If you tell, or somehow show them that it is the present, they will go with it. If you dress the actors in clothes from 1863, the audience will “play along” and accept that it is 1863.
In a wintry scene, their reasoning minds might know that a stagehand is sprinkling white confetti on the stage from above, but when they learn to suspend disbelief, the audience will enjoy the “snowfall.” In the theater, in movies, audios, or in reading, we need to be able to sometimes disengage our reasoning mind and engage our imagination in order to enjoy it. Basically, there is an unwritten covenant between authors and their audiences. You suspend your disbelief for a couple hours and I will give you a couple hours of entertainment.
Did you clap your hands and say “I Believe” when Tinkerbell was dying?
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, invented the term suspension of disbelief in 1817. He wanted you, sitting in your comfortable easy chair, to clearly imagine the anguish of the cursed mariner drifting far at sea “with water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”
Wikipedia defines the term suspension of disbelief as a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe something surreal. It is the sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.
Sometimes we need to use both our reasoning mind and our imagination to get the most effect from a story. If we are watching a murder mystery, we use our reasoning mind to gather the clues, but we must use our imagination to suspend disbelief that the “murdered” actor is not really dead, or that the famous detective is just an actor.
We can be thrilled watching a magician saw a woman in half, though our reasoning mind knows (or at least hopes) that the woman is not really cut in two. We know that she will be back for the next performance. We must suspend this disbelief, though, to be able to enjoy the magic and the illusion.
More than 60 years ago, I was an avid fan of comic books, especially the DC comics, which featured Superman, Aquaman, Batman, Green Arrow, and other superheroes. To enjoy a comic book, we need to suspend disbelief and accept the character’s amazing, and often quite unbelievable, skill set. We know that man can’t fly, but we accept that Superman can. We know that man can’t live underwater, but we accept that Aquaman can. We accept an unrealistic premise in order to enjoy the story.
Places of worship are theaters in a way. In them, we are also able to suspend our disbelief and fully enter another world. It takes conditioning and practice, though, for us to be comfortable enough to lower our reasoning and boost our imaginations. Not surprisingly, those raised by Christians can easily adjust to the theater of a church, but they are not conditioned to equally accept the different customs of a synagogue or a mosque. Those raised by Jews can adjust to the theater of a synagogue but find themselves unable to adjust equally to the different ways of a church or mosque. Those raised by Muslims can adjust to the theater of a mosque, but not much else.
A Muslim man can imagine that if he died killing Christians and Jews he would be rewarded in paradise with dozens of virgins. Christians, Jews, and Atheists all think that this is absolutely crazy. A Jew or Muslim might abstain from the delicious taste of pork, lobster, or shrimp, because of what he is told in his Bible, Torah, or Koran. Christians and Atheists find that a bit crazy, even though Catholics once believed they would go to Hell if they ate a hot dog on a Friday. Christians believe that the wafers and wine served in Communion are transformed (transubstantiated) into the body and blood of their Savior, Jesus Christ. Jews, Muslims, and Atheists think of this as crazy, and maybe just a bit cannibalistic. Scientist just disavow it. Wine has a certain percentage of alcohol, while most people’s blood (except mine, of course) has a lower level of alcohol. “Transubstantiated” wine retains all the alcohol content and properties of wine, not blood.
Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Scientologists – they’re all bat shit crazy, according to everyone who is not themselves a Mormon, Jehovah Witness, Christian Scientist, or Scientologist.
Atheists believe that all the world’s religions are crazy, and, reciprocally, all the world’s religions believe that Atheists are delusional. Many people don’t even accept that anyone could honestly be an Atheist. “There are no atheists in foxholes,” they have decreed. The Atheists counter that everyone in a foxhole must, in fact, be an Atheist, because if you truly believed that an all-powerful supreme being, who loved you, held your life in His hands, you would defiantly stand in the open and just dare the enemy to waste their ammunition trying and kill you. Picture that scene in Dances with Wolves, when Kevin Costner’s character, dreadfully worried that his injured leg will soon be amputated, decides instead to ride his horse back and forth in front of the enemy lines, actually preferring that a bullet will kill him instead of a surgeon.
In religion, you are supposed to substitute imagination for reason. It’s called having faith. The hardest parts to believe require the strongest faith. Faith is more than just the suspension of disbelief, though. It is also the firm belief that what is imagined is the actual reality, and all too often, unfortunately, they believe it is the “only true reality.”
I’m an Atheist. Most likely, you are not. You think that I may be headed down the Highway to Hell. Whereas, I don’t believe there even is such a place. The problem for Atheists is that they are unable to suspend disbelief when it comes to religion. They can’t turn off their reasoning mind, and, so, they don’t get the same warm fuzzies that everyone else gets. They can’t enjoy it the way everybody else can. It’s a curse, and a blessing.
People think that because Atheists don’t believe in God, they don’t believe in anything. That’s not true. I don’t believe in a lot of things, but I do believe strongly in the few things I do believe in.
I believe that two hands working are far more powerful than a thousand hands clasped in prayer. Madalyn Murray O’Hair taught me that.
I believe in the separation of Church and State. Our American Founding fathers taught me that.
I believe in Love. The Beatles taught me that. I don’t really believe that Love is ALL you need, though. Food, clothing, shelter, a few drugs, and some beer may prove useful, too.
I believe in trusting everyone, but always cutting the cards. My Mom taught me that.
I believe in enjoying every moment I possibly can. My Dad taught me that.
I believe that we should all live and let live. Lancaster taught me that.
Peace and Love, and all of the above,