Batman hangs out with Wonder Woman, who hobnobs with Zeus, Ares and other deities. He’s buddies with Deadman, a ghost resurrected by a goddess named Rama Kushna. In one memorable comic that gave me nightmares for years when I was a kid, Batman got turned into a vampire, which seems as if it would be hell on one’s skepticism. If you live in the DC universe, you’ve got to believe 12 improbable things before you eat your Bat toast. Being an atheist in those circumstances seems less a spiritual stance and more like carelessness.
But if everything is possible, there’s not much need to believe in transcendent powers beyond our ken. Mystery and faith are essential to most religious experiences. When gods are as common as bullfrogs or bananas, what makes them divine or special? Superheroes and supervillains aren’t exactly gods. But they don’t leave a lot of room for worship, either.
The exact state of Batman’s faith isn’t crystal clear. Batman No. 53, out last week, included the Dark Knight being asked: “Do you believe in God?” and him replying: “I used to.”
Batman writer Tom King was quiet until Tuesday, when he tweeted something cryptic:
Regardless, part of the fun of superheroes is that we can identify with them; they’re supposed to be like us. Among other things, that means that writers often give them recognizable religious beliefs. Daredevil is a Catholic, racked with guilt and struggling with his relationship with the Christian God. Ms. Marvel is a Muslim whose faith inspires her to fight for justice. And Batman is apparently an atheist who lost faith when his parents were murdered in front of him.
Superheroes aren’t just like us, though; they’re an empowered version of us. And that means that besides the regular religious believers in comics, you also get the other stuff. The Christians, Jews, Buddhists and agnostics are always stumbling over other divine beings who do things like raise the dead, manipulate time, or usher believers and nonbelievers alike into literal heavens and hells. Norse gods, Greek gods, Cthulhu and various earth elementals rub shoulders, wings or tentacles with sorcerers, tech geniuses and large green monsters. Batman doesn’t have to believe in the gods; they’re right next to him, pulling on his cape.
Superheroes are popular because they make the transcendent so easily familiar. People sometimes say superhero tales are modern myths. Like the characters in Greek or Norse myths, Superman, Iron Man and Mary Marvel have amazing abilities and go on amazing adventures. But superhero narratives aren’t really tales about gods who are to be worshiped or feared. Rather, they’re stories about what it would be like if you had godlike powers to perform miracles.
The superhero genre, then, grabs the divine spark and hands it over to human beings. The name of the first superhero, after all, is “Superman” — a name cribbed from arch-atheist Nietzche’s “uber-mensch” by the two unreligious Jewish kids who wrote the comic. The uber-mensch in Nietzsche’s view was the man who rose to greatness in a society that no longer was dragged down by Christianity. Nietzsche was famous for declaring that “God is dead”— by which he meant that God wasn’t needed anymore, because human beings, post-Enlightenment, were ready to take his place. “We are [God’s] murderers,” Nietzsche wrote.
For Nietzsche, this is a poetic way of talking about a spiritual and intellectual change. God has gone out of the universe, and human endeavor, striving and imagination now must try to fill his place.
But in superhero comics, Nietzsche’s metaphor is a literal, mundane plot point. Superheroes are always killing one god or the other. Batman in one comic kicked the wrath of God in the face and booted him out of Gotham. In “Wonder Woman,” the heroine defeats Ares, the god of war. And in “Guardians of the Galaxy 2,” Star-Lord, who doesn’t even have any superpowers to speak of, beats his dad, Ego, the Living Planet, who, like the name says, is a planet-size deity. Wonder Woman defeats Ares — who, again, is a god. The divine is transcendent, powerful, beyond human control. But in superhero stories, human-size folks — the people we identify with — push gods around willy-nilly.
This is the exact inverse of myths, where it’s gods who push us around. Myths are often about how humans are destroyed by divine edict and the blind hand of fate. Job can’t do much about it when Satan kills his family and blights his crops. Orpheus defies death briefly, but he’s ultimately just another weak mortal, and Eurydice is dragged back to Hades. But if a superhero had been around with Job, he or she would have kicked Satan’s butt. (Black Panther, for example, has actually defeated Satan in hand-to-hand combat.)
As for death — superheroes are always coming back from the dead. Superman was brought back from the grave in the “Justice League” movie; half of Marvel’s heroes are going to get resurrected in the next installment of “Infinity War.” In superhero stories, dying is not a whole lot more dramatic than traveling to a different city — like, say, Albuquerque. In fact, there are almost certainly more superhero stories in which someone comes back from the dead than there are superhero stories in which someone visits New Mexico.
No wonder Batman’s an atheist, then. What’s God for when you can flick a switch and bring your pal back from his not-so-final rest? Spiritual beliefs are superfluous when you are so talented and smart and powerful that you can overcome any obstacle and succeed in any quest. Superheroes live in a world where human beings can do anything. Put on tights, and we can all hobnob with Zeus and kick Yahweh’s butt. We control our own destinies, muscle planets about and overcome death itself. Humans are all-powerful. That’s a myth, of course. But it’s a myth even atheists like Batman can believe in.
Noah Berlatsky is the author of “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.”