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Old 07-02-2014, 12:46 AM   #1
Lotrelf
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Silmaril Can atheists appreciate/understand Lord of the Ring?

It is clear that LotR books are religious work and are widely loved and appreciated. And most of the readers I have come across are believers of God's existence. But there's no doubt there are people too who don't believe in God. Can they really understand the depth of the books; and appreciate as we do? Though, it is not easy to understand everything about the books(e.g. Tom Bombadil and his mystery; and Frodo's actions at Mount Doom are never ending debates), but there are many readers who understand the books(many I've met here).
But if it comes to atheists are they really going to get them the way we did?
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Old 07-02-2014, 02:40 AM   #2
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Could you actually clarify the question a little bit? Are you asking whether atheists can understand the books (in some general sense) or understand the books like you do?


Also I find it curious that you think that you should believe in God in order to understand LotR in the first place.

I would agree with you that one should know something about basic Christian beliefs and ideas to appreciate some religious themes LotR contains, but would that require also a faith in (Christian) God's existence - well that's a bit more complicated matter.

And given your requirement, there is also the question: in which kind of (Christian) God you should believe in in order to understand the books? An (American) evangelical understanding of God, Liberal / (European) Lutheran God; South-American or African Catholic God... would belief in the God of the Mormons help you understand the book or would it lead one astray? Or should you actually hold on to prof. Tolkien's old-time abstractly academic yet conservative Catholicism to understand the books?
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Old 07-02-2014, 03:35 AM   #3
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Silmaril

Yes.

I wonder if English people understand them better than we who are not from England? Do I understand Narn i Chīn Hśrin better because I'm Finnish and it's based on the Tale of Kullervo? Does a religious non-Christian understand the books better or worse than a non-religious person raised in a Christian country because they don't share Tolkien's cultural heritage?

Religion/spirituality is just one aspect among many that makes up a person. The fact that somebody doesn't believe in something doesn't mean they're not able to relate to people who do or that they don't understand what religion or belief are about. Many non-religious people I know are very well-versed in different religions; better so than many religious people I know. A non-Christian can know more about the Bible than a Christian - can even have read it more times.

Also, while Tolkien's Legendarium has many Christian elements, it's not an allegory. Therefore understanding shouldn't depend on your own religious background. The depth of the books is not just for understanding, it's for experiencing.

As you keep posting on the Downs, you'll come to find there are many agnostic, atheist and non-religious members (yours truly included). That's what the discussion forum is for - talking about how we understand the books. And as you read these discussions, it's up to you to decide if a non-religious Tolkien enthusiast can fully understand them, or understand them as you do.
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Old 07-02-2014, 06:29 AM   #4
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Tolkien synthesized mythos from Finnish, Icelandic, Germanic, Greek, Anglo-Saxon and biblical sources. As long as you understand the motifs and doctrines Tolkien employed, his Christianity becomes just another myth among many. Which is how I view his tale in its entirety.

In fact, if you view Middle-earth chronologically, from creation through the 1st, 2nd and through the 3rd Age story of The Hobbit, you'll find Christianity superseded by other mythos.
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Old 07-02-2014, 08:12 AM   #5
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I think the issue with this question is that it presupposes some kind of "God-believer" or "atheist" divide with no middle ground. Tolkien was a Catholic. That is a very specific system of beliefs. You might as well ask the same question of "appreciation/understanding" for other denominations of Christianity, let alone other religions and spiritualities.

Can a Hindu appreciate/understand The Lord of the Rings? How about a Buddhist? A Muslim? A Jew? What about an Anglican? An evangelical baptist? etc.

Or, as has been stated, non-spiritual or less spiritual accounts of life: agnosticism and so forth.

The short answer is: yes. I find this quote relevant from Claudio Testi's article "Tolkien's Work: Is it Christian or Pagan? A Proposal for a 'Synthetic' Approach" in Tolkien Studies 10 (2013):
the fundamental catholicity of Tolkien’s work is not to be found in confessional elements related to his Faith, but paradoxically in the quite peculiar non-Christianity of his world, where the most authentic existential and ethical tensions involving the “mere natural” Man are represented.
Testi further argues that Professor Tolkien's work:
is meant neither for a single nation (England) nor a specific religion (be it Christian or Pagan), but for “all of Mankind” capable of sensing with their natural capabilities that beyond the Circles of the World there is “more than memory”
Perhaps an atheist does not believe, or "sense" as Testi would have it, that there is "more than memory" beyond the Circles of the World, but in any event I think that the themes of the work are universal and do not depend on a particular spirituality to be understood. Similarly, I consider the theodicy (and, I suppose, theology) of the narrative to be internally self-consistent, such that while, for example, an education in Christian belief might be useful for interpreting some of the text, no specific real-world belief system has a particular bearing on the "appreciation" or "understanding" of the work.
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Old 07-02-2014, 08:56 AM   #6
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Being theist does not mean you have to be religious. I'm not "religious" if being religious means belonging to a religion. The better word I use for this is SPRITITUAL. Professor certainly wrote his books for all mankind instead of just religious people. But do all the people understand the books?
I started the thread because my experience with atheists has always been bad, so to speak (and I think most of them are arrogant). They doubt God's existence in real life. How are they going to understand characters that are directly affected by "God" or "Eru"? Would they take him as a "character"? Or as an energy? If they do so(energy thought), why not think this is true in real life as well? Or would they say "in Tolkien's world God existed because he saved the world"?
As Prof. said mercy and pity are in divine nature, it's not only true for LotR but for our real lives too. At times it happens when our previous mercy or pity saves us from a disaster. This is what I call "miracle". Miracles do happen; and they take place because of the "divine intervention" Prof. talks about. I don't say atheists can not understand these words, but can they understand the depth of Frodo's actions that saved the world in this context?
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Old 07-02-2014, 10:09 AM   #7
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Originally Posted by Lotrelf View Post
I don't say atheists can not understand these words, but can they understand the depth of Frodo's actions that saved the world in this context?
Watch out lest what you say be interpreted as "You choose not to believe in a higher entity, therefore you're too stupid to understand this book." An attitude like that could well be returned with arrogance.

I'd be curious to hear what precisely you mean by "the depth of Frodo's actions" here. You spoke about that and Tom Bombadil's mystery in your first post but I'm not quite sure what you are referring to - there are a gazillion different aspects and ideas and theories to both.

Quote:
They doubt God's existence in real life. How are they going to understand characters that are directly affected by "God" or "Eru"? Would they take him as a "character"? Or as an energy? If they do so(energy thought), why not think this is true in real life as well?
Because Tolkien's work is fiction. I don't see why enjoying, say, the Ainulindalė should suddenly make one believe in something similar in real life.

I actually do see Eru as a character, but mainly for narrative purposes. He's sort of the personification of the Secret Fire, which, then, is the "energy" you speak about (and which for example the Ainur channel in their work). It's hard to explain a god, isn't it?
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Old 07-02-2014, 10:45 AM   #8
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Originally Posted by Lotrelf View Post
Being theist does not mean you have to be religious. I'm not "religious" if being religious means belonging to a religion. The better word I use for this is SPRITITUAL. Professor certainly wrote his books for all mankind instead of just religious people. But do all the people understand the books?
I started the thread because my experience with atheists has always been bad, so to speak (and I think most of them are arrogant). They doubt God's existence in real life. How are they going to understand characters that are directly affected by "God" or "Eru"? Would they take him as a "character"? Or as an energy? If they do so(energy thought), why not think this is true in real life as well? Or would they say "in Tolkien's world God existed because he saved the world"?
As Prof. said mercy and pity are in divine nature, it's not only true for LotR but for our real lives too. At times it happens when our previous mercy or pity saves us from a disaster. This is what I call "miracle". Miracles do happen; and they take place because of the "divine intervention" Prof. talks about. I don't say atheists can not understand these words, but can they understand the depth of Frodo's actions that saved the world in this context?
I am an atheist. I more than likely understand the context Tolkien wrote in better than you do. No, I take that back: I am certain I understand the context of Tolkien's entire corpus better than you do. So please, don't preach to the rest of us.
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Old 07-02-2014, 06:21 PM   #9
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I started the thread because my experience with atheists has always been bad, so to speak (and I think most of them are arrogant).
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Originally Posted by Mithalwen View Post
I have found many Christians rude and arrogant.
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Originally Posted by Andsigil View Post
I've found the same thing about the current, strident crop of atheists lately. What a coincidence, yes?
I would argue that the important thing to realise is that people are not strident or arrogant or what have you because of their beliefs but because of their personalities. Being a Christian, an atheist, of any other belief or ideology does not make one arrogant, in my opinion, but arrogant people will use those things as a bludgeon to try to quash differing opinions or points of view which threaten their own self-image. For this reason I would argue that we ought to avoid generalisations wherever possible.

Returning to Professor Tolkien's work more specifically, I find the question of a generalised spirituality, setting any specifically Catholic doctrine aside, to not be irreconcilable with a non-spiritual view of the world. What are the most spiritual elements of the text, then?

1) The idea that there are 'divine' forces at work in the world: Eru, the Valar etc. I think even in a non-spiritual sense it is possible to appreciate the idea that human power has severe limitations in the grand scope of time and space, and that history is complex and rife with the unexpected, that evil will not always triumph and so on.

2) Mercy, pity and self-sacrifice: I don't think compassion and altruism need to be considered 'divine' traits but that from a non-spiritual point of view they can derive from a recognition of weakness and suffering in others as we ourselves are weak and suffer. Ultimately I would link this back again, I suppose, to a recognition of human limitations.

I am neither a religious nor a spiritual person. I don't know for sure what I would classify myself as: I'm not overly keen on "labeling" myself in any sense. Lately in fact thoughts have been troubling me when I consider Professor Tolkien's faith and the "catholicity" of his work and whether I'm to any extent a hypocrite for appreciating it as I do. I think the internal consistency of the narrative helps a great deal, however, what with the account of Eru, the Valar, the Ainulindalė and so forth, and again the recognition that the themes of the work, in my opinion, have great relevance to human life regardless of beliefs.
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Old 07-02-2014, 07:21 PM   #10
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Being theist does not mean you have to be religious. I'm not "religious" if being religious means belonging to a religion. The better word I use for this is SPRITITUAL.
You stole my thought, Lotrelf. I was just catching up on this thread and thinking that it's more about the spitiruality of the person than his religious denomination.

I'm not an atheist, but I don't assign myself to any religious dimension. I have more than slightly visible paganistic tendencies, or pantheistic maybe, or panentheistic, or whatever they call it, except that I'm neither really. I've been educated in two different monotheistic systems of belief, but at a certain point I decided that it's not so much that religion is rubbish and therefore God doesn't exist as organized (and especially monotheistic) religion is unappealing to me and therefore I don't like it. And, now that I think of it, around the same age I stopped liking the beginning-of-The-Sil backdrop - the more organized "theology" of the legendarium. Yeah, I don't appreciate it enough, most likely. However, I can't appreciate more the more mysterious references to the more obscure "fate" in LOTR. (And I've always loved the First Age tragedies, they remain amazing no matter what )

So can I appreciate LOTR? (hint: if you answer "no" to this question, you will suffer a slow and painful... lecture ). I can understand the relationship of Eru-Valar-World, but it doesn't feel right, or maybe doesn't appeal to me. I can still put myself in that perspective's shoes, though.
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Old 07-12-2014, 03:55 PM   #11
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Yes

I am utterly indifferent to faith, spirituality, religion, what have you of any kind, and I still find LOTR to be a fascinating and inspiring piece of work. I'm of the belief that Tolkien deliberately wrote his work the be read by all kinds of different people.
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