Last week, several comics sites published pieces with headlines proclaiming, “Batman is an atheist!” These pieces were written in response to Batman #53 by Tom King. My first thought when I saw the headlines was, Well, yeah, that makes a little sense, though I would have been more likely to guess that he was an agnostic. But as is often the case, the comics news writers overlooked the complexity and nuance and jumped to an oversimplified conclusion that is not justified by what the comic actually says. The irony, of course, is that in doing so, they have illustrated one of the points that King seems to be trying to make about belief, about evidence, and about “facts.”
“Cold Days,” the story arc that happens in the aftermath of Batman 50, tells the story of Bruce Wayne bribing his way onto a jury so that he can rectify a mistake that he made as Batman.
Three women have died, and even though the coroner determines that they each died of blood clots, Batman discovers that their brain temperature is lower than it ought to be. The evidence leads him to conclude that Mr. Freeze murdered each of the women. He finds the villain suited up in his freeze suit––which further reinforces his belief that Freeze is the murderer––and beats a confession out of him. But Bruce realizes that Freeze would have confessed to the crime even if he was innocent because of how brutally Batman beat him, so he decides that he has to join the jury in order make up for his mistake.
When the jury almost unanimously votes that Freeze is guilty, Bruce is the single dissenting voice. He makes the argument that while the evidence could be interpreted to say that Freeze murdered the women, it could also be interpreted in another way. There is room for reasonable doubt, in other words. What make the jurors see the evidence as definitive is their faith in Batman. Take away that faith, and the evidence isn’t as conclusive as any of them thinks. Bruce goes on to argue that in order to “save” Batman, the jurors have to find Freeze not guilty. Batman is just a man, he says, and the citizens of Gotham have to treat him like a man and a fellow citizen; otherwise, they elevate him to god-like status and treat him as something that he’s not.
Batman, Jurors, and What We Can Know
What made comics news writers jump last week was a moment in issue #53 when Bruce notices that one of the jurors wears a cross. The woman asks Bruce if he believes in God, and he answers, “I used to.” Taken in isolation, this exchange seems to show that the headlines were right––Batman is an atheist! But that reading ignores the major theme of “Cold Days,” which is epistemology.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge––specifically what we can know and how we can know it. Some people believe that we know things primarily through our senses. Others believe that we know things primarily through logical deduction. Others believe that our knowledge comes from a combination of sense experience and reasoning. And still others believe that we can’t really know anything at all.
It’s hard to think of a time when epistemology is more important than when jurors are trying to decide the fate of a person accused of a major crime. As Bruce insists throughout “Cold Days,” people are not perfect. Our minds are fallible. Even when presented with “facts,” we don’t always reach the right conclusions. Indeed, when we’re talking about knowledge of the deepest things––the existence of God, human nature, moral questions, etc.––we have to call upon something more than simply “the facts” in order to arrive at the truth. Facts might seem like infallible sources of knowledge, but the facts always have to be interpreted.
This might be especially true about the question of God. Atheists and agnostics are fond of pointing out that it is irrational to believe in a deity because there are no empirical “facts” out there to prove His existence. Well, maybe. But that depends upon one’s interpretation of the “facts,” doesn’t it?
The philosophical problem of evil can provide a good illustration of my point. Skeptics throughout the history of philosophy have argued that the brute fact of evil proves that God doesn’t exist. The argument usually runs as follows:
Major premise: A benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God would not allow evil to exist.
Minor Premise: Evil exists.
Conclusion: God does not exist (or if He does, he’s not good or can’t do anything about evil).
This strikes me as the best argument for atheism or agnosticism out there, but the basic fact at the heart of the argument––that evil exists––can also be presented in support of God’s existence. If evil refers to some objective quality and not merely to things that most people don’t like, we might then ask by what standard we judge things to be good and evil. And once we acknowledge that good and evil are objective standards, it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump from there to the existence of a deity.
That’s not to say that everyone will accept just reasoning. Not everyone will––no more than everyone will accept the argument from evil for atheism. I only mean to show that mere “facts” don’t prove anything. We have to interpret facts. We have to put them together in a way that leads to one view or another. And we have to add something else to them––call it “reason” or “intuition” or “faith”––in order to move beyond simple “facts” and reach knowledge or truth.
As he presents his case to the jury that the facts could support either the view that Freeze is guilty or that he is innocent, Bruce points out that both he and the citizens of Gotham have come to regard Batman as infallible. He’s their God, in other words. But since Batman is just a mortal man who makes mistakes and sometimes lets his passions drive him too far in the pursuit of justice, the people’s faith in him can lead them to some wrong conclusions. They let the fact that he has saved each one of them at some point lead them to believe that he will always act with perfect judgment and virtue. That kind of faith, Bruce says, will ultimately damn Batman, because it makes him into something that he isn’t and “condemns” him into the same “cold cage” as Mr. Freeze.
It becomes clear that when Bruce says that he “used to” believe in God, what he means is that he used to believe that Batman was a kind of god. When his parents died, his Christian faith died, too, and when he went searching for something to replace the void left by God, he found Batman. And for a while, he thought of Batman in the same way that the citizens of Gotham do: Batman was the one he worshipped, the one that he trusted to save him. In other words, Batman is the God that Bruce no longer believes in.
There’s Always a “But”
It’s too simple to say, “No, Bruce isn’t an atheist. He just doesn’t believe that Batman is a god anymore.” It does seem clear to me that when Bruce says, “I used to,” he’s talking about Batman. But that doesn’t mean that he’s Christian or even a theist. And that’s part of the point of “Cold Days”: the bare facts in front of us have to be interpreted.
One might argue that a man who pushes himself to the peak of human perfection and becomes a nightmare in order to terrorize criminals has given up on anything transcendent. He has no God to trust in, so he puts all his trust in himself. There is no hope of salvation in what Batman does. He’s just a man fighting an endless, fruitless battle against the ugliness that he sees in the world.
But then again, one might also argue that a man who has truly given up on faith wouldn’t devote his life to justice in the way that Batman has. It’s hard to imagine a man who sees the world as nothing more than matter in motion being willing to do what Batman does. For all his darkness and seeming pessimism, he has to believe in something in order to keep going.
No, I’m Not Offering Relativism As An Option
In saying that the facts alone can’t lead us to truth or knowledge, I’m not arguing for a kind of relativism here. I believe that truth is real and objective. It’s not just a matter of perspective. I believe that there is only one right answer to the question, “Does God exist?” But I also believe that the bare facts alone won’t tell us the answers. Just as Bruce sees that the facts of the Mr. Freeze case can steer us in one direction or the other, we have to realize that it takes more than our senses to lead us to the truth.
And in an age of division when all of us talk as if the people on the other side can’t see the same facts that we can see, we have to have the humility to recognize that the truth can be elusive. We have to realize that all knowledge––not just knowledge about God––requires a certain amount of faith.