An interesting philosophy paper: ‘That Man Behind the Curtain’: Atheism and Belief in The Wizard of Oz. I don’t think the movie The Wizard of Oz is exactly an atheist movie, but represents the current transition we’re experiencing, where the old-fashioned beliefs are becoming increasingly untenable and unsupported by the culture as a whole, while people are still largely uncomfortable with abandoning the traditional big guy in the sky.
This decaffeinated belief—this belief without belief—is everywhere in The Wizard of Oz, even in the film’s conclusion. When Dorothy finds herself back in Kansas, she tries to tell her family about her voyage, but Aunt Em silences her, saying, ‘You just had a bad dream.’ Dorothy replies, ‘But it wasn’t a dream. It was a place.’ When she tells the farmhands and Professor Marvel that they were all there, they laugh. Aunt Em tries once more to convince Dorothy that she has been dreaming, but Dorothy protests: ‘No, Aunt Em. This was a real, truly live place.’ As she continues to describe her experience, she is again met with laughter. But when she indignantly asks the central question—‘Doesn’t anybody believe me?’—Uncle Henry responds by saying, ‘Of course we believe you, Dorothy.’ Her family and friends offer a kind of ‘decaffeinated belief’. They do not really believe her, of course, but they do not wish to shake her faith. Believing in belief, they allow her to maintain her delusional inner conviction that Oz is real.
It is worth noting that ‘decaffeinated belief’ has likely been around as long as belief itself; similarly, belief in abstract (rather than anthropomorphic) deities certainly pre-dates the modern era. (One thinks of the connection made between God and the Word in the opening verse of John, for example; or later, Spinoza’s move toward a kind of pantheism.) Nevertheless, Žižek and Dennett are correct to suggest that various forms of diluted belief have taken on special force in modern times. It has been difficult for many (particularly in the especially religious United States) to come to terms with the serious challenges to the supernatural offered by Darwin, Marx, and Freud. When Hegel and Nietzsche declared the death of God, believers scrambled to put God on life support, re-defining ‘God’ in abstract ways to make belief seem more defensible. Few intellectuals could still argue for traditional conceptions of God in the post-Darwin era (for example, God as a divine watchmaker, pace William Paley), but belief itself refused to become extinct; God mutated into more arcane, abstract notions in order to survive the skeptical spirit of modernism. It is this simultaneous loss of belief and maintenance of belief in the modern era that is captured perfectly in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz.
There are lots of little bits throughout the movie that give the game away — which never really jumped out at me because I take their attitude for granted. Now I might just have to watch the whole thing again sometime to look for them. Also, flying monkeys are just cool.