Many of you have probably heard old jokes about how some fandom is someone’s religion, or that it’s “bigger than Jesus”. But then I got to thinking: what are the big differences between participating in a fandom and being a member of a religion? Personally, I grew up during the rise of the Harry Potter fandom and hold a couple of degrees in theology. The biggest and most obvious difference between fandom and religion is that (most) religions demand that one believe in the divine. Fandoms, on the other hand, don’t even need to bother with such metaphysical questions of the universe (if they don’t want to). But other than God, just how much is being in a fandom like being a member of a religion?
There are all sorts of things that make someone a member of a particular religion. Even among practitioners of the same religion there can be considerable variation, to the point where two people may not even be recognizable as practitioners of the same religion. The same is true for fandom; there are innumerable ways for people to consume, enjoy, and interact with their favored stories and media. But I think many of these elements can be boiled down to three categories.
1. Religion and fandom share concepts of “canon” and “not canon”.
In fandom, “canon” refers to anything that happens in the celebrated work of art. In many ways, “canon” means that something is “true” in the context of the story and confirmed with the authority of the content creator. The history of religion is rife with arguments about what counts as “canon”, whether that be in a literal scriptural sense or in the ideological sense. Religion often includes a similar concept of truth, though the “story” in question is all of reality.
The issue of whether or not something counts as canon is a huge sticking point for both groups. In religion, arguments about whether an idea is “canon” lead to splits, schisms, and accusations of heresy. In the year 1054 the Christian church split into the Orthodox and the Latin churches because people couldn’t agree on the role of Rome’s bishop, the nature of God as a trinity, and other issues. Both sides argued their positions using scripture and traditions, but neither could convince the other. Today, many Protestant groups are reevaluating their theological positions on the morality of homosexual activity, partially in light of newer interpretations of key biblical passages. In fandom, questions of canonicity can be just as complex. For example, when J.K. Rowling revealed that she always thought of Dumbledore as gay, people wondered if that counted as canon because there is little to no evidence of his sexual orientation in the Harry Potter books (or movies). On the other hand, popular young adult author John Green is famous for arguing that “books belong to their readers”, that authorial intent is no more important than any opinion of a reader concerning the meaning of the story.
2. Religion and fandom encourage massive amounts of community.
Most religions require some participation in community events and practices. Even in religions that do not require community participation, many people often seek out other members of their religion for support and spiritual advice. While practioners of Wicca are traditionally organized into groups called covens, more and more Wiccans draw from multiple Wiccan traditions as solo practioners. Pagans make up a vibrant community on Patheos, one of the most popular faith websites. Those who engage in fandom come from an individual experience of a particular story, and seek to share their experiences with others. Fan conventions, especially science fiction conventions, date back to at least the 1930s. While San Diego ComicCon might be the most famous con today, Worldcon dates back to the 1950s and is the site of the presentation of the Hugo Awards. Some of the first traveling fan conventions can be attributed to Creation Entertainment’s Star Trek conventions in the 1970s. Fans often travel great distances to attend these events.
Beyond attending a con, there are plenty of ways fans participate in their communities. The communities share a particular identity, each with its own vocabulary and languages. Trekkies can learn to speak Klingon, Tolkien buffs can learn Elvish, but language takes on an important role in determining your identity. Christians may claim to belong to a specific denomination, and that tells you many important things about what they believe. In an analogous way, asking someone what which Hogwarts house or regeneration of the Doctor is their favorite tells you something about who they are. Being able to name yourself, and identify yourself, even within a particular group, is steadily becoming just as important in fandom as it is in religion.
3. Religion and fandom change the way you live your life.
A fandom really starts to become similar to a religion when it changes the way you live your life. Art is all about human expression, and geek media is full of ideas that push the thought envelope. Fantasy offers us an inspirational escape from mundane reality, and lets us imagine ourselves as heroes of our own stories. Horror gives us a chance to examine the dark recesses of the human psychology, the nastier parts of humanity. Science fiction expands our concept of possibility, “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Fandom becomes radically successful when its members start translating the ideas their favorite works celebrate into their daily lives.
Religion is one of the world’s leading forces behind social action. While we might hear about the evils committed in the name of God all over the news, religious groups provide necessary human services in communities all over the globe. At least half of the largest non-profit hospital systems are run by religious groups. Across the globe, religious organizations supply and run most of the food banks, aiding the hungry in their local communities. Like religion, fandom inspires people to change the world for the better. The Harry Potter Alliance is a non-profit organization that works to promote equal rights (regardless of race, gender identity, and sexual orientation), literacy, and environmental consciousness. Fans have donated thousands of dollars to all sorts of organizations. Nerdfighters are a group that began as fans of John Green’s books and videos, but has become such a large social movement that it may become mainstream. Green’s Foundation to Decrease World Suck is a non-profit organization that earned over $850,000 in 2013, and its yearly YouTube Project for Awesome raises awareness and funds for a wide variety of causes. The social impact of these fandoms is undeniable.
While religion has had an impact on the world for ages, fandom is only beginning to develop an active social conscience. In many ways, the two groups are similar: they bring people together, they challenge them to think critically about their beliefs, and they inspire people to bring meaningful change to their communities. But it would be incredibly disrespectful to imply that religion and fandom are really just the same thing. The biggest and most important difference between the two is in their scope. While fandom might cause a person to look at their world in a new way, a fandom is ultimately limited by the scope of the story. Fans know that their favorite content was created by people. While the irreligious might argue that religions are also just made up by some people too, the difference is that most religious people don’t agree. The vast majority of us really do believe that there’s a divine origin or element to our belief system. The scope of a fandom is the story’s universe, but the scope of a religion is our universe. There’s a certain element of reality present in religion that’s missing in fandom.
However, we can still learn from the similarities between religion and fandom. Religion can see how fandom uses art as a vehicle for inspiration and commentary on the nature of the human condition. Throughout the East and West, art is an important component to religious expression and identity. Fandom can remind religion of its rich artistic heritage and demonstrate new ways to engage in the ancient practice of storytelling. And when a fandom mirrors the positive elements of religion, the fandom becomes more successful, meaningful, and powerful.