The (not so) Subtle Atheist Viewpoint in Today’s Pop Culture

I really didn’t plan for this blog to be so Christianity-centric. I thought this would be a good place for me to articulate, through text, some of the things that I tend to think about from time to time. Little did I know how much the media would change culture over the past few years, propagating stereotypes and mis-information about religion that practically begs for some kind of intelligent response. As I’ve written before, usually there isn’t one. Not because it doesn’t exist, but because such a stigma has been built up around any type of religious debate (“don’t preach at me!”, “you’re just a fill-in-the-blank-aphobe”, “why don’t you think for yourself?”) that even an attempt at a response would be shouted down like a music critic at a Justin Bieber concert. I’m not an apologetic, so I will not attempt a response. However, I’d like to point out some observations I’ve recently made involving the proliferation of atheist ideas via television and film.

Doctor Who
Lately, my family and I have been enjoying the re-boot of “Doctor Who”. The long-lived British science-fiction show is appealing because it’s both whimsical and intense, with very good character development and enjoyable story arcs. Also, it’s somewhat family friendly, at least for older children (probably too intense for those under 8-9). All-in-all, a very entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking show. Last night, we watched the episode “Gridlock”, about a time in the future where motor vehicle traffic is so slow, citizens spend years, even lifetimes on the “motorway”  trying to get somewhere with the promise of building a better life for themselves. An amazing concept for a sci-fi, and I was really kind of digging it until it occurred to me what they were promoting with this metaphor. In the episode, the lucky few who were granted access to the “fast lane” soon found out that none of the exits they were trying to reach were actually ever open. There was no final destination. The only option for these folks was to go around the bypass again and hope that the exit would be open on the next go-around (if you didn’t get eaten by the giant, exhaust-breathing crab-like aliens that lived at the bottom of the fast lane…but that’s kind of irrelevant to the metaphor).

Where the writers really hit you over the head, however, is during a scene where the drivers of all the cars are brought together and pacified by a broadcast (and apparent sing-along) of the Christian hymn “The Old Rugged Cross”. If the motorway was a metaphor for life, where there is no final destination, then the hymn broadcast was an attempt to control the population and keep them from asking questions, an obvious atheist viewpoint of the world’s religions. The episode made me curious about the religious affiliation of the writers. Sure enough, both the writer of “Gridlock” (Russell T Davies, who was also the main writer of the show at the time) and his successor (Steven Moffat) are atheists, and the themes run rampant throughout several story-lines and random references. Interestingly, the episode would have worked just as well without the somewhat out-of-place hymn-a-long, so I can only presume that Davies inserted it as intentional anti-Christian propaganda into a show where the Doctor saves the day by thinking differently than the mindless driving drones and questioning the entire motorway system.

A spinoff from Doctor Who, Torchwood follows a group of alien hunters, led by the ever-charismatic Captain Jack Harkness. If “Doctor” is the PG version of a sci-fi, Torchwood is the R-rated equivalent. This series was also created by Russell T Davies, so similar references and story-lines are to be expected. A quick disclaimer: I’ve only seen the first episode of the first season of Torchwood, and I did enjoy it. However, it didn’t take long for Davies to again smack us upside the head with his belief that there is nothing beyond this life. In the first scene that we see with the Torchwood gang, they are using a piece of alien technology to resurrect a recent murder victim. The catch: the revival only works for a period of two minutes, after which the victim again dies. The technology works, and as the rest of the team struggles with what kind of conversation to have with a once-was-and-soon-will-be-again corpse, the ever cool-headed Harkness decides to probe into some of humanity’s deepest questions:

Captain Jack: “Tell me, what was it like when you died? What did you see?”

Corpse-to-be: “Nothing. I saw nothing. Oh my God, there’s nothing!”

You can’t get any more blunt than that! I’m assuming, based on Harkness’ past experiences (he, too, was dead and later revived in a Doctor Who episode), that this is a theme that is repeated over and over throughout the Torchwood series.

Interestingly, between Davies and the afore-mentioned Moffat, the three most popular BBC series on this side of the Atlantic (Doctor Who, Torchwood and Sherlock) are all written by atheists. Can culture be changed through entertainment?

This particular scene reminds me a lot of the Freaks and Geeks episode (written by Paul Feig, another professed atheist and very successful television writer/director) where the main character Lindsey Weir turns toward non-belief after asking her dying grandmother what she can see. The answer, of course, is “nothing.”

The Avengers
I’ve talked a little bit about Joss Whedon in a previous blog. Like most with geeky tendencies, I love most of Joss’ work, at least the stuff I’ve seen. However, knowing his extreme distaste for religion and the “big bully in the sky” (his words), one scene in the Avengers made me feel a bit uneasy. It was subtle, but understanding how Joss hopes to change culture through popular media, I think I caught a moment that most people would just let pass on by.

Loki, the primary antagonist and powerful alien intruder, has just made his first move in an attempt to subjugate the human race, but it’s not enough for him to simply enslave us. He gives this mini-sermon:

“Kneel before me. I said… kneel! Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”

In the movie, Loki is the false god, and he craves not only subjugation, but worship. Questioning subjugation means that you will be squashed by the god, while those who kneel are slaves to his religion. This is how Whedon sees God, as Loki. While most will see this simply as a pro-freedom (or anti-fascism) message, I think Joss is actually going a little bit further with it.

The Irony
A few things about these shows and movies strike me as slightly ironic. Interestingly, the primary theme in most of them is “good versus evil”. But, if all there is is “nothingness”, what is good and what is evil? Is it left up to each individual character to decide? If so, who’s to say that Loki’s goals are truly evil? I’m sure in his mind he’s owed a kingdom as one of the heirs of Asgard. Since there is no universally defined concept of morality, set in place by a creator, how do our heroes decide which side to fight for? Does it really matter that an entire world or universe is wiped out? After all, it’s very existence is a random occurrence. The major theme in our favorite shows seems to be undermined by the various minor themes that keep popping up. Good versus evil can’t really exist, and the major theme of our shows has now become…nothing. If only someone would make a show about nothing….

Another thing that I find very ironic (and slightly humorous) is the legion of fans of these writers and producers who think they can do no wrong. While their heroes are pushing the ideas of “think for yourself” and “question everything”, the fans seem to embody the complete opposite. Instead they “think whatever Joss thinks” and “question nothing” in relation to the work of these gentlemen. Even Mr. Whedon seems to believe that anybody who is not a fan of his work is somehow intellectually inferior, as evidenced by this famous quote about his fans:

“They have great taste, they’re really smart and they’re better than other people”.

I guess it’s “question everything, but if you disagree with me you’re an inferior human”.  Or “think for yourself, but I’m going to put subtle messages in my films that millions of people will see in order to influence them to think more like me”. Mixed message much?

Am I going stop watching these shows/films? No, of course not. They’re entertaining, and I really enjoy them. I guess one last bit of irony is that those who would have been most likely to say “stop preaching to me!” 20 years ago are now the ones doing the preaching. Perhaps it’s my turn to repeat that phrase back to them! I just want to be entertained…


One thought on “The (not so) Subtle Atheist Viewpoint in Today’s Pop Culture

  1. I really like your style of writing, it’s easy to read and makes me laugh! When I started a blog, I had NO idea what I would write about, but it ended up being all about God. This one really got me thinking, good post!

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