Spiritual Atheism: 'Buffy,' 'Angel,' 'House' and 'Doctor Who'

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Spiritual Atheism: 'Buffy,' 'Angel,' 'House' and 'Doctor Who'

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 31, 2012 | Comments ()


When I was a kid, Sunday morning meant going to church. Every week, year after year, until I went to college and lapsed into proper heathenhood. I never really fought going, unless pretending to be asleep the first six times I was told to get dressed really counts as fighting. It meant too much to my mom, and even in the depths of teenage anger boys don't screw around too much with the things that really matter to their moms. Freud said something about it, but he also had a few words about those sixty foot steeples stapled onto every church.

It's a simple equation to solve, really. You add an overly intelligent child to a room with uncomfortable seats and a parent policed prohibition on sleeping and he's going to read a book if it's sitting right in front of him, there's just not much else to do. So I read the Bible. Cover to cover. Over and over. Year after year.

It didn't stick.

The New Testament was fairly boring except for Revelations, but the Old Testament had some deliriously fucked up parts. You ever read Maccabees? Them ancient Israelites were some crazy sum bitches. So I arrived at atheism and agnosticism through a rather Christian route. Those poor Jesuits spent a lot of years teaching the devil to quote scripture.

Spirituality is something distinct from religion: the search for meaning is not the same as the acceptance of god. Joss Whedon is an atheist. So is Russell T. Davies. David Shore isn't, but he's a Jew so he's halfway there. Atheists write some of the most deeply spiritual works because they have thought about it, tortured themselves over it. It's like how the greatest coaches were always the mediocre players, because nothing came naturally to them, they had to obsess over and analyze every detail, fight for every inch. It's that struggle that imparts insight and wisdom. Atheists are amongst the most spiritual because they have not found an answer, their struggle for meaning never ends by definition.

Staggering through the wasteland of television, there are a few shows that have stuck out over the years:

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel"

"If there's no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters ... then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause that's all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy. Because, if there's no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world." -- Angel, "Epiphanies"

Joss Whedon has said that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is the story of a teenager growing up and that Angel is the story of a twenty-something becoming a man. They are stages, waypoints on the path. They're not just universal stories, they are the story of our society.

We were young once, toddlers, we followed the rules under threat of immediate punishment: follow the priests or they'll cut out your tongue and stone your ass in the temple square. Morality enforced by spanking. Then we grew up a bit, had a renaissance, wrote some philosophy, religion and the state got divorced, we became tweens: follow the rules under threat of eternal damnation, do what the church says, or god will get you when you die. Morality enforced by grounding when dad gets home.

Buffy starts growing up the moment she starts sneaking out at midnight to do what she thinks is right, when she fights the darkness regardless of the consequences with her mom, with Principal Snyder, even with Giles. The point of no return comes on that night when the door to hell almost opens, when her mother tells her that if she walks out the door it'll be for the last time, and Buffy does anyway, heart broken, mind made up.

The industrial age came with all the bluster and violence of machinery and ideology. Civilization as a teenager. Stole the keys to the car, got drunk, plowed through some pedestrians. We issued thunderous proclamations that no one preceding us could possibly understand our agony, trashed our room and then scrawled endless bad poetry about our angst and pain. Morality is dead, they say. We need the old ways they say. This is what you get when you kill god, when you don't listen to your parents anymore.

Buffy sleeps with Angel. The world nearly ends. She watches Faith kill a man, helps her cover it up. These are the things that happen when we stop listening to our parents. She stabs Angel through the heart to save the world, blows up Sunnydale High to save her friends. These are the ways we find our own path, our own morality.

We're a civilization trying to figure out what the hell it means to be a man. We've grown up, got those world wars out of our system, but we moved out on our own. There aren't parents anymore to tell us what to do. Insisting that society cannot have a concept of morality without god is like insisting that an adult cannot have a concept of morality without parents. The opposite is true. In reality, it is only as adults, free and unfettered adults, that we truly adopt any sort of meaningful and mature morality. That's the morality that comes from deciding to be the kind of man we want to be. Not because our parents say so, not because god says so, but because that's the kind of man we want to be, that's the face we can look at in the mirror without flinching. Society works the same way. We have labored so long trying to live up to the morality of god, that we finally threw down and had the crazy teenage rebellion clusterfuck of the last two centuries. We're fucking hungover as a species: the car's parked in the yard, we somehow vomited on the couch and shit in the sink, vaguely remember beating the crap out of someone at a bar, and we really can't stand to look in the mirror. That's the challenge of the next century: to build a society we can respect, whether it lives up to the old religions and ideologies or not.

Angel goes to L.A., 200 years old and with a river of blood staining his hands, but still needing to learn to be a man. He watches friends sacrifice themselves. He becomes a father. He tries to help people, he tries to find some measure of redemption to dispel the darkness. But the more he fights for absolution, the more it slips away. The indifference sets in, the cynicism that rises up in self defense against the banality of evil, scoffing at him. "I just can't seem to care." It's that crushing nihilism that sets in when you move to a city alone for the first time, no parents, no friends. It doesn't matter what you do. No one is watching, no one is keeping score. But that's the seed of real morality, that's the epiphany: when nothing you do matters, the only thing that matters is what you do.


"I find it more comforting to believe that all this isn't simply a test." -- House, "Three Stories"

"You took a chance, you did something great. You were wrong, but it was still great. You should feel great that it was great. You should feel like crap that it was wrong. That's the difference between him and me. He thinks you do your job, and what will be, will be. I think that what I do and what you do matters. He sleeps better at night. He shouldn't." -- House, "DNR"

Man creates god. Man is less than god, man is equal to god, man is superior to god, man kills god.

There is a notion that our concept of god comes from the gaps in our knowledge. We rationalize god as the reason for things that we cannot understand. In ancient times, those gaps were immense, so wide and deep that we didn't even know for sure that they had bottoms, that they even could be understood by mortals. Even Newton ascribed to the hand of god phenomena in the universe that his theories could not explain. But at some point we passed a critical threshold in the comprehension of science, and we realized that while there are still gaps, while the remaining gaps may even exceed by orders of magnitude the safe areas we understand, the gaps are not special. There is a distinction between unknown and unknowable. They are knowable, even if we haven't managed it yet. The conception of god becomes irrelevant once we realize that the universe is knowable. God is no longer needed as a variable to balance the equations.

Gregory House is a scientist. There are no miracles, only things not yet understood. There is always an explanation. Some would say he is the farthest thing from spiritual, a bitter and narcissistic atheist, but he lives by the nuance that took Angel a couple centuries to tease out of the universe: what we do matters. If there is a god, then what we do doesn't matter. Then it's just a game, and as long as we've tried our best, everything will be ok. We will receive absolution. But if it's not just a game, if there are no do overs, then what we do counts.

There's a corollary to this understanding: if our failures are not our fault, then neither are our triumphs. We can't have our cake and eat it too. We don't get to celebrate our success if our failures aren't really our fault. Watch "House," really watch the moment when he figures something out: every discovery is an epiphany, that height of spiritual experience when the universe makes sense. He will pursue a miracle, break it down and figure out why it wasn't a miracle, why the laws of the universe still held true. This isn't cynicism or shallowness, this is faith at its most pure. Faith that the universe can be known, that there is no cheating, no cosmic sleight of hand.

Atheists are often accused of being deadened to the wonder and mystery of the universe, but "House" is the paragon of how atheists are the ones most conscious of the majesty of this universe. A six thousand year old earth at the center of the universe? A playground designed for us by a benevolent and loving personal god? And yet somehow House is the narcissist? Wonder at the mystery and unknowablity of the universe is the impulse of a child. Wonder at how vast and complex the universe knowably is, is the impulse of an adult.

"Doctor Who"

"He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe. And ... he's wonderful." -- Doctor Who, "The Family of Blood"

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest early in the twentieth century whose writings the Catholic Church proscribed, forbidding publication until after his death. His posthumous works were then unceremoniously declared heretical and denounced. Clearly Teilhard was on to something since the Vatican didn't get that worked up about The Da Vinci Code convincing a billion people that Jesus was into orgies.

What Teilhard hypothesized was a reconciliation of Darwinist and Catholic doctrine, introducing a meme he called the Omega Point, a singularity towards which all of evolution was propelled. Atoms begat molecules which begat cells which begat animals which begat man which will someday through further iterations beget the Omega Point. All of evolution has been an interminably long process of life evolving to be so advanced as to become one with god. God is not an entity, he is a destination.

The Doctor is a realization of that meme, a living breathing Omega Point beyond everything we have ever known. If House is the present, the Doctor is the future. He is the embodiment of the removal of the gaps, the laying bare of the knowledge of the universe. Like House, he cannot leave well enough alone, striving to understand the cause and effect, always straining to find the man behind the curtain.

He's not a pacifist, though that might be a fair first guess at his philosophy. He is a warrior, responsible for the death of his race and another. It is his reluctance that makes him a moral figure. An atheist understands that if there is no god, no heaven, no hell, if this really is all that there is, then the greatest crime is murder and the greatest stupidity is war. God won't sort out his own, they won't go on to a better place, they will simply be dust. Life is the most precious thing imaginable in a universe with no god. The greatest joy for the Doctor is when he saves a life, the greatest sadness when he must kill.

The Abyss

We have no idea what this place is that we are born into. It is strange and terrible and unfair. There are those who say that atheism is stubborn and easy, and it is, in the same way that realizing that you're gay in rural Alabama is a choice. Atheism is not an easy path. By acknowledging that there is no greater point, we shoulder the burden of every moment. There is no absolution waiting for us. If we fuck this up, we carry it forever.

There is an abyss underneath us, the yawning chasm of animal chaos. Everything we have, everything we are, is built on top of that abyss. We can build and build but there is no underlying foundation except us. We have bootstrapped order out of chaos.

The most terrifying moment in a person's life is when they first live on their own and realize that there is not anything actually stopping bad things from happening. Oh sure, there are laws and such to discourage people from doing bad things, but nothing actually physically restrains them. But there's a flip side to that, as there always is: it also means you are absolutely and totally free. Nothing can stop you from doing what you want, other than your own will.

I think our humble little species of upstart monkeys is standing on that precipice right now. Our art reflects that, Buffy and Angel and House and the Doctor are us, individually and as a group. Our choice is whether we fall back on the old rules, dig ourselves into those comfortable holes watched over by a concerned parent, or whether we choose to make our own path and grin back at our own reflections in the mirror.

A billion years from now when not even an echo of the memory of man remains, it will not have mattered what we did, except in so far as it matters now.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • brutalyouth

    fuck yeah man!

  • Dr Who is a kids show. I watched it when I was a kid, and now I watch it with my kid. Some of you Who fans take it waaaay too seriously, it is not the Oracle.

  • Clancys_Daddy

    As a long term atheist (it take some time to get over the agnostic hump). I work in a highly technical field that relies on core understandings of chemistry, physics, and especially biology. I work with people who have degrees in all of those fields just like I do. Surprisingly most are conservative republican heavy duty got to church twice on Sunday Christians. Plus they actually believe the BS Todd Akin spewed. All I can think when the recite all of the theological crap they have digested, is what a waste of a science degree that was.

  • Matchetes

    If they perform well at their jobs, than how was it a waste? I obviously understand what you are getting at, but that seems like a terribly smug thing to say.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    I think the point might be that, to some extent and on some fundamental level, they *aren't* going to do their jobs well. The kind of belief he's describing wouldn't lead me to believe the person holding it is also capable of rigorous scientific inquiry, at a minimum because-- what if he comes across something that contradicts those beliefs? Will he report it anyway, cover it up somehow, omit it entirely? It's possible they'll be just fine at science, and certainly if it's not concerned with any particular original research there's not likely to be much conflict, but I would be inclined to agree that the kind of mind he's describing isn't really the best recipient of the resources available in the biology, chemistry or physics departments.

  • Crusty

    An excellent and thought provoking article as expected from Mr. Wilson.

    Formal religious institutions, like people, change too - just very, very slowly.

    "Benedict's comment came during a July 24 vespers service in the
    Cathedral of Aosta in northern Italy, where the pope took his annual
    summer vacation July 13-29.

    Toward the end of a reflection upon the Letter to the Romans, in
    which St. Paul writes that the world itself will one day become a form
    of living worship, the pope said, "It's the great vision that later
    Teilhard de Chardin also had: At the end we will have a true cosmic
    liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host."

    "...Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, who said afterward, "By now, no one would
    dream of saying that [Teilhard] is a heterodox author who shouldn't be


  • A very interesting and insightful article. I couldn't agree more.

  • lowercase_ryan

    *standing ovation* Just brilliant. thank you.

  • Abell

    I really appreciate this. It's such a good description of morality and spirituality, I wonder how we use the same arguments to come to exactly different conclusions. I need to ask, given my love of Nietzsche, how is it that the bold overthrow of Christian morality, the rejection of the wrathful Lord and of the loving Father has only wound up reaffirming those same set of morals? Make no mistake, I like it much better this way, but, if we are the arbiters of our own morality, why do we all agree that the old ways, no killing, be charitable, don't cheat on your partners, don't abandon the elderly just because they're no longer productive, etc, are the right ways to live? How, despite our 'teenage years' did we wind up at the same place. We may be adults, no longer living in fear of our parents, but, what if our parents were right anyway? We may have needed to be threatened as children to keep us from misbehaving, but, don't we find ourselves agreeing now that we couldn't really afford that new toy, or that there's really not a good reason to stay out all night? It is certainly up to us to make those moral choices, but, if there's no external moral truth, why do we keep making the same choices?

  • "There is no absolution waiting for us. If we fuck this up, we carry it forever."

    THIS. I'm not an atheist. I believe in something greater than ourselves, but I worry about those who will so loudly argue in an unreasonable manner about how we must have religion and that our rights and moralities are found therein.

    No. Morality is what you do when no one is watching.

  • Gambrinus

    Welcome to existentialism :)

  • One of my favorite t.v. quotes ever was from Northern Exposure: "It takes a lot of faith to be an atheist." That might not be it exactly, but it's close enough and it's stuck with me all these years. This piece brought it back to mind...

  • Clancys_Daddy

    Actually it take absolutely none to be an atheist. It does take a great deal of evidence. I should know.

  • MM

    Amazing and insightful. You articulated so much of what I want to say on a day to day basis but feel bullied by a society who thinks I can't possibly be normal, caring, giving, happy and moral without a prescriptive belief in a god - their god, to be more exact. Beautiful.

  • futuredirect

    This was originally published a few years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since I read it the first time. Beautiful, eloquent... The perfect definition of the meaning of unbelieving.

  • Jannymac

    I'm an athiest who goes to church. Not hypocritcally...everybody knows this and I'm quite open about it (though I'm sure they don't quite believe me or possibly think there's hope for me yet ). The preacher even thinks it's funny. But really, what other institution exists in this age to foster community in quite the way as a church? A place that by it's very nature encourages thrift and sacrifice and the caring for others. So, to Steven's point, an individual can arrive at that place of doing on their own, but there is still great power in being part of a community of mostly like minded folks.

  • Sian

    I thought I was the only person who did this! It's such a relief to know I'm not the only person drawn towards churches and their communities despite not believing in God. I completely agree about there being nothing like a church. I was raised going to church, but started going properly three years ago, when I started university, and it became my second home and my second family. But I ended up quitting a few months ago, because there were certain people who thought I judged and mocked them by not believing, and I hated that certain people refused to believe in my disbelief and instead pitied me and waited for me to see the light. Combined with a massive argument on a certain topic, I had to give it up. Which is sad, because aside from these certain people, it was lovely.

    In response to this post, this says a lot of what I have thought over the last few years. Attending church has made me more atheist than I ever was, but that doesn't make me any less 'spiritual' or whatever. I also think the TV comparisons are wonderful - Buffy and Angel have helped shape a lot of my views and made me thing about things a lot more, and, again, I'm glad I'm not the only one. That quote from Angel about if nothing matters is one of my favourite quotes ever and is the philosophy I live by.

  • Jannymac

    Don't give up on it completely. It helps if you can find a church that has a diverse population as it automatically makes them a little more open to differences. Also, while I don't believe in god, I still respect the traditions of the church (this isn't weird, I don't believe in Santa Claus, but still have Christmas), so that makes things easier.
    ps: Also nice to know I'm not the only too!

  • almond

    This is an amazing think piece and it expresses so eloquently all the notions of atheism I hold so very dear. When my religious acquaintances used to ask me what was the point of life if there is no god, I'd be dumbstruck for a few seconds and then say that that is precisely the point: there is only one life so what we do and the choices we make are always important. That is the beauty of no afterlife; this one life is all you have and you are wholly and completely responsible for yourself. There is no one and nothing to bail you out

  • Bert_McGurt

    Really well articulated, man. Seriously.

    I don't think Mr. Lennon would mind if I borrowed his words for a moment:

    "Imagine there's no heaven."

    Go ahead, imagine it. What happens to religious morality when Paradise is no longer the endgame? When we don't get a treat for being a good boy? When we don't have to sit for eternity in the corner in a fiery brimstone chair if we misbehave?

  • abell

    It's always seemed to me a rather simplistic understanding of religion that the entire thing is just a test. Sure, you may tell a child that if he doesn't follow the rules, he will be punished, but, it seems unlikely that such a story would last for the better part of 4000 years in the case of the Abrahamic religions. As I understand it, (a caveat if ever there was one) religion offers us a choice between the proper life befitting a human being and death. A moral life enriches ourselves and our community. It gives us the strength of character to accept adversity and suffering with dignity. Surely, the angels would look upon such a person as one of their own and welcome them into heaven. An immoral life gives the opposite path. We use those around us, suck the life from others so that we may satiate our own passions, be those the obvious animal needs or the more insidious intellectual needs to be accepted or vindicated. In treating other humans as tools we invalidate our own humanity and our spirits wither and die. If any of such a spirit were to exist after death, it would be a pitiful thing, unrecognizable as once human and certainly too prideful to try to change, for that would mean that they had been wrong. Such a spirit, if you could still call it that, would seem to have no desire for heaven or at least take solace in its defiance of that desire. What could heaven possibly offer it?

    As I understand the Faith, this is the choice offered to humanity. Rather than a test in which we must meet certain standards, a furnace where we are forged in pain and suffering and emerge whole and purified, cracked but mendable, or shattered and consigned to the waste. We are engaged in the creation of our souls, for better or for worse. In such a view, heaven and hell are not the reward for our actions but the inevitable endpoints of the path that we choose, much as a ball thrown will inevitably fall to the ground.

    Of course, if your issue with religion isn't so much heaven and hell as reward/punishment, but instead the question of the supernatural vs. the materialist understanding of the world, then none of this will really say much to you. We need to move out of theology and into metaphysics.

  • Bert_McGurt

    It still comes down to wanting to make your soul go to Heaven and fearing it going to Hell. You can gussy it up with fancy words, but it's still reward and punishment. I grant you that there are complexities, but you're still making choices based on taking the path to the good place or the bad place.

    And I've got lots of issues with religion. I just picked this one today.

  • abell

    Perhaps the distinction I'm trying to make is that the heaven/hell eternal fate thing is much less an arbitrary decision by a judging God than it is the equivalent of natural law. Getting the words right is tricky.

    Also, I'm not sure what alternative you have to wanting good things and feeling bad as a basis for morality. Sure, you may feel good from doing a nice thing, but, if the goal of heaven invalidates a moral act, then doesn't the goal of someone smiling at you and saying thanks also invalidate it? Or if you're working from a system where moral acts protect society and thus are good. You're not doing the act for its own sake, but for the sake of yourself, right? Unless you're actually a Kantian (and I don't know a lot of those) it's really difficult to separate the social reward/punishment system from morality, and I don't think it's necessary.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    But you're assuming the goal is to get the smile and thanks, or to be moral in order to protect society. That isn't the motivation, it's simply a byproduct (and only maybe). Yeah, if you're doing it with the goal of recognition, they're pretty comparable, but that isn't actually the argument; the argument is you're doing it because you happen to innately think it's the right thing to do.

    Which is where I find the problem with religion. The religious seem to find it very difficult to conceive that a person would do something simply because they think it's right. Because religious morality is fundamentally founded upon the belief that doing right gets you good things, they assume the atheist motivation for doing the right thing also boils down to getting something good out of it-- smiles and thanks or the nebulous goal of benefiting society generally. In the cited examples, Angel doesn't always get recognition, and his actions pretty much never lead to an obvious benefit, but as his epiphany illustrates, that isn't the point. When nothing we do matters, when doing the right thing doesn't guarantee a good result or positive recognition or any kind of tangible result at all, then the right thing is the only thing that matters at all, doing what's right simply because we happen to believe that it is.

  • Hazel Dean

    But it is arbitrary! So many of the "rules" in the bible not only contradict themselves, but contradict what some would consider morality. I can't cite any examples offhand, but this video does provide some (and is cute).

  • Abbey Road

    At this point, I differ from you on this subject, but I refuse to believe that people who have come to a different conclusion with much of the same evidence must therefore be ignorant. I might be ignorant. In fact, I am, in a lot of ways. We all are. We're finite.

    I love this kind of discourse, and in my mind the only people to be pitied are those that threw their hands up and decided to drown themselves in work, TV, buying things, or substances and quit searching. Well-written, well-said. I have spent periods of my own life absolutely convinced that God had to be invented by man. I am now to a point where I believe he *could* be real, and I really, really, hope he is, and I'm not sure I'll ever be sure...

    Anyway I know the weight of that struggle and good on you for struggling with it, not just slamming that door shut and refusing to confront hard questions like so many chronic video gamers and/or potlucking Bible bangers. It's harder, but it's honest.

    I'm also pretty nervous as to what this comment thread will inevitably devolve into...

  • Kate at June

    This is a great read. I had a religious friend growing up that constantly remarked to me that she was surprised with what strong morals I had, since I never had any religion. That never made any sense to me as religion seems to teach action and punishment, action and reward. Not morality. Not right and wrong for the sake of doing good and avoiding evil and nothing else.

  • Vi

    Perhaps next time ask them if they would become criminals if they were suddenly not religious, perhaps it is they who are morally inferior because without religion they cannot control themselves.You do good things simply because you feel empathy for others, whereas they are doing good because it's tied to an incentive or fear of an almighty higher being, which should -in the eyes of their god- make you a better person than they are.

  • dahlia6

    I was brought up old school Baptist, and cut that umbilical cord with a chainsaw. I believe in God. I do not believe in his people, sadly, or what they say about Him. Its hard to take someone seriously when they stand in the pulpit preaching about God's endless love, and then hit you in the head with a Bible when you talk in church. And yes, the congregation was filled with the sound of a 1940's hymnal smacking the back of many a child's head during service. That's a sound you never quite forget, like a particle board whacking a coconut.

  • Kailan_Sunshine

    We had that sound in the Catholic Church, too. Usually from wherever my brother was sitting.

  • dahlia6

    I wonder if that was just a product of the times (early 80's for me) or if this still goes on. I haven't been to church since the preacher ran his wife over with a car, so I have no idea what's going on now.

    Anyway, it was an equal opportunity brain-bashing free-for-all in our church, and the only time it was okay to hit someone else's kids. Needless to say, I don't believe in hitting period, but even at the age of six, I thought it ironic to beat a child with the Book of Love, lol.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    It was still happening in the mid-90s, so I'm guessing it's a pretty standard component of the indoctrination process.

  • MichaelAndTheArgonauts

    Great piece. I remain optimistic that there is something beyond our reality, but I refuse to take stock in man made institutions....unless science counts which it probably does.

  • Snath

    This one really hit home for me. Thanks for writing something amazing yet again.

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