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For Agnostics, Damon Lindelof's 'The Leftovers' Is a Goddamn Religious Experience

By Dustin Rowles | The Leftovers | May 7, 2017 |

By Dustin Rowles | The Leftovers | May 7, 2017 |

I am not a religious person. I’ve never been. I grew up in the Bible belt, so I spent my share of Sundays in Baptist churches, but I never felt anything beyond boredom and a vague sense of terror. I attended a few Pentecostal services, too, and while the infectiousness of the crowd occasionally washed over me, I never felt any stirring of faith, only a fondness for the others around me. I’ll still attend the odd Unitarian Universalist sermon with my wife, too, but it’s never awakened anything inside of me beyond a general curiosity about what these people actually believe (everything, and nothing, I think).

I am agnostic. I am not strident about it. I do not go out of my way to express my lack of belief. I am open to the idea of a higher power, but I just haven’t seen any evidence of it. I have never felt the presence of God. I don’t question my faith because I have none. It’s been a lifelong moot point. To be honest, I don’t give God, or the afterlife, or the miracle of life a lot of thought. My only real belief system is the thought that if I tip well — wait staff, cab drivers, delivery drivers, bell hops, movers — that the universe will keep my nose clean and my family healthy. When they ask at the drug store if I’d like to give $1 to the March of Dimes, I always say yes, because if I don’t, the universe will punish me.

But for an hour each week, while The Leftovers is on, I feel something, and I don’t know what it is, but it feels religious. It feels like this is what people must get out of going to church. I begin to question a faith that doesn’t exist within me; I wonder about the big questions of the universe. I feel, at times, profoundly moved. I feel transported. I feel like I want to believe in something.

It’s funny, too, because while there’s a lot of Biblical and spiritual allusions, this isn’t a show about religious belief so much as it is a meditation on grief. And while I certainly had that sense in the first season, the second and third seasons have been different. They’ve lit up different parts of my brain. There’s something inspiring about The Leftovers.

This show, in my estimation, is what church should be all about. Church shouldn’t give you a guide book and tell you to study it for all the answers. The answers shouldn’t be fed to us. A church should do what no one does better than Damon Lindelof: Help you figure out what questions to ask.

Because here’s the thing about The Leftovers: We’re never going to find out where the other two percent went, nor are we going to find out why they disappeared. We’re not going to find out where people go when they die, either. But Preacher Lindelof is going to give us a lot of possibilities, and let us come to our own conclusions. Is it completely fucking aribtrary? Is the universe a collection of random coincidences? Or did God call these people up, and if so, for what reason? And why these people? Or is it grounded in science? Does it have something to do with Low Amplitude Denzinger Radiation? And if so, where do these people go when they transport? Do they disappear into the ether? Are they transported into space? Or are they taken to another place?

I don’t know! But I find myself pondering these questions every week, asking them not just of the show, but of life. This show has shaken my faith in the tipping system. If I don’t give to the March of Dimes, will I be left behind in the rapture? Am I a Matt? Am I a Laurie? A Meg? An Erika? A Kevin? Or a Nora? I think, given her situation, I might be a Nora: Someone so desperate to find answers that I’d risk my life for even a remote possibility of finding them. I kind of wish I were a Matt, someone who could just put my trust in a higher power and let him sort it out. Erika, perhaps, is more than most of us could aspire to be: Someone who can process grief and move on.

I have no answers, but I love that each week Lindelof gives us a new set of questions to ponder. I have watched hundreds of shows, and I have empathized with scores of characters and found pieces of myself in dozens of others, but The Leftovers may be the only show that’s ever made me question who I am. This is more than a show; it’s a goddamn religious experience.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.