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