Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The Myth that Atheism Will Fix the World

I love being a theologian. Studying theology is just awesome, but some hazards come from working for God. I don’t get paid much, people assume I’m a prude, and drunk people in bars like to tell me why I shouldn’t believe in God. Telling someone in a bar that you are religious, let alone a religious scholar, is a very dangerous thing to do. The two biggest questions I get are “why do you believe in God?” and “are you okay with pre-marital sex?”

We… aren’t going to talk about that second one.

The “do you believe in God?” question is often followed some kind of accusation that if there was no more religion then there would be no war, no violence, and all would be right with the world.

While most atheists I know are extremely wonderful and reasonable people, I have encountered a few that are rather militant, whether they are drunk or not. And this idea that without religion everything would be better really pisses me off.

I’m not denying that religion has its problems, but many times in history religion has been used as a smoke-screen for less noble motives like taking money, land, power, etc. But still this implication that our world would be better without religion comes up a lot in our society.

Supernatural’s meta episode “The French Mistake” shows Sam and Dean in presumably “our world” where they discover that there is no magic, no heaven, no hell, and presumably no God. Now, I understand while Sam and Dean would think this is better given their past experiences, but the boys immediately assume that somehow this world is better and maybe more peaceful. Dean even quotes my least favorite song “Imagine” by John Lennon, which asks the audience to imagine a perfect world with no God and no religion. This happy world is disrupted by Sam, Dean, and later the angel Virgil who kills everyone for really no reason. Seriously, watch that episode again—he just opens fire on unarmed people for no reason.

Star Trek is another series that supports this idea. The original series did have many religious references and implications that there is religion, and even much of the Earth is still religious, but there is every indication that Gene Roddenberry, an atheist, didn’t want religious overtones in his show. Later series like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager, most obviously, support this idea of atheism and that the world is better off without religion. Remember, Star Trek is written as a Utopia; the Earth has managed to overcome its problems and one of those is religion. The episode “Who Watches the Watchers” is one example of this. Picard is mistaken for a god by the Mintakans. Worried that the Mintakans will harm people without guidance, Picard is asked to appear them and give them guidance, even though it would violate the prime directive. During this episode religion is only associated with inquisition and holy wars; nothing good like charity work or civil rights movements. Picard himself describes bringing these people religion as horrifying and further says:

Dr. Baron, your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement? To send them back into the Dark Ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No!

There are many other instances of atheism in Star Trek and while I’m fine with Star Trek having atheistic themes, I’m annoyed with the assertion that religious has no merit, and that everything will be this utopian society once the “evil” religion is weeded out of our culture.

I don’t really feel much need to argue how atheism is not the answer to all our problems. I think South Park does it fine for me. Though Trey Parker and Matt Stone both identify as atheists, the South Park creators still wrote the episodes “Go God Go” and its sequel, “Go God God XII” that shows three different groups of atheists killing each other over what they should call themselves. The seeming moral of the episodes is that humans will always find some reason to kill each other, whether it’s over religion, or because “the French-Chinese think they have a right to Hawaii.”

Atheism is great, but it’s not going to fix the world any more than religion has. So please, atheists, stop implying that if my beliefs disappear everything would be better. It’s not true and it’s just rude.

11 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: The Myth that Atheism Will Fix the World

  1. Most religious people don’t think very deeply about their beliefs. When I do meet I truly intelligent theist here’s what goes through my head: “Miiiister Anderson……….”

  2. I think the Supernatural example is getting at that, but when they start killing people, I think that’s more of them having fun with the production, like they have before.

    I definitely understand how you feel in this regard though. I have found certain realms of the internet breed this sentiment especially. The only ailment I have found to these kind of attacks are:

    1) Will Wheaton’s Law of the Internet: http://ruleoftheinternet.com

    2) A line from Paul Tilllich in The Dynamics of Faith about how a conscious and deliberate literalism is the enemy of autonomous thought.

    I don’t know if there is a solution or a understanding that can be reached, but some people will say what they will either way.

  3. This is an inherently difficult dialogue to have because I think the root of the problem lies within individual methods of understanding. Religion has its roots firmly planted in faith as its major method of understanding, while atheism relies upon academic/scientific rationale, which has its basis in logic. (We could argue that science employs faith and religion employs logic as well, but I stand by the the idea that these are not their major methods of understanding).

    This difference here, I believe, is one of faith vs. belief. Faith requires at some point that we admit to ourselves that we have arrived at an answer as a result of internal evidence without the need for external support, while belief relies more heavily upon justifying information with external evidence. These are two very different ways of approaching life, and entering a dialogue of “religion and atheism” requires that both parties acknowledge this difference and agree to explore the validity of both forms of understanding. If this agreement can’t be reached, it’s virtually impossible to have a meaningful conversation.

    And I agree that humans systems will perpetuate violence and oppression, regardless of what that system of belief is rooted in, unless we care to dig a deeper into our individual and cultural psychologies for answers, rather than assigning blame, as blame is really just thinly disguised oppression.

  4. I agree with above post by The Dungeon Master. I am a religious scholar and try to be objective when it comes to portrayal of beliefs. Unfortunately, no matter what side you are on, the pop culture references make several people ~uncomfortable~ and instead of opening dialogue it starts flame wars.

    Atheists in general are great people, but there are proclaimed Anti-Theists (like Dawkins, AronRa, and to an extent Roddenberry) who say that science will streamline society and rid us of evils. I prefer Star Wars over Trek. The main character is seen as developing spiritually to fight evil, but you forget that the Empire isn’t based on The Force and the good guys don’t seem to follow any religious order. It is basically about power struggles and a lot of people identify with that universe on a more emotional level. In my experience.

    Another fun one: I’m a brony and in one MLP episode they address faith. It is very weird since the show starts on the basis that magic is real, but there isn’t a specific religion. Okay. So the non-magic pony Pinkie Pie possesses some sort of power of prediction. The “scientific” unicorn Twilight Sparkle (who works on the assumption that magic is natural and can be studied) does a series of tests and can’t find a reason for this. Evidence is provided again and again and finally she is forced to take a leap of faith and admit to Pinkie that there are things that can’t be explained and you have to believe.

    Interpret as you will. It gets some bronies’ panties in a bunch.

    • You make some good points, but you sure did get this brony’s panties in a bunch. It is a huge stretch to think that that episode addresses religion and spirituality. I guess maybe it could be about faith, accepting things as real even though you don’t understand them. Even then, religious faith is believing something without seeing evidence for it, which is different from seeing something with your own eyes and believing it’s real even without a clear understanding of it.

      • Like I said, it’s up for interpretation. You’re right. I don’t think the episode addressed religion or spirituality directly. I’m not saying there was a question raised about pony beliefs, but the episode raises questions about letting skepticism overcome faith. How I saw it:

        P: Displays abnormal behavior during natural events.
        T: Sees as coincidence since there is no direct correlation.
        P: Insists correlation of events is truth.
        T: Skeptically analyzes data to a great extent. Still no viable proof.
        P: Has a revelation and insists skeptic accompany to see.
        T: Witnesses several incidents that can still be labelled coincidence.
        Conclusion: After a series of dangers overcome and being “saved” by a literal leap of faith, T. becomes a believer.
        Second conclusion: The actual revelation was T. believing, or at least admitting that skepticism prevents beneficial faith.

        Religious faith is believing in something without physical evidence. Personal experience (moments of revelation, miracles, transcendence) may be considered “evidence” enough for the believer. The question of the episode remains open-ended: were these unexplained powers something that can be proven with unicorn science (I think that will be my new tumblr name) or will it remain an unexplained “miracle”?

        (Also raises the question: was this power received when she was transmorphed during the Sonic Rainboom that gave everyone their cutie marks? Or were these experiences real when she was depressed and working on a rock farm? Does any of this matter? Is it really late and I need my medication?)

  5. As to the question of whether atheism is necessarily better than religious systems in creating a peaceful world, I just have to point to all the deaths caused by Communist and Fascist countries during the twentieth century. The total for people killed under both of these systems which are rather intolerant of religion is approximately 150 million. I’d take crusades and jihads over that!

    And don’t say that “Well, a more rational system of Atheism would not include things like war.” I could easily say that, if everyone were truly committed to the message contained in the Gospels, the same situation would arise.

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