We geeks have a complicated relationship with religious violence. We live in a world where religious fanatics are practicing conversion by force, and that’s putting the situation in the Middle East in the most sanitized terms possible. It’s hard to find anyone today who would condone any type of religious violence, or try to defend it. Even historical religious violence, which occurred in a different cultural context than our own, makes us uncomfortable. With such an intense reaction to real religious violence, one would think that our pop culture would reflect it. Instead, geek culture seems to accept religious violence in some contexts, but not others. So why is that?
Spoilers for His Dark Materials, Doctor Who, Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra below.
For my purposes here, I’m defining religious violence as any violent behavior connected with a religion, or a character’s religious or spiritual beliefs. Generally speaking, when religious violence appears in geek culture, it can fall into one of two categories. Religious violence is either associated with authentic belief, or it’s separated from belief. And most of the time, violence plus authentic belief equals a villain.
When geek media portrays Western religion or religious people getting violent, the audience is almost always supposed to condemn the character. The most common trope is an evil Church Militant. An evil, violent Church appears as the Magisterium in His Dark Materials, with a sacred mission to sever the souls of children. Evil religious people with violent tendencies appear all over the place in Doctor Who, from the cat-like Sisters of Plentitude (killing hundreds of humans in pursuit of medical cures), an order of Headless Monks (deadly and utilize conversion by force), and the great pseudo-Anglican Church of the Papal Mainframe (appears in multiple episodes, usually pitted against the Doctor).
When elements of Christianity are used to fight evil, we no longer attach a truly spiritual component to it. An easy example of this is the evolution of the vampire hunter. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the great vampire is a demonic creature adverse to holy things. In most adaptations associated with the Dracula mythos, holy objects and incantations are used to repel and destroy the monster. In the original story, Professor Van Helsing is described as a devout Catholic. He leads the group that hunts down and destroys Dracula. But nowadays, most of the time, any authentic religious devotion found in the characters is dropped. Instead, we’re left with the trappings of a religion, seemingly powerful on their own, belief system not included. In each adaptation, Van Helsing grows in his badass vampire-destroying abilities and drops any meaningful connection to his religion… while still using religious objects as weapons. So we move from a story about good versus evil with religion clearly centered on Team Good to a story about us versus the monsters with religious objects incorporated as a weapon choice.
Eastern religions often suffer a similar fate in geek culture. Western filmmakers have a generally poor track record dealing with Eastern religion. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, we’re treated to a gross misrepresentation of Hindus and Hinduism, in which the villains commit ritualistic blood sacrifice and create zombies. A more positive example of how we Westerners treat the connection between violence and religion in Eastern cultures can be found in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra series.
Both shows take place in the same fictional universe with fictional spiritual systems. In each show, some people have the ability to manipulate an element (water, fire, earth, air) in a practice called “bending”. Each element has its own bending style along with a unique spiritual component. A person named the Avatar can control all four elements and is tasked with keeping “balance” in the world. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the airbenders have the strongest spirituality and connection to the spirit world. They’re mostly pacifists, and their fighting style is defensive. This creates some struggle for Aang, an airbender who discovers he is the Avatar, as he learns to use the more aggressive styles of the other elements. Aang is often seen meditating and using his connection to the spirit world to help guide him.
In Legend of Korra, we watch the new Avatar, Korra, easily master the more aggressive elements but struggle to learn the more spiritual ways of airbending. As the series progresses, we see Korra interacting with the spirit world and battling with the great forces of good and evil. However, most of her spiritual journey happens in a very physical way. She meets the literal embodiment of goodness and evil, and fuses her soul with the spirit of goodness. While Aang’s spirituality was very personal, Korra’s is very active and external to herself. She doesn’t have Aang’s rich personal spirituality, but spends more time with the fundamental spiritual forces of the world. In Season 3, the spirits enter the physical world and everyone can interact with them. The spirituality of the Avatar universe becomes less about communing with something greater than yourself and more a part of the physical, everyday world. It’s effectively taking the religion-like spirituality out of the spirit world. Even the airbenders, experiencing renewal thanks to Korra’s actions, become much more active in the world fighting evil.
So what does this mean? I argue that when taken in broad strokes, we only tend to accept and glorify religious (or spiritual) violence when it’s divorced from its spirituality. Religious groups that engage in violence must be evil if they have strong religious beliefs. When we do have religious groups or characters engaging in violence for good reasons, we tend to remove their authentic spirituality. Many real world religions ascribe power not to the objects themselves, but to the faith of the one wielding it. This is especially true for Christians. Our holy objects don’t repel demons because the objects are special, we believe they work because they remind us of and strengthen our faith in God. Similarly, Aang’s airbending abilities come from his deep connection to the spirit world, bolstered through his regular meditation. But for some reason, the show couldn’t maintain a hero that acts violently (albeit for good reasons, against enemies or in defense of the helpless) that also maintains a strong personal spirituality.
I think this speaks to a deeper question of how we, as a culture, perceive religion. We tend to think that religion is a personal set of ideas that make you happy and promote peace and all sorts of good things. We get uncomfortable with people who talk about their religion in public (unless we share their religion, of course!), or use their religion as a reason for their beliefs or actions in the public square. It’s okay when people use their religion to do good things, like serve the poor and cure the sick… but we get immediately suspicious of people who take their religion any further. This is why we associate religious or spiritual violence with a big scary villain; we really do fear the religious fanatic with the power to hurt us. Any person can turn on the news and see why such a fear can be entirely justified. So when we’re creating our characters, we give the villains authentic belief and a gun; we’re careful to remove our hero’s beliefs when we give them the gun. Is this a good thing?
Our answers are going to depend a lot on how we perceive the purpose of violence and the purpose of religion. Many episodes of the newer seasons of Doctor Who take the opinion that violence is not the answer. The Doctor prides himself on his creativity and cleverness, not having to rely on using a gun to get what he wants or save the day. Any violence committed in the name of a religion is just one more reason why the religious are unenlightened and irrational. It combines a more pacifist approach with the idea that religion should be a personal, private endeavor if it’s to be considered at all. On the other hand, those who might take the position that violence is necessary (and even good) in the right context may find more favor with Van Helsing. In his case, violent actions to destroy a great evil (Count Dracula) are the morally correct choice of action. His conception of the way good and evil work in the world is entirely informed by his religious perspective, and perceives some degree of religious mandate to destroy the evil monster. When we consider where we ourselves fall on the religious violence spectrum, we have to ask ourselves the same questions. Are we holding religious and non-religious characters to the same standard for acceptable levels of violence? Perhaps we shouldn’t be so scared to give religious characters actual spiritual motivations for their actions, even if those actions are violent. It adds one more level of complexity to a character’s motivations, making for more compelling stories.