I’ve recently gotten hooked on the PBS Idea Channel on Youtube, hosted by Mike Rugnetta. He combines pop culture with philosophy and it is brilliant, though sometimes a bit goofy. Goofily brilliant.
One video explores the connection between Doctor Who and religion. He quoted a philosopher who defined religion as something that uses symbolism to promote a cosmology. Religion provides a framework for our moral ideas that helps provide answers to moral dilemmas and meaning-of-life type questions. He then argued that Doctor Who does this as well.
Of course his whole premise seemed ridiculous, I thought, as no Whovian seriously believes that a regenerating man really flies around through time and space saving people from his little blue box. The belief in the supernatural is an essential part of religion.
And then I thought, wait, is it? Confucianism and Taoism are both typically considered religions, and while they both contain subsects that believe in some aspect of the supernatural, neither has any reference to the supernatural in their core tenets. Buddhism and Hinduism both contain supernatural elements, but have sizable numbers of followers who follow their practices secularly. Judaism, for many people, is about an ethnic identity, and therefore they follow its laws and rituals without believing in Yahweh. That’s five of the most populous religions, right there. Then I started considering his argument in all seriousness.
My attachment to Doctor Who is peculiar. With most shows, I am highly critical, and prone to abandon them if they turn sour. Doctor Who can be as bad as it likes. I will always love it. Often I say its the one show that I turn my brain off for, but that’s not accurate. I still see all the flaws, and I might hate nine episodes out of a season, but I’m still a Whovian to the core. I’ve attributed this to nostalgia. My sister introduced me to Doctor Who when I was a little kid, before the series had even revived. I was hooked quickly. At the time, my strict religious upbringing meant I was not allowed to participate in much of the pop culture that united my friends; Pokemon, Harry Potter, even some Disney movies were off limits. Leaving religion has cut much of the religious media I consumed out. Doctor Who is one of the few things I can be as passionate about today as I was when I was a kid. Still, that doesn’t quite explain it. I did have Winnie the Pooh and some of the old Disney films. Despite the fact that those may be better quality than the average episode of Doctor Who, Winnie the Pooh does not make my heart jump like the sound of the TARDIS landing.
As I view Doctor Who through the religious lens Mike presented, my loyalty starts to make sense.
Studies on morality have shown that humans have an innate moral sense, that our answers to certain moral questions will not vary from culture to culture. However, this is often still a need to seek for answers and meaning. Becoming an atheist hasn’t changed that for me. I’ve decided that to a certain degree, the search is arbitrary. There are multiple answers, and many of them involve humans choosing what to value and what to impose meaning upon. I also think there are wrong answers; ends to the search that are unhealthy, destructive, poorly reasoned or otherwise flawed. There’s still a hunger in me for a philosophical framework that lets the world make sense.
While I’ve been in church services that are flamingly liberal and accepting, I’ve always felt better seeing myself as a visitor into those spaces. While I know atheists are accepted in Unitarian Universalist churches, I don’t think I would want to join one. There is something about the thought of joining a church and participating in actual rituals that is quite viscerally uncomfortable to me. I think I will always feel uncomfortable in a church.
I also don’t think that atheism offers a moral framework in the same way that religions do. That does not mean that atheism is immoral. It is silent on the topic altogether. All it means to be an atheist is to not believe in a God. Secular humanism is pretty cool, but its so nebulous and common sense that I actually don’t get that much out of it, personally. There is a movement of skeptical atheism that protests religion in all its forms, liberal and fundamental. It’s moral framework is to see science and religion as diametrically opposed, with science as the side of good and religion as the side of bad. While I think people in that movement have many good things to say, on the whole, I’m not a fan of making my life revolve around telling other people their beliefs are wrong. Actions, yes, where that is called for, and also I’m all for cheering on science, but I’m not the what’s-in-your-head police.
When I watch Doctor Who, I feel like I’m participating in this mentality of Whovianness that transcends the goodness or badness of a given episode. I feel connected to a way of viewing the world that is deeply satisfying. I take out of it ideas about how to live my life that make it better. If Doctor Who has doctrines, they are the following;
1. Life is full of wonder. Enjoy it.
2. If normality has gotten in the way of that sense of wonder, go see something new. Give yourself permission to have adventures.
3. If on these adventures, you come across someone who is being wronged, that is not an inconvenience or an interruption. That is the most important part of the adventure; the part where you get to help someone else out.
4. You will change over the course of your life. Those changes can be mourned, but they are not bad.
4a. The former yous were real, as are the future reals, as is the you who you are today.
4b. Through all the changes, there are little pieces of you that will not change. That is a treasure.
5. Take other people with you on the journey. Adventures are better when shared.
You know, as religions go, you could do a lot worse.