So, there’s this:
OK, so first of all the doorway to the polyskeptic compound is totally not in the shape of the TARDIS.
OK, it is, but that does not mean that the house is bigger on the inside. But the house can travel through time and space! …although only forward in time at the usual rate and in space only relative to things like cars, people, and so forth which move around and through it.
There are a couple of issues with the video above, such as the definition of religion used is not universally accepted, but I think it would be somewhat silly to seriously criticize such a video made with at least one tongue implanted in some cheek somewhere.
OK, so that sounds like it might be sexual, but I guarantee I’m only slightly turned on right now (and that has more to do with the TARDIS; it’s bigger on the inside. That’s what she said).
OK, terrible jokes aside, I am sure that under some definitions of religion, some people I’ve met might classify as Whovian-cultists or someshit. After all, a cult is really just a religion that is not Christianity, right? (It pains me to reference Matt Slick, so I feel like I need to balance that out with this video of a discussion between Matt Slick and Matt Dillahunty about the transcendental argument for god, or TAG).
OK, so Doctor Who, in conjunction with its fan-base, might be thought of as a religion. I have never thought of it that way, but I also think that one part of what makes something a religion is the acceptance, or belief, that the object of reverence is real.
And then I wonder how “real” the people who created texts in ancient times about gods, creation, etc thought the stories were. I think part of what makes mythology interesting is realizing that for many people, throughout many eras, didn’t have the same distinction between reality and myth, nor did they have a solid meaning of reality which we would recognize. In other words, it may be the case that many people who have religious beliefs are not thinking about “truth” or “reality” using empirical or skeptical concepts of either of those terms.
Certainly, people can take those mythological ideas and subsequently think of them as real in our modern sense, but the fact that they end up there does not necessarily mean they started there. There is the question, for example, of whether many of the New Testament books were closer to literature than history (I would recommend Tom Verenna’s blog for more about that), and whether many scriptures from around the world are even comparable to any sort of skeptical inquiry. It may be that Jesus was a character of inspiration for first century Palestine in a similar way as the Doctor is an inspiration for many people now, all over the world.
And this is the point where some people will point at me and be like ‘See! You admit that religion is not to be taken literally, so your criticisms of them as if they are literal beliefs is shown to be wrong-headed,’ or something similar. The problem here is two-fold.
First, in many cases people do take mythology as real in the sense I mean it; as in it describes the actual world and they simply are wrong about the facts. Second, the fact that some people do not think of things this way shows where they are going awry in not understanding that we have a reliable methodology for knowing things about the world, and that mythologizing the world is not a means to understanding, but obfuscation, parochialism, and ultimately a worldview based not on what’s real but rather what is comfortable or even non-confrontational.
Unfortunately, many postmodernist approaches to the world are much closer to those who mythologize the world, which is why, I think, many (secular) progressive intellectuals tend towards liberal theology or at least show deference to such liberal theologies. Karen Armstrong, for example, has talked about ‘God’ without concern for whether such a thing exists, as if that was not even relevant. While I appreciate some of the contributions of postmodernism in philosophy, the tendency towards anti-realism, as opposed to realism, in the philosophy of science and in metaphysics has always been a bane for me.
Art and religion
So, The Doctor is not real. But the show can be a source for thinking about the nature of the world, our choices and their consequences, and so forth. It’s a living mythology, of sorts, which many draw inspiration from. But is that inspiration, entertainment, and possible edification spiritual? Is it a religious experience?
As a person who has never believed in supernatural realities, but who has had experiences that seem similar to the descriptions of spiritual/religious experiences, I would say that there is some gray area here. Where I think I am likely to say no is that I think that these experiences are the result of art, and not religion per se. Religion, the great usurper of all things human, has once again stepped in and claimed something as its own when it belongs to all of us, religious or not.
So, insofar as Doctor Who, or Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Shakespeare, or…you get the point. So long as artistic expression invokes existential inspiration in us, it is art that has done it. We need to stop associating these things with gods or spirits, because they are natural occurrences with no supernatural explanations necessary.
Where does this leave ‘religion’? Well, as we become more secular and educated as a species, I envision religion becoming conflated with artistic and ritual social ties which will probably never go away, even as their supernatural associations dissolve into the nothingness from which they came. But we should not forget that those supernatural and irrational additions to the art we have created over time have been semantically tied to so many things, and that people will continue to associate nonsensical ontological concepts to everyday experiences, hopes, dreams, fears, etc.
Supernaturalism, theism, and even deism are irrational and even silly concepts which are clutching onto our art, even as they slowly die. But the art, the inspiration, and the creativity of the human mind will continue long after the gods have all been forgotten. So Doctor Who might be called a religion, but only in the loose and artistic sense that all that we do and love as humans is considered religious. That is, in the watered down way that only seeks to distract us from what is truly irrational and dangerous about religion; faith.
When art turns into certainty, when creativity and inspiration is not checked by skepticism, is when it goes wrong for our art. Because we can create illusory worlds to play in, but the imaginations of humanity are only for pretend and should not be guidelines from policy or morality without a skeptical check on their influence. We need to leave faith behind because we don’t need to believe that our imaginings are real for them to be interesting. Further, if we do believe they are real then we may be too unwilling, whether through reverence or fear, to make sure that they are rational.
So science and skepticism are not the source of all understanding, but they should be the arbiter of what we accept as true. Art can inspire, entertain, and even teach us about the world, but we must make sure the lessons are actually true and not merely revere them unskeptically.
In other words, enjoy Doctor Who, and remember that he’s probably a better source of inspiration than Jesus.