The (Ir)relevancy of Religion in Black Mirror

Lauren Strumos
MA Student, School of Religion

Netflix’s anthology series Black Mirror features fictional stories of innovative technologies that are used to inflict pain and suffering on human beings.  It is a series of ‘technology gone bad,’ so to speak.  There are no episodes that feature an explicitly religious storyline, yet nonetheless, it offers a reflection of religion in Western society today.

Take “Black Museum” (2017) from season four, which contains a ‘life after death’ narrative.  While on death row for murder, a black man named Clayton Leigh has his entire consciousness transferred to a lively virtual hologram that becomes activated post-execution.  The transmission is carried out by Rolo Haynes, a former neurologist and founder of an American crime museum, in which he stations Clayton’s consciousness.  Confined to public display as a main attraction, Clayton is subjected to excruciating pain by paying white visitors who electrocute him for their own amusement.

According to Haynes, Clayton’s sustained consciousness allows him to be the first person to survive his own execution, despite lacking a physical body and resultant human agency.  Does this mean that Clayton is alive, dead, or somehow both?  It is a puzzling question evoking thoughts of Schrödinger’s cat.

No matter how the viewer may answer this existential question, it is done without a scene that features a travelling soul, heavenly realm, or cycle of reincarnation, yet Clayton still finds a form of ‘life’ after bodily ‘death’ through the preservation of his ‘reborn’ neurological functions.  Although a viewer may question what happened to Clayton’s spirit, or if he will reach heaven or hell, the storyline itself is comprehendible without any religious context – and this is what is so significant about “Black Museum.”

Although Black Mirror is a science-fiction series about technology, it relies upon the real-life capability of its viewers to conceptualize a ‘life after death’ narrative without employing religion.  Viewers can watch this episode and understand how Clayton is kept alive after his physical death without any sort of religious occurrence or intervention.  Of course, this understanding is also due to our ability to comprehend complex and inventive technology, but it nonetheless requires the power to approach life after death scenarios without any explicit religious framework.

One could claim that this is characteristic of what Charles Taylor calls our ‘secular age.’  In relation to our Western society, the term ‘secular’ for Taylor denotes, “[A] move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”[i] ‘Secular’ does not necessarily indicate a society that has witnessed the disappearance of religion, or even its decline, but a shift in how religion is conceived.

For instance, an individual can identify as either Catholic, Hindu, Mormon, ‘spiritual but not religious,’ or any combination of the diverse beliefs that exist today, but there is also the option to not hold any belief at all; indeed, having disbelief in lieu of belief is not only commonplace, but even understood by those who are religious.[ii]  During our secular age, there are many options to choose from, but most importantly, all of these options are conceivable.

Whereas in Medieval Catholic Europe life after death would have carried with it an automatic religious grasp, our society is able to interpret “Black Museum” without Christianity, as we are able to conceive of irreligion.  We can separate a person’s consciousness from his dead body without requiring a religious explanation.  Religious belief is no longer the automatic and overarching worldview of our Western society, and as a result, it is unrequired to grasp the life-and-death stories of Black Mirror.

Taken altogether, “Black Museum” implicitly presents our contemporary society as one that operates without necessitated connections to external, transcendent forces to generate meaning and understanding.  Perhaps Taylor would claim this is characteristic of our immanent frame, in which our ‘buffered selves’ as part of our “social and civilizational framework”[iii] operate as free agents outside the existential influence of supernatural powers.

Clayton’s transfer of consciousness and pain in Haynes’ museum is able to be solely attributed to an earthly, scientific explanation by the show’s ‘buffered’ viewers, who do not need to blame a deity for Clayton’s agony.  Rather, Haynes becomes God-like himself, taking Clayton’s consciousness into his own powerful hands, but does so within the irreligious and non-transcendent Black Mirror world.  Everything about “Black Museum” can be interpreted devoid of religion and credited to this-worldly causation, thus depicting, through its very plotline, the immanent frame of our contemporary secular society.

 

 

 

 

[i] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 21.

[ii] Taylor uses a personal example to depict this ‘understanding,’ stating, “I may find it inconceivable that I would abandon my [Catholic] faith, but there are others, including possibly some very close to me, whose way of living I cannot in all honesty just dismiss as depraved, or blind, or unworthy, who have no faith …” (emphasis added; Ibid., 2-3.).

[iii] Ibid., 239.

Running A Religious Studies Tutorial

Alissa Droog
MA Student
School of Religion

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Teaching is a creative enterprise, and if there’s one thing I learned about it this year, it’s that you have to be willing to try a variety of methods that may or may not work. This year I had the opportunity to run a tutorial for RELS 161 Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture. Students were introduced to topics like defining religion, religion and modernity, fundamentalism, new atheism, ritual studies and new religious movements and I, having a more traditional education in Christian thought and culture, learned along with them.

The most valuable learning experience from teaching this tutorial was about how to nurture an environment for discussion in which students felt comfortable participating. When I started the tutorial in September with a couple of discussion questions, I was met with nervous glances and the “don’t pick me” look. As a result, I had to scale back on the amount of discussion I planned in my tutorials and slowly added it back in when my students were ready.

obi-canuelIn my final tutorial, I am happy to report that we had a semi-structured discussion which my students largely led for 45 minutes. The topic that week was new religious movements and we debated whether members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster should be allowed to wear a colander on their head for official photographs. The discussion ended up going for 20 minutes and I had to cut it off so we could move on. It was amazing to see how far my students had come. They took turns, they didn’t talk to me but to each other and came up with some strong arguments for and against the colander. While that discussion may have been a lucky moment, I’d like to believe that it was the result of a variety of strategies that I tried to create an inviting classroom for discussion.

With that said, here are some of the teaching strategies I used to invite discussion:

  1. Making participation count: I made discussion participation worth almost half of my students’ tutorial participation grade. As students left tutorial each week, they reminded me if they had participated in discussion and I marked it down on an attendance sheet. This created accountability for the students to speak.
  2. Talk to your neighbour first: Before starting a whole class discussion, I asked students to discuss the question with their neighbours. This allowed students to share their ideas in a low-risk setting. It also developed and validated their thoughts, making it easier to share them with the class when I opened the question to the whole group.
  3. Brainstorms: I used brainstorms to get my students to think of the key terms and arguments for different course readings. I would only explain a key term once it had been added to the brainstorm so the onus was on the students for doing their readings and adding to the discussion. Adding a key term to a list is also an easy way to participate.
  4. Group Activities: These can take some time to organize, but the photo below shows the setup for a group activity that I ran one day. I created 5 charts with key terms and discussion questions on topics we covered that week. Each group got about 5 minutes to fill in as much as they could on the chart before passing it to the next table. I spent each 5-minute increment with a different group which allowed me to answer questions and gauge how well the students knew the material.

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How Liberal Are We Really?

Ruth Chitiz
MA Student
School of Religion

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Scholars have presented a variety of theories as to why religion persists in the current Western world. Classical theories of secularization underestimated the extent to which religiosity would prove salient in contemporary societies and political arrangements because, let’s face it, the Western world is still very religious. This seems to be a contentious fact given the current liberal-conservative schism that continues to take place in the Western world, as has been most poignantly demonstrated in the recent American election. This polarization of worldviews has resulted in what appears to be all sorts of fundamentalisms, both secular and religious.

One solution to this schism scholars have proposed is the notion of postsecularism, that bearers of both secular conceptions and religious worldviews would start taking each other’s contributions seriously through a process of complimentary learning. This concept implicitly rests on the presumption that both secular modernity and religious traditions are capable of self-reflexivity. Western modernity has always prided itself on being an ongoing process of self-critique and has juxtaposed this ethos of rational criticism with religion’s frozen and incontestable nature. I want to suggest that the reason a postsecular society seems like an improbable cognitive enterprise may actually have more to do with a general unwillingness from secular individuals to reform their worldviews than their religious counterparts. The pervading secular narrative consistently presents religiosity as an intellectually inferior and therefore regressive mode of thought, making religious worldviews incapable of penetrating and potentially aiding Western self-reflexivity. It seems that secular dispositions are only self-reflexive in so far as they continue to be critically evaluated based on internal presuppositions. In doing so, they limit religious paradigms of thought by defining religion (and its worldviews) as oppositional to the glory of Enlightenment ideals through systematic dispossession and subjugation (sounds a bit like intellectual colonialism, no?).

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It seems to me that by disallowing religious worldviews from having a seat at the table of public discourse, Western secular ideologies make it increasingly difficult for a dialectical, complimentary learning process to occur. Is it possible that the secular epistemic disposition has become a form of secular authoritarian discourse purveying the ethos of a second wave Enlightenment where those with religious convictions can be educated out of their worldviews once they understand liberal convictions, and will thus, inevitably, disappear? It seems that religious individuals in the West do not make such claims about their secular counterparts. I guess the real question is—how ‘liberal’ is Western society really? Or rather, are Western societies liberal so long as those with dissenting views start playing by their rules to fit within a secular normative framework?

Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity

Amelia Walsh
First Year Undergraduate Student, Arts and Science

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In today’s world of media entertainment, comedians and programs often satirize religion and religious practices in comedy skits and routines. Although malicious elements sometimes appear in these media pieces, the use of satire more commonly presents as a tool to relieve tension, ridicule stereotypes, or educate an audience. In Comedy Central’s skit, Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the TV personalities, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart along with actor Steve Carell, perform a skit that reveals the hypocrisy and lack of sense that triggers conflict between religions.

In the skit, Colbert and Carell act out the roles of a Christian and a Muslim respectively, and hold a debate over which of their religions is the one, true religion. In order to increase the comedic quality of the sketch, many of the arguments that are presented involve circular and backwards logic and serve to ridicule certain aspects of religion such as life after death, origin stories, and ‘smiting’. At the end of the segment, Colbert and Carell come together to bond over their mutual dislike of Jon Stewart who represents Jews.

This comedy skit puts religion into a fairly negative light through its emphasis on hypocrisy within religion and its apparent criticism of Christianity and Islam. Despite these initial impressions, however, most of the satire in the skit holds a double meaning that educates the audience on logical fallacies that appear in religious arguments and attempts to argue for the pointlessness of arguing over which belief is “right”. At one point in the skit, Stephen Colbert presents an example of these logical fallacies through a somewhat exaggerated statement arguing the truth of Christianity:

“It’s not my logic, it’s god’s logic, as written in the Bible, every word of which is true. And we know every word is true because the Bible says that the Bible is true, and if you remember from earlier on in this sentence, every word of the Bible is true.”

While this is evidently a faulty argument designed to ridicule certain elements of Christianity, the presentation of it in a satirical sense allows for a second, ironic side to show through. The irony emphasizes the point that while many elements of religion don’t necessarily follow logic, they do consist of faith and belief, two concepts that are indisputable and unarguable because of their subjective nature. This argument is especially essential to today’s world as a result of the number of wars being fought on behalf of religion. While the Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity comedy sketch does not directly address these disputes between religions, the final lines of the skit do convey the idea of inherent conflict between religions fairly clearly when Stephen and Steve find common ground over their mutual dislike of Jews. These lines could even be further interpreted as a jab at Christianity and Islam and their perceived history of anti-Semitism.

In an effort to maintain comedic effect in Even Stephen: Islam vs. Christianity, many serious topics relating to religion are not discussed at all. These include genuine beliefs, reasonable arguments for religion, and traditions of each religion. This presence of irony and satire also makes it difficult to tell whether the portrayal of religion is actually balanced or biased or both. While there is at least a small part of this skit that is biased towards atheism, the fact that the skit was presented through a comedy channel indicates that there is a lack of seriousness in their words and that perhaps there is more balance beneath all of the satire and irony. Additionally, by using visual media rather than a paper format, the actors are able to convey sarcasm and insincerity in their voices.

Although the role of religion in this media portrayal is mainly to entertain and provide comedic relief, the use of satire helps to provide a double meaning to many of the concepts that are presented. This double meaning allows networks such as Comedy Central to educate its audience and send out deeper meanings of inherent issues of religion into the world. In this sketch specifically, these deeper meanings refer to the ridiculousness of dissent between religions over “right and wrong”.

Omar Mateen and the 2016 Orlando Nightclub Shooting

Chayce Perkins
First Year Undergraduate Student, Faculty of Arts

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As modern Western society has continued to progress through the processes of modernity, technological advancement has caused the media to become the most effective means of conveying information to the public. As a result, the media and many news outlets in particular generally include a variety of different views and outlooks on current events. Many contemporary issues have been interpreted in a variety of different ways by the media, as well as by those who choose to read or watch it. For example, the recent shootings and terrorist-considered attacks in America have been portrayed by the media in a multitude of ways. Some individuals believe that these attacks should be considered terrorist-based violence, while others have concluded that they stem from core differences in religious belief. In particular, the recent Orlando nightclub shooting was scrutinized as an event which was perpetrated due to religious hatred and prejudice.

In June 2016, 29 year-old Omar Mateen committed what is now considered the deadliest shooting in American history. After entering a nightclub that supported and catered to the LGBTQ community, Mateen shot and killed a total of 49 club patrons, while wounding another 53. Directly prior to this attack, he had sworn allegiance to the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He also claimed that the shooting was “triggered” by the recent killing of Abu Waheeb, a leader of ISIS, perpetrated by the U.S military. Mateen admitted that the American-led intervention within Iraq and Syria triggered his attack, and that he believed the United States had an obligation to stop bombing ISIS. Because of this, most media outlets portrayed this event as a religious hate crime and a terrorist attack.

Although the media depicted Mateen’s actions, as well as the grounds on which he based his actions, as constructed from bigotry, different theories as to why he committed the attack have also been introduced. His portrayed affiliation with Islam was presented by many media outlets in a fashion that was synonymous with stereotypical Islamophobic rhetoric which gave the general public a reason to believe his actions were those rooted in terrorist activity. This popular portrayal was promptly derived from the idea that there was a connection between his affiliation with ISIS and his claimed hatred for the LGBTQ community. Moreover, Mateen being previously described by those who knew him as being extremely racist and homophobic added to the media’s main consensus as to why the crime was committed.

While some of the aforementioned reports about Mateen’s character may be true, the common rhetoric of the attack excluded all discussion on other potential motives and didn’t leave room for critical analysis. Most of the portrayals failed to mention that preliminary reports suggested Mateen had previously attended the same nightclub as a patron himself, and had used dating apps and websites that suggested homosexual behavior. However, this exclusion can be justified due to the fact that there had been no credible evidence to validate these claims. Moreover, there was correspondingly a lack of evidence to suggest that Mateen had any legitimate ties to ISIS.

After critically reflecting on the media’s main portrayal of the attack, it is clear that religion was presented in a negative light. Mateen’s actions supported the generalizations and negative connotations already associated with Islam. Furthermore, the attack also supported the stereotypical generalization that all members of the Islam community are against the LGBTQ community, which is a false representation of their beliefs. By analyzing the main rhetoric of the media’s representation of Mateen’s actions it is obvious that thoughts and opinions are meant to do nothing but encourage Islamophobic thoughts and opinions. Therefore, the portrayal of the shootings provides a biased account of religion in general, as the opinions based on the causation behind Mateen’s decision gives the majority of the Western audience support in believing that Islam can be continued to be associated with terrorism and violence.

vunjq1nde60lvekryh8co-rvqqkumlb5-xlargeThe main authoritative sources that the portrayal refers to included religious officials or representatives. Immediately after the event occurred, many of these figures apologized for Mateen’s actions on behalf of religion, expressing their concerns as to how events such as this force religion to be deemed as harmful or damaging to society. In particular, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee claimed, “violence of this magnitude belongs to no religious, racial or ethnic group.”

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United Nations, and thus a contemporary problem in religion and culture. Mateen’s decision to perpetrate the shooting coupled with his supposed allegiance to ISIS suggests that he must have considered following extremist and Islamic fundamentalism more imperative than following the laws of his country. As modernity and our current context of the world continues to progress and change, Islamophobic views remain prominent in modern day society. Events such as the Orlando shootings remind modern day Westerners that cultural hegemony and the belief that certain cultures or religious views should be considered more dominant, and thus more valuable than populations considered non-dominant.