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.