Warning: This post contains significant Buffy the Vampire Slayer content. However, I think it'll be of interest to non-Buffy fans. If I'm wrong, and you read it anyway... well, that's five minutes of your life that you're never getting back. Them's the breaks.
I was watching the Jasmine story arc of "Angel" recently (for those who aren't familiar with the show, "Angel" was the spinoff series of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). And it suddenly struck me, in that "Duh, I am an idiot, I can't believe I didn't think of this before" way:
This story is about religion.
From a pretty harsh atheist viewpoint. (Joss Whedon, the creator of the shows, is in fact an atheist -- and not just an atheist, but a self-described "hard-line, angry atheist.") The whole story is about why it's harmful to believe in a deity that isn't real, even if believing makes you happy. It's about what, precisely, makes religion in general and theocracy in particular troubling at best and destructive at worst. And it's about how religion has an inherent tendency to turn into theocracy given the opportunity -- all religion, even a happy and blissful religion with a message of love and peace.
Here's what happens in the story arc. (WARNING -- SPOILER ALERT.) A powerful magical creature, Jasmine, comes into the human world. She's born/brings herself into existence under extremely dubious circumstances (including possession, human sacrifice, and the manipulation of human history, among other things) -- but when she springs fully formed into being, everyone who sees her is instantly filled with peace and bliss, love of one another and acceptance of themselves and the world... and a passionate desire to worship her. All the pain and suffering that had to happen in order for her to come into the world are explained as birth pains, and even the people who were injured the most by the process of her creation immediately love and worship her when they see her. And her power and influence grow exponentially, as more and more people become aware of her and worship her.
But there are problems. Jasmine's spell is blissful, but it's deceptive, and although her followers see her as a beautiful goddess, the reality is that she's a hideous monster with worms crawling out of her decaying flesh.
Also, while she seems to genuinely want peace and love in the world, she also expects, and insists on, unquestioning obedience and devotion.
Also, she eats people.
A small number of people see Jasmine's real face -- and these people quickly become outcasts, violently hated by believers, having to hide and even go underground. Soon the bulk of Jasmine's energy that's not going towards spreading the word and building her numbers is going towards finding and destroying non-believers -- a task she accomplishes by turning her followers into fanatical spies, filled with violent, venomous hatred towards the non-believers. Jasmine's spell is finally broken when the story's hero discovers her true name and reveals it to the world
So let's look at this story's atheist viewpoint on religion and theocracy.
Okay, duh. But I want to break it down anyway.
One: It's better to know the truth then to hold a false belief, even if that makes you happy. This is a morally and emotionally complicated message, and the story doesn't shy away from it: the pain people feel when they lose their belief, and their moral conflict at trying to take that belief away from others. But while many of the story's other points serve to support this position, it also seems to be a basic moral tenet -- truth is a fundamental good, pretty much no matter what. Even if it makes you feel bad in the short run, it is almost always better in the long and even medium run.
Two: It's important to know the truth -- because holding false beliefs makes you susceptible to being manipulated and deceived in other ways. People under Jasmine's blissful, loving spell will do anything for her -- burn down their beloved bookstore, turn against their dearest friends and hunt them down like dogs, allow themselves to be eaten. Jasmine's will is seen by her believers as good by definition... and everything else, every perception and human connection and moral position, gets twisted to fit that unquestionable axiom.
Religion has a natural tendency to turn into theocracy.
When the stability and peace of a society is built on the foundation of a false belief, nothing is more important than perpetuating that belief, and stamping out non-belief. A society built on reality and truth and evidence can be questioned... but a society built on a false belief -- or even an unproven and unprovable belief -- has to bolster that belief, or else it will crumble. So as soon as a religious belief system gains a foothold and acquires any real social or political power, that power will be turned towards (a) spreading the faith and (b) stamping out non-belief.
There are certainly religious individuals who are comfortable and happy with other people not sharing their belief. But there aren't bloody many religious institutions who are comfortable and happy with that... and the ones that are tend not to be very powerful. (Compare, for instance, the numbers and political power of the Southern Baptists to that of, say, the Quakers.) And the institutional refusal to allow a belief to be questioned naturally leads to evangelism, repression of dissent, and the consolidation of social and political power.
In other words -- theocracy.
This is my entry in the Blogswarm Against Theocracy.