Is Doctor Who anti-religious? Part Two: Passive faith and/or dangerous faith

In Doctor Who: The Writer’s Tale Russell T. Davis explicates: “I set out to include the ‘Old Rugged Cross’ sequence in Gridlock to show how good faith can be, regardless of the existence of God-how it can unite and form a community, and essentially offer hope. That was my intention, or my starting point, and yet the real me came bleeding through, because it transpires that hope stifles the travelers. It stops them from acting. By uniting, they are passive. The Doctor is the unbeliever. The direct consequence of the travelers in the traffic jam, singing that hymn is that the Doctor realizes that no one is going to help them. There is no higher authority. That’s when he starts to break down the rules of that world by jumping from car to car. You could argue, therefore, that the traveller’s faith is misguided.”

Faith cannot only be misguided but also dangerous. Faith has been used as an excuse to promote violence and hatred for those who do not confirm to a particular society’s idealized version of what a “good, normal” human being is. People have been persecuted and oppressed for being brown/black, Indian, Asian, etc part of the LGBTQ community, or for being a religious minority. Religious belief has been a factor in wars and bloodshed, not just in medieval Europe, but also in Africa, Latin, America and Asia. And as Philip Jenkins predicts in his book, The Next Christendom, such religiously motivated conflicts will only increase as the Global South becomes a major religious  and economic force and as various nations  throughout the world face an increase in religious diversity. Doctor Who has justifiably criticized such faith.

In the episode, “Gridelock” the inhabitants are stuck on a never ending highway and they accept that way of life because that is all they have ever known. They don’t decide to try and improve their lot, instead they hold onto faith that by simply moving along they will eventually reach their destination.

DOCTOR: What if there’s no one out there?

BRANNIGAN: Stop it. The Cassinis were doing you a favour.

DOCTOR: Someone’s got to ask, because you might not talk about it, but it’s there in your eyes. What if the traffic jam never stops?

BRANNIGAN: There’s a whole city above us. The mighty city state of New New York. They wouldn’t just leave us.

DOCTOR: In that case, where are they, hmm? What if there’s no help coming, not ever? What if there’s nothing? Just the motorway, with the cars going round and round and round and round, never stopping. Forever.

VALERIE: Shut up! Just shut up!

BRANNIGAN: You think you know us so well, Doctor. But we’re not abandoned. Not while we have each other.

SALLY: This is for all of you out there on the roads. We’re so sorry. Drive safe.

CHOIR: (singing) On a hill, far away, stood an old, rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame. And I love that old cross, where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain. So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down. I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.

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I’m sure we could all point to examples of people who use faith as a way to deny reality. Things will get better simply because they believe it will. Blind faith can prevent people from actively taking action. But does “faith” necessarily lead to helplessness and passivity? History demonstrates that while some have used religion to enforce the status quo, there have also been others who believed that their faith demanded that they speak out and take action against oppressive forces. One of the most notable examples is Martin Luther King Jr, who, while influenced by Gandhian (Ghandi, himself was Hindu) notions of nonviolence, also relied heavily on his religious beliefs. During the civil rights movement there were churches advocating for segregation but there were also churches, both black and white demanding that segregation be abolished.  Religious faith does not necessarily lead to passive acceptance of injustice.

In “The God Complex” blind faith, (though not just religious faith) is painted in a negative  and dangerous light:

DOCTOR: It’s not fear. It’s faith. Not just religious faith, faith in something. Howard believed in conspiracies, that external forces controlled the world. Joe had dice cufflinks and a chain with a horseshoe. He was a gambler. Gamblers believe in luck, an intangible force that helps them win or lose. Gibbis has rejected any personal autonomy and is waiting for the next batch of invaders to oppress him and tell him what to do. They all believe there’s something guiding them, about to save them. That’s what it replaces. Every time someone was confronted with their most primal fear, they fell back on their most fundamental faith. And all this time, I have been telling you to dig deep, find the thing that keeps you brave. I made you expose your faith, show them what they needed.

RORY: But why us? Why are we here?

DOCTOR: It doesn’t want you. That’s why it kept showing you a way out. You’re not religious or superstitious, so there’s no faith for you to fall back on. It wants her.

AMY: Me? Why?

DOCTOR: Your faith in me. That’s what brought us here.

RORY: But why do they lose their faith before they die and start worshipping it?

DOCTOR: It needs to convert the faith into a form it can consume. Faith is an energy, the specific emotional energy the creature needs to live. Which is why at the end of her note, Lucy said

AMY: Praise him.

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In this episode, blind faith, regardless of what form it took (religious or not) was deadly.  The minotaur literally feeds of their faith. How many oppressive institutions and ideas feed off the faith of the masses? How many people have killed or been killed in the name of religious faith.

In fact, the most heart wrenching scene (in my opinion) was the discussion Rita had with the Doctor right before she was killed:

RITA: I want you to do me one last favour, Doctor. I can feel the rapture approaching, like a wave. I don’t want you to witness this. I want you to remember me the way I was. 
AMY: What’s going on? Rita’s disappeared. What’s she doing there? 
DOCTOR: Rita. Rita, please. Let me find you. 
RITA : You stay where you are. Please, let me be robbed of my faith in private. 

Rita was intelligent and witty, and in this case, her religious faith is portrayed has having contributed to her death.

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In the episode, it was Amy’s blind faith in the Doctor that led them there. The Doctor tries to disavow Amy of her faith in him:

 DOCTOR: I can’t save you from this. There’s nothing I can do to stop this.

AMY: What?

DOCTOR: I stole your childhood and now I’ve led you by the hand to your death. But the worst thing is, I knew. I knew this would happen. This is what always happens.

DOCTOR: Forget your faith in me. I took you with me because I was vain. Because I wanted to be adored. Look at you. Glorious Pond, the girl who waited for me. I’m not a hero. I really am just a mad man in a box. And it’s time we saw each other as we really are.

DOCTOR: Amy Williams, it’s time to stop waiting

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But is religious faith always dangerous? Are those who claim to be religious, simply waiting for their deity figure to swoop down and rescue them? Is religious faith simply a means of passivity? No, not necessarily. In fact some have used religious faith as a means to counteract the oppressive theology of those in power and religious faith has been used by the oppressed to demand an end to their subjection. For example, James H. Evans Jr. in his book, We Have been Believers: An African American Systematic Theology, explicates that enslaved African Americans re-appropriated  and reinterpreted Biblical stories. White slave owners used the Bible as “proof” that blacks were inferior and slavery was a God ordained institutions. However, African Americans found through the Exodus and other tales evidence of God’s love and demand for liberation. Evans states: “While slaveholders focused on ancient Israel as a slaveholding society, the African slaves saw ancient Israel first as a nation descended form slaves. In this sense, slave interpreters were able to reverse the patriarchal paradigm of the slaveholders.” (46). In other words, slave holders justified slavery by saying, “well ancient Israel had slaves, so clearly that means God approves of slavery” while those enslaved viewed God’s liberation of Israel from the Egyptians as expressed through the Exodus story as evidence that God was with those them. They took the religious faith of the slave owners, and reinterpreted it and claimed it as their own and did so in such a way that slavery was no longer a God ordained institution.

Blind, religious faith that ignores present reality or that contributes to hatred and oppression should rightly be criticized. Doctor Who does point out how blind faith can be dangerous. But faith can be a powerful motivator. Even the Doctor has demonstrated faith, not in deity figure, but towards his companions. In “The Satan Pit”, the Doctor states, “So, that’s the trap. Or the test, or the final judgment, I don’t know. But if I kill you, I kill her. Except that implies in this big grand scheme of Gods and Devils that she’s just a victim. But I’ve seen a lot of this universe. I’ve seen fake gods and bad gods and demi-gods and would-be gods, and out of all that, out of that whole pantheon, if I believe in one thing, just one thing, I believe in her.”

The Doctor’s faith in Rose enabled him to do the right thing and destroy satan. In the “real” world, religious faith can also do the same.

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2 thoughts on “Is Doctor Who anti-religious? Part Two: Passive faith and/or dangerous faith

  1. Wow!!!What a great posting. I teach the youth Sunday School at my church and this fits in perfectly with what we will be discussing this Sunday . Plus all the students are Doctor Who fans.

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