The first impulse for some when watching this episode is to view it as a wholesale condemnation of religious belief. I can’t speak for the writer of this episode, Neil Cross, however, for me the episode does not condemn all religious faith or beliefs. Considering how varied and complicated Christian theology alone is, it would be difficult to make an informed yet generalized critique of religious belief. Instead, I think the episode touches upon a strain of religious belief that rightly should be critiqued and viewed with suspicion: the impulse of scapegoating, and the divine sanctioning of violence, which to me is representative of bad and dangerous theology.
The Doctor is fairly knowledgeable about the beliefs of this society and while he does not hold said views, referring to them to their beliefs, as “a nice story” neither is he vocally dismissive. In fact, when he and Clara go to hear Merry sing, the Doctor awkwardly tries to join in. He acknowledges the beauty of Akhaten, and that includes in large part their religious beliefs. He may not agree with them, yet he still finds a sense of beauty in them. While for literalists, calling one’s sacred text a “nice story” sounds dismissive, I think it represents an acknowledgement on the part of another person who does not share said beliefs that there is something meaning and beautiful in said stories. For example, I do not view the creation stories in genesis as literally true, but I believe that the stories serve an important function in explicating how Judaism and Christianity understand the relationship between humanity and divine. And the fact that in the creation stories, God calls creation good can have some great practical implications for how Christians are to view and treat the natural world.
Stories, don’t need to be taken literally in order to be viewed as meaningful. So I appreciate the Doctor’s willingness to understand the beliefs of Akhaten and to acknowledge how important said beliefs are to the population of Akhaten.
However, that changes radically when it becomes apparent that some of the core stories in their belief system endorse violence and the innocent sacrifice of a child. When a beam lifts Merry off her pedestal and Merry calls for help, Clara asks accusingly of those around her, “Is somebody going to do something? Excuse me, is somebody going to help her?”
Shortly, thereafter, Clara expresses her shock to the Doctor at the crowd’s apathetic reaction:
The Doctor’s point is that the crowd couldn’t help save Merry because their beliefs provided divine sanction for the harm of a small child. It’s viewed as normal and a fundamental part of their beliefs and because their beliefs are a core identify of who they are, as individuals and as a society, they see no need to question them or actively do something to challenge said beliefs. (who knows how many people know something Is intrinsically wrong about a cherished belief but are too afraid to voice their doubts and questions?) It is up to two outsiders to point out the injustice inherent in their belief system.
Merry, believes it is her fault that the “god” has awoken and that she made a mistake that led to its awakening. Bad theology has a way of blaming the victim in order to protect itself against critical examination. The theology isn’t the problem, the person is. By socializing Merry to believe that it would be her fault if the god awakens, it distracts from thinking critically about what type of god demands the sacrifice of a child or if no sacrifice is made, would destroy everyone else. However, the Doctor is quick to point out the flaws in said theology:
DOCTOR: No, we didn’t wake him. And you didn’t wake him, either. He’s waking because it’s his time to wake, and feed. On you, apparently. On your stories.
CLARA: She didn’t say stories. She said souls.
DOCTOR: Same thing. The soul’s made of stories, not atoms. Everything that ever happened to us. People we love, people we lost. People we found again against all the odds. He threatens to wake, they offer him a pure soul. The soul of the Queen of Years.
Merry, and countless children before her, (imagine that, for however long the Akhaten has existed, however long said beliefs circulated, children were being sacrificed to appease said gods. I wonder how many children were killed before two outsiders had to come in and say, “No, this is wrong…”) have been told to sacrifice themselves without fully understanding why. The theological language, the pretty singing, the festival masquerades the gruesome reality that lives are being lost in order to perpetrate bad theology.
MERRY: So, if I don’t, then everyone else
DOCTOR: Will be fine.
DOCTOR: There’s always a way.
As someone in seminary, struggling to figure out what I believe, this episode resonates with me. I may struggle with what I do believe, but discovering what I DON’T believe has been a relatively easier task. When I am examining various theological ideas, I ask: “how many lives have been sacrificed or brutally snuffed out as a result this understanding of God? Does this theology create any victims? Which lives are we asking to be sacrificed for the sake of holding onto bad theology?” I believe that each individual has the right to believe or not believe whatever they want. But I think it is important to emphasize that theology, especially bad theology comes at a price.
In this episode, not only are children being sacrificed to appease a god, but a whole society is held in bondage by the threat of destruction. This god says, “give me what I want or I will destroy you.” And since such a threat is imposed by what the people view as a god, the people feel helpless to question and speak out. In this theological understanding, violence and scapegoating is divinized and the people are held bondage to terror and fear. The Doctor however, fulfills in many ways the role of a prophet (no not in the terms of predicting the future, but in the sense of calling into question unjust theological or social structures). He questions society’s understanding of their god and the theological constructs shaping their society. He even criticizes the god.
DOCTOR: Can you hear them? All these people who’ve lived in terror of you and your judgment? All these people whose ancestors devoted themselves, sacrificed themselves, to you. Can you hear them singing? Oh, you like to think you’re a god. But you’re not a god. You’re just a parasite eaten out with jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of others. You feed on them. On the memory of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow.
In seminary, no idea is too sacred to remain unquestioned and while that may smack of sacrilege for some, I think it’s vitally important to continually to question what we believe, especially if we are going to attribute said beliefs to a deity figure. We need to continually think not just about how this theological idea affects us as individuals, but we must inquire about the practical consequences of said theology. Does our theology create scapegoats and who are they? Does our theology justify violence and if it does, who against whom?
Perhaps it’s time we woke up and listened to the cries of those being crushed by bad theology.