How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
***This article contains spoilers for the first season of ABC’s Quantico.***
ABC’s action drama Quantico premiered to generally positive reviews in Fall 2015 and earned itself a second season for 2016. Viewers and (largely favorable) critics appreciated the show for blend of soap opera and thrilling complexity, as well as the performance of Priyanka Chopra, the first Indian woman to lead an American TV series. The brainchild of Gossip Girl alum Jonathan Safran, Quantico’s inaugural run saw Chopra’s character, FBI agent Alex Parrish, framed for a terrorist bombing in New York. As she races to identify the true culprit, she encounters several of her fellow trainees (or “NATs”) from her academy days at the FBI’s training institute in Quantico, Virginia. Each episode cuts between the “present” (the search for the terrorist) and the “past” (relevant scenes from Quantico).
All systems will always be sinful and impure, because they will always be filled with us.Not every review was entirely positive, some finding the personal dramas of the trainees a bit too dramatic and the show’s constant bait-and-switch technique overly convoluted, garnering it the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Grey’s Academy.” Still, Safran and the writers did have a single plan for the season, one they tried to tie together in the season finale, “Yes.” And since viewers knew early on that the ultimate villain must be someone present at Quantico, the flashback scenes and interpersonal conflicts at their best moments created real tension, since it was impossible to know which plotlines were just personal and which ones were tied to the motives of the killer.
Those who kept up with the series now know that the terrorist was Liam O’Connor (Josh Hopkins), an FBI trainer who used his access and influence to set his plan in motion. Given the brutal calculation with which Liam is revealed to have executed his plot, audiences might be forgiven for dismissing him as just another Bad Guy. But despite his horrific actions, Liam and his journey force thoughtful viewers to ask questions about how he got to the point of becoming the Voice manipulating so many other FBI agents. Safran himself has stated “when you hear the why [behind Liam’s motives], it’s more about how this is a cautionary tale of who you could be. All the secrets we carry with us, if we don’t deal with them, that’s who you could turn into.” Quantico’s first season poses some meaty questions: When, if ever, does a large system become too corrupt to preserve? And if it is too corrupt, what then should be done about it?
In the brief moments when the breakneck pace of “Yes” pauses for breath, Liam reveals that he has staged all the attacks for what he considers to be high-minded reasons. The FBI, he has concluded, is a desperately diseased organization. His own experiences with Alex’s father at the mishandled Omaha incident have left him with a jaundiced view of his employers’ competence. In classic media villain fashion, he has decided that only a radical reconstruction of the FBI can restore it to true use, and his plans have all centered around creating a scenario that will endow him with the authority and the resources to effect that reconstruction.
Insane? Evil? All of the above? Of course. We are hardly going to come away from Quantico thinking that Liam’s diabolical ends justify his means. But what about the ends themselves? Whatever may occur in the real FBI, the fictive version in Quantico does sometimes come across as at least ineffectual, perhaps downright corrupt. The NATs themselves are hormone-charged and erratic, each with personal baggage, and their instructors—not just Liam—play them against one another in manipulative, semi-sadistic ways. And such ambivalences extend beyond Quantico. Presidential candidate Claire Haas (Marcia Cross) has been complicit with Liam for her own advantage, while the past experiences of Simon (Tate Ellington) suggest similar moral equivocation in the Israeli Defense Forces.
So Quantico finally introduces concerns that are far larger than even the FBI, concerns that are as ancient as civilization but seems especially pertinent now. In this era of communication and globalization, have some groups, organizations, systems, or even nations become too big and insolubly necrotic? Indeed, is it even possible for large-scale systems to be otherwise?
These are questions certainly being raised in our current election cycle, when many voters have become disgusted with “the establishment” or “politics as usual.” We see this degeneracy in sporting alliances, whether in America (the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball) or abroad (FIFA, the Olympics). And, perhaps most insidious and dismaying, we can see it in the church, across denominations, movements, or “megachurch” congregations. Perhaps, many suggest, the key is to dismantle such immense, unwieldy systems, or at least reduce their authority. Leaving matters to the local and individual level will yield better results with less likelihood of systemic vice.
Part of the problem for Christians is that the Bible itself doesn’t stake out a single concrete position on the subject. The Bible calls such culture-wide depravity “the world” and seems to suggest it can carry a momentum of its own that snowballs beyond the dimensions of individual evil. Certainly large-scale sinful systems such as totalitarian governments (especially technologically sophisticated ones) have far greater capacity for harm than any lone villain. Nor can any Christians (Protestant, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox) plead innocent, for all major wings of the faith have participated in abuses aplenty during their centuries.
But there is no perfect historical analogue in Scripture to the twenty-first-century United States, and so trying to build a robust theology about the size or structure of government or church is an effort fraught with peril. At times in the Old Testament, God appears to favor the more localized structure of the judges’ system, and he condemns the people of Israel for rejecting his work through the judge and prophet Samuel. Yet the world of the judges was no libertarian paradise, as the book that bears their name testifies, but an almost dystopian moral quagmire in which “there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Samuel’s own sons have participated in this depravity, and indeed, as early as Deuteronomy, the same God who sustained Samuel was making provision for kingship.
The bureaucracy of Saul’s form of monarchy is condemned; elsewhere, however large and complex systems are commended. Joseph’s apparently appropriate reforms consolidate power for the pharaoh. The Chronicler seems to regard David’s ordering of the priesthood with favor. And while the massive empires of Babylon, Persia, and Rome are frequently execrated, their intricate and formally codified laws quite often become beneficial, instruments through which the hand of the sovereign Lord works. In ancient times, people often boasted about and exulted in their exhaustive laws, and for good reason: one had only to look beyond the city walls of an Ancient Near East settlement to see the brutal, lawless alternative.
Nor is the church any different. Many evangelicals in the more individualist camp take great delight in invoking Acts 2 and 4 to conjure images of a sweet and largely disorganized spiritual commune, held up as the unstructured ideal of the church. And Luke, the author, probably does view this epoch of the church with approval. But it is a very brief epoch: just a chapter (and presumably a few weeks) later, that same group sees two members struck dead for dishonesty. Not too longer after, they must call their first church council to resolve even larger disputes. The New Testament epistles and early Christian documents suggest that the early church already had a substantially developed liturgy, structure, and church government long before the closing of the canon.
Because different passages can be read in different ways, pious political philosophers or ecclesiologists have a tendency to proof-text the passages that support their natural leanings. But the Bible itself is complex and not easily reducible to tidy maxims. Old Testament Israel is neither an ideal national model nor a perfect shadow of the church, so we must hazard application only with the greatest care.
Which brings us (unresolved) back to the key issues raised by Quantico in the first place. The show is only a season old and could take any one of a number of directions. But the overall arc of season one suggests that in the end, Liam’s philosophy is as problematic as the actions he take on its behalf. For all their plentiful and very real conflicts, both in the “past” and “present” segments, the NATs find themselves working again in common cause for the United States and the FBI and in opposition to their former trainer. Despite rivalries, anger, and personal betrayals, they are able to lay aside grievances because they believe in an ideal of America and even the FBI and seek to transform the troubled reality into something better.
G. K. Chesterton expresses this paradox well in his book Orthodoxy when he notes that any true lover—of another person, of a country, of the universe itself—must exist in a state of tension. Such a person must show love for the object that acknowledges and seeks to remedy its failings while remaining persisting in love despite those failings:
Can he hate [the world] enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without once feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?
Of course, it is important to observe that not every system is created equal. Countries and governments and government groups are emphatically not the same as the church, any more than corporations or sporting alliances are. Thus, some analogies may break down.
Still, the love Chesterton enjoins is exactly the love that Christ showed us, a love that God held for is people entirely of His own volition, since we could never merit it. And if there is any system that ought to exhibit this kind of love, it is surely the church. Christians, and Protestants in particular, have been quick to abandon our religious systems in the hope of creating newer, “purer” ones. The result has often been schism, ill will, and an endless array of shifting denominations and groups. Whatever we may desire from doctrine or practice, surely even Evangelicals can recognize that, on the ground level, we have often failed to live out Jesus’s prayer, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”
I conclude inconclusively, for a distinct reason. The “biblical” approach to healing sin-sick systems appears to be case-by-case or too complex to be easily reducible. So I am not saying that there is never a time when some assembly or grouping or association may not need to be dismantled or consolidated. Even that ought to be done with caution, care, and (if possible) love. However, more often than we may think, I suspect that love will impel us toward healing such groups. Destruction and schism are, in some ways, the easier choices—let’s just burn everything down and start over again. But too often, we’ll miss the bigger point—all systems will always be sinful and impure, because they will always be filled with us. Perhaps—and this is nowhere truer than in church—we will be better served by choosing the slow, grinding, awkward, uncomfortable, and at times even painful process of loving these systems enough to stick with them and loving them enough to change them for the better. Challenging though it may be, more frequently than we’d like to admit, building is better than burning.
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