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 Man in the High Castle.*
Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s classic novel, is a TV show you would expect everyone to be talking about. The show offers an alternate 1960s setting in which the Allies lost World War II. The United States is now split between a Nazi-controlled white supremacist nation (formerly the Eastern United States), adorned with tidy nuclear family trappings, and a Japanese-controlled police state (formerly the Western United States), where whites are an oppressed minority. Rebels fight to overthrow tyrannical governments; haunting images of swastikas adorn New York City skyscrapers.Cultures of death must be examined if there is to be any hope at eradicating them and ensuring right to life for all people.
If any show feels relevant at the moment, it’s this one. Just turn on the news and look at stories about terrorism, racial tensions and white privilege, Neo-Nazis harassing minorities, and speculation that the Trump administration’s policies will eventually transform the United States into a dictatorship. The real-world parallels are striking.
The Man in the High Castle is entertaining, thoughtful, and among the most ambitious shows ever produced. It’s also, however, one of the few currently airing to seriously address what Christians call cultures of death.
In the pilot episode, Joe Blake’s (Luke Kleintank) truck blows a tire while transporting cargo cross-country in Nazi America. He pulls over for repairs. A police officer (whose uniform bears a swastika) stops to assist, and the two begin a friendly conversation. The officer even offers him a sandwich. Then, out of nowhere, it starts snowing.
“What is that?” Joe asks. “Oh, that’s the hospital,” replies the officer. “The hospital?” Joe seems perplexed. “Yeah. Tuesdays, they burn cripples [and] the terminally ill. Drag on the state.” The officer, in the process of inspecting Joe’s identification, decides everything is in order and returns to his car. “You have a safe trip, son.” For just a moment, Joe contemplates what he just heard before resuming his journey.
It doesn’t stop there. The ruthless Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), formerly of the U.S. army, finds himself questioning his pragmatically adopted post-war beliefs and subsequent actions after discovering that his beloved son, Thomas (Quinn Lord), has developed a form of muscular dystrophy. This condition is considered incurable by a Nazi physician, thereby rendering Thomas “defective,” unworthy of life in the Greater Nazi Reich. John’s efforts to conceal Thomas’s condition (a crime against the state) comprise the bulk of his arc in season 2.
In the Japanese Pacific States, threats of war from the Reich prompt the secret construction of nuclear weapons. To this end, General Onoda (Tzi Ma) authorizes covertly smuggling radioactive materials aboard white-only civilian transportation. When Trade Minister Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) questions the morality of such a scheme, Onoda justifies himself by pointing out that only non-Japanese citizens will be harmed.
The tradition-minded rulers of the Japanese Pacific States and the materialist heads of the Greater Nazi Reich personify warring ideologies, but they share one defining attribute: the state determines whether their citizens’ lives are worthy or disposable. The sacrifice of those considered disposable serves each government’s vision of a greater good. The two governments represent, in essence, cultures of death.
The term was coined by Pope John Paul II in his 1995 papal encyclical Evangelium vitae:
“This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of ‘conspiracy against life’ is unleashed. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States.”
The representations of cultures of death shown in The Man in the High Castle reflect real-life atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire before and during World War II, and they remain relevant. Societies that do not provide adequate care for the poor, wage unjust wars, and perform genocides, even if guilty of just one of these and not others, have become, at least in part, cultures of death. The term is also frequently applied to abortion and voluntary euthanasia, which might explain why it rarely used outside religious circles, and why many people on the political Left don’t employ it.
The Man in the High Castle does not specifically address these issues (yet), but still offers some compelling insights. Real-life arguments advocating abortion when children will likely suffer physical or mental disabilities after birth, or pregnancies being terminated primarily for inconvenience rather than health, bear striking resemblance to rhetoric espoused by the Reich’s eugenic proponents. In addition to labeling people like Thomas as “defective,” Reich officials euphemistically use justifications such as “sparing them any physical suffering” and saving them from the “indignity of being a useless eater.” Like parts in a machine, citizens’ lives are only valued for their efficiency. This is exactly the sort of society John Paul II warned against.
Equally horrifying is the sense of normalcy with which these attitudes are presented. No one openly protests the Reich’s actions, and even characters privately troubled nevertheless seem to accept it as part of everyday life. Only John Smith, his wife, Helen (Chelah Horsdal), and Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) finally speak up when comforting Thomas after discovering his illness. “We all have flaws, all of us, every single one of us,” Juliana tells him. “It’s what makes us who we are.” Alas, even Thomas himself ultimately accepts these attitudes and turns himself over to the Public Health Department for voluntary euthanasia out of loyalty to the state, inspired by his father after he thwarts a coup against the Reich.
Proponents of legal access to abortion and euthanasia emphasize choice: a woman’s choice to terminate pregnancy and a terminally ill patient’s choice to end his or her own life. At the same time, these proponents rightfully oppose the Reich’s policies of involuntary euthanasia. But equating the morality of these issues with matters of choice misses the point entirely. Many pro-choice advocates openly acknowledge abortion ends human life while still insisting the right to choice is absolute; many sick people openly acknowledge the pain their suicides will cause others while insisting their right-to-die is absolute. Whether voluntary or not, these practices (when legalized in the United States and elsewhere) callously treat people’s lives as products worthy of keeping or discarding depending on their usefulness, and do not uphold human dignity or the sanctity of life.
In The Man in the High Castle, the Japanese Empire does not visibly promote eugenics. Their mode of governing fittingly invites comparison to the culture of death tendencies that we can see in certain Middle Eastern countries and ISIS. Seppuku is still practiced and (usually non-Japanese) citizens brutally executed for crimes most democracies would consider lesser offenses. In one particularly disturbing example, Frank Frink’s (Rupert Evans) sister and her children are gassed in a luxurious waiting room under Chief Inspector Keito’s (Joel de la Fuente) orders after Frank refuses to betray the whereabouts of his girlfriend, Juliana, who is in the Neutral Zone (a thin territorial line separating the Reich and Japanese states). In a horrific irony that echoes the crimes of World War II, it turns out that Frank’s family is secretly Jewish.
Despite all this, The Man in the High Castle‘s perspective of morality is not nearly as black and white as these antagonists’ actions suggest. Obergruppenführer Smith’s willingness to defy his Nazi principles to protect his son not only reveals a previously unsuspecting good side but also hints at potentially heroic developments in future seasons. Resistance members like Frank, however, allow hatred for their tyrannical overlords to consume them. They endanger innocent lives to assassinate high-ranking officials, raising the question about whether or not some of the good guys are any better than the bad guys. Perhaps the series’ only true protagonist is Juliana; her compassion toward her enemies and unwillingness to compromise that goodness contrasting with nearly every other character’s moral gray areas, although Smith and Tagomi’s voices carry strong moral weight at critical moments. In a world filled with death and despair, these characters offer glimpses of something better.
Even if The Man in the High Castle doesn’t exactly promote a culture of life in the Christian sense (Christianity is present, but so far barely explored), it does at least thoroughly explore and ultimately condemn cultures of death. Cultures of death must be examined if there is to be any hope at eradicating them and ensuring right to life for all people. Any piece of pop culture which does so compellingly in today’s post-Christian world and forces people to seriously think about them deserves recognition.
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.