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 series is a mash-up of essays, thoughts, and episode synopsis, all triggered by watching Season three of The Good Place, a terribly unique and clever show. Needless to say, there are spoilers. For a more traditional recap (as well as excellent behind the scenes stuff), check out the wonderful The Good Place: The Podcast, hosted by Marc Evan Jackson (otherwise known as Shawn the demon).
For a long time I have seen echos of LOST in The Good Place—the opening shots of the eyes, even the sounds they utilize for the flashbacks. Does this mean that this show is going the same direction, with strong, vivid story lines and characters slowly dissolving into a complicated mess of thoughts about the afterlife? (Honestly, I can remember the first two seasons of LOST with crystal clarity but have no recollection of how it ended—they were all in purgatory, maybe?)
Who knows, but episode 9 of season 3 (“Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By”) starts off with a delightful throwback to LOST (supposedly creator Mike Schur’s favorite show). This episode is quite rangy, starting with Michael and Janet interacting with Doug Forcett (the man who guessed correctly what the afterlife would be like after taking magic mushrooms in 1972). Doug turned his hallucination about point systems and the good/bad place into a quest to rack up as many points as possible. To do so, he spends his life ensuring the happiness of other people (and creatures), often to his own detriment.I too am obsessed with the psychology of do-gooders and how they help us understand the world we live in through their failed attempts at perfection.
Doug, and what he represents, is what most interested me about this episode. The rest of it (including a long bar-room fight scene between Janet and some demons) felt very uneven, and highlights how excruciating it can be to watch this show week by week with all of the cliffhanger endings. But Doug is where the writers camp out for a bit, and I’m glad, because I too am obsessed with the psychology of do-gooders and how they help us understand the world we live in through their failed attempts at perfection.
In the opening montage, we catch a glimpse of the book Forcett is reading—The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer. Singer, who was quite the controversial figure in the 1990s and beyond (for good reason), is a famous utilitarian ethicist. Spurred on by the first two seasons of The Good Place, I actually read Singer’s most famous article, one that sparked a revolution in charitable giving in the 1970s called “Famine, Affluence and Morality.” I ADORED it, mostly for the clear-sighted ability to envision the world’s moral responsibility to help the suffering, no matter our geographic or relational distance. I shared it with many people. I have talked about it constantly. I have annoyed people that I dearly love with my desire to talk about the ethics presented in it at all times.
I am not alone in this reaction to Singer. In fact, as writer Larissa Macfarquhar documents in her incredible book on do-gooders called Drowning Strangers, there are certain kinds of people who feel intensely drawn to Singer’s work—going so far as to write notes including their contact info in the margins of his books in libraries, trying to find other people who are interested in the same things. Doug, who grows and eats his own food (radishes and lentils), recycles his waste into drinking water, and is routinely abused both by wild animals and local sociopaths, takes his obsession with ethics/being good to an extreme that we are meant to view as pathetic, funny, and ultimately meaningless.
Because the big bombshell this episode drops when Sean the demon tells Michael that he knows Doug Forcett will eventually be in the bad place. Michael, and the viewers, are left to question once again the arbitrary rules. Michael decides to confront the accountants, and Janet takes the humans with her into her void to escape the demons, leaving the next episode wildly up for grabs. But I would be surprised if we didn’t eventually explore the idea that there is no Good Place, and what that means for humankind that so desperately longs to believe that there is one, at least for certain people.
Is Doug Forcett a saint? Michael thought so at first, but realizes he is mistaken. But I don’t buy the simple binary presented here. Doug is extreme in the ways that Peter Singer, Dorothy Day, the early Christian desert mothers and fathers—and perhaps even people like Martin Luther—are; Doug does not appear to be a balanced person. As he tells Michael, knowing there is an accountant out there counting his points, he can’t relax for even one second. He has to make sure he is maximizing the happiness of others. In this day and age, we might label him and other celebrated “saints” as deeply misguided, or perhaps even afflicted with hyper morality, or religious/moral scrupulosity (a real OCD diagnosis!). But perhaps Doug and his lentil/radish ways and obsession with Peter Singer is being presented as one of the myriad of ways a person can choose to live in a world that is not just and where their actions carry weight in the afterlife.
Doug, like a number of outliers before him, chooses to parlay his hallucination about the world into a life lived in pursuit of minimizing the suffering around him. How is this any different than Eleanor choosing extreme individualism, or Chidi being paralyzed by indecision, or Jason escaping into fantasy, or Tahani pursuing adoration? There are so many ways that we humans try to live in light of the big questions, especially the ones about death and the breaking of relationships here on earth. Doug Forcett is presented here as an example of one of the ways people deal with these questions, which is by trying very hard to become a good person, even to the detriment of personal happiness. And instead of coming across like a joke, I think he is a harbinger of the futility of earning one’s own salvation and perhaps even the overall cruelty of a points-based system.
Going back to the opening, LOST-inspired scene, Forcett is trapped in a cycle of trying to save himself, locked into a routine of ending suffering by living a life that is as moral as possible. But in the end, he is alone—making us ask the question: what good are all the moral scruples in the world if you forget to actually love and be loved by others?
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