Articles · MST3K

An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality

I have never, for a single second of my life, believed in God.

I was raised atheist. My parents always told me growing up that I could believe whatever I wanted without evoking their judgement, but that wasn’t realistically the case; neither of them was spiritual, so I had no religious role models to teach me about God. In fact, more than just living without faith, both of them were involved in skeptic organizations for years. Their friends, the people I looked up to as a child, fought the influences of organized religion for a living. There was no chance I would turn out any other way but atheist.

I’ve always been okay operating without faith – how could I miss something I’ve never had? As far as I’m concerned, science explains the Universe just fine, and there are tangible things in this world (science fiction, the month of October, Quisp) that are worth living for. I never thought I would put blind faith in anything. I never thought I needed to.

But then I found Mystery Science Theater 3000. MST3K, the beloved TV classic. MST3K, the beacon of antidepressant comedy. MST3K, whose creators would over many blessed years become my heroes, friends, and family. It gives me community in forums, inspiration in art, and purpose in laughter. It gives me love. When my robots and mad scientists are playing on the screen, it almost feels like they’re in the room with me, and I’m less alone.

I have spent countless happy hours drawing portraits of the characters from MST3K. I identify so deeply with the robot puppet Crow that I got to know his original puppeteers. And I had such a memorable, fulfilling experience meeting the show’s cast members at a live tour stop in San Francisco in 2013 that I’m planning to go back there for grad school, because that evening made me fall in love with the city, and now the Golden Gate Bridge puts the serotonin in my brain to better use than Prozac ever could. Mystery Science Theater has shaped all of my life, because I believe in it, sometimes past the point of what I’m easily able to explain.

And that’s how I know that God can be anything.

Divinity doesn’t have just one name, or one form. The “bearded man in the sky” idea has become a sort of trope in my mind, like a hackneyed image that people invoke to quickly and easily symbolize many organized religions. However, it’s that overused image that turned me off to the whole idea of spirituality when I was a little kid. How do we know God is a man if no one has ever seen him? How do we understand what “He” looks like? If science can’t uncover it for certain, I figured, then I won’t believe in it. And I certainly can’t love it the way faith is supposed to intertwine with love.

But as soon as I was able to reroute my understanding of religion to something besides organized belief, I realized that spirituality isn’t about an image. It’s about a feeling. It exists in the faith that it creates in you, regardless of what gives you that faith.

Even if that faith comes from something seemingly ridiculous, like a grown man in a jumpsuit rapping about Chinese fish monsters to robots made from trash.

A sense of belonging in the world, confidence that your future is secure, feeling benevolently watched over by a force that you don’t understand – these are the hallmarks of faith. But what if something besides a traditional deity could make you feel that way – say, for example, a cheap Minnesotan TV show? That’s close enough to God for me.

Some might argue that finding sacred meaning in anything earthly defeats the point, that the goal of it all is to direct your feelings toward something inherently not understandable. If the object of faith can be seen and comprehended, it loses its meaning and mysticism, some might caution, and you risk getting disappointed and falling from grace.

But does an object have to reside on another plane of existence to inspire otherworldly wonder? A person doesn’t have to come from a literal firmament in order to qualify as sacred – they could just come from, say, Wisconsin. If you happen to live in Colorado, then your chances of running into them or God at the supermarket are both essentially zero. So what’s the difference? 

As long as your belief system doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, it probably doesn’t matter what it’s based on. In fact, having spiritual love for something earthly has its own unique benefits, not least of which is that you might get the privilege of interacting with it in person.

FT Denver edit
Left to right: Frank Conniff, me, Crow T. Robot, Trace Beaulieu

That being said, it’s not healthy to flat-out worship real people. To me, the word worship denotes a fervent obsession, blind to any contradicting evidence that may change its nature. Even if they’re uni-directional, relationships should never be that ignorant; no one is perfect or should be treated as such. Faith describes a lighter, more reasonable, and more respectful practice than worship.

So if you don’t worship the people who elicit your belief, then can you really say it’s still belief? Of course you can. You can find faith in whatever you want! It’s more than possible – in fact, I might even call it common – to trust in the love people make you feel, allow it to guide you into the future, and find inspiration in it, without worshipping their every move, or even being in contact with them. I’ve been empowered by living that way for years. Joel, the series’ first host, is a critical part of my faith, but I don’t think that everything he touches turns to gold.

It’s only recently that I’ve been able to look beside my hard scientific values and just be grateful for the way my beliefs make me feel. I’m glad to be faithful. I don’t talk about my feelings for MST3K much (anymore), because they exist only in my mind and only for my benefit, but I find love and meaning and direction in the emotionality of my faith. I find myself there, which is nothing short of a miracle. 

 

4 thoughts on “An Atheist’s Guide to Spirituality

  1. Well put, MSTie to MSTie. We probably should be careful worshiping Crow as his ego doesn’t need encouragement.

    “I want to decide who lives and who dies.” Crow T. Robot

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  2. Hi Zoe, nice post! It got me thinking… I think I know what you mean, since I don’t believe in the bearded man in the sky either or even that there’s a God as a supernatural being, yet I did have a religious upbringing. I’m a big fan of people like James Randi, Steven Novella, Brian Dunning and a that guy, the @badastronomer, not sure if you know him 🙂 So my upbringing and skepticism has made me realize it is possible to approach the *idea* of a God with skepticism and still extract tremendous value from it. Dr. Jordan B. Peterson from the University of Toronto is a clinical psychiatrist doing just that. He started doing a series of lectures this summer worth watching. This first lecture alone is rapidly approaching 1 million views: https://youtu.be/f-wWBGo6a2w?t=18m Don’t take my word for it, just watch minute 18 for 30 seconds to see what I mean.

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  3. I was raised in a Christian family (mainstream Protestant), but for myself, I rejected religion as a child, then embraced it as a teenager and into my early twenties, and then rejected it again. The constant through all these stages of my life is that I’ve always been a truthseeker (or at least, I like to think so).

    When I embraced Christianity, I embraced it wholeheartedly. Casual religion has never been an option for me, because either religion is a truth that changes everything or it is not true at all; there is no in between. I was never blind in faith, but always approached it thoughtfully, forming my own opinions on matters theological, listening to other people’s perspectives and incorporating them into my worldview.

    For a few years I lived in the residential wing of a theological college, while studying science at university. There I spent many hours discussing matters of interest with other residents in the upstairs loungeroom. Creation vs evolution was a regular topic, and you can guess which side I was on (hint: Dad is a geologist who spent his working life looking at microfossils dug up from thousands of metres under the ground).

    I spent a lot of time reading Christian books and listening to Christian music. I still have some of these, because there is wisdom to be found in them and nothing about atheism entails throwing out babies with bathwater. For example I have previously quoted to you from Henri Nouwen, and there is more where that came from. I also wrote some Christian songs of my own.

    One thing I always found attractive about Christianity is its teaching that what you yearn to be is more important than what you actually succeed in being. I always found that a liberating message. Many of my role models were people who’d transformed their own struggles in life into a message of hope for others, and that was hugely influential, because I had my own struggles and yearned for the day when I might become a beacon of light to others.

    I am not religious now, but like you, I do consider myself spiritual. I understand the desire to, one way or another, metaphorically or otherwise, make friends with the cosmos. As you say, spirituality is a feeling, quite independent of what does or does not really exist.

    I sampled a few MST3K episodes on your recommendation. (BTW, I’ve always assumed the abbreviation is pronounced “mistake”.) It had its moments (especially moments involving Crow, who is unquestionably the best character by far), and I liked the multilayeredness of it, but to be honest I found that over an hour and a half per episode it was stretched too thin. From Season One I liked “Women of the Prehistoric Planet” enough to watch it in full, and from Season Three I was really enjoying “Pod People” up until shortly before the half hour mark, but at that point I decided I couldn’t stand any more of the sexist/domineering behaviour of one character in the movie they were watching (also a problem with Prehistoric Planet, of course, and maybe my tolerance had already been worn down). But aside from that it was shaping up to be one of the best episodes I’d sampled.

    My own comedy classics are mostly British: Terry Pratchett, Red Dwarf, The Goodies, Monty Python, Flanders & Swann, etc.

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    1. I’m glad to know you went about understanding theology thoughtfully. We need more people who do that, instead of taking it on blind faith, and studying the Bible like it’s the only book that was ever written. Ultimately my interpretation of faith is that it’s a very human thing to look for meaning in life, and the search itself has meaning. Very meta.

      MST3K is too long for some people’s tastes and that’s fine. It’s hard to pay attention to artless garbage movies for 90 minutes. I usually listen to is as background noise, and tune in for the host segments with the robots. Crow is unquestionably the best, I agree.

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