Contains mild spoilers for one episode of The Good Place.
There’s a ton of magic and religion in our popular culture. I don’t mean stories about religious beliefs and believers. I mean stories where religion and magic are real: stories about vampires and witches, demons and angels, souls and afterlives.
One of my favorite television shows right now is NBC’s The Good Place. A half-hour comedy about ethics and moral philosophy, the show is that rarest of rarities: a deep, complex, thoughtful exploration of humanity that’s also laugh-out-loud hilarious and wildly entertaining. It’s also set in the afterlife. Well, an afterlife, anyway.
How do humanists deal with this? To some extent, we don’t have much choice. These stories are embedded in our art and culture, and they run very deep. Even if every single person on the planet stopped believing in the supernatural, these stories wouldn’t disappear. And I wouldn’t want them to. They’re part of our history, part of what makes us who we are. Plus, a lot of them are good stories. I’m not going to avoid The Odyssey just because it has gods and goddesses in it. I’m not going to avoid modern retellings of it or modern references, allusions, or winks to it. And while I don’t go out of my way to reference magic in my own fiction, I won’t go out of my way to avoid it, either. There’s just too much of it.
But is there another reason to tell stories using magic?
When stories use religion or magic, it’s an opportunity to set the stakes higher. Characters are more powerful, risks are higher, the harm and good done are greater. This can be both a strength and a weakness, of course. Weak fantasy writers often use magic as a substitute for emotional impact rather than a tool to create it. But in the hands of good creators, the exaggerated stakes of magic can add power, vividness, and emotional impact.
The way The Good Place tackles the trolley problem is an excellent example. In the classic philosophical conundrum (originally stated in its modern form by Philippa Foot), a runaway trolley is headed for five people on the tracks. You can do nothing and let the five people be killed—or you can flip a switch and direct the train to another track, a track with only one person on it. This thought experiment is widely used to explore the consequences of different ethical philosophies—and to illustrate that there are often no perfect choices. Being a good person often means making the least bad choice.
In The Good Place (here comes the spoiler), the trolley problem isn’t just a thought experiment. It’s acted out in vivid detail. Chidi (William Jackson Harper) is a dead philosophy professor teaching ethics in the afterlife. When the powerful magical being Michael (Ted Danson) gets irritated with these lessons, he whisks Chidi onto an out-of-control trolley hurtling towards five people. Chidi becomes frozen with indecision—and the train gruesomely crashes into the five, covering Chidi in their blood. (FYI, the show isn’t usually this gory. And, as Michael later explains, this is a simulation: the people aren’t real, although their suffering is.)
I’m fairly familiar with the trolley problem. I’ve heard about it, read about it, had long conversations about it. But until I saw the eponymous episode of The Good Place I didn’t really grasp its emotional impact. This thought experiment isn’t about abstractions. It’s about terrifying, painful death, the real blood of real people on our hands.
When the trolley problem is discussed abstractly, it’s—well, abstract. If it were depicted in a realistic, non-magical story, the moral philosophy would be overwhelmed by the horror, the gruesomeness of the blood and death. But a magical story can strike a balance. It can be both detached and vivid. It can let the viewer engage in the thought experiment, while still experiencing its emotional impact.
The Good Place is hardly the only piece of pop culture where this is true. Created by an atheist (Joss Whedon), Buffy the Vampire Slayer famously used magical stories to depict the heightened emotional lives of teenagers. It’s set in a world where unfathomable boys are literal werewolves, getting lost in the crowd turns people invisible, and you need to know the plural of apocalypse because every conflict is life or death. The same is true for the Netflix series Stranger Things, where children are powerless and struggle to make people believe them; it’s true for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, where growing up means coming to terms with how screwed-up the adult world can be. This obviously isn’t limited to pop culture, either, and it isn’t just a modern phenomenon. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet—we could spend all day coming up with examples of old, classic stories that use the supernatural to heighten emotions and to illustrate or symbolize human experiences.
But there’s another reason for humanists to appreciate stories where religion is true. These stories have a unique opportunity to critique religion.
One of the reasons I like The Good Place so much is that it’s highly critical of afterlife theologies. It’s not as overtly spelled out as the lessons in moral philosophy. But embedded in every episode is a damning critique of both the plausibility and the ethics of afterlife beliefs.
The pointed, unanswerable questions the show poses about afterlives will be familiar to many humanists. How is it fair to have infinite punishment for finite sins? What’s the point of punishment and reward if people can’t learn to do better (heaven and hell), or can’t remember what they’re being punished or rewarded for (reincarnation)? How much worse is the best person in hell than the worst person in heaven? Are we supposed to accept the decisions of the gods simply because they have the power to make them? How could heaven be perfectly blissful if people you love are in hell?
We can pose these questions without fiction and storytelling, of course. But I’m not sure they have the same impact. I like a closely reasoned critique as much as the next humanist. But the paradox of fiction is that it can sometimes convey human reality far more effectively than nonfiction. And that includes fiction about magic and religion.
Not all magical stories critique religion, of course. Many of them are neutral about it, and some positively promote it to the point of propagandism. (The Chronicles of Narnia, anyone?) And I don’t know whether the creators of The Good Place are religious, spiritual-but-not-religious, atheist, or what. What I do know is that the show powerfully eviscerates the belief in an afterlife, with an effectiveness that conventional critics of religion (myself included) will never achieve.