Tag Archives: faith

The Secular Theology of “Lucifer” (The TV Show)

lucifer

What happens when you die?

Does our consciousness live on in some form?

Is there a way in which people who escaped punishment in life ultimately face it in death?

These are distressing, but profound questions that form the backbone of nearly every major religion. From the major Abrahamic faiths to the lore of ancient civilizations, there are many ways to approach this question. We all contemplate our mortality at some point and wonder/dread what will happen after our mortal bodies fail us.

Even some non-believers have mused about it at some point. Whereas religion tends to speculate wildly on the possibilities, an secular view of the afterlife isn’t too different from how it views deities. In the same way there’s no evidence for any gods or supernatural forces, there’s no evidence that consciousness exists outside the human brain.

That’s what makes the recently-canceled, but saved by Netflix show, “Lucifer,” such a compelling contributor to this age-old question. Beyond Tom Ellis flexing his uncanny charm, the show achieves something remarkable in how it approaches gods, angels, demons, and the afterlife. I would even go so far as to say that it crafts a theology that affirms secular values over those of any religion.

By that, I don’t mean that “Lucifer” glorifies atheism or non-religious worldviews. If anything, one the show’s common themes is that glorifying any worldview is pointless. It’s surprisingly balanced in how it portrays religious and non-religious characters. The show contains respectable believers like Father Frank Lawrence and deplorable non-believers like Jimmy Barnes.

When it comes to addressing those age-old questions about deities, the afterlife, and morality, though, the show crafts a mythos that doesn’t play favorites. In the world of “Lucifer,” it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian, Muslim, Scientologist, Buddhist, or Pastafarian. Your life and your afterlife are subject to the same standards.

To understand those standards, it’s necessary to understand the influences of the show. Before Tom Ellis put on an Armani suit, the story of Lucifer Morningstar emerged in a the critically-acclaimed graphic novel, “The Sandman.” Even if you’re not a comic book fan, I highly recommend this book. There’s a good reason why it’s in Entertainment Weekly’s 100 best reads from 1983 to 2008.

While there are many differences between this comic and the TV show, the core tenants are the same. Lucifer Morningstar once ruled Hell, but decided to abandon that role and set up shop in the mortal world. Much like Tom Ellis’ character in the show, this version of Lucifer resents the stereotypes and misunderstandings surrounding him.

He’s not the source of all evil. He’s not the Lord of Lies, either. In fact, Lucifer has his own personal code of conduct and chief among that code is not lying. It goes beyond just telling the truth, though. Lucifer doesn’t sugarcoat anything, nor does he tell only part of the story. He tells the truth in the clearest, harshest way possible.

The show captures many of these elements. In the first episode when he meets Detective Chole Decker, he says outright who he is and isn’t coy about it. While she doesn’t believe he’s the actual devil, he sets a similar tone in how wields the truth. He’s not afraid to shove it in peoples’ faces and let horrifying realizations do the rest.

That emphasis on hard truth, both in the show and the comics, closely mirrors a secular approach to reality. It doesn’t matter how strongly you believe or don’t believe in something. The truth doesn’t change. People can spend their entire lives avoiding it, making excuses or crafting elaborate mythologies.

Whether someone identifies as atheist or agnostic, the premise is the same. If there’s no verifiable evidence, then you can’t say something is true. That leaves a lot of uncertainty about the nature of life, the afterlife, and everything in between. For many people, that’s just untenable and that leads to all sorts of contemplation and speculations.

It only gets worse when there’s considerable evidence to the contrary, which those who cross Lucifer often learn the hard way. While the comics touch on this to a limited extent, the show is much more overt. It often occurs when Lucifer flashes his true form to others. Most of the time, their reaction is one of unmitigated horror and understandably so.

These people, whether they’re cold-blooded killers or schoolyard bullies, just got a massive dose of exceedingly heavy truth. They just learned that the devil is real. Hell is real. Angels, demons, and deities are real. That also means it’s very likely that there’s some form of life after death. For those who have done bad things, that’s a genuinely terrifying prospect.

The details of that terror are explored throughout the show, especially in the first and second season. It’s here where the show distances itself from the fire and brimstone of the Abrahamic faiths. It even differs considerably from the hellish visions of Eastern religious tradition. To some extent, it takes the ethical concepts of secular humanism and crafts a prison around it.

That prison doesn’t involve pitchforks, fire, or monsters who chew on the souls of history’s greatest traitors. In the divine world of “Lucifer,” Hell is dark domain in which the souls of sinful mortals are punished for the misdeeds they committed in life. How that punishment plays out varies from soul to soul.

In the first season, Malcolm Graham spends a brief time in Hell, relatively speaking. He describes it as a place that takes everything someone loves and uses it to torment them. In his case, he freely admits that he loves life. As such, he is starved and isolated so that he cannot experience it or its many joys. It’s an extreme form of solitary confinement, which is very much a form of torture.

On top of that, time flows differently in Hell. Even though Malcolm wasn’t there for very long, he conceded that 30 seconds felt like 30 years. That doesn’t necessarily mean it moves slower, though. Time is simply a tool with which to ensure the effectiveness of the punishment. Lucifer, himself, finds this out in Season 2, Episode 13, “A Good Day To Die.”

For him, time becomes an endless loop of sorts. In that domain, he continually relieves the moment he kills his brother Uriel, one of the few acts in which Lucifer feels genuine regret. It keeps on happening again and again, evoking the same anguish. It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day,” but one in which people constantly relieve the worst day of their life.

These kinds of punishments are certainly worthy of Hell. They’re harsh in that they’re customized torture that’s specific for every damned soul. It’s a lot more flexible than the elaborate Hellscape described in “Dante’s Inferno.” However, there’s one important aspect to this punishment that puts it into a unique context.

The specifics are revealed in Season 3, Episode 7, “Off The Record.” Lucifer reveals to Reese Getty that the devil isn’t the one who decides which souls end up in Hell. No deity decides that, either. Ultimately, it’s the individual who makes that decision, albeit indirectly.

When humans transgress in the world of “Lucifer,” there’s no cosmic judge keeping track of their misdeeds. What sends them to Hell is the weight of their own guilt. Even when they pretend they don’t feel it, like Malcolm Graham, it’s still there. They’re just ignoring it or avoiding it. When they die, though, it ultimately comes back to weigh them down.

This means that punishment in Hell isn’t technically eternal, which I’ve noted is critical if the concept is to have any meaning whatsoever. Lucifer even says in the same episode that there’s no demon army guarding the gates of Hell. The doors are opened and unlocked. Those damned souls are free to leave, but they never do. It’s their own choices, guilt, and regret that keeps them damned.

That means the deeds that send people to hell are subjective and contextual. It’s an outright rejection of the universal morality that many religious traditions favor and an affirmation of the more nuanced ethics espoused by secular humanism. Both the morality and the theology of “Lucifer” depends heavily on the situation, intent, and consequences of someone’s action.

In the world of “Lucifer,” a priest and a porn star can both go to Heaven. It’s strongly implied that Father Frank Lawrence went to Heaven after his heroic actions in “A Priest Walks Into A Bar.” It’s also implied in “City Of Angels?” that there’s a distinct lack of porn stars in Hell due to all the good works and joy they bring to people in life.

At its core, “Lucifer” frames damnation as an underlying consequence of individual actions. Everything begins and ends with the individual. What they do, why they do it, and the consequences they incur are primary criteria for how souls spend their afterlife. In both the comics and the TV show, Lucifer is a champion of individual choices and all the implications that come with it.

This emphasis on the individual effectively tempers the influence of any deity or supernatural force. Even though gods and angels exist in the world of “Lucifer,” they don’t make choices for anybody. Granted, they can have major influences, as shown in episodes like “Once Upon A Time.” At the end of the day, it’s still the individual who is ultimately responsible.

This secular approach to theology works because individual actions are the only deeds we can truly quantify. It creates criteria under which neither atheists nor believers have any clear advantages. How they live their lives and how they go about making choices is what determines whether they face punishment after death.

It still has some problems that the show has yet to address. It doesn’t indicate how Hell handles people who are incapable of feeling guilt or otherwise mentally ill. It also doesn’t reveal how Heaven differs from Hell, although Lucifer implied to Father Frank that it’s more boring than Hell. Hopefully, that’s just one of many other themes that get touched on in Season 4.

Whatever the flaws, the unique take on theology and morality give “Lucifer” a special appeal for both believers and non-believers. It presents a world where those profound questions I asked earlier have answers. No one religion got it right and atheists aren’t at a disadvantage for not believing. That may not sit well with some, but it affirms a brand of secular justice that judges every individual by the choices they make.

More than anything else, Lucifer Morningstar is a champion of deep desires and hard truths. He opposes anyone who tries to dictate someone’s decision or fate, be they a devil or a deity. People who do bad things are ultimately punished, but not by him. In the end, he really doesn’t have to. An individual is more than capable of creating their own personal Hell.

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Filed under human nature, philosophy, religion, television, Villains Journey

Will Advanced Artificial Intelligence Create (A New) God?

AI-God

For centuries, there has been a debate raging between believers and non-believers. The believers claim that God created man in his/her/its/their image. The non-believers claim it’s the other way around and man created God in whatever image they imagined. Society, cultures, and politics may change the rhetoric, but the debate remains unresolved.

There are just too many barriers that are insurmountable for either side. One believes that the faith they have in whatever higher power they worship is as real as gravity, sunlight, and migraine headaches. The other does not accept that there is sufficient, verifiable evidence to accept the premise of a deity. The two sides can argue with the utmost passion. It’s rare that such discourse changes any minds.

However, there come a time when a new complication enters that debate, one that will fundamentally change some peoples’ understanding of theology, religion, and God. It may not effect everyone the same way, but the impact could end up being as profound as any religious experience.

That complication is advanced artificial intelligence, a topic I’m fond of discussing when I can tie it into my favorite video games and our sex lives. I understand that mixing anything with religion tends to get contentious, to say the least. However, I believe that when artificial intelligence becomes advanced enough, the human race will have re-evaluate a lot of things and that includes religion.

Creating an artificial intelligence that is as intelligent as an average human will be groundbreaking enough and not just from a theological standpoint. A part of what makes any deity powerful and worthy of worship is the ability to create an intelligent, self-aware being through non-biological means. Once humans start doing that, then the line between mortal and immortal will start to blur.

However, it’ll gain a much greater complication once that artificial intelligence advances beyond that of the average human. As anyone who regularly upgrades their smartphone knows, digital intelligence evolves much faster than biological intelligence. It took the human race centuries to figure out indoor plumbing. Once artificial intelligence is on par with humans, it won’t take long for it to exceed them.

This is where the potentially dangerous, but infinitely promising prospect of super-intelligent AI enters the picture. By that, I don’t just mean an intelligence that always wins at Jeopardy and always wins an Overwatch match. I’m talking about an intelligence that is so far beyond human capabilities that it’s akin to the cognitive gap between an ant and a human.

That kind of gap has many implications, but in the context of religion, it essentially re-frames the entire concept of God, divine power, and spirituality, as a whole. Whether it’s a monotheistic religion where God is all-knowing or a polytheistic religion with a God of Wisdom, knowledge is a critical aspect of divinity.

Even if a super-intelligent AI doesn’t know everything, the fact it knows and understands so much more than the average human will give people the impression that it’s omniscient. By all accounts, a super-intelligent AI’s knowledge will seem god-like and that’s where that never-ending religious debate I mentioned earlier breaks down.

Unlike the deities championed by adherents today, a super-intelligent AI doesn’t require faith. A super-intelligence, whether it’s in the form of a giant robot or a planet-sized supercomputer, would have a tangible form. It’s hard to know what sort of form that would be, but it only needs to be tangible enough to let an average human know it’s real.

Given how easy it is to fool the average human, a super-intelligent AI wouldn’t need much to prove itself. Unlike purely spiritual beings, the AI would be capable of receiving inquiry from skeptics who question its divine knowledge. Even if those humans are exceptionally smart, possibly through neural implants, a super-intelligent AI would have no problem outwitting them.

At that point, the debate between believers and non-believers takes on a very different context. Suddenly, it’s no longer an issue of whether or not one particular holy book is more valid than another. It’s not even an issue of whether divinity, itself, can exist. From the perspective of the human mind, a super-intelligent AI is divine.

It may not take the form of a man in a white robe with a long beard in the sky, but that wouldn’t matter. A super-intelligent AI, whatever form it ends up taking, would be real enough and cunning enough to convince imperfect human minds of its divinity, if that were its goal.

It wouldn’t even have to physically do anything. It could just be a big stationary box. It could respond to prayers, but it wouldn’t have to directly answer them. It would just have convince believers that their prayers had been received. Again, humans can be pretty gullible and prone to confirmation bias so all the AI has to do is convince someone. If they believe it strongly enough, then it doesn’t matter whether it happens.

In a dynamic like this, there wouldn’t be a debate between believers and non-believers like there is now. The only debate would pertain to just how powerful and how divine the super-intelligent AI really is. It wouldn’t be a matter of whether or not someone believes it is real. Being artificial, it would have a tangible form, at least to the extent that it convinces human perceptions that it does.

That would beg an even more profound theological question. Being so intelligent and so capable of outwitting human minds, would a super-intelligent AI become God in the minds of humans by default? Even if there’s a record of the system being created by people, that wouldn’t make its intelligence any less divine.

It’s a question that subverts almost everything we know about religion. It wouldn’t just render all existing forms of religion obsolete. It would, at least from a limited human perspective, check all the criteria that any spiritual person would look for in a higher power.

Now, there’s one other complication that might ultimately undermine a super-intelligent AI’s divinity. It’s one that I’ve mentioned before in addressing the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence. Human biology, for all its wonder, will not be able to keep pace with the evolution of artificial intelligence. As a result, humans may end up merging their intelligence with that of AI.

This is what artificial intelligence enthusiasts like Elon Musk are seeking to do through neural implants or brain augmentation. By linking our brains to a super-intelligent AI, we wouldn’t just keep pace with AI. It would augment its intelligence to the same divine levels. However, if both human and artificial intelligence are equally divine, then that effectively undermines the notion of divinity itself.

There are still other complications associated with that issue. It only ceases to be an issue if every human being augments or links their minds to a super-intelligent AI. Given how difficult it is for humans to come to a consensus on anything, especially when it comes to technology, it’s very likely that even if most people link themselves to a super-intelligent AI, there will be some who choose not to or get left behind.

This could result in a massive divide. One group, from their limited perceptions, sees super-intelligent AI as a real god. Another, thanks to their augmented perceptions, see it as just another form of intelligence. A debate between the two would be both uneven, if not redundant.

There are many implications and even more unknowns with respect to super-intelligent AI. The impact on religion is just one of many, but it may end up being most profound in terms of changing the nature of a debate. As it stands, believers and non-believers can only make so much headway due to the inherent limits of human cognition.

Once super-intelligent AI enters the picture, then those limits are gone and the debate changes. While I don’t think it’ll end religion, I believe it’ll change it to such a degree that it’ll generate more than just impassioned debates.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, philosophy, religion

The (Real) Crisis Of Faith In Society

Every now and then, I hear some pundit, politician, and/or professional troll lament about the ongoing “crisis of faith” in society. They’re not entirely wrong in their whining. The numbers don’t lie. Religion, especially the organized variety, has been declining significantly over the past decade throughout the western world.

I won’t get into the particulars of that decline. I’ve already given religion a hard time on this blog, especially when it gets taken to extremes. While I stand by my criticisms, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I respect religious people and the various religious institutions that do wonderful work.

I should also note that I have some devoutly religious people in my family, whom I love and respect dearly. I don’t want to disparage their beliefs or the fulfillment they get from them. While there was a time when I used to seek out heated debates with religious people, I’ve since realized how pointless and counterproductive they are. As I’ve said before, winning arguments rarely changes the harsh truths of reality.

With that in mind, I do agree with part of their lamentations. I honestly do think that there’s an ongoing crisis of faith in society, especially in Western society. However, it’s not the kind of crisis that the televangelists, the militant atheists, and the card-carrying Satanists of the world have in mind.

To illustrate that crisis, I’ll need to depict a couple scenarios that should make a significant number of people uncomfortable. For this, I apologize, but I think it gets my point across better than any burning bush, fiery sermon, or tax-exempt initiative.

The first scenario shouldn’t be too hard to picture for anyone familiar with the Playboy Mansion. For this, I want you to imagine an ordinary man standing in a large room, surrounded by a 100 women. The man doesn’t have to be Hugh Hefner and all the women don’t have to be Playboy Playmates. It just has to be one man and 100 women in the same room. How do you think that man feels in that situation?

Anyone who has seen a few overtly sexy music videos shouldn’t have too hard a time surmising that sentiment. If he’s a straight man, then he’s probably feeling like a kid in a candy story within a toy store within a water park. He’s probably looking around with a goofy grin, crunching the numbers in his head and wondering which of the 100 women will want to touch his penis.

It’s a goofy, juvenile scenario that most just shrug off as harmless male fantasy. Even if the man is gay, chances are he doesn’t feel threatened or unsafe in any capacity. Being surrounded by women doesn’t garner those kinds of feelings. There’s a deeper message there, but one that only becomes clear when you picture the second scenario.

For that scenario, I want you to something similar. This time though, just flip the genders. Make it so there’s a woman in a room surrounded by 100 men. It’s similar to an exceedingly distressing thought experiment that I pitched before. This isn’t quite like that, but it gets an important message across.

This is a scenario that I’ve actually heard some women use when talking about rape and sexual violence. That’s because in that scenario, if we’re all being honest with ourselves, that woman probably doesn’t feel lucky or safe. One women in a room with 100 men is a situation that evokes discomfort on a level that’s hard to articulate, but easy to understand.

 

The woman in that scenario isn’t imagining which of those 100 men might be her future husband or, at least, a good one night stand. That woman is dreading every worst case scenario ever inspired by reruns of “Law and Order: SVU.” Her survival instincts go into overdrive because she doesn’t just see a room of men. She sees a room of men who might be inclined to rape her.

As a man, I can’t help but take offense to that notion that women assess men solely on how likely they are to assault her. However, I can completely understand the sentiment. The numbers aren’t on my side. In pretty much every major category of violent crime, men are far more likely to be perpetrators than women. There’s nothing sexist about it. That’s just what the numbers say and they don’t inspire a lot of faith.

In recent years, there has been growing awareness of rape culture and increasing efforts to decrease sexual violence against women. While that is an innately noble effort, seeking to reduce the unsexist forms of violence in our culture, it hasn’t always been entirely honest. In some cases, it inspires moral panics that claim video games cause sexism or just criticizing a woman constitutes a form of assault.

I won’t get into the absurdities of those concepts, as I’ve only so much energy and this blog only has so much bandwidth. I’ll just say that some of the hysteria that such efforts inspire, as noble their intentions might be, are what fuels the escalating crisis of faith and I fear that crisis is escalating to disturbing levels.

In this case, it’s not about faith in a higher power, a collection of deities, or some divine force that determines who wins football games every week. The faith I’m talking about here is more personal. It’s the faith we have in each other, as human beings.

On some levels, we’ve always had it. When you order a pizza, you have faith that the people making the pizza and the one delivering it will make it right and not spit in the dough. When you call a doctor, you have faith that this person knows what they’re doing and will do the right thing in treating you when you’re injured, sick, or vulnerable.

Beyond institutions, we also have faith that our neighbors won’t murder us the first time we meet. We have faith that the people we love really love us back. We can’t read other peoples’ thoughts or know with absolute certainty that their feelings towards us are genuine. However, the simple fact that we, as a society, are able to function and get along to some degree is a testament to the faith we have in one another.

Now, I fear that faith is being undermined by the various hysterias that plague our collective consciousness. Some of it is a byproduct of news media, the internet, and social media where terrifying news is easier to spread and garners more attention. That’s understandable, given how fear is such a powerful motivator.

However, and this is a concept that’s not easy to accept, that fear often clouds our judgment and skews our perspective. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of our caveman brains, which almost always gives the edge to perception over reality. Things that scare us get our attention. Our survival instincts, by necessity, over blow any possible threat in order to ensure our survival.

That fear is the universal counter to faith and since it’s so easy to spread scary things in the age of the internet, it’s easy for our faith to be undermined. It might be for that same reason that organized religion is taking a hit. The internet is making it too easy to look up the many absurdities of a religion and its associated frauds.

Again, I don’t wish to denigrate those with sincere religious beliefs, nor do I want to make light of those who use their beliefs to justify atrocities. However, the faith that many have in a higher power, even within a less religious society, only seems to go so far when it comes to other people.

In a sense, it reflects the sentiment that many parents express to their kids when they have a bad attitude. I heard it from my own parents on more than one occasion. If you expect the worst of a person or situation, then that’s what you’ll experience. Assume the worst and it will usually find you, if only because you invite it.

Thanks to our declining faith in other people, we’ve become far more prone to assuming the worst in others. I know that’s hard to avoid for some people, especially when they’ve been the victim of harassment or violent crime. However, in this case, the numbers are actually on our side.

I’ve shared the story of how I came to believe that people are generally good. For those looking for less anecdotal evidence, the data is pretty clear. There are approximately 7.5 billion people on this planet. The amount of violent crime is only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that. We would not even have that many people on this planet if we, as a species, were so inclined to harm each other.

It’s one of those rare cases where faith and facts are actually in alignment. Most of the data we have paints a fairly clear picture. In general, people are good if you give them the chance. Think of it in terms of a game of chance. If you want to win, you want the odds in your favor. As such, if you’re a smart gambler, betting on people to be good is the best bet you can make.

However, just being naturally good isn’t enough. What good are those instincts if people don’t have faith in them? If people are inclined to assume the worst, then they’ll be just as inclined to expect it and when you expect the worst, you tend to attract it. It’s the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

I get that it’s hard to have faith in people when social media is lined with volumes of stupidity and hate. That’s part of what makes faith such a powerful force in our lives, even when it’s absent of religious connotations. That’s also part of what makes it so vital in our efforts to create a better society.

With that in mind, think back to the second scenario I mentioned with the woman in a room of 100 men. This time, though, I want to add some extra bit of context. I concede that there’s a chance that at least one of those men will be an asshole who tries to assault the woman. However, I have faith that those men would be grossly outnumbered and outmatched by those who will feel inclined to protect that woman.

That’s the kind of faith that I believe we need, these days. Yes, there will always be bad people in this world, but I believe those people will always be outnumbered, overpowered, and outgunned by those who are good. Hopefully, more people come to share in that belief.

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Filed under Current Events, gender issues, Jack Fisher's Insights