I am a lifelong Doctor Who fan. The Fourth Doctor was my doctor, with his explosive laugh and long, long scarf. He was my moral compass, offering insightful commentary to the big questions of life and leading me to realize that moral decisions were not right and wrong but shaded in ambiguity. He tried to make the best choice possible under the circumstances, knowing that even the best choices have negative consequences. I can give the Doctor credit for asking the questions that set me on a long journey towards Unitarian ministry. So when I saw the video above, suggesting that Doctor Who is a religion, I was intrigued.
This video from Mike Rugnatta and the Idea Channel explores the idea that the long running BBC tv series Doctor Who and its associated fandom could be considered a religion. Using a broad definition of religion from Clifford Gertz, Rugnatta’s arguement is plausible; sci-fi fans do take on identities and attitudes associated with the world view of the show/book/comic/series. Doctor Who particularly emphasizes doing good, expressing wonder at the universe and helping others. At Television Without Pity, Jacob, the reviewer of the early reboot, brilliantly explores the religious mythos of the Doctor.
But is it a religion? While I like Rugnatta’s arguement that it isn’t just the ethos of the show but the response of the fans that turns Doctor Who into a religion, and I am comfortable with a definition of religion which goes beyond the worship of a supernatural deity, in the end I don’t buy it. I grew up before the internet, so I was a Doctor Who fan alone, who knew very few people who liked the show the way I did. With social media it is now far easier to make connections and reinforce one’s fandom; geek is cool in a way it has never been. I have been influenced by Doctor Who and its delight in humanity; but even with the fansites and the iconic images and the kitsch and the conventions, it is not a religion. While Who fans might use “fezes are cool” as a mantra, or build their own TARDIUS shrine, the Doctor Who universe simply isn’t a coherent or consistent or meaningful enough system to be a religion.
For me, religion needs to connect me to the larger whole, to encourage awe and wonder at the greatness of the universe/god/mystery and of being human as part of that greatness. While there are magnificent moments in Doctor Who, such as when Rose takes on the energy of the TARDIUS, I’m one step removed from the experience. My own spiritual experiences mean so much more. Religion also needs to ground me, to sustain me, to nourish me as I live my everyday life. While Doctor Who can offer valuable moral guidance, my life seems quite dull compared to saving the entire planet from the Daleks. I value my life and this planet less because reality seems so boring compared to being a companion of the Doctor. I need a tradition that makes my everyday world seem more wonderful, more valued, not less. Religion may provide a respite from the troubles of living, but it also sends us back to the world, renewed and ready to re-engage. I’m not clear that fandom does this.
I came to Unitarianism relatively late in life. I sought a religious tradition because I wanted was a face to face community, a gathering of people that shared a common desire to honour the mystery and celebrate the earth. I wanted rituals and symbols that spoke to me being part of the human story. I wanted stories that acknowledged the tremendous strides of science as well as ancient wisdom. I found that as a person of the chalice.
I love Doctor Who, and while it is no longer just a tv show, thanks to its enthusiastic fanbase, it is also not a religious tradition. It is a fabulous, interactive outpouring of creativity, a new kind of multi-media, multi-experiential on-going art project, which doesn’t yet have a name. I am glad to be a part of it all, but for a way of understanding the world that is meaningful, sustaining, and renewing – that I find within my Unitarian religion.