The Twilight Zone's version of the atheist takedown.

Happy New Year! As you may know, the Sc-Fi channel runs a Twilight Zone marathon on New Years's Eve and New Year's Day. It's fun to see all the old filmmaking techniques, the occasional bad acting, the weirdness of the stories and how freaky that narrator is (Futurama does a perfect parody called "The Scary Door".) But it's also fun to see American culture and weird beliefs in this era.

One episode called "The Obsolete Man" had this weird "git them godliss commies!" feel to it. A totalitarian state holds a trial and finds an elderly librarian (Burgess Meredith ) to be obsolete. As the Chancellor (Fritz Weaver) explains, librarians are obsolete because there are no more libraries. He goes on to say that a minister would be obsolete if there were no God, and that indeed he is because the state has proven this to be so. The Chancellor is the typical tyrannical atheist character of both urban legends and Chick Tracts alike. As always, this strawman is knocked over by the brave and righteous Christian figure.

If you'd like to see it, IMDB has the full episode. Basically, the chancellor who goes on about there being no God is also a eugenicist and says that Hitler and Stalin had the right idea, they just didn't kill off all the undesirables. It's somewhat likes the quotes I often see in the mainstream everyday comments and on sites like FSTDT about how all atheists are evil killers and as bad as Nazis, etc. It's not an exaggeration, either. Look what Ben Stein said:

"Stein: When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you.
Crouch: That’s right.
Stein: …Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.
Crouch: Good word, good word.

That's pretty damn harsh, even if you've been told a lot of bad things about who you are or what you think. I've been compared to a mass murderer for being atheist (and for being pro-choice, sometimes even by other atheists), I've been called a racist for challenging the sexism found in holy books such as the bible, and I've been compared to a Nazi for daring to believe that men and women should be treated as equals. Frankly, the whole "atheists/evolutionists are Nazis" thing doesn't even make sense. I don't see any reason why either could support racism, eugenics, genocide or anything like that.

Anyway, speaking of not making sense, the librarian is to be executed, but he may choose how. If a society is killing off people for being obsolete, why on Earth would they give them such a wide range of options? That's really inefficient and stupid. The man asks to secretly tell an assassin how to kill him, and asks that his execution be televised. The people at the trial are confused by the first part but pleased with the second. They like making examples of people. The execution is set for midnight the next day and it is to take place in the librarian's room.

So the next night, he invites the chancellor over for a talk. He ends up locking him in the room and revealing that he chose to have a bomb set to explode at midnight. Then, he starts calmly reading from the bible while the chancellor freaks out. It's like something stolen from the pages of Flannery O'Connor: arrogant jerk (who has been an atheist, an intellectual or a liberal in several of her stories) gets broken down and humiliated. Of course, the chancellor eventually yells "In the name of God, let me out!" and the librarian does.

Next, we see that the chancellor is on trial for making a coward of himself on television and disgracing the party. He is found obsolete and tries to make an escape. Hilariously, the jury block his exit all West Side Story style and end up swarming him while he cries like an idiot.

It's the classic story of "we'll show you, Mister Smartmouth Atheist!" These stories are pretty insulting and present horrible stereotypes about us, but I can't help but find them funny. It's clear that someone in the Christian majority has little to no understanding of us, but feels deeply threatened nonetheless. It's also kind of funny to see these good moral Christian people get off on the humiliation of another human being. But, as I've said before, I think that a lot of religious people base their morals on obedience rather than actually helping their fellow people.

It’s not all bad, though. The episode points out that dictatorships censor books and ideas and want to keep people unquestioning and uneducated. It defend the value of libraries, freedom of ideas and the importance of literature. It’s no coincidence that the librarian’s name is Rodney Wordsworth. There is also this interesting conclusion by the narrator:

The chancellor, the late chancellor, was only partly correct. He *was* obsolete, but so is the State, the entity he worshipped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of man, that state is obsolete. A case to be filed under "M" for Mankind... in the Twilight Zone.

You know… I think that could be said of a lot of religions, religious figures, and churches.

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Comment by Leandro Correia on January 3, 2009 at 6:52pm
Becky, communism is not a religion. But communist governments are surely as dogmatic as any other religion. No questioning, your leader knows what's better for you. And if you don't like it, you'll suffer your punishment (although in religions, the punishment is an imaginary one). ;o)
Comment by Becky Garcia on January 3, 2009 at 1:48am
Thanks, greyfoot and Leandro.

(How would communism count as a religion, though?)
Comment by Leandro Correia on January 2, 2009 at 6:34am
Honestly, as an atheist and religion hater, I really enjoyed "The Obsolete Man" and I think it´s one of the best episodes from the series. Of course the chancellor is a stereotype, but heavily based on the Second World War trauma (as many of the episodes), but for me it´s a story that seriously mess with totalitarism. The chancellor ending was not for me a mock on atheism, but a serious attack on hypocritical power.
Comment by greyfoot on January 1, 2009 at 11:57pm
Hello, Becky.

I'm overjoyed to see someone of a like mind espouse that sentiment. I watched that Twilight Zone episode last night, and I echo your thoughts on it almost verbatim. I'm glad that you recognized in your denouement that Serling may not only have been talking about "Russian atheistic commies" but any totalitarian collective, which could easily include religion (in my view, Communism IS a religion anyway). Serling produced episodes that went all over the ideological spectrum, and so we should respect him for that. I think true rationality is a love for parable and fable, while also recognizing that one cannot govern a society by such notions.

Good to meet you here, by the way

Comment by Becky Garcia on January 1, 2009 at 6:47pm
Awww... that's too bad. Because it's still pretty damn funny after that part!
Comment by Father Nature on January 1, 2009 at 6:34pm
I saw that episode last night but had to turn it off when the librarian started spouting scripture. The stereotype atheist was way below par for Rod Serling.

Today, BTW they just aired an episode with William Shatner as a guy obsessed with a fortune telling machine in a diner. A much better parable of the dark power of Woo.



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