By Carina Julig
The wildly popular Black Mirror aired its fourth season recently, delivering more narratives examining our complicated relationship with technology and the pros and cons of what a high-tech future could look like.
Black Mirror is a British television show produced by Netflix, where each episode is an individual story—think The Twilight Zone for the internet age. The episodes center heavily on how technology influences human life, often highlighting their potential downsides. While the show has a reputation for being quite dark—and occasionally absurdist—the storylines have a range of outcomes, and this seasons’ narratives were somewhat more hopeful than in past years.
While there is very little subject matter Black Mirror won’t touch, one aspect of life is almost entirely absent—faith. Most of the show’s episodes appear to be set in near-future America and Britain, close enough to be recognizable but far enough away to have marked technological advances. It appears the people living in this universe have little use for religion, choosing instead to focus on their own near-godlike technology. If the people in these universes have spiritual lives, it is not depicted.
Instead, faith appears to have been replaced by control. In one of this season’s episodes, “Hang the DJ,” a wedding ceremony is run under the auspices of the all-powerful AI “system,” with religious symbols entirely absent. Death has been stripped of belief as well—in “Black Museum,” one of season four’s grisliest episodes, people’s consciousnesses are uploaded into virtual databases after they die, with no mention of a non-cloud-based afterlife.
But is this outlook actually realistic? Much has already been written about how the rise of industrialization and globalization has led to plummeting religious observance in the Western world. But the idea that as we become more scientifically and technically advanced religion will gradually die out for good is overly simplistic. While we are living much safer and more comfortable lives than people who lived even half a century before us, human life still possesses a need for the spiritual that material gains cannot satisfy. It is true that religious belief will probably continue to dwindle as the 21st century progresses, but vibrant and observant faith communities will exist no matter how developed our world is. Faith is one of the most powerful, mysterious, and interesting facets of the human condition, and by not delving into how religion would intersect with a high-tech future, Black Mirror is missing out on a wealth of opportunity.
Indeed, the brief glimpses when this does happen provide some of the most interesting parts of Black Mirror episodes. In season three’s “Men Against Fire,” a harrowing look into genocide perpetration, a devout Christian man is punished by soldiers for harboring victims of the genocide. At the time, the soldiers—and the audience—are under the belief that the victims are deserving of their treatment. But the man’s refusal to go along with the system forces the audience to reexamine their perceptions. His actions force us to grapple with questions relevant not just in sci-fi: is violence ever truly acceptable? Would we be willing to protect others if it meant putting ourselves in danger? How much are we actually willing to live up to our beliefs?
In “Crocodile,” another very dark episode from season four, one of the main characters is a Muslim woman. During a pivotal point in the episode, she begins to pray a traditional Islamic prayer for the dead. The scene is heart-wrenching. The women’s faith gives us more insight into her as a character, and helps us to remember that in the darkest of times faith can be a sustaining light.
At times, the whole narrative of an episode can be influenced by the viewer’s religious outlook. Season three’s “San Junipero” was widely described as one of the show’s only episodes with a happy ending, and went on to win two Emmy Awards. The episode features a lesbian couple who meet and fall in love in a virtual reality. In cyberspace, they are young and free, in reality they are elderly and one is living with lifelong paralysis. The episode ends with the couple ending their lives via medically assisted suicide and having their consciousnesses uploaded to the virtual world of San Junipero, where they can live on together for as long as they choose.
Debates over assisted suicide aside, the idea of a virtual afterlife takes on a much grimmer tone for the religiously observant. It’s likely that if such a thing was possible, many people would choose it over the uncertainly of facing life after death on their own. The ramifications of what this would mean for faith communities (as well as people’s souls) are fascinating to consider. As much as I enjoyed “San Junipero,” the idea that it was just a happy story without any other implications to consider is overly simplistic and does a disservice to the show’s nuanced writing.
Black Mirror’s secularism is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. Whether the post-religion future adds to the horror of the dystopian themes or mitigates them is a Rorschach test for how the viewers perceive religion in their own lives. And only time will tell what the religious landscape of our true future will look like.