Lost: the new religion for the 21st Century?

I was in my car listening to the BBC Radio 4 "Today" programme, when I heard the "Thought for the Day" given by Richard Harries. For those who are not familiar with the programme or its format, "Thought for the Day" often discusses religious, moral, ethical or other issues of the day, and is given by a variety of people. Most are religious leaders, but there are sometimes atheists (most notably Richard Dawkins), humanists or secular speakers.

The gist of Richard Harries' argument was that for some, art, theatre and literature have replaced religion in their lives, and as a theologian, he thought that they were actually poor substitutes. Harries was drawing on Matthew Arnold's essay, “The Study of Poetry”, in which Arnold writes that, “Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry”. He was drawing critical attention to deep concordances between religion and art. Arnold recognised that even in the society of the 19th century, there was a widespread loss of confidence in religion, fostered by the rise of science. He thought that humankind needed art and especially poetry "to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us." I leave it to you to decide whether Arnold was right. However, there are still deep controversies that exist between religion and art, and their respective functions, as this article clearly demonstrates.

A brief look over some of the themes of Lost attests to the fact that it addresses some of themes normally addressed by religions:

ApocalypseFate vs. free willGood and bad peopleLife and deathMiraclesPhilosophyPremonitionsRebirthRedemptionReligionsChristianityResurrectionSacrificeSalvationScience vs. faith

All this got me thinking. In many blogs I have read on Lostpedia, people have repeatedly said that watching Lost, interacting with others has brought new ideas into their lives, new ways of thinking, and has enriched their life, giving it more meaning. This is precisely what Arnold was saying about poetry, but these bloggers are saying it about Lost. Has Lost then, replaced, or become a substitute for a religion in the lives of some people?

What exactly constitutes a religion?

There are many definitions of religion, but I think two which are of the most relevance here are:

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice.

What is certainly clear, is that (2) is true for many people, and certainly many on Lostpedia. Lost is certainly something they believe in passionately, and follow devotedly. People cannot wait the get their next 'fix'. The words of (1) are interesting too; the references to the "cause, nature, and purpose of the universe", the idea of "superhuman agency or agencies" and a "moral code governing the conduct of human affairs" can all be found within lost, and discussed constantly within the pages of Lostpedia.

What are the characteristics of a religion?

It is surprisingly difficult to characterise what we mean by a religion. A quick Google will yield sources such as this attempt from a religious perspective or this attempt from a sociological perspective. As a useful counter to these, I have adopted a definition of religion from an atheist perspective, which actually incorporates eight elements from both of the above. The definition states that most commonly recognized religions — like Christianity or Hinduism exhibit all eight characteristics, while other religions exhibit only 5 or 6, and "belief systems" or a more metaphorical use of the term exhibit 2 or 3 only.

Belief in Supernatural Beings:

This is an interesting one. We could debate at length on topics such as "The writers as gods", whether they are all-seeing and all knowing? Whether they had a plan for their universe or not. This is actually a recurrent theme in many of the blogs. While Lost itself does not demand obedience to the gods it portrays, it does require its audience to suspend its disbelief in their existence in order to accept that beings such as Jacob and MiB possess supernatural powers,and that they can and do affect the universe in which they reside. This goes further in that in showing us the world of the early 21st century, and the cities with which we are familiar, we are required to believe that entities such as this can reside in our world.

Sacred vs Profane Objects, Places, Times:

Some scholars of religion, notably Mircea Eliade, have argued that this dichotomy should be considered the defining characteristic of religion. Sacred times, places, and object remind us that there is more to life than what we see. For the adherent to the Lost religion, some things are sacred. Every new episode of Lost is to be kept pure, and unadulterated. It is a sacred moment, and a spoiler is a profanity. A person who spoils is regarded as a blasphemer, and should be excommunicated.

Ritual Acts Focused on Sacred Objects, Places, Times:

Formany, the watching of the programme has become a ritual. This blog on how people get their weekly 'fix' of Lost attest to that. As has been seen above, many people regard the programme time as sacrosanct, and will not let others interfere. They settle down to watch, and must have everything exactly right. The same pattern is followed week by week; the watching of Lost has become ritualised.

Moral Code With Supernatural Origins:

The moral codes embedded within Lost are unique, and have been the cause of much debate within the Lost community in general and Lostpedia in particular. There is a clear message, for example that fratricide may, in certain circumstances be acceptable. The fact that Locke was asked to kill his own father in order to become leader of Jacob's others demonstrates, within Lost the supernatural origins of such codes within the story. However, many people debate these events in terms of the morality of our own lives; it is not just that the Kate of the storyline has killed her father, and whether or not that was a reasonable act within the story, it is whether or not Kate, if she had been a real person, and who had been subjected to the abuse the storybook Kate suffered, would have had any justification for her actions.

Characteristically Religious Feelings:

Awe, a sense of mystery, a sense of guilt, and adoration are “religious feelings” which tend to be aroused in religious believers when they come in the presence of sacred objects, in sacred places, and during the practice of sacred rituals. The pages of Lostpedia are full of people expressing such awe and wonderment. Mystery is a theme running through Lost, and the scenes at Comic Con also demonstrate adoration of the writers.

Prayer and Other Forms of Communication:

Because the supernatural is so often personalized in religions, it only makes sense that believers would seek interaction and communication. Lostpedia itself is the living and breathing example of this communing. There are even attempts to commune with the writer deities who have created this world.

A World View & Organization of One’s Life Based on the World View:

Religions tend to to present believers with a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein — for example, whether the world exists for them of if they are a bit player in someone else's drama. The Lost world presents many dilemmas which affect people, and whether the individual can make a difference, or whether no matter what a person does, events always unfold in the way that destiny decides. Many people claim to have learnt Lessons from Lost, and many stories abount about how Lost has changed people's lives.

A Social Group Bound Together by the Above:

Religious believers often join together with like-minded adherents to worship or even live together. Their discussions and debates reinforce the group identity. There are many ways this happens, one of these is through 'conversion stories'; there are many examples of these on Lostpedia: see for example this user page, and this response to it on the talk page. Both these are mechanisms by which the group bonds, as is the reference above to the 'Lessons of Lost', and all have a religious like zeal within them. We even have blogs which take the form of apologetics, giving the reasons why people became converted.

In Conclusion

We can also see many other features of religion, in the pages of Lostpedia: there are the tribes and sects of Lost - the scifi-ers, the supernaturals, and the character addicts; there are people who have unshakeable beliefs (MiB is Christian/MiB is not Christian); there are debates on the eternal imponderables of destiny v. free will, good v. evil, and fate v. coincidence. We even have talmud and hadith-like commentaries on the sacred texts of the episode transcripts, which are constantly subjected to interpretations and re-interpretations;we even have the notion of canon v. non-canon occurrences.

Ok. I will come clean, a lot of this may have been a tiny little bit tongue-in cheek, but who won't or can't agree that there is at least some semblance of truth here?

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