Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Mandalorian recycles a critique of religion

The Mandalorian was my favourite TV show of 2020 and the second series was even stronger than the first. But a conversation in the penultimate episode brought up some philosophical challenges to religious belief that surprised me. There are SPOILERS ahead - so stop reading now if that bothers you.

This is the way

The episode was titled "The Believer". The basic premise is that the Mandalorian and his team spring a prisoner called Mayfield to help them steal information from an Imperial base. Mayfield and the Mandalorian had crossed paths in the first series, and Mayfield ended up in a New Republic prison after trying to double-cross the Mandalorian, so there was an element of reconciliation and redemption about this episode; two big themes ripe for exploration.

Mayfield and the Mandalorian end up riding in an Imperial transport together. They have both put on stolen Imperial armour, which meant the Mandalorian had taken off his helmet and replaced it with a trooper's helmet. 

Then comes the interesting conversation. Mayfield comments that to the indigenous people on this particular planet the Empire and the New Republic are very similar. Both are external occupiers fighting their own war and the people are collateral damage in the middle. I've cribbed the dialogue from IMDb.

Mayfeld: Yeah. Empire, New Republic. It's all the same to these people. Invaders on their land is all we are. I'm just sayin', somewhere someone in this galaxy is ruling and others are being ruled. I mean, look at your race. Do you think all those people that died in wars fought by Mandalorians actually had a choice? So how are they any different than the Empire. If you were born on Mandalore, you believe one thing, if you're born on Alderaan, you believe something' else. But guess what? Neither one of them exist anymore. Hey, I'm just a realist. I'm a survivor, just like you.

The Mandalorian: Let's get one thing straight. You and I are nothing alike.

Mayfeld: I don't know. Seems to me like your rules start to change when you get desperate. I mean, look at ya. You said you couldn't take off your helmet off, and now you got a stormtrooper one on, so what's the rule? Is it you can't take off your Mando helmet, or you can't show your face? 'Cause there is a difference. Look, I'm just sayin', we're all the same. Everybody's got their line they don't cross until things get messy. As far as I'm concerned, if you can make it through your day and still sleep at night, you're doin' better than most.

Mayfield's questions about the Mandalorian's helmet relate to how, previously, the Mandalorian had insisted that removing his helmet was against his creed. He points out that the Mandalorian seems to be changing the requirements of his religion. That's an interesting thing to discuss in itself and maybe I will in a future blog post.

It's the previous dialogue that surprised me though. "If you were born on Mandalore, you believe one thing, if you're born on Alderaan, you believe something' else."

This is a criticism made of religious belief that is made currently in this galaxy as well as a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I think I first read it in The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins - the idea that for most people their religious affiliation is linked to where they were born and the culture they were raised in. 

Accordingly, the fervent evangelical Christians raised in the American Deep South and the fervent Muslims raised in Islamic theocracies, and the fervent Hindus raised in India, and the fervent Roman Catholics raised in Ireland, Italy or Spain, and the fervent Mormons raised in Utah, are just the products of their time and place. In other words, any believer's religion is most likely to be the product of circumstances than anything else. Most people retain the religion they were raised in, even if they don't actively practise, which is why the number of people who gave their religion as "Christian" on the last UK census is over ten times as many as the number of regular churchgoers.

The challenge to believers from people pointing this out is, broadly, how do you know that you believe what you believe because it's true or do you just believe it because you've always been told that it's true? That's quite a question to reflect on.

For me, I'm just interested that this discussion is being had using Mandalore and Alderaan as proxies for names of religions. It's not the first time the philosophy of religion has crept into mainstream media. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 posited that the moral response to a god that caused suffering and pain was to seek to kill it. (I blogged about that here.) More recently the TV show The Good Place asked whether being 'good' to avoid punishment was genuinely being 'good'.

In the second series as a whole, the Mandalorian is confronted with several challenges to his beliefs, and this is one of them. I suspect for many people this dialogue would hardly have registered as making an important philosophical point. And yet the potential depth of this discussion, which didn't go on for long in the episode, adds something to The Mandalorian as a TV show, giving it some relevance to the world we inhabit.

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