‘Doctor Who’ and the Uselessness of Prayer

It’s hard to say how a kid who collected comic books and couldn’t stand to go a month without watching Star Wars managed to spend his entire childhood not knowing about Doctor Who. I assume this is the result of being raised in a small town. Years later, when I had become a “grown-up nerd,” people were assuming that I was a Whovian when I hadn’t even seen the show. I can’t say I blame them.

Earlier this year my wife and I had our first exposure to The Doctor when we caught the tail end of an episode on BBC. We loved it, and our evenings were soon filled with viewings of our new favorite show. It didn’t take long before I was reading online fan theories and debating which Doctor was the best. (I’ll tell you in the comments.)

While it’s a fun show, Doctor Who demonstrates an anti-religion stance that I find distracting. Certain episodes only seem to exist so the writers can use The Doctor as a mouthpiece for preaching their worldview.

An episode called ‘Gridlock’ is an easy example. In ‘Gridlock,’ The Doctor visits a planet where everyone drives around in circles on a huge highway underground. Why? The world’s citizens were told that the road would eventually lead them to somewhere new and cool. There’s a number to call the police if trouble happens; people dial the number, but no one ever shows up to help.

I thought to myself, I get it, BBC. The police number is a metaphor for prayer and the highway symbolizes a search for Heaven. This attempt to satirize Christianity with an oversimplified metaphor is nothing new. I began to yawn.

Then, I thought, Surely, I’m imagining things. No one would write an episode this silly just to make a jab at religious people. Right?

And then–I kid you not–every person in every car joined in a rendition of ‘The Old Rugged Cross.’

No, I didn’t make that up:

The Doctor eventually asks why no one ever sees a police car, and questions the wisdom of blindly following orders from unseen powers. His skepticism is met with hostility; no one wants to question The Way Things Are. For some reason the Doctor alone recognizes the absence of the police, and no one else questions the wisdom of driving in circles, generation after generation. (I have a hard time believing that an entire planet can be that dumb.)

How accurate is this episode as a satire of religious life? Should we conclude that our inability to see prayers answered in obvious, dramatic ways is evidence that no on is up there listening to our petitions? Has Doctor Who effectively demonstrated the fallacies of Christianity? Fortunately, these sorts of questions have been discussed by Christian thinkers for ages. Just as it’s unthinkable that a planet’s entire population could drive in circles without asking “why?”, one should not assume that Christians do not have doubts when their prayers are met with roaring silence.

As C.S. Lewis points out in The Efficacy of Prayer, we ought not forget how often our heroes in the Bible did not get what they prayed for. The most potent example is Jesus Christ,  who once asked for something that He knew could not come to pass.

Can we really know if prayer works? I certainly prayed before my last job interview, and I was quickly hired. Did prayer help, or was I hired because of my own abilities? Where a True Believer sees an answer to prayer, the skeptic sees coincidence, or a self-fulfilled prophecy. These issues are the subject of Lewis’s The Efficacy of Prayer, which I recommend you read. (It’s only four pages long.)

Lewis sums up the problem quite well:

The question then arises, “What sort of evidence would prove the efficacy of
prayer?” The thing we pray for may happen, but how can you ever know it was not
going to happen anyway? Even if the thing were indisputably miraculous it would
not follow that the miracle had occurred because of your prayers. The answer surely
is that a compulsive empirical Proof such as we have in the sciences can never be

As the story of ‘Gridlock’ progresses we see The Doctor working to solve the problem himself, rather than waiting on an invisible power to come and save him. The writers may think they have departed from Christian thinking by recommending a more humanist approach, but, in fact, they are thinking along the same lines as C.S. Lewis:

For [God] seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His
creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do
perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have
us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling
finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment
almost a sort of divine abdication. We are not mere recipients or spectators.

The reality is doubtless not comprehensible by our faculties. But we
can at any rate try to expel bad analogies and bad parables. Prayer is not a machine.
It is not magic.

Belief is not easy; everyone struggles, and we all share the same basic questions. When exploring your doubts, be sure not to neglect the centuries-old conversation that has already happened.

Photo by williamsdb

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