The trouble with The X-Files is it could be replacing flawed faiths with both bad science and bad religion.

Vancouver Sun
Saturday, 14 June 1997

DAVID DUCHOVNY: Broody but passionate, and likely to rise from the dead.

We have seen the future of religion - and it is The X-Files.

The X-Files, whose mantra is "The truth is out there," is becoming popular religion for all those people in television land, especially the young, who refuse to embrace orthodox religion and who mistrust institutions of all kinds.

In its morose, clever, pretentious way, The X-Files is frightening, entertaining fun. But there is no doubt - filled as it is with religious allusions and episode titles such as "Born Again," "Lazarus," "Kaddish," "Ascension" and "The Blessing Way" - it not so subtly offers an alternative spiritual take on the universe.

The X-Files proffers a paranoia-riddled form of religion based on outer-edge science; aliens, paranormal experience and the weird. It's a hip kind of faith, in contrast to those stodgy old religions whose "truth" has been tested and refined through centuries of war, schism and scholasticism.

The X-Files' recurring, explicit theme is "I want to believe." That has helped make it the most popular TV show in B.C., which happens to be the region of North America with the highest proportion of people who say they have no religion (30 per cent). More than 650,000 British Columbians watch The X-Files each week. Across the continent, The X-Files often ranks in the 10 most-watched shows, with more than 20 million regular viewers.

The X-Files, and various TV clones that have appeared in recent years, such as Millennium, seem bent on reaching - or milking - the generation that West Vancouver author Douglas Coupland explored in his novel Life After God, a generation raised largely outside organized religion.

Secular people are right when they say the list of things wrong with institutional religion runs long. But problems will abound with any tradition that is older than yesterday. The trouble with The X-Files is it could be replacing flawed faiths with both bad science and bad religion.

The show, in which two FBI agents investigate paranormal phenomena, encourages its fans to indulge in the populist notion that everyday people such as themselves know more about the truth "out there" than scores of bookish theologians or pleasant pastors.

Filmed in and around Vancouver, The X-Files luxuriates in the West Coast's often-melancholy weather, with gloomy clouds and rain conveying the show's tone, and deep evergreen forests emphasizing eerie mystery.

Within this atmosphere, agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny), who is broody but passionate, and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), who is loyal but skeptical, risk their lives to find evidence to explain the unexplainable - all the while dodging the FBI's enigmatic cigarette-smoking Cancer Man, who has a near-Satanic propensity for evil.

The X-Files regularly deals with plots based on aliens (Mulder's sister was abducted by aliens), witchcraft, abominable snowmen, genetic mutants, missing planes, spontaneous human combustion, bizarre unsolved murders, psychic phenomenon, ESP, cosmic coincidences, past lives, otherworldly dreams and guardian angels.

"The entire premise of the show is based on a religious understanding of the cosmos: that the world we see is not the real world, that our senses deceive us and that what we think we perceive is merely shifting and illusory," says Gerry Bowler, who runs the Centre for Christianity and Culture at Canadian Nazarene College in Calgary.

"[In The X-Files] the true world is 'Out There' somewhere and, although it is hidden to most, it can be discovered by those who possess both belief and talent. Christians or Hindus would have no trouble with most of that approach. But the best religious parallels with The X-Files would be neo-Platonism or Gnosticism, particularly the latter when you throw in the alien [angelic] visitors, beings with super powers and the dualism with which the X-Files abounds."

Since Scully wears a gold crucifix, the Gnostic Christian connection Bowler points to has special relevance; the Gnostics were an early Christian movement branded a heresy in the 3rd century AD. They taught that salvation was available through special knowledge, or gnosis, and that intermediaries, such as priests or institutions, weren't necessary. Gnostics taught a radical dualism - a split between this bad prison-like world, and the goodness of the eternal soul and the other world.

Is it a coincidence that the suicidal members of the Heaven's Gate religion were fans of The X-Files? The techno-obsessed sect, which encouraged dozens of its members to kill themselves this year so they could be transported to what they believed was a UFO following comet Hale-Bopp, may be an example of the amorphous emerging pseudo-scientific faith that attempts to replace the gods of tradition with technologically superior aliens.

"From a psychological point of view, as people, especially young people, move away from constraining and unscientific forms of religion, they seem to embrace beliefs based on science and extraterrestrial beliefs," Robert Butterworth, a noted psychologist, said from College Hospital in southern California.

Studies show about half of Americans believe in UFOs. Canadian statistics reveal roughly 40 per cent of Canadians believe in contact with the spirit world, 50 per cent accept ESP and astrology, 60 per cent are convinced "an evil force" exists and 69 per cent believe in psychic powers. Young people have higher rates of belief in every one of these categories.

Some paranormal beliefs deserve serious research and discussion. But observers have been disturbed by what they see as rising gullibility, particularly among the young. A group of Nobel Laureates and scientists have joined voices to lament what they consider the "dumbing down" of science and promotion of paranoia about government in shows like The X-Files.

Simon Fraser University psychologist Barry Beyerstein, a member of the B.C. Skeptics, has said: "My concern is that these kind of programs feed a trend toward conspiratorial thinking and belief in magic. If that thinking really takes hold, it diverts people from the kind of tough analysis and hard work that we really need to tackle some of the problems facing us today."

Or, to put it another way, The X-Files aggressively inculcates the unofficial motto of the worst of today's New Age religion, which is: "If I want to believe it, then it's true."

Need we doubt that Mulder, who was killed in this spring's season finale of The X-Files, in an episode titled "Gethsemane," will miraculously resurrect in the fall?

Courtesy of The Vancouver Sun