The Secular Apocalypse: Irreligion, Pop Culture and the End of the World

Apocalyptic and postapocalyptic scenarios are huge on the big and small screens right now.

Avengers: Endgame (top) addresses cataclysmic themes on the big screen by leaving God out of questions pertaining to ‘the end,’ while Tomorrowland (bottom) offers its take on utopianism.
Avengers: Endgame (top) addresses cataclysmic themes on the big screen by leaving God out of questions pertaining to ‘the end,’ while Tomorrowland (bottom) offers its take on utopianism. (photo: Marvel Studios and Disney)

For 65 years Godzilla and his fellow kaiju have rampaged across movie screens, visiting destruction on cities from Tokyo to Boston. When the original Godzilla came out in 1954, less than a decade after the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the apocalyptic force of Godzilla’s devastating attack on Tokyo had an obvious historical context, but it also had something else: a balancing aspiration for peace expressed in religious terms.

As the citizens of Tokyo reeled from Godzilla’s devastating attack, a TV program broadcast a nationwide prayer campaign for peace. The onscreen expression of this prayer took the form of a haunting song (written by composer Akira Ifukube) sung by the student body of an all-girls high school:

Our hearts are filled with prayer
This we pray: Hear our song
And have pity on us
O peace! O light!
Hasten back to us!

This prayer sequence marks a turning point as scientist Dr. Serizawa is reluctantly convinced that the threat is great enough to warrant weaponizing a technology he wishes he had never invented.

The 1956 “Americanized” reworking of the original Godzilla, featuring Raymond Burr as a journalist named Steve Martin, adds another televised prayer that Martin offers “for the whole world.”

Religion, in these sequences, functions narratively as an ordinary human response to catastrophe and existential crisis, a locus of hope and meaning.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, now in theaters, is one of the most apocalyptic Godzilla movies ever, threatening the extinction of the human race. It’s also in a way an overtly religious picture, explicitly casting Godzilla’s great rival King Ghidorah as a Satanic or Antichrist figure and investing Godzilla, along with his ally Mothra, with Christological significance.

All of that is on the level of theme and metaphor. In narrative terms, the newer film is almost completely secular, in a negative, religion-free sense.

Prayer, religiosity and spirituality as an ordinary human response to catastrophe and existential crisis are depicted only in the most vestigial way: a character crossing himself here, someone intoning “May God have mercy on us all” there. (When we first glimpse King Ghidorah, frozen in ice, someone murmurs “Mother of God.” To this the reply comes, “She had nothing to do with this” — presumably true, but the implication seems to be that invoking her is beside the point.)

Apocalyptic Now

Apocalyptic and postapocalyptic scenarios are huge on the big and small screens right now — and, like the latest Godzilla film, many of them take place in an entirely secular landscape. In fact, the new Godzilla isn’t the only secular blockbuster-franchise apocalypse in theaters.

Consider Avengers: Endgame. Leaping ahead five years from Thanos’ Snapocalypse, which wiped out half of all life in the universe, the grand finale of Marvel’s seven-year Infinity Stone saga commits far more than most big-screen action movies to portraying survivors trying to cope with the fallout of the kind of apocalyptic stakes commonplace in these movies.

Thus we first catch up with Steve Rogers, Captain America, at a support group. There are soul-searching exchanges, moments of grief, words of encouragement; there are “Missing” posters, a memorial park with monuments listing the names of “The Vanished,” and characters finding solace in family relationships or distraction in obsessive vigilante violence.

What there isn’t is any token of religiosity, any mention of God or prayer. One of the earlier Marvel movies (Captain America: Civil War) managed a church funeral, but here, when all the chips are down and gone, there’s no hint that humanity has ever looked to the heavens for anything but alien attacks. No one mentions God — even to question him. (How could he allow this? Does he exist at all?)

Ultron once called Captain America “God’s righteous man,” and before that Cap himself told Black Widow that “there’s only one God,” but now the only advice he has for her is “We both need to get a life.” Steve goes to a support group, but not to church.

I think I first began in earnest to pay attention to the tendency to elide religion from the human equation even in extreme disaster or dystopian scenarios with Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 global pandemic thriller Contagion.

Panoramically attentive not only to scientific and medical realities but also to the sociology of disaster and of relief efforts, Contagion almost completely ignores the role religious institutions and organizations play in real-world crisis situations, from relief groups like the Salvation Army and Catholic Relief Services to the pastoral work of clergy on behalf of the bereaved and the departed. (A single brief, out-of-focus shot of a nun attending a dying man stands in for the entire contribution of religion at the height of the global crisis.)

The year before, Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which killed off more of humanity than Thanos’ snap, took more surface notice of religion, though thematically it’s explicitly irreligious, more so than the new Godzilla is thematically religious.

2012 depicts televised religious services and references to the Bible, Jesus, and going at death to meet one’s Maker and be reunited with loved ones. Thousands hold a candlelight vigil at St. Peter’s Square in Rome with the pope looking down from his balcony and cardinals praying inside the basilica until a massive earthquake strikes and destroys it all.

This is human and normal. Notably, though, when the quake begins Emmerich shows a crack running across the Sistine Chapel ceiling — directly between the adjacent fingers of Michelangelo’s Adam and God.

As the world goes to meet its doom, Danny Glover’s American president prays in a chapel before broadcasting a final address to the world in which he starts to recite the 23rd Psalm — but the transmission cuts off before he can complete even the opening line. It’s the end of the world and the president isn’t allowed to finish the words, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

In the denouement, 2012 depicts the dawn of a post-Christian era, restarting the calendar with the year 0001 after a catastrophic global flood that wipes out nearly all of humanity. I don’t recall if there’s a rainbow, but certainly rainbows in this world can never again carry the symbolic meaning ascribed to them in Genesis 9.

Since then, Brad Pitt starred in World War Z (2013), which depicted the zombie apocalypse in Contagion-like pandemic terms, and in a similarly religion-free landscape. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) aimed for 2001-style transcendence before untranscendently concluding that we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Yet another pandemic took out the entire human race in the new Planet of the Apes franchise, in which the only explicit hints of religion came in the third film, with Woody Harrelson’s rogue colonel blending nationalist and religious symbols in his oppressive “holy war” against the apes. (That film is also replete with biblical metaphors, far more so than Godzilla. On the textual level, though, religious behavior is not a locus of positive hope or meaning.)

More recently, the unnamed postapocalyptic family in A Quiet Place shared a brief, silent grace before meals — a detail that would have been wholly unremarkable a few decades ago. Today it’s a startlingly countercultural moment.

Evil Gods, Demons and Ghosts

Big-screen disasters and crises aren’t all ultraserious. Take a couple of very different self-aware, transgressive horror-comedies that both climax with the literal end of the world: Joss Whedon’s 2012 The Cabin in the Woods and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s 2013 This Is the End.

The Cabin in the Woods starts as a deconstruction of horror-movie tropes before morphing into an ultrablack comedy about the destruction of the world at the hands of bloodthirsty deities called the Ancient Ones, who require annual human sacrifice. When the sacrifice fails one year, the surviving main characters decide that humanity isn’t worth saving and allow the Ancient Ones to destroy the world.

While cartoonish pagan ritual plays a key role in The Cabin in the Woods, such religion is a murderous, oppressive force in an essentially nihilistic narrative universe. Religion as a locus of hope and meaning is utterly absent. The main characters spend much of the movie being terrorized by zombies, but the only hints of faith or prayer come in a historical footnote, a diary entry from 1903. In the 21st century, no one cries out to God — even in a zombie attack.

In a very different if equally cartoonish way, This Is the End riffs on themes of American popular religiosity and evangelical Christianity, most centrally the Rapture, which takes the form of bright beams of light sucking the chosen into the sky like UFO abductees.

Starring Jay Baruchel, Rogen, James Franco, Emma Watson and others as versions of themselves, the film gleefully trashes most of its characters along with most of Los Angeles — the latter in a massive earthquake that opens sinkholes, swallowing people and releasing demonic creatures.

Baruchel is the first to suspect that the crisis is the biblical end times. In this apocalyptic world, both good and evil are dramatically rewarded: Jonah Hill becomes possessed by a demon after praying for Baruchel to die, but when Craig Robinson offers to sacrifice himself to save his friends, he is assumed into heaven in a kind of delayed rapture.

Franco almost repeats this feat, but in the very act of being assumed into heaven he gives into the temptation to gloat — and the beam of light drops him back to earth to be eaten by cannibals.

After almost being devoured by an enormous, Dantean Satan, Baruchel and Rogen both make it to heaven (Baruchel by repenting of self-righteousness, envy and hatred, and Rogen by a selfless act). Heaven is depicted as a perpetual party where you can have anything you wish for. In practice, this includes marijuana, a Segway and the Backstreet Boys in concert.

Despite heavily religious themes, there’s not a lot of religiosity in This Is the End. In a way, that’s the point: In an actually profound line, Rogen worries, “I haven’t lived my life as if there’s a God.”

Even so, no one prays, and while Baruchel repents of his sins, no one asks God for forgiveness. Hill’s friends do attempt to exorcise the demon the only way they know how, repeating the most famous line from The Exorcist: “The power of Christ compels you!” Unsurprisingly, the demon finds this less than compelling.

The religiosity in This Is the End owes less to any form of Christianity than to what’s been called moralistic therapeutic deism: the popular idea that God is out there and wants us to be good and happy, and to go to heaven when we die, but isn’t intimately involved in our lives.

Even so, in its comparative religiosity, This Is the End, like that grace before meals in A Quiet Place, is a contrarian curiosity. As a final reference point, consider another reboot that, like the new Godzilla, drops religious elements from the original: the 2016 sex-swapped Ghostbusters remake.

Neither version of Ghostbusters is remotely pious, but the 1984 original did make room for a character of sincere faith — the hired hand Winston Zeddemore, played by Ernie Hudson.

As the weirdness level of events in New York ratchets up, Winston asks Dan Ackroyd’s Ray Stanz if he believes in God, adding, “Well, I do — and I love Jesus’ style.” Winston mentions biblical teaching about the “last days, when the dead would rise from the grave,” prompting Ray to accurately quote Revelation 6:12 (though he says it’s 7:12), with Winston completing the quotation. He also pushes back on Ray’s comment about ancient religious apocalyptic “myths,” which Winston feels their experiences suggest is no myth.

The paranormal goings-on are significant enough to warrant a visit from the archbishop of New York to the mayor’s office. “Personally … I think it’s a sign from God, but don’t quote me on that,” the archbishop hedges, adding that the Church has no official position on the spectral phenomena.

After the climactic showdown with evil, as New York begins to return to normal, priests are in the streets doling out blessings. Whether they’re merely showboating and taking credit they don’t deserve, offering people protection or at least reassurance, or all of the above, they’re part of New York community life and of the normal human response to existential crises.

The new Ghostbusters follows the original almost beat for beat in many respects, but none of the religiosity carries over. The hired hand role goes to Chris Hemsworth, whose presence the movie seems unsure how to use, but he certainly doesn’t quote the Bible or talk about Jesus’ style. The scene in the mayor’s office is retained, but the archbishop is omitted, along with the priests in the denouement.

Modern Malaise and the Myth of Progress

All art — even pop art, even bad or offensive art — is in some way a mirror to the soul of the culture that created it. Whether we embrace them, condemn them or are indifferent to them, these secular apocalypses reveal something about who we are as a culture.

In How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics, Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson explore the implications of our apocalyptic age through the lens of the thought of the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor.

For Taylor, the secularity of our age isn’t simply a matter of declining religious belief, but of a cultural world bereft of fixed points — of any defining set of traditions, symbols or standards — offering access to anything deeper and more solid than the will of the individual person.

Instead of finding meaning in a shared social and cultural context in which we are embedded as “porous selves,” we must each create our own meaning as free-floating, “buffered selves.”

This is why the original Godzilla’s national prayer service and the schoolgirls’ song wouldn’t compute today: Such a response implies a shared social framework of meaning that simply doesn’t exist today.

At the same time, this individualized, “buffered” approach to meaning isn’t satisfying, according to Taylor, and we find ourselves suffering from “the malaise of modernity” — a taproot of pop culture’s apocalyptic mood.

Actually, it goes deeper than that. Our malaise has grown with the progression from modernity to postmodernity and beyond, to our post-everything cultural moment. The secular apocalypse running through pop culture speaks to a shared disappointment with the failed promise of modernity, or of modernism, as much as the decline of faith in religious institutions and doctrines.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, highlights the “myth of progress,” the social and technological ascent toward a utopian future, as a defining trait of the modernist milieu (see A Turning Point for Europe? The Church in the Modern World). According to the modernist myth of progress, disease, ignorance, superstition, violence, prejudice and rapaciousness are passing away; the future belongs to harmony, well-being and enlightenment.

Yet hope that science would heal the world has given way to gnawing anxiety over climate change, loss of environment and microplastics in the ocean. Civil-rights optimism for a post-racial future has succumbed to an increasingly pessimistic understanding of racism as a perennial dynamic embedded in social structures and institutions. The internet, once hailed as the ultimate engine for the dissemination of knowledge, has become a hothouse where even the most bankrupt conspiracy theories and counterfactual claims fester.

Utopia Is Nowhere

Gene Roddenberry’s Federation is perhaps the most notable cultural expression of modernist utopianism. Yet later Star Trek series became more complicated and ambiguous, verging at times on the downright dystopian. (Ironically, a more complicated and ambiguous Star Trek has also at times been more open to religion.)

The modernist utopia on the horizon continues to recede, looking increasingly like a mirage — literally so in the most explicit recent pop-culture attempt to reject apocalypticism and recapture Roddenberryesque utopianism, Brad Bird’s 2015 Tomorrowland.

In so many words, Tomorrowland preaches that dystopian fantasies are killing us and proposes that positive thinking can literally change the world. Yet the movie’s promise of a shining futuristic city turns out to be a literal illusion without substance.

Ironically, Tomorrowland settles for a typically apocalyptic action finale in which the end of the world is averted in an immense explosion, with a robot heroically self-destructing in order to take out a Black Box of Badness. Like many faith-based films, Tomorrowland tells but doesn’t show. It’s a faith-based film for secular hope — and even this secular hope is an anomalous curiosity today.

“Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote 20 years ago in his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” “artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” The secular apocalypse of our cultural moment is an icon of rootlessness and hopelessness, but the human spirit can’t live on despair.

There are tokens of hope in most pop-culture versions of the apocalypse. How persuasive are these hopes? Is there anything better out there? In our post-everything world, what comes after everything?

While people of faith discuss and debate how best to live in an increasingly irreligious world, these questions lurk in the minds and imaginations of people around us. Are the two conversations entirely separate or do they overlap?

What can believers and nonbelievers say to one another at the end of the world? That is part of the challenge facing us all in our secular apocalyptic moment.

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.