Avatar: The Last Airbender – the new Atheist Manifesto?

For a kids cartoon this often has some pretty funny one-liners, and I’m guessing an atheist or two is on the writing team.

The show centers around three main characters: Aang, Katara, and Sokka (Sokka is very cynical and skeptical of just about everything); getting over the whole: air, water, fire, earth bending stuff being very much beyond any physical reality (hey, its a kids cartoon after all) there are often some very atheistic/scientific comments made.

The episode played on ABC tonight (The Fortuneteller, Episode No: 14, Season No: 1, originally released in 2005) was about the group meeting a fortune teller (Aunt Wu), who specialises in reading the clouds to decide if the local volcano is going to erupt. Not surprisingly the volcano starts to erupt but none of the villagers believe our group when they try and tell them, because the fortune teller told them it wasn’t going to happen.

There are some fantastic comments in this episode that point out how people will believe in anything, or twist words to match what they already believe in. Here’s some I liked:

Sokka (To “red shoe guy”): I bet Aunt Wu told you to wear those shoes.
Red Shoe Guy: Sure did. She said I’d be wearing red shoes when I met my true love.
Sokka: Uh-huh. And how many times have you worn those shoes since you got the fortune?
Red Shoe Guy: Every day.
Sokka (furiosuly): Then of course it’s going to come true!
Red Shoe Guy: Really?! You think so?! I’m so excited!

or this:

Sokka: Can your fortune telling explain that?! (points to volcano eruption)
Villager: Can your science explain why it rains?
Sokka: Yes! Yes it can!

or this, after the group changes a cloud so that Aunt Wu now thinks the volcano is going to erupt (even though it has already started to) and warns the villagers, who now believe its erupting and help the group, through some amazing and not very scientific methods, save the village:

Calm Man: But Aunt Wu predicted the village wouldn’t be destroyed and it wasn’t. She was right after all.
Sokka: I hate you.

If you get a chance watch this episode. I believe you can download individual episodes from tv.com which is where I got the quotes from, or buy the lot on DVD. Might have to obtain a copy just for this episode.



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7 responses to “Avatar: The Last Airbender – the new Atheist Manifesto?

  1. AV

    I might have to go the tv.com route: I’m in Japan at the moment.

  2. Verni

    It doesn’t take an athiest to make up funny jokes. Those are arguments against FORTUNE TELLING, *not* religion.

  3. RB

    Avatar has nothing at all to do with Atheism; in fact, it’s far, far from it. It’s mostly closely related Buddhist beliefs and it emphasizes great spirituality. It has sprinklings of other beliefs thrown in (like Hinduism and Taoism), but the foundation is very closely tied to Buddhism. The idea of “qi” (pronounced “chi”) is taken directly from martial arts concepts and Traditional Chinese Medicine. The bending forms themselves are based on 4 different kinds of kung fu, a form of martial arts that very heavily engages the concept of qi. The concept of elements is also taken directly from Buddhism, although there are Five Elements in Buddhism (wood, fire, earth, water and metal) and Avatar only has 4.

    As a previous comment pointed out, the joke about fortune telling was just about that – fortune telling. Nowhere in any of the shows have I seen anything that makes fun of what a person believes. The show emphasizes the importance of spirituality, if nothing else.

  4. Yep, I know Avatar doesn’t really have anything to do with atheism, I was using it as an allegory. I just thought it funny that the arguments in favour of the fortune telling are similar arguments I hear and read from Christians in favour of their beliefs.

    Christian – “I prayed for suzie and she got better”
    atheist – “er, no, that was the doctors and nurses using science that fixed her”

    The episode demonstrated how some people will believe anything (in this case the fortune teller) no matter what the evidence.

    RB. nice info on the buddist and kung fu links to the show

  5. Consumatopia

    Sokka is definitely a stand-in for rational analysis (and sometimes creativity) in general. As such, he makes such an easy target in both comic and tragic ways. I don’t know if you’ve been watching all the eps, but that prediction about a life of pain, most of it self-inflicted…well, remember it well. There’s a general pattern in Avatar of truth hiding where you least expect it, and given that Sokka always looks in the most obvious place first then checks the most obvious place again, he doesn’t always come out right. Except that too would become a predictable obvious pattern, so it’s false as well–like in the earlier episode with Jet in which Sokka starts off acting like kind of a pathetic jerk but his assessment of Jet turns out to be sort of correct.

    “The Fortune Teller” ends up looking at faith the same way Nassim Nicholas Taleb does http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/taleb05/taleb05_index.html . The villagers are sort of aware of the faith they place in the fortune teller, but Sokka is unaware of how much faith he puts in appearances and “reason”. The villagers have a known unknown, but Sokka is constantly victimized by unknown unknowns both amusing and terrible.

    It’s interesting though how often in later seasons Aang enthusiastically goes along with Sokka’s ideas. The ideas do tend to be clever, and sometimes they work out as planned…

  6. Rhiannon

    I mostly agree with thses comments. I’m in High School and I frequently watch this show, I’m also really into learning about beliefs, and There isn’t much evidence of very many religions or ways of thinking besides Buddism, Hinduism, Taoism, and the different little-known faiths that come with the life of martial arts. I have many friends, some of them fairly old, who have taught me as a child a lot of what is in this show.

    Like this quote that came from the Lion-Turtle. I had a ‘Teacher’ who taught me things like this:

    “The true mind can weather all lies and illusions without being lost. The true heart can touch the poison of hatred without being harmed. From beginningless time, darkness thrives in the void, but always yields to purifying light.”
    – Lion Turtle


    “In the era before the Avatar, we bent not the elements, but the energy within ourselves. To bend another’s energy, your own spirit must be unbendable, or you will be corrupted and destroyed.”

  7. Vimes

    Well, I see where you’re coming from. The “Can your science explain why it rains?” part especially mirrors arguments between faith and logic. Heck, looking at an example of something released after this post was written, there’s always ICP’s treasure trove of hilarity, “Miracles”:

    “F***ing magnets, how do they work?
    And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
    Y’all motherf***ers lying, and getting me pissed”

    I absolutely agree that the show likely has at least one atheist writer, especially with regards to the Fortuneteller episode. I’ve known a few atheists who, while they don’t believe in a religion, at least are interested in others much like a Christian may also study Greek mythology. This is especially the case with more spiritual and less monotheistic ones like Buddhism which is a big part of the series, especially Aang’s beliefs, but also influences from others such as Hinduism (chakras, the word Avatar) and Taoism (Tui and La, the fish at the North Pole).

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