The Hunger Games & the Secularization of Western Culture
“The future shape of the world," Baptist theologian R. Albert Mohler has pointed out, "appears to be a worldview competition between Christianity, Islam, and Western secularism." The Hunger Games film and books present us with a world in which the worldview competition is over in North America, and Western secularism has won.
Centuries in the future, the secularist's dream has come true: Among the citizens of Panem (named after the Latin phrase panem et circenses—"bread and circuses"), God is unmentioned, unnecessary, perhaps even unknown. Rich or poor, powerful or powerless, the people of Panem proceed with no apparent consideration of God above or hell below. John Lennon imagined in 1971 that such a world would result in "all the people living life in peace"—but discontent seethes beneath the surface of Panem, and the Hunger Games themselves represent the survival of the fittest at its most brutal.
So what societal values survive in this land that has been denuded of the divine? The two values that have survived secularization in this fictional future world are self and the state.
Self, State & Human Value
Katniss Everdeen is a fatherless sixteen-year-old in the nation of Panem, a confederation of twelve districts in a far-future North America. Katniss lives with her mother and sister in District 12, a destitute region responsible for producing the coal that provides power to a distant and decadent Capitol.
Nearly a century earlier, the districts had revolted against the Capitol, only to be defeated. To punish the districts for their failed rebellion, the Capitol decreed that each district would send two tributes—one young man and one young woman—to fight one another to the death in the yearly Hunger Games. Each year, 24 youth enter a vast arena that encircles a different type of terrain each time; only one emerges alive.
When the name of Katniss's twelve-year-old sister is plucked from the bowl to represent District 12, Katniss offers herself as her sister's substitute. She is paired with Peeta Mellark, the son of a baker, and sent to the Capitol to prepare for the Hunger Games.
The state's purpose in conducting the Hunger Games is to sustain an illusion of hope but then to quell this hope by manipulating the outcome of the games. "The only thing stronger than fear is hope," President Snow reminds the Gamemaker when it becomes clear that Katniss is no typical tribute, "Control it!"
What Katniss and Peeta demonstrate in the arena is a triumph of self over state. The Capitol may manipulate people's hopes, but the Capitol cannot ultimately suppress the people's capacity to choose their own path. "If I'm going to die," Peeta muses the night before the games begin, "I want to still be me." In the end, the two protagonists' self-determination rises to subvert the state's power. Katniss and Peeta become partners, and both survive by threatening to end their own lives, thus depriving the Capitol of a champion—a possibility that would deprive the state of its capacity to manipulate the people's hopes.
Few would disagree that self-determination is preferable to dictatorship. Yet the elevation of self-determination to a supreme value is no less problematic than the elevation of the state to supreme authority. Separated from any sense of the divine, neither the state nor the self is sufficient to establish ethics that can support and sustain human thriving. This insufficiency becomes most clearly apparent in a question posed in a conversation that Katniss relates between herself and her friend Gale before the Hunger Games begin—a question that neither the book nor the film ultimately answers.
"Katniss, it's just hunting. You're the best hunter I know," says Gale.
"It's not just hunting. They're armed. They think," I say.
"So do you. And you've had more practice. Real practice," he says. "You know how to kill."
"Not people," I say.
"How different can it be, really?" says Gale grimly.
The awful thing is that if I can forget they're people, it will be no different at all.
What's Wrong with Dying?
"How different can it be, really?" Gale asks and, in the process, reveals one of the most problematic aspects of a society that has exiled God from public discourse.
Is the death of a person truly more tragic than the demise of any other creature? If so, why? A secular worldview cannot provide a consistent and coherent answer to this question—except perhaps to make the utilitarian suggestion that, if people began to kill one another indiscriminately, human society would become unsustainable. Yet, if human beings are merely primates with overdeveloped cerebral cortices, why does the sustainability of human society matter anyway?
This is not to suggest that human death is treated lightly in The Hunger Games. When Katniss kills other humans in this first book and film, she most often does so indirectly or in the process of protecting others. Her nightmares in the aftermath of her father's death and her sacrificial commitment to the survival of certain others suggest that the loss of human life can be tragic. When a twelve-year-old tribute dies, Katniss sings to her and covers her corpse with flowers, suggesting the need, even in a secular culture, to mark death with some sort of sacred ceremony. Yet what the secularized worldview of The Hunger Games lacks is any clear capacity to articulate why human life matters or which lives should be valued.
Nevertheless, the novelist, Suzanne Collins, does imply an answer to this dilemma. Her solution is consistent with the supreme value of self-determination in The Hunger Games—but it is also antithetical to a Judeo-Christian worldview that sees human life as intrinsically valuable.
In the final pages of the book and in the closing moments of the movie, a pack of wolfish mutants maul the only remaining tribute other than Katniss and Peeta. In response to the tribute's plea for death, Katniss sends an arrow through his skull. What justifies this death, particularly in the book, is that Katniss's intent is "pity, not vengeance" and that the victim requests his own death. The point implied here is that even the value of one's life is self-determined in The Hunger Games. If a person's future is filled with agony instead of hope, death may be chosen over life, and human death is tragic only if the deceased person would have preferred life.
This is a popular version of the perspective that bioethicist John Harris and others have articulated throughout the past decade. According to Harris's self-determined consequentialism, the value of one's life is exactly and only what the individual himself places on it. "There is only one thing wrong with dying," Harris has written in a Journal of Medical Ethics article on end-of-life decisions, "and that is doing it when you don't want to. . . . Persons who want to live are wronged by being killed because they are thereby deprived of something they value." (Self-determination of the value of one's life becomes fundamental to Harris's argument in favor of abortion, which he justifies by claiming that "non-persons or potential persons cannot be wronged in this way because death does not deprive them of anything they can value.")
A Nagging Sense
Moments after the death of their last competitor, in the climactic triumph of self over state, Katniss and Peeta make it clear that they are willing to commit suicide before killing one another. In a twist on humanity's fall in the Garden of Eden, the woman urges the man to consume fruit that will be fatal for both of them. Seeing that the Capitol is about to be deprived of any capacity to manipulate people's hopes, the powers of Panem intervene, and the threat of death provides the two tributes with a pathway to life.
Suicide or murder is, of course, a false dilemma, and Katniss clearly expects the Capitol to intervene before she and Peeta consume the fatal poison. Still, the threat serves to underscore the underlying point that each individual decides the value of his or her own life. Such self-determined value stands in stark contrast to the Judeo-Christian perspective that human life is intrinsically valuable because every person is a living likeness of God, crafted in his very image (Genesis 1:26–28).
In an article written for Foreign Policy, Princeton ethicist Peter Singer has predicted that, in Western culture, before we are halfway through the twenty-first century, "only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct."
The Hunger Games presents another possible future—a future in which the thought of taking a human life is still accompanied by a nagging sense that something about this action is wrong but no one can quite remember why. •
John Harris's article can be found at: http://jme.bmj.com/content/29/1/10; and Peter Singer's at: www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2005/08/30/the_sanctity_of_life.
From Salvo 22 (Fall 2012)
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If you enjoy Salvo, please consider giving an online donation! Thanks for your continued support.Timothy Paul Jones Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #22, Fall 2012 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo22/by-bread-alone