The Truth is Out There: Secularist Concern for The X-Files

Fox’s The X-Files dominated television for nearly a decade. The adventures of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as FBI agents were followed by millions. While The X-Files was popular, there are secularists who criticized and were concerned about the influence from The X-Files. The chief individual who had concern is Richard Dawkins. This looks at secularist concern for the smash science fiction drama which is a cult favorite for many – including me.

“I want to believe…”

Fox Mulder

By thrusting his horror claws deep into the spine of American culture,” series creator Chris Carter was responsible for “historic levels of interest in conspiracies and the paranormal.”

Matt Nisbet on The X-Files in 1998


On Friday April 15, 1994 I had finished up dinner in the cafeteria and made my way back to the dorm. At this stage of life I was a college student in Helena, Montana. As I was walking back to my room I stopped and noticed the TV room in the dorm packed. I was puzzled and asked people what they were watching. One person said to me “The X-Files” and resumed the program deeply engaged. I was stunned to see how many people were deeply engrossed in this TV show so though I was a few minutes late I stayed and watched. The first X-Files episode that I watched was called “Darkness Falls.” Let me give you a brief synopsis of the episode if you have not seen it.

Deep in the forest of Washington State a group of loggers is fleeing though the woods desperately trying to save their life. They are fleeing an unseen force and are eventually killed by a large swarm of glowing green insects. Back in the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. Special Agent Fox Mulder talks to Special Agent Dana Scully about the case and how he pulled strings to get it. Dana was surprised and asked why would Fox be interested in a case of environmental terrorism? Dare she ask why? Then Fox talks about how in the same area in 1934 a group of loggers vanished and were never seen from again. Mulder promises Dana that it will be a nice trip to the forest.  When Mulder and Scully arrive at the forest they meet with Park Ranger Larry Moore and Steve Humphreys who heads the security for the logging company. While they drive through the forest the truck hits a spike in the ground that is left by environmental terrorists. With the vehicle disabled they hike to the camp site where Mulder and Scully find the camp abandoned. All communication equipment is destroyed. While searching around the forest they find a large cocoon in a tree which when they open contains an adult corpse.

Back at the camp while repairing one of the heat generators Humphreys catches one of the suspected environmental terrorists named Doug Spinney. Spinney explains to the group that there is a deadly swarm of insects in the forest and that in order for them to remain alive they need to avoid the darkness. The following morning while hiking they find an old growth tree that was cut down and illegally logged. In the tree stump they find a green band in the tree rings. Spinney states that he thinks the green band is an unknown organism, and that it was disturbed when the tree was illegally harvested. Humphrey’s decides to hike down to Moore’s truck but he encounters the green insect swarm and is killed at nightfall. Mulder, Scully, Moore and Spinney are now trapped in the forest. They have limited supplies of gasoline which they need to stay alive. The next morning Spinney convinces Mulder to let him hike to his colleagues with the gasoline they have so he can get a jeep and pick them up and they can leave. Scully and Moore confront Mulder since this will leave them with little fuel for the generator. They prepare the cabin to keep the insects out but as Scully learns some make it inside but the light bulb stays on and prevents any swarm from occurring. The light bulb burns out  just as morning breaks over the Washington forest. Mulder, Scully and Moore then hike down that morning to the truck with the busted tire, hoping to patch it, put on a spare, and escape. They find the truck and Humphrey’s dead inside. Spinney returns with a jeep and he tells the rest of the crew the others he knows are dead. The jeep runs over a spike that environmental terrorists left in the ground. When Spinney exits the car to look at it he is attacked and swarmed by glowing green insects. The insects then swarm into the car getting in through the air vents. Shortly after this happens a bio-hazard crew arrives having got a message from Spinney. Mulder and Scully are brought to a quarantined medical facility in Washington. When Mulder asks what is going to be done about the insects one of the scientists explains to him that the forest is being treated with heavy pesticides and controlled fire with the hope of eradicating the insects.   

The X-Files became a classic and the television series lasted from September 10, 1993 until May 19, 2002. The adventures of Fox Mulder, a man who believes in the paranormal, who lost his sister to an alien abduction and driven in pain to find her; contrast with his partner Dana Scully a scientist, a biologist and Catholic who is also a skeptic. Mulder and Scully’s adventures caught the attention of an entire generation I would suggest.  The television drama spanned 9 seasons and created 202 episodes. It gave birth to two feature films in 1998 called “Fight the Future” and a 2008 film called “I Want to Believe.” Combined the two films grossed $257.6 million at the box office. The X-Files spawned comic books, and the television program The Lone Gunman. Creator Chris Carter, Gillian Anderson, and David Duchovny, as well as other characters such as Cancer Man (William B Davis) Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) and others became sought after speakers for comic conventions. A huge fan base today is dedicated to the television phenomena which you can see in their websites here, here and here.  

That Friday night in a television room in a dorm in Montana I became hooked, and I became a dedicated follower of The X-Files and watched it faithfully. But I was not the only one in my family to get into it. My mother also got into the series and used to watch it with me. She had her own ritual of making popcorn and settling down for the series. For me as I reflect back on The X-Files there were a number of them that were memorable. I introduced you to my all time favorite, “Darkness Falls.” But there were others that I loved, plus a couple that were deeply troubling and frightening.

  1. The Field Where I Died” dealt with a Heaven’s Gate cult scenario and re-incarnation. I believe this was one of the darker episodes because it ended with the cult committing mass suicide.
  2. Fallen Angel” is about a UFO that crashed in Wisconsin. The government does damage control while Mulder gets to know an abductee
  3. The “Quagmire” episode is about a plesiosaur dinosaur that is in a lake in Georgia. This episode has environmental themes as well.
  4. Squeeze” and “Tooms.” Who can forget Liver Boy?!? This is the man who hibernated and every 30 years would awake and kill people so he could eat their liver. This is a classic episode and probably the most famous monster in the series.  
  5. Oublitte” is another dark episode that is chilling to think about. A deviant photographer kidnaps a 15 year old girl in Seattle and she vanishes. Meanwhile another girl who may have been kidnapped by the same individual years prior starts to react, have scratches on her face, and can feel the pain of the tortured kidnapped victim. The episode ends with one girl being drowned in a creek, and the other girl who was kidnapped drowning in the presence of the police feeling the suffocation in the river. In the end the older one who was kidnapped earlier dies leaving Mulder weeping. Scully earlier criticized Mulder for being too influenced by his sister’s Samantha’s disappearance.  
  6. Leonard Betts” is about a mutant who survives by consuming cancerous tumors. He has killed people afflicted by cancer because he needs to eat the tumors to live, and regenerate himself. Mulder believes this is why he was an EMT. The episode ends with a dual in an ambulance with Betts telling Scully that she has something he needs. This is how Dana learns she has cancer.
  7. In “Nisei” a mysterious alien autopsy is done aboard a train car, which is then raided and the scientists are killed. A conspiracy theorist records the murder off satellite. Mulder hunts the source of the tape and in the process creates an international incident with Japan. One of the people recognizes Scully form her abduction, and Scully learns that many abductees are dying of cancer. The episode end with Mulder jumping aboard the train.
  8. Clyde Buckmen’s Final Repose” deals with a serial killer who hunts down psychics and fortune tellers and kills them. One man Clyde Buckmen who can see how people are going to die assists Mulder. Buckmen’s information allows Dana Scully to save Fox Mulder’s life. Buckmen who struggles with his psychic ability commits suicide.  
  9. Gender Bender” is about an Amish like community in Massachusetts that is linked to a series of murders that occur after sex. The religious community called The Kindred is actually alien and the members of the community are able to change gender roles.

The two episodes that I found deeply disturbing and troubling because of their subject matter was “Home” and “Irresistible.” One deals with an incestuous family in Pennsylvania and the other deals with a man who  is a mortician has a fetish for death and collects body parts, his eventual target is Agent Dana Scully. 

Secularist Concern for The X-Files

The X-Files has created some concerns with the secular community early on in its existence. In November of 1996 Richard Dawkins singled out The X-Files on television and criticized it for pseudo-science. Dawkins stated that shows like The X -iles “offer rational and paranormal theories as rival explanations.” Dawkins continued and said the following. “And week after week the rational explanation loses. Imagine a crime series in which week after week, there is a white suspect and a black suspect. And every week, lo and behold, the black one turns out to have done it. Unpardonable, of course. And my point is that you could not defend it.” What Dawkins is referring to is that each week Mulder has a child like fascination with the paranormal, yet Scully has a firm scientific foundation. What happens is that week after week Mulder is shown to be correct, and the scientist is proven to be wrong.

Richard Dawkins criticism of The X-Files left one of the main characters, who is also a skeptic at odds with him. William B. Davis who played “The Cancer Man” has long been a vocal skeptic. You can see him pose with Seth Andrews of The Thinking Atheist, right hereIn an interview with the University of Toronto magazine in the spring of 2012, when Davis was asked about Dawkins critique, he had the following to say.

“The show is fiction and, hopefully, it’s understood to be so. It’s a complicated issue, because Richard Dawkins, who was my hero in science, started quite actively speaking against The X-Files, accusing it of promoting pseudoscience and paranormal thinking, denying critical thought and so on. This was a little bit of a matter of conscience for me because my career was just beginning to take off on this series that my hero was condemning. So what should I do as a matter of conscience? Perhaps I should withdraw from the series. Some people said if you do that, someone else is going to do it anyway. But that’s not really a good excuse for betraying your beliefs, so I couldn’t get out if it that way.

Then I realized that Dawkins had no evidence for what he was saying. He said the show promotes pseudoscience since, on each episode, a rational solution is proposed and a pseudoscientific solution is proposed, and the latter always wins. But you can turn that one on its head with The X-Files because every time a solution was proposed, a man said it was this, and a woman said it was that. And every time the man, Mulder, is right, and the woman, Scully, is wrong. So you could accuse the show of being sexist just as easily as you can accuse it of being pseudoscientific. And nobody ever complained about the show being sexist. In fact, Scully became a heroine to many women.

It’s interesting, I’ve become involved with various organizations for sceptics, and they’re full of X-Files fans.”

One organization that was following The X-Files in popular culture and concerned at times is the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry, which falls under the umbrella of the Center for Inquiry. There are two articles that I want to bring to your attention. The first one is written by Erich Goode who is a professor today at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.  The second article is written by Matt Nisbit who is a professor at Northeastern University. Both men have published through the Committee of Skeptical InquiryGoode published an article in the Skeptical Inquirer in September/October 2002 called “Why Was The X-Files So Appealing?” In this article Goode credits the success of the series to its focus on para-normalism, conspiratorial thinking and populism. Nesbit recently published an article in the Skeptical Inquirer back in January/February 2016 called  “The X Files Effect? Research Suggest We Shouldn’t Worry so Much over the Hit TV Series.” This article came out before the new six episodes that came out recently. Plus it apparently was written in response to his earlier warnings in the late 1990’s about the success of the series. During that time Matt also spoke about the issue of paranormal activity and the show’s portrayal of science.  For example in a debate at Harvard Nesbit debated the issues from the show, which you can read right here.  In the recent article the was published the professor from Northeastern states that the science fiction audience in the end is vary warm to science, while also pointing out that the perception of scientists has actually become more favorable in the course of time. For example in 1985 more Americans held a negative view of science then they did in 2002. When it comes to the paranormal reality shows or documentaries he believes those are going to have more of an influence then television dramas.  In the conclusion of his article Nesbit quotes Michael Crichton in his famous address to the American Association of the Advancement of Science. Crichton claimed that in the entertainment media, “negative and distorted views of scientists and the scientific method are inevitable,” and that “worrying about it is a lot of hot air.” Then in the final two paragraphs Nesbit writes the following which I want to highlight in its entirety.

Since the 1990s, portrayals of science and scientists in the TV dramas have been trending more positive, if not promotional. The effects of such presentations are more complex and less predictable than many scientists and skeptics assume, even in some cases cultivating a stronger belief in the promise of science and acceptance of specific scientific advances.

Research also suggests TV dramas such as The X-Files may have only a limited, and often difficult-to-discern, influence on beliefs in the paranormal. Instead, one-sided or falsely balanced news presentations in combination with the ubiquitous number of paranormal-themed reality TV programs and pseudo-documentaries may be a much greater cause for concern and therefore should be the primary focus of outreach efforts.


My Take on this Issue

I have to say that this article has been a blast to write, especially as I got to re-visit some clips and poke around the internet to look at how The X-Files is looked at by the secular community. If I have made any mistakes I always welcome correction. There is a lot of material to review in putting this together.  For me The X-Files was a drama. It was intense, it had a good plot, and each week you were left hanging on for more. I also think the series success was due to the events playing out in the time. The Cold War had ended a few years earlier and there was a rise in conspiratorial thinking. We saw the dark side of that in such tragedies as the Oklahoma City Bombing. Yet I think part of the reason why The X-Files ended when it did was due to the September 11, 2001 attacks. The United States faced the greatest attacks since Pearl Harbor. That changed people’s thinking and people started to trust the government again. Events in a few years would influence things again, but the point I am trying to make is that after September 11 people needed to trust their government. So The X-Files became the odd man out and it became a victim to the times.

I loved The X-Files dearly and was deeply addicted to it. I subscribe to a lot of mailings and when the Center for Inquiry sent me this article about The X-Files I knew I had to write about it. There were some problems with The X-Files which I just have to say here. I had some concerns about the Lone Gunman being shown as ethical hackers, if I remember correctly. Hackers were portrayed in a light that was favorable, and that bothered me especially as the internet advanced and people, companies and even governments fell victim to hacking schemes. That was one thing that bothered me deeply. Another aspect that I wanted to cry foul on is Mulder’s enjoyment of pornography and him watching it at work. Scully made jokes about it in a few episodes, and it made me fume because honestly…how many guys could watch porn at work and get away with it? That was over the top in so many ways.

When it comes to the concerns that have been raised by the secular community about The X-Files this is what I am thinking. Like iIsaid earlier The X-Files is a drama, and that must be remembered. It captured me and just like it did many other people. It had a wide appeal on many topics. It appealed to those interested in the paranormal, just as it appealed to the conspiracy theorists and those who believe in extraterrestrial life.  One thing I do believe is that this show from Fox showed how many people are interested in ghosts and other paranormal activity and I think it illustrated the potential that exists in these shows. Another way to phrase it is this…would we have shows like Ghost Hunters, or The Dead Files if it were not for The X-Files? Personally I don’t believe we would. This will bring me to my closing point. If I were with an organization like the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry I would be more worried over ghost documentaries and reality television shows instead. If I were a skeptic I would be more troubled about The Dead Files, Ghost Hunters, and others like them. I was going through my Twitter feed today and I saw this from the Center for Inquiry. They were quoted for a comment by the Huffington Post about a picture of a ghost captured in a 12th century castle in England. That is not the only time the news has featured such pictures. Here are a couple more to make my point. I express all this to say that the hype from The X-Files seems to have been realized and it appears as if secularists are seeing their mistakes about the television show. So with that I hope I gave you a different angle into the secular realm. As I sign off I just want to say I love you and remember guys…the truth is out there, and trust no one!

8 thoughts on “The Truth is Out There: Secularist Concern for The X-Files

  1. If I have made any mistakes I always welcome correction

    You made a typo in ‘This article cam out before the brief episodes that came out recently’.

    I’ll see myself out. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This morning as I was getting ready I was reflecting on how in the secularism or atheist camp they also can wage the culture wars just like evangelicals. I mean I consider all the concerns that organizations like Focus on the Family have with television, and then on the other side of the coin we see that from the secular camp as well. I am not trying to put down anything its just something that I see.


    • I’ve seen that happen with some in the atheist movement trying to move the focus as a whole towards social justice causes. It’s had mixed results. Atheism+ was an early iteration of that sort of focus.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have to confess that this was the neatest post I have done. It was neat to research and write about some of this material. However…can I also confess something? Sometimes when its late at night I will lay in bed and watch something like “Ghost Hunters” on my tablet. Then I will get spooked out and send a text message to a friend saying, “I can’t sleep…I’m too spooked!” Okay well that being said…I have come clean! 🙂


  4. I loved the X-Files, too! Gave me nightmares, but I loved it!
    I wonder what Dawkins has to say about some other movies: Men in Black, Ghost, Ghost Busters, ET, The Wizard of Oz, the Superman movies, Zoo, all of the Stephan King stuff …….. an endless list???
    Books: Animal Farm, and two of my favorite books from my early teen years: Escape from Witch Mountain and A Wrinkle in Time.
    Lots of good fiction out there for him to go off the rails about!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am nervous about the new Ghostbusters that is coming out. How can you redo an original? Not only that but Harold Ramis just can’t be duplicated. But I can be wrong. I liked Mon of Steel and I still like the original Superman also. This was a blast to write and research. 🙂


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