With the large number of religious cast members on the upcoming Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, Inside Survivor contributor Matthew Prussky looks at the concept of religion on Survivor over the years.
Over sixteen years and thirty-two seasons, there have been over 500 participants on Survivor. Each one of their stories told by the show’s editors and producers, who aimed to develop heroes and villains through the portrayal of these very real people. Those who initially signed up for the show were seeking adventure, fame, financial support for their families, or to be challenged, yet what occurred surprised everyone, even production. The faces of the contestants starring in the first installment, Survivor: Borneo, in the summer of 2000, became entrenched in tabloids, as they became almost God-like with how rapidly they gained followers. The spirit of Survivor only grew, and though the game has complicated and revolutionized since the early stages of the 00s, the spiritual experience and journey of the show remain very much intact.
When Survivor first aired, it appeared that the show, and host-turned-showrunner, Jeff Probst, were looking to find an identity. In an interview with Dalton Ross during Survivor: South Pacific, Probst acknowledged that religion has played a part in the show from the very first season and that if God does exist then he/she “…probably does care about the outcome.” Probst believes that God appreciates the journey and struggle of the contestants embarking on this journey, and this belief is evident in the early stages of the show.
For the first several seasons, Probst spoke of ‘the spirits of the island,’ implementing a religious or spiritual perspective of the show. The idea of Survivor as a portrayal of religion was also apparent based on some of the casting choices in the early seasons. In the first season, Dirk Been brought a Bible as his only luxury item, and when the rest of the tribe was ‘surviving’, he would sit alone and pray, which put him on the outs of the tribe who grew suspicious of his work ethic. In one of the more memorable quotes in Survivor history, seventy-two year old, Rudy Boesch said: “It’s funny to me that a guy would read the Bible out here. The only reason I’d bring the Bible is if I need toilet paper… and I’m religious, too.” Albeit harsh, Rudy was one of the people to understand what the game was all about – social politics – and those politics controlled every aspect of humanity, including religion.
Soon the show would move almost entirely away from the spirituality of the islands and its Gods, and more towards the social politics and strategic gameplay. However, there have been various portrayals of traditional religion over the course of the past thirty-two seasons. In the fourth season, Survivor: Marquesas, the two finalists, Neleh Dennis and Vecepia Towery, created an alliance based on their religious background. This strategy and perception of taking the game ‘outside the game’ did not resonate well with the jury who was voting for a winner. The jury ultimately accused the finalists of hiding behind religion as a way to come off as guilt-free for all of their lies and backstabbing.
The evolution of Survivor was clear, to win you must somewhat follow a method of cut-throat, aggressive strategy. Being a spiritual person outside the game was not the answer for success or sympathy in the game. Arguably one of the best players of all time, Parvati Shallow, has remained a large part of the Survivor community, where she breaks down the game and all its layers to her followers. She describes Survivor as a “…microcosm of life – the game, played out over 39 days, spotlights what happens over the course of a human lifetime. Timing, luck, strategy, and skill are all interwoven like a beautiful palm frond roof to build a person’s destiny.” In Survivor, not only is every decision a potential reason for your demise or success, but each castaway’s decisions will affect the entire casts’ journey, whether they realize it or not.
The push away from religion and the shift towards humanitarian values, socio-economic attitudes, and unethical behavior has represented the world we live in, and though it has only been sixteen years on the air, the show accounts for a real-life shift that has been occurring for decades. In the 1950s, forty-three percent of Westerners believed in God, and by 1990, that number dropped to thirty-one percent, and then by 2000, when Survivor first aired, the number was as low as twenty-six percent (Predicting Religion: Christian, Secular, and Alternative Futures). So, this makes it clear that religion in the West was becoming less prominent at the time of Survivor’s first episode. Therefore it is unsurprising that the majority of the people cast for the show were not overly religious or spiritual. Those who were, often struggled far more frequently than they would succeed, both in the game and in their journey.
Notorious Survivor villain, Rob Mariano, once stated that: “there is no place for religion in this cutthroat game.” The producers designed this game, but it was ultimately built and developed by the players. Yes, the show-runners aimed for a spiritual, mystical view to intrigue the broad audience, but this never gained steam. It was the big personalities, backstabbing, alliances, and various adaptations of people from different walks of life engaging in social politics which resonated with the audience. The act of lying to get ahead rapidly expanded as the show evolved and the role of the “good” Christian contestant shifted, making them some of the biggest threats in the game. In Survivor, it is incredibly important to get to the end with people you feel you can beat, and the fact of the matter was and is, the traditional, moral, Christians who got cast were very threatening because they often defected from blindsiding and manipulating. Therefore the jury respected and genuinely liked them, making religion, an incredibly large target.
Ethics in Survivor are almost entirely thrown out the window, and the best way to find and maintain success is through strict deception, both with relationships in the game and at times, the relationship to one’s God. The early seasons, as mentioned, had a heavy dose of spirituality, but this vanished as the show shifted to a people-based show. However, in spite of this change, certain contestants have used God and religion as a shield, weapon, or as motivation. The editors and producers of the show aimed to keep the show neutral to all different groups of Americans, and for the most part stayed away from creating religious cults on the island, but seasons twenty-two and twenty-three experienced noteworthy adaptations of Christianity, and the power of religion.
In Survivor: Redemption Island, a new twist was added to the game, which was the inclusion of a separate island where the person voted off would live in isolation until the next person was voted off. At this point, the two individuals on ‘Redemption Island’ would compete in a challenge, the winner would remain on the island for another three days, while the other was eliminated. This scenario would continue until a random point when Probst informed the two competitors that the winner of the forthcoming challenge would be granted access back into the game.
Matt Elrod, a popular contestant from this season who devoted his entire game to his God, made it clear that the game had a different meaning for him. Following his run on the show, he claimed that his aim was never to win, nor to participate in the social interactions, but that his only reason for becoming a part of the show was to glorify God and get his name out, encouraging belief. Matt was voted out relatively early and sent to Redemption Island, which he referred to as purgatory, and he proceeded to win four challenges before being put back into the game. Upon re-entering he was swiftly blindsided at the next vote due to the threat his story and journey with his God made him. Matt’s journey portrayed a broken man devoting his trust into something much greater than himself, and through his struggles and suffrage in complete isolation, he tried to show the love, joy, and peace which he felt towards God.
The following season, Survivor: South Pacific, saw religion amongst the castaways portrayed in an entirely different, much more manipulative way. In this season, airing in 2011, one of the tribes was filled with devout Christians, led by villainous, three-time player, Benjamin “Coach” Wade. Coach would gather his tribe-mates frequently to recite passages from the Bible, hand-in-hand, and then proceed to cut their throats days, and sometimes moments, later. He would promise on God that he would never vote off some of his fellow tribemates, and then proceed to blindside them, showing how on Survivor, it is possible to use religion as a tool to build trust, as long as you are willing to sacrifice morals and integrity in the process. However, Coach’s actions drew a lot of controversy from religious viewers, as the show was allegedly depicting religion as a weapon, and not respecting the sacredness of Christianity. Following the two controversial seasons of Redemption Island and South Pacific, Survivor, or at least the editing of Survivor, strayed away from controversial issues regarding religion, specifically with religion as a weapon in the big, bad game of manipulation.
While the religious dialogue, or symbols of traditional religion or spirituality, were not prevalent in each episode of Survivor’s thirty-two season and counting run, the core concepts of the show, as well as the effect and continuous following, certainly represents a form of spirituality. The most notable comparison to traditional religion without accounting for the players involved is the setting of the tribal council. Here, the castaways come to speak their minds and atone for their sins. At the conclusion of each trip to tribal council, each contestant steps into the voting booth and speaks their confessional, something which is kept completely private from their fellow tribemates – an experience which is extremely similar to that of confessionals at Church.
Perhaps the greater religious impact of Survivor is how the show as a whole can be viewed as a supplement for religion. In a day and age where young people are abandoning Church, Synagogue, and all other religious homes at rapid rates, they must turn elsewhere. Viewing a television series as a form of spirituality, or religious experience, may have seemed silly in the past, but television now shapes opinions on both religion and God, which has played a part in the dramatic decline in religious following. Survivor, like religion, has found a core group of followers, and the effect it has on those followers is very much a spiritual experience.
Millions of Survivor geeks, myself being one of the biggest, anxiously speculate on what is to come each and every week, and when Wednesday comes around it is an experience that resembles Sunday mornings at Church. This feeling is something that I have grown accustomed to over sixteen years, and without my Survivor time, I am incomplete. As I stated earlier, roughly twenty-six percent of America believed in God and attended Church regularly in the year 2000. Meanwhile, that same year when Survivor aired, the equivalent of about twenty percent (52 million people) of the population of the U.S tuned in to watch Richard Hatch become the first Sole Survivor – a number which exceeded the Academy Awards in 2015. Our connection to sport, science, politics, or anything else, can be considered a spiritual experience – as long as it is spiritual to us, which Survivor is to a significant portion of its ardent followers.
It is clear that television as we know it has modernized, and continues to do so, and this is tied to the desire to accommodate best the changes seen across North America. This change means that religious-based entertainment is growing less and less popular and relevant. The hit CBS show, Touched By an Angel, ended in 2003, after over 200 episodes, and the famous movie, Passion of the Christ, grossed more than 600 million dollars! But there has been a minimal attempt by Hollywood to replicate these successes, simply due to supply and demand. All of the major television networks have refused to launch new series with religious premises, as it is evident that respect for religion, and religion in itself, is in severe decline. Not only has religion declined, but TV has changed dramatically, to the point where only a handful of shows from the year 2000 exist today, Survivor being one of those constants. A CBS executive described Survivor as “the miracle show”, as the formula has stayed the same, and yet the fanbase, or “cult”, has remained intact, allowing the success to continue and grow.
Survivor is proof that passion, and a desire for an adventure, journey, or a life change, can quickly become so much more. In the game itself, it was quickly developed by the early cast members that this game was not suited for religion, and it was strictly about obtaining capital and doing whatever it took to get to the top. Survivor was not meant to promote religion, though religious symbols and individuals were present throughout the show’s duration. The appeal of Survivor was the Machiavellian twist of voting real life people off an island, and thus watching the suffering, mean-spiritedness, humiliation, and conniving behavior of a group of strangers seeking to win an intense game. Religions often form off of bits and pieces of other, existing religions, and Survivor was no different, further cementing the idea that a television series, specifically one with such a lengthy stay on the air and large following, can truly be a spiritual thing.
With the upcoming thirty-third season, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, featuring many religious cast members – from missionaries to pastors – it will be interesting to see what kind of role, if any, religion plays over the course of the season.
The Western World has undergone serious changes concerning the value and followings of religion, which in the 21st century has led to a strong favoring of socio-economic factors and the desire of humanity to get to the top by whatever means necessary. That’s what Survivor is all about, and this deep-seated representation of the world we are accustomed to is able to captivate millions of people, to the extent that it has become an intense, spiritual element to the lives of many. Survivor represents good and evil and everything in between. That this television series has been able to last thirty-two seasons and sixteen years, shows just how captivating and important it is to such a large amount of diverse people; many of whom are looking for a sense of enlightenment that they cannot find with a particular, common religion.