Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Faith in Space

Article first published as Faith in Space on Blogcritics.

When it comes to believing that Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi-horror classic Alien is one of the best movies of its kind ever, I have discovered that I am not alone in the universe. I have also discovered that finding his new, not-quite-a-prequel Prometheus really annoying is also a shared experience. Among its most annoying attributes is the way it deals with issues of faith.

Here's a quick synopsis. Archeologists find cave paintings in Scotland that are similar to others they've found around the world. These images lead them to conclude that human beings were created by an alien race a zillion years ago, and now they want to go and find the aliens. They assemble a rag-tag team of corporate suits, scientists, and working-class types, go to a mysterious moon to make contact with these aliens, and learn that in space, someone can in fact hear you scream.

The film's first faith-based offense is in the Christian imagery used to represent religion. One of the archeologists walks around with a crucifix on. Look, I'm totally down with Christians and crucifixes, but are we really still at a stage where Christianity is used in films as a proxy for all human religiousness? You'd think that in an increasingly pluralistic world we would mix things up a bit. How about sending a Rastafarian into space for a change? It could be a Bob Marley meets E.T. kind of thing. Or even better, how about an interfaith space odyssey? Imagine a Muslim, Christian, Jew, and Baha'i for instance engaged in inter-religious dialogue as they try to evade being impregnated by aliens with anger issues. There is definitely a movie in there and a few dissertations too, I'd imagine.

The second thing that made me want to pull my hair out (difficult with a crewcut I must say) was the old faith-vs.-reason/science debate. I understand that this remains a culture war issue for some folks, but quite a few of us have gotten over this. It is in fact possible to adhere to the rigors of reason and science and also believe in God. This is certainly how Baha'is approach the issue. 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892 to 1921, explained it this way:

Bahá'u'lláh declared that religion is in complete harmony with science and reason. If religious belief and doctrine is at variance with reason, it proceeds from the limited mind of man and not from God; therefore, it is unworthy of belief and not deserving of attention; the heart finds no rest in it, and real faith is impossible. How can man believe that which he knows to be opposed to reason? Is this possible? Can the heart accept that which reason denies? Reason is the first faculty of man, and the religion of God is in harmony with it.

I would hope that in the late 21st century when Prometheus takes place, humanity would be having a more sophisticated conversation about faith and science. Time will tell, I suppose.
Speaking of faith, this phenomenon is encapsulated in the oft repeated expression "I choose to believe it" whenever an assertion is challenged or questioned in the film. In this version, the touchstone of faith is adhering to belief in spite of the empirical evidence available. In its more extreme forms the strength of faith is measured by the distance between belief and reason. This understanding of faith is the seed of much faith-vs.-reason/science conflict. The Baha'i Faith offers an alternative understanding of faith. 'Abdu'l-Baha comments:

In divine questions we must not depend entirely upon the heritage of tradition and former human experience; nay, rather, we must exercise reason, analyze and logically examine the facts presented so that confidence will be inspired and faith attained. Then and then only the reality of things will be revealed to us...By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.

This conceptualization of faith is less about what we believe to be true, and more about we come to know to be true through reasoning and scientific investigation. The strength of this kind of faith is measured not by increasing the distance between belief and reason, but closing the distance between knowledge and action. If this way of understanding faith had been represented in the film, the dialogue would have sounded more like "I choose to act in accordance with what I have come to know to be true through reason and investigation." That's a movie moment that would make me stand up and cheer. Anybody out there want to make a new kind of faith-in-space movie?

Image courtesy of This file is in the public domain because it was created by NASA.


  1. I've long bemoaned the reality of faith in scifi/fantasy. In Star Trek religion is either pure superstition, a mystery no one understands at all and looked at as religion when it is really something else just not understood, or from a foreign culture to be respected because it's theirs. Babylon 5 gave some legs to religious diversity but never directly engaged a reality of it in it's paradigm, just that it was respectable because of the reality of faith if what that faith was in was weird (except for the religious quality of the reincarnated relationship between humans and MBari and the manipulation so the Vorlox look like angels to every culture) Firefly might have been somewhere in-between - yes there was faith and it was respected in itself but it rarely played a role beyond one or two characters I think. The was commitment but the focus was on the adventure, not why to keep at it or how faith gave wings to progress.

    There is some work by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff that bridges the topics - most of her novels dwell on religion in society being the engine of change and she relates the religious work with (magical realism) events and capacities in the world. See the Meri trilogy and the Spirit Gate. She's had more recent wider publications too.

    All this despite the fact the religious ideas are actually big time in scifi/fa - the ideas of expectations of a (prophet-like) figure whether in how Gandalf or Muad-dib does his thing and the various forms of struggles over good vs evil (constructive vs destructive, moral vs amoral, conventional vs innovative flipping sides...) The removed attitudes of the enlightened when dealing with everyone else - usually with some kind of detachment/uninvolvement like the Ascended and other First Races of Stargate, or the Organians of Star Trek who like angels deal death and peace with a wave of their hands while having modest personal behavior, the morality of facing the problems of the day and doing the right thing even at great personal cost. There is a dodge from some issues of trying to convince other people of what is going on and needs to go on - in the Matrix they pretty much ignore how more people are awakened than in all (recorded) history and of course there's ignoring the moral issues of killing indiscriminately because either they can't wake up or they are just batteries that will be reloaded or replaced.

  2. I mean think of things like race in america - at least from the abolition movement through the civil rights movement, then independence in India, religion has played strong roles worthy of real note. Not to say it's always there - I don't see it in the fall of the Soviet Union or South African Apartheid (though it played a unique response of the Baha'is to the situation.) But why should religion be so ignored or put off?

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  4. When it comes to religion and science fiction I remember when I first saw Startrek in the 1970s on TV religion was mostly secondary or tertiary as a subject unless it was part of the subject matter of the episode.
    My facorite was when they landed on a mirrored earth that resembled the Roman Empire and Christ never appeared until the late 20th CenturyAD [followers of the sun]an allusion to Bahá'u'lláh perhaps??

    Gene Roddenberry to that secret to his grave...

    But I will say Today some can argue that ROME and the United States are similar the only difference is the level of technology...
    Furthermore, the Bahais of Iran are facing the same level of persecution the early Christians faced 1900+ years ago in Ancient Rome to there might be that link..

    Also there is a growing movement in certain circles that Christ and the other prophets were alien visitors from other planets[not that I agree with their conclusions but the subject is interesting]
    However I could digress and fill pages of text to support such arguments but I'll save that for another time...

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