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Caledonia Bound

For only the second time in my life I am crossing Hadrian's wall into Scotland, the land of my maternal grandfather. I'll be camping with my wife and a friend on the shore of a loch at the edge of the Highlands, and will be enjoying a break from the world for a while. When I return, I'll be starting a mini-campaign on bioethics (the ethics of life) that will run through the Summer, but for now, at least, I am disconnecting from the internet so that I might reconnect with nature. As they say in Gaelic: Slàinte mhor a h-uile là a chi 's nach fhaic!

Only a Game will return in roughly two weeks.

Religion in Science Fiction

This serial ran from April 23rd to June 18th 2009, in nine parts. The purpose of this examination of seven of the most popular science fiction franchises was to expose some of the hidden nuances in the interaction between traditional beliefs and a genre which is often assumed to be inherently hostile to religion. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on part one, below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.

Here are the nine parts:

  1. Introduction
  2. Metaphysics of Science Fiction
  3. Dune
  4. Stargate
  5. Star Trek
  6. Doctor Who
  7. Firefly
  8. Battlestar Galactica
  9. Star Wars

This serial was first conceived while I was living in Knoxville, Tennessee, over a year ago, and was triggered by my astonishment that the new Doctor Who episodes were showing metaphysical bias to a degree that - had it been religious metaphysics - would have courted considerable criticism. I delayed the serial to expand the research, and to allow the new Battlestar Galactica to finish airing. I never intended it to be quite as much work as it was!

If you enjoyed the serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Religion in Science Fiction (9): Star Wars

Contains spoilers for the original Star Wars trilogy.

Star-Wars “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” begins the opening crawl of each of the Star Wars films, epic tales of the battle between good and evil, of valiant robots and strange alien races all set to an unforgettable John Williams score that is deeply resonant of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The most successful space opera of all time, the Star Wars films have grossed $4.3 billion at the box office – only the James Bond and Harry Potter movies have enjoyed greater success. Yet if there had been no Joseph Campbell, there might never have been a Star Wars.

In 1949, Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which remains his most influential work. In this book, Campbell introduces the idea of the Hero's Journey – termed the monomyth in Campbell's work (a reference to James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake). This idea is oft misunderstood, and refers to a recurring narrative cycle that is expressed in all mythology and classical tales. However, the full cycle rarely if ever appears in one myth – instead, each tale picks up aspects of the sequence of departure, initiation and return. Furthermore, the cycle repeats indefinitely, thus a legend may begin with the return, and then trigger a new departure, and each of the steps of the cycle contain variations – thus as well as returning, the hero may choose not to return (as in the legend of the sleeping giant Muchukunda in Hindu legend).

Campbell attributes these recurring themes in the world's mythology to common psychological roots, often citing Carl Jung's idea of “archetypes of the collective unconsciousness” as expressing the general idea behind his approach of comparative mythology. He credited the nineteenth century polymath Adolf Bastian with the root of both his own work, and Jung's similar concept. Bastian had described the recurring features in world mythology as ‘elementary ideas’, while the individual expressions of these ideas in local cultural forms he designated ‘ethnic’ or ‘folk ideas’. Campbell noted: “Such a recognition of two aspects, a universal and a local, in the constitution of religions everywhere clarifies at a stroke those controversies touching eternal and temporal values, truth and falsehood, which forever engage theologians...”

One of the first writers to begin to apply Campbell's ideas in fiction was George Lucas. Speaking of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Lucas said:

It came to me that there really was no modern use of that's when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore and mythology, and I started reading Joe's books... It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with A Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classical motifs.


It was the first time that I really began to focus. Once I read that book I said to myself, this is what I've been doing... It was all right there and had been there for thousands and thousands of years, as Dr. Campbell pointed out... It's possible that if I had not run across him I would still be writing Star Wars today.

The original Star Wars movie follows the cycle of Campbell's monomyth nearly perfectly. Luke receives the “call to adventure” when he finds the droids R2D2 and C3PO and sees a holographic plea for aid from Princess Leia asking for Obi-Wan Kenobi. He takes the droids to the hermit Ben Kenobi, but refuses the call, turning down Kenobi's invitation to join him and learn to be a Jedi. However, having done so, tragedy is brought down upon him as his aunt and uncle are slain by Imperial stormtroopers searching for the droids. He crosses the threshold into another world at Mos Eisley spaceport, where he is joined by Han Solo and Chewbacca upon the ‘road of trials’. They become trapped in the Death Star (the ‘belly of the whale’) where they rescue Princess Leia, and escape to rendezvous with the Rebel Alliance. Using the plans of the Death Star carried by R2D2, a desperate attack is launched upon the deadly space station thus destroying it, and Luke and Han are honoured as heroes. (The only variation from the basic structure of the monomyth is that the Death Star plans – the ‘elixir’ which is stolen from the other world – is already with R2D2 at the start of the story).

Lucas drew upon many different sources in the creation of the original Star Wars. The most notable science fiction influence was E.E. Doc Smith's Lensman series, which first appeared in Amazing Stories between 1934 and 1948. These stories are classic space opera, and share considerable similarities with Star Wars – including a farmboy hero who is dragged into an interstellar conflict of unimaginable scale and who develops amazing powers which he uses to defeat evil. An early draft of Star Wars referred to the light side of the force as Arisian – the Arisians being the good guys in the Lensman series. Not coincidentally, Triplanetary (the first Lensman story) is also set billions of years before the present time (“A long time ago...”).

Additionally, Lucas was a keen film student and drew upon some of the imaginative ideas in the work of cinematic genius Akira Kurasawa to make Star Wars more unique, particularly from the film The Hidden Fortress. In the original film, two luckless peasants are dragged around a dangerous land by a General (Toshirō Mifune) who is trying to escort the Princess of a defeated royal family to safety. The idea of a pair of protagonists who are not so much heroes but rather bystanders swept up in epic events became the inspiration for the droids R2D2 and C3PO (although it must be said that R2D2 is far more heroic than the peasants in The Hidden Fortress!) The space battles were heavily influenced by World War II dogfighting movies, and indeed before Lucas gained the money to shoot the special effects sequences he used stock footage of fighter plane battles to fill in the gaps in the movie.

At first glance, Lucas' drawing upon Campbell's work may seem a tangential connection to religion, and it is tempting to credit E.E. Doc Smith as owning more influence over the development of the franchise. However, in interviews with Bill Moyers (who also famously interviewed Joseph Campbell at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch) Lucas reveals more of his motivations, and it becomes apparent that Star Wars is deeply connected to religious themes. In the Time magazine article “Of Myth and Men” which is a transcript of the interview, Lucas stated:

I don't see Star Wars as profoundly religious. I see Star Wars as taking all the issues that religion represents and trying to distil them down into a more modem and easily accessible construct – that there is a greater mystery out there. When I was ten years old I asked my mother, I said, Well, if there is only one God, why are there so many religions? And over the years I have been pondering that question ever since. And it would seem to me that the conclusion I have come to is that all of the religions are true; they just see a different part of the elephant...

Lucas had been raised in a devout Methodist family, but after drawing upon religious mythological themes in Star Wars he began to identify strongly with Eastern religious philosophies, eventually identifying himself as a “Buddhist Methodist”. Taoism is often cited in connection with the Force, the Jedi's source of power, and indeed a central idea in this religion is that the Tao “flows through everything” (just like the Force). However, in Taoism the light and dark sides are not representative of good and evil – this idea, which is Zoroastrian in origin, makes its way into Star Wars via Christianity. It is generally accepted that all three of the Abrahamic faiths inherited this idea of good and evil from the prophet Zarathustra as a consequence of Israel's captivity in Babylon in the 6th century B.C. Thus the cosmology of Star Wars incorporates elements of both Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, the two major forms of faith on our planet.

Even with this multi-religious influence, Lucas never lost his faith in God. In the Moyers interview he states:

I think that there is a God. No question. What that God is or what we know about God, I'm not sure. The one thing I know about life and about the human race is that we've always tried to construct some kind of context for the unknown. Even the cavemen thought they had it figured out. I would say that cavemen understood on a scale of about 1. Now we've made it up to about 5. The only thing that most people don't realize is the scale goes to 1 million.

Indeed, Lucas has stated that the Force is not intended to be God, per se, but rather a general spiritual idea intended to spur thought about the idea of God:

I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people – more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, “Is there a God or is there not a God?” – that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that... I think it is important to have a belief system and to have faith.

On the whole, Lucas is positive about organized religion, and has stated that “I would hate to find ourselves in a completely secular world where entertainment was passing for some kind of religious experience.” Moyers challenged Lucas on the subject of authentic religion, suggesting that it requires the “leap of faith” discussed by the philosopher Kierkegaard. Lucas agreed, and noted that the phrase “Use the Force” which is intimately connected with the Star Wars franchise, is precisely denoting a leap of faith. “There are mysteries and powers larger than we are”, Lucas states, “and you have to trust your feelings in order to access them.”

Practitioners of traditional religions have wildly different responses to the Star Wars films, but for the most part the series is viewed positively. As well as the inevitable cases of confused Christians who attack the movies because they draw upon other traditions and are thus alleged to be “satanic” (an overt racism wildly at odds with the teachings of Jesus), or who dismiss the stories because they do not teach “True Religion”, there are many Christian accounts which stress the opportunity for using Star Wars as a stepping stone for discussing Christian faith with young people, or who praise the representation of Biblical stories in the science fiction milieu. Matthew Bortolin has published a book entitled The Dharma of Star Wars that teaches Buddhist precepts using Lucas' characters and stories, while Muslims for the most part seem to be particularly positive about the parallels between the Jedi and Islam. Irfan Rydhan writes:

As a Muslim, I always thought of the ‘Jedi’ as what a true follower of Islam should be like. Never mind the fact Jedi masters with their North African style cloaks and scruffy beards look like Sufi Sheikhs, but the way they are taught to respect a greater power, fight for the defence of the innocent and honour a code of morals and ethics in order to bring about peace and justice to their society, is basically what Islam teaches all Muslims to strive for.

Perhaps the wildest connection between the Star Wars universe and religion in our world is the fact that in the 2001 censuses in Britain, Australia and New Zealand there was an internet movement persuading people to list their religion as ‘Jedi’ in the mistaken belief that if enough people did so it would be listed as an official religion. Some 390,000 Britains did so, causing it to rank fourth in the census, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. There are indeed a few people who practice their own form of ‘Jediism’ as a religious movement, although Lucas does not condone this literal interpretation of the mythology he created.

In his later writings, Joseph Campbell expresses his viewpoint that our modern cultures have lost touch with the “dictionary of the language of the soul”, and that new mythologies are required for the world we live in. It was his view that the great myths have to be regenerated for each new generation. This indeed is how Lucas describes what he was attempting to do with the Star Wars films:

I'm telling an old myth in a new way. Each society takes that myth and retells it in a different way, which relates to the particular environment they live in. The motif is the same. It's just that it gets localized. As it turns out, I'm localizing it for the planet. I guess I'm localizing it for the end of the millennium more than I am for any particular place.

Campbell was full of praise for Lucas' work, calling him “his best student”. He interpreted the thrust of the original trilogy as exploring the idea that mankind should not be in the service of society, but that society should be in the service of mankind. He viewed Star Wars as expressing the state (the Empire) as a machine (symbolised in Darth Vader who is “more machine than man now”), and asking the question: “Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?” Campbell likened Star Wars to the tale of Faust:

Mephistopheles, the machine man, can provide us with all the means, and is thus likely to determine the aims of life as well. But of course the characteristic of Faust, which makes him eligible to be saved, is that he seeks aims that are not those of the machine. Now, when Luke Skywalker unmasks his father, he is taking off the machine role that the father has played. The father was the uniform. That is power, the state role.

If one believes, as Campbell did, that humanity is in need of new mythologies to take us forward into a future where the many different cultures of the world, and the many different religions that belong to those cultures, co-exist peacefully, then Star Wars demonstrates that one powerful way those mythologies can be generated is through science fiction. By drawing against the mythic traditions and interpreting them in the milieu of fantasies that incorporate technological themes, new legends can be created that may be about a “galaxy far, far away” but, as with all great fiction and all great mythology, are truly about the here and now, and the choices we face in how we live our lives.

A new serial begins later this year.

Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.

Time & Punishment (ihobo)

Over on ihobo today, a piece looking at time penalties in games. Here's an extract:

One way of exploring this notion of punishing games (versus forgiving games) is in terms of the time penalties that are implied by specific outcomes. In a forgiving game, the losses to the player for a mistake are usually minimal. In a punishing game, the player is risking their accrued progress for making a mistake – thus (provided the player is open to this style of play) increasing the excitement by adding risks to the play.

What Did Joseph Campbell Believe?

Apollo 8 Earthrise Our cultural perspectives on mythology, and to some extent religion, have been significantly influenced by the work of the twentieth century mythologist Joseph Campbell. But what did Campbell himself believe?

Campbell's life work was to explore the mythology of our planet and to demonstrate the common threads between them. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces he described the monomyth (or the hero's journey), a narrative cycle that can be found embedded in all legends in whole or in part, and linked this to psychological roots. In his epic four-volume work The Masks of God, he explored the specific cultural variations of these commonalities from an anthropological perspective. The guiding idea behind these books followed Adolf Bastian's concepts of “elementary ideas” (elementargedanken) and “folk ideas” (volkergedanken), which also influenced Carl Jung's concept of “archetypes of the collective unconsciousness”. The idea was that there are common elements (“elementary ideas”) to all our mythologies which are wrapped up in local, cultural baggage (“folk ideas”).

It is tempting, therefore, to claim that Campbell held beliefs that were entirely within what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the imminent frame”, the physical and material universe we all live within. Yet it is clear from Campbell's lectures and books that he does allow for transcendence, and is not just a materialist (as many Christian critics have alleged). While it is true that he interprets both mythology and religion as metaphors, this is not the same as denying something beyond the merely physical. If there are questions in this regard, they concern what transcendence meant to Campbell, and this is more challenging to establish.

Perhaps the most lucid Christian critic of Campbell's work is Dr. Tom Snyder, who dismisses any claim (as made by the journalist Bill Moyers) that Joseph Campbell “didn't have an ideology or a theology” and demonstrates that Campbell displays essentially pantheistic beliefs, that is, viewing all life as connected by a common spiritual thread, a divine impersonal force or consciousness. This is a position which has a lot in common with Einstein's beliefs concerning God and religion, and indeed both Einstein and Campbell were critical of orthodox religion for not wholly dissimilar reasons. (Synder goes onto urge Christians to oppose the teaching of Campbell's work, a strange request for any follower of Jesus, since at no point does Jesus advocate enforcement of doctrine as a valid use of anyone's time).

It is not clear that Campbell would have described himself as a pantheist, although it is apparent that his notion of the divine is somewhere in this theological ballpark. In his last book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, he writes:

There is a Hindu tantric saying, nadevo devam arcayet, “by none but a god shall a god be worshiped”. The deity of one’s worship is a function of one’s own state of mind. But it also is a product of one’s culture. Catholic nuns do not have visions of the Buddha, nor do Buddhist nuns have visions of Christ. Ineluctably, the image of any god beheld... will be of a local ethnic idea historically conditioned, a metaphor, therefore, and thus to be recognised as transparent to transcendence.

The idea here is that an idea of God is not, and cannot be, truly God. Campbell re-iterates this view more forcefully:

The first step to mystical realization is the leaving of such a defined god for an experience of transcendence, disengaging the ethnic form of the elementary idea, for any god who is not transparent to transcendence is an idol, and its worship is idolatry.

This is a concept that can be found in many traditions, including Hinduism and Sufi Islam, but it is not as divorced from conventional Christianity as it may at first seem. Saint Thomas Aquinas in Summa contra gentiles (book I, chapter 5) states: Then alone do we know God truly, when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think of God.” Whenever we believe that our idea of God trumps other people's, we have committed a form of idolatry, which all the Abrahamic faiths condemn.

One of the more interesting developments of this concept can be found in Eastern religious traditions, which differentiate between the worship of God (or gods) as representative of the deeper mystery, and the abandoning of these concepts in order to take upon the mystical journey within which any specific notion of God or of self dissipates. As Campbell explains:

In the vocabulary of yoga, the two modes of realization, at Chakra 6 and Chakra 7, are termed, respectively, of saguna brahman (the “qualified absolute”) and nirguna brahman (the “unqualified absolute”), while the two related orders of meditation are, respectively, savikalpa Samadhi (“discriminating absorption”) and nirvikalpa Samadhi (“undifferentiated absorption”). “But this,” said Ramakrishna in discussion of the latter, “is an extremely difficult path. To one who follows it even the divine play in the world becomes like a dream and appears unreal; his ‘I’ also vanishes. The followers of this path do not accept the Divine Incarnation. It is a very difficult path. The lovers of god should not hear much of such reasoning.”

But here Campbell perhaps fails to listen to his own wisdom. A crucial idea expressed in these two ideas of “qualified absolute” and “unqualified absolute”are that they represent different paths, not that one is superior to the other. Thus while it may be the case that in “undifferentiated absorption”one moves beyond the details of specific beliefs and into the divine mystery, that does not disqualify “discriminating absorption” as a worthy approach to matters of faith.

Yet Campbell repeatedly criticises the Abrahamic faiths for insisting upon their own beliefs as factual, and in doing so he is denying particular ways of relating to divinity – specific versions of the “qualified absolute” in the yoga terms. Campbell complains:

From the point of view of any orthodoxy, myth might be defined simply as “other people’s religion”, to which an equivalent definition of religion would be “misunderstood mythology”, the misunderstanding consisting in the interpretation of mythic metaphors as references to hard fact...

Is this not, in effect, an attempt to enforce the pantheistic divine experience (“unqualified”) above the theistic divine experience (“qualified”)? Campbell seems to be requiring that people not be allowed to interpret metaphors as facts, but this is too much to demand of anyone – consider that our notions of both ourselves and of our nations are all metaphors, but these metaphors must still be gainfully deployed as “facts” if we are going to relate meaningfully with others. Not everyone can walk the path of a seeker of the divine mysteries; for many, such is the gate to madness.

Religious tolerance requires that we allow each individual to interpret the divine mysteries of existence in their own terms, something that Campbell clearly understands, but balks at when it means allowing traditional Christianity (or any of the Abrahamic faiths) the freedom to interpret their religious narratives as historical facts. The frustration for Campbell, perhaps, was being trapped in a culture (mid-twentieth century United States) which on the one hand was dominated by traditional Christian beliefs, and individuals who attempted to force those beliefs on others, and against which the only opposition seemed to be coming from an equally dogmatic attempt to discard religious teachings entirely. He writes:

It all comes from misreading metaphors, taking denotation for connotation, the messenger for the message, overloading the carrier, consequently, with sentimentalized significance and throwing both life and thought thereby off balance. To which the only generally recognized correction as yet proposed has been the no less wrongheaded one of dismissing the metaphors as lies (which indeed they are, when so construed), thus scrapping the whole dictionary of the language of the soul (this is a metaphor) by which mankind has been elevated to interests beyond procreation, economics, and “the greatest good of the greatest number”.

Thus, without meaning to, Campbell ends up guilty of the crime he accuses orthodox religion of committing – he demands that people with orthodox beliefs share his own perspective on mythology and religion. His position is more compassionate than many of those he criticises, but it falls short of the standards of freedom of belief that must underlie a cosmopolitan society, willing to accept all paths as valid provided they do not enforce their beliefs on others. Campbell's philosophy that you should “follow your bliss” (which he derived from the Upanishads, and was intended to advocate personal spiritual truth, not hedonism) seems strangely blinkered in this one particular regard. He suggests:

If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are – if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

But it is in no way clear that the “bliss” of an orthodox Christian cannot be found in worship of their God-concept and the upholding of their own traditional beliefs. The assumption that it cannot is a strange denial of free will.

What Campbell wanted was not that everyone adopt his beliefs, but only that we might develop new metaphors and beliefs that recognised our world as one – his criticism of orthodox religion being levelled principally at their insistence on enforcing tribal boundaries that he saw as artefacts of the past. He saw this as a cultural battleground initiated by our first steps away from the planet:

The space age demands that we change our ideas about ourselves, but we want to hold on to them. That is why there is a resurgence of old-fashioned orthodoxy in so many areas at the present time. There are no horizons in space, and there can be no horizons on our own experience. We cannot hold on to ourselves and our in-groups as we once did. The space age makes that impossible, but people reject this demand or don’t want to think about it. So they pull back into one true church, or black power, or the unions, or the capitalist class.

A critical symbol for him in this regard was the famous Apollo 8 Earthrise photograph, which appears at the head of this piece. He says in this regard:

There are no horizons – that is the meaning of the Space Age. We are in free fall into a future that is mysterious. It is very fluid and this is disconcerting to many people... Earthrise is like all symbols. They resemble compasses. One point is in a fixed place but the other moves to the unknown. The fear of the unknown, this freefall into the future, can be detected all around us. But we live in the stars and we are finally moved by awe to our greatest adventures.

In this, Joseph Campbell's vision looked both beyond and within the mythological and religious traditions of our diverse planet, and found there both a reflection of who we are as a species, and a glimpse of what we might become.

Religion in Science Fiction (8): Battlestar Galactica

Contains spoilers for both the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica and the 2003 re-imagining, up to and including spoilers for the final episode.

Battlestar_galactica_630px In 1968 one of TV's most prolific executive producers, Glen A. Larson (who went on to make Magnum, P.I., The Fall Guy and Knight Rider and numerous other programmes), was working on a new idea for a science fiction show. The show, originally called Adam's Ark, was intended to transplant Bible stories into space. Larson worked on it for some time under the mentorship of Gene L. Coon (one of Gene Roddenberry's colleagues), but could not get the project greenlit. However, the success of Star Wars in 1977 changed attitudes towards science fiction and the show went into production in 1978, originally planned as a series of TV movies, although after the first a standard episodic format was adopted. That show was Battlestar Galactica.

Larson is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Mormon scripture formed the basis for the show's premise. The Book of Mormon tells the story of Lehi, a prophet living in Jerusalem shortly before its destruction by the Babylonians. Lehi lead his family and a band of refugees across North Africa to the Atlantic coast, where they build boats and crossed over to the Americas – the ‘promised land’. In Battlestar Galactica, the survivors of planetary genocide by the robotic Cylons form a “ragtag fugitive fleet” and cross space in search of the fabled Earth – their promised land. Other Mormon-themed touches in the show include the colonial government being known as The Quorum of Twelve (the name given to the leadership council of the Church of Latter-day Saints), and the use of Kobol as the place where the gods live – a distortion of Kolob, which in Mormon belief is the greatest star in the universe and the dwelling place of God.

The show suffered from budgetary problems. After its million dollar TV movie opening, ABC and Universal closed the purse strings tightly, forcing the show to constantly recycle special effects shots from the original TV movie and cut corners in almost every aspect of production. After just one season of twenty four episodes, the show was cancelled. An attempt to revive the show two years later, premised on the idea that the Galactica makes it to 1980s Earth, failed miserably, suffering from numerous problems including a lacklustre re-casting, and a bad time slot that required the show to limit acts of violence and shoehorn educational content into the scripts. Fans remained loyal to the original series however, and it retained a following for years to come. There were numerous attempts to revive the franchise, but none came to fruition.

In 2003, Universal Television decided to give the show another chance, and Sky1 and the Sci-Fi Channel put together a production team, lead by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick. Moore was a veteran sci-fi writer who had worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (and briefly on Voyager), having had considerable influence on the development of the Star Trek franchise, particular the Klingon race. Almost all of the modern elements of Klingon culture originated in Moore's writing, earning him the nickname “the Klingon guy” inside Paramount.

Moore's writing has always been of an excellent standard, and has only improved as his career has progressed. Particularly impressive is his ability to stand outside of the cultural clashes over belief and non-belief and ‘comment from the sidelines’. A favourite quote of mine in this regard is from the Deep Space Nine episode “Once More Unto the Breach”, which also starred John Colicos who played Baltar in the original Battlestar Galactica show. Bashir and O'Brien are arguing about how Davy Crocket died, and turn to Worf to break their dispute. Worf declares: “You are both wrong. The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died.”

Raised a Catholic, Moore says he “...looked into various Eastern religions, and now I've settled into a sort of agnosticism,” and noted in an interview with Wired that he always felt that religion was conspicuous in its absence in Star Trek. “You can deal with religion more aggressively in science fiction than you can in a contemporary show,” Moore noted. “You get a pass because everyone agrees it's not Christianity or Islam or any of those things we're so freaked out about. Even though it is.” Moore has explained that, like all great fiction, the new Battlestar Galactica is “about us... about what we go through today in our society and political structure.”

At the beginning it did not look good for the new show, which began as a mini-series. A test screening produced some of the worst ratings ever, and the company doing the testing reported: “Nobody likes these characters, we see no reason this should ever become a series, it's too dark, it's too scary.” However, the mini-series had already been filmed and so, with a certain sense of fatalism, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica was aired. To everyone's surprised, the ratings were good and the show was an instant critical success. A regular series was commissioned soon afterwards.

Although Moore was aware of the Mormon influence in the original show, he did not draw from this theology for the new series, noting:

I was aware that Glen had used Mormon influences and how he had created the cosmology, but I'm not that familiar with Mormon belief or practice so it was kind of like whatever was in the show is what I was dealing with. I essentially looked at the original series as mythos and the way it dealt with religion in sort of a global sense.

The extent to which religion was to become integral to the new show came as a surprise. In the screenplay for the mini-series, there is a discussion between the new Baltar (now played by James Callis) and one of the new human-resembling Cylon models known as ‘Number Six’ (Tricia Helfer), and as Moore was writing the scene he had Six say out of the blue “God is love”. He says of this moment: “I literally stopped because it was an interesting thing for a robot to say. And I didn't know what it meant, and I didn't really have an understanding of what larger place this could go, but I really liked it, because it wasn't something that I was used to seeing in science fiction when you're dealing with androids and robots. So I kept it. But it was just a small reference in the show.”

However, when he handed in the first draft, he got a note back from a network executive who said “Well, that's a really interesting thing for a robot to say”. The script already had a lot of parallels and allegories that alluded to the ‘war on terror’, and the approval of the network opened the door to provide a sense of religious fanaticism to the Cylon's drive to eradicate humanity. Moore states: “I grabbed that, because you're not used to getting that kind of note from a network executive, and said: sure, I can do that. And so, from that point on, the show took a fundamental turn where that became part of our myth.”

Following the original show the Colonial refugees believe in a pantheon of gods (modelled after the Greek gods), while in an original touch the new Cylons profess a belief in a single, unitary God – or at least, most of them do. The sinister Cavil, effortlessly played by Dean Stockwell, takes a far more sceptical view, stating at one point: “Supernatural divinities are the primitive's answer for why the sun goes down at night... At least that's what we've been telling the others for years. Can't really prove it one way or the other, of course.” One of the more fascinating elements of the Cylon culture is that they spend a tremendous amount of time pondering metaphysical questions such as whether as machines they can claim to have a soul – the kind of theologically-tinged discussion that is normally completely alien to science fiction shows.

Baltar and Six provide much of the focus for the expression of religious concepts within the new Battlestar Galactica. Both begin or end up as traitors to their races, and both have – quite mysteriously – mental constructs of the other who appear in their heads and guide them, or mislead them, providing some of the most fascinating and ambiguous elements of the storyline. Yet both are fated ultimately to play a pivotal role in the destinies of both the human and the Cylon races. Baltar, whom Moore has said is his favourite character in the show, swings wildly from one belief system to another until near the end he has almost completely abandoned his detached rationalism and has taken upon a mysticism he doesn't really understand.

In an early episode he decries: “Adama, listen to reason. You could drift forever in search of what? A planet that may be the myth of half-drunken star voyagers who came back to die here?” Later, he announces in response to Adama's accusation “how dare you defile the holy crypt!”: “Do you think I believe in all that primitive superstition?” But as he finds him trapped between two worlds – reviled by the humans and a disposable novelty to most of the Cylons – his views become gradually more theological. When D'Anna (Lucy Lawless) tortures Baltar for information he doesn't have but which she is unshakably convinced he does, he attacks her faith: “You can’t help asking yourself how God can allow death and destruction and then you despise yourself for asking... The truth is if we knew God’s will we’d all be gods, wouldn’t we?”

Finally, in the pivotal showdown during the finale of the series, Baltar faces down Cavil in a theological debate:

Baltar: I may be mad, but that doesn't mean that I'm not right. Because there's another force at work here; there always has been. It's undeniable. We've all experienced it. Every one in this room has witnessed events that they can't fathom, let alone explain away by rational means. Puzzles deciphered in prophecy. Dreams given to a chosen few. Our loved ones, dead, risen. Whether we want to call that God or gods or some sublime inspiration or a divine force we can't know or understand, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. It's here. It exists. And our two destinies are entwined in its force.

Cavil: If that's true, and that's a big if, how do I know that this force has our best interests in mind? How do you know that God is on your side, doctor?

Baltar: I don't. God's not on any one side. God's a force of nature, beyond good and evil. Good and evil, we created those. Want to break the cycle? Break the cycle of birth, death, rebirth, destruction, escape, death. Well, that's in our hands, and our hands only. It requires a leap of faith. It requires that we live in hope, not fear.

In the finale, many of the mystical questions are answered in a manner that surprised both people of faith and non-believers. The mental avatars of Baltar and Six are revealed to have independent presence, appearing in modern New York pondering “God's plan”, while noting that “it hates being called that”, while the mystery of Kara Thrace's resurrection is revealed as being entirely mystical, and left for the individual to interpret. Religiously-minded individuals were stunned at these metaphysical concessions to the idea of something beyond materialism, while anti-religious atheists were up in arms in the indignant edges of the blogosphere – even though, quite frankly, prophecy and mystical dreams had played an integral part of the storyline from the beginning and something preternatural was certainly required to account for this. It was another of those not-so-rare cases of the dogmatic-corners of the atheist community behaving like a fundamentalist religious subculture – a few angry individuals decrying a story because it did not concord with their personal metaphysical beliefs.

Yet the belief system in the new Battlestar Galactica does not concord with anyone's beliefs – it was, throughout the run of the show, a framework to allow the complex issues of faith, belief and scepticism to vie with each other in social, political and personal contexts. Robert Thompson of the Centre for the Study of Popular Television (quoted in a beliefnet article) has expressed fascination for the diverse attitudes towards the show:

What's so interesting is to see how different viewers respond to the show... On one message board, one person had been very upset about the anti-Christianity of [the show], while another one fired back that this was an anti-Muslim program. The very porousness of the show with regards to how people interpret it is actually a very healthy thing. In a culture where we are so programmed into thinking of spiritual and religious things in these incredibly simple-minded, fundamentalist ways, the level of ambiguity that a show like Battlestar Galactica allows in is a healthy thing... [it] really tweaks some of these very large questions and issues in a way that much more serious programs don't.

Other commentators have been similarly fascinated with the show's relationship with religion, and the audience's reaction to that. Nick Street has wondered if the fans of the new Battlestar Galactica will be “...the progenitors of what will likely become new and radically media-intensive religious movements that are emerging in an age of rapid technological change and remarkable spiritual flux.” In effect, he proposes that by throwing open the metaphysical debate in narrative form, Moore and the other writers on the new show have opened the door for wholly new attitudes towards spirituality and belief to evolve, via the discussions over the intentionally ambiguous elements of the storyline.

Throughout its history, the Battlestar Galactica franchise has had a unique position in narrative media, offering an interface between religion and science fiction quite unlike any other. Although religious elements provide a mere background prop to the original show, under the leadership of Ronald D. Moore the new series has delivered a brilliantly ambiguous mythology, open to interpretation by each individual in their own terms. It is the essence of good storytelling to reflect the nuances of our own societies in fiction, and in its willingness to enter the cultural battlefield of religious belief without commitment to any specific position it shows a bravery far in excess of most entertainment television.

Next week, the final part: Star Wars

Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.

Developer Failed Morale Check (ihobo)

Over on ihobo today, I muse about how publishers can inadvertently destroy the morale of a developer. Here's an extract:

One of the reasons that professional game development can be so stressful is that everyone involved in each project has different complaints about the game they're working on and not everyone can get their own way. (This is perhaps also why a game made by just one or two people can sometimes feel like it was delivered at a higher standard to one made on a huge budget!) The larger the project, the more people want their viewpoint reflected in the game, and the more people will end up feeling disappointed.

The Will to Power

Power-of-red-nadine-rippelmeyer The “Will to Power” was philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's formula for what he claimed was the fundamental disposition manifested in human life, and essentially in all other phenomena as well. His notebooks declare: “This world is the will to power – and nothing besides!” It was Nietzsche's view that everything that happens in our lives, and in the world around us, can be interpreted in terms of power relationships that take place amongst configurations of forces where the basic tendency is to expand, expend or transform.

Let us make no mistake that Nietzsche's general moral position was very much in contrast to almost all ethical systems known – in fact, his life work was to achieve a “re-evaluation of all values”, and his final unfinished volume was focussed precisely upon this, under the title “The Will to Power”. However, Nietzsche was to go mad before he could complete this task, if indeed his goal was attainable at all. His popularity as a philosopher since his death has sometimes come from people sharing Nietzsche's desire to push in this direction (often when the individual shares Nietzsche's hatred of Christianity) and sometimes from the sheer perspicacity of Nietzsche's insightful and pithy observations (which I respect far more than his flagrantly elitist, egoistic beliefs).

In 1886, in Beyond Good and Evil, he wrote: itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one's own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation... “Exploitation” does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society, it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will of life.

This accorded very well with Nietzsche's elitist beliefs, although a proportion of modern followers of his philosophical train of thought manage to put this idea together in a more egalitarian framework. There is no reason one cannot – in the view of the will to power, human rights (for instance) are just as much an expression of this conflict of wills as anything else.

The question remains to what extent we can meaningfully reduce all existence to this conflict of wills, the web of competing power relations. It is certainly the case that one may see the world this way, but of course this is not the only perspective available. Perhaps the interesting question here is whether it is possible to see the world without this element, or whether one must simply incorporate the will to power into other perspectives.

My experience is that anyone who tends towards the Rational temperament (the dominance of the orbito-frontal cortex) finds it hard to resist the draw of this point of view. Those who express Rational strongly cannot resist reducing complex situations to formulated systems, and behaviour, politics and nature can be expressed quite comprehensively in terms of the will to power. But the danger here, as with any lens we try to apply universally, is that by pre-supposing an interpretation in terms of power, one mistakes an applicable model for a fundamental truth – I would almost accuse Nietzsche of this error if it were not for his frequent insistence, throughout his notebooks, that “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

The trap in swallowing Nietzsche's “will to power” idea hook, line and sinker is to presume one knows with certainty what “power” means – for in the perspective he was advancing, it must take a specific meaning which need not accord with how that word is usually used. One may end up being forced into the corner whereby all actions are called “selfish” (or in this case “motivated by one's own will to power”), a perspective rather neatly disproved by Joseph Butler in 1726. If I do not receive a life-saving vaccine because I am terrified of needles, what is the meaning of this action in terms of “will to power” – that the force of my fear exceeds the force of my rationality? Indeed, this is the likely interpretation, since Nietzsche's will to power only requires us to interpret situations as networks of competing forces. What those forces might be – dominance, compassion, fear, fraternity – is entirely irrelevant to this perspective, and it is the blanching out of the details that is an arguable flaw of this view.

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt offered a very different perspective on this subject. “Power” in Arendt's terms (which she always very carefully defined) was distinct from “strength”. She suggested: “Strength unequivocally designates something in the singular...” whereas power: “...corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.” This conception of power as the ability to act in concert proves to be highly valuable to Arendt in exploring her political issues.

The contrast between Nietzsche's view and Arendt's is striking, not least of which because the latter does not contradict the former's will to power viewpoint at all – indeed, Arendt deploys it to make her (very different) point in the essay What is Freedom?:

Because of the will's impotence, its incapacity to generate genuine power, its constant defeat in the struggle with the self... the will-to-power turned at once into a will-to-oppression. I can only hint here at the fatal consequences for political theory of this equation of freedom with the human capacity to will; it was one of the causes why even today we almost automatically equate power with oppression or, at least, with rule over others.

One of Arendt's most unique observations is that the person at the head of a totalitarian regime is as much a prisoner of the system as anyone else, and indeed, this is perhaps why totalitarianism has shown a marked tendency to self-destruct. This kind of nuanced perspective on the subject of power is absent in Nietzsche's writings perhaps because the political realities that Arendt had lived through – the tumult of the twentieth century – occurred in the wake of Nietzsche. Arendt herself asks that we not hold Nietzsche accountable for what was to come, even though some prominent Nazi's did seize upon Nietzsche's ideas and bend them to their purpose. She suggested that:

To hold the thinkers of the modern age, especially the nineteenth-century rebels against tradition [i.e. Nietzsche, Marx and Kierkegaard], responsible for the structure and conditions of the twentieth century is even more dangerous than it is unjust. … their own departure from tradition, no matter how emphatically they proclaimed it (like children whistling louder and louder because they are lost in the dark), was no deliberate act of their own choosing either... But the thunder of the eventual explosion [i.e. the wars of the twentieth century] has also drowned the preceding ominous silence that still answers us whenever we dare to ask, not “What are we fighting against”, but “What are we fighting for?”

Perhaps, the most fruitful way to face the idea of the will to power is not to attempt to show how the world is not this interplay of power relationships, although many such alternative views are certainly attainable, but rather to consider how we should like our will to power to be expended: to ask, as Arendt dares us to do, “what are we fighting for?

The opening image is The Power of Red by Nadine Rippelmeyer, which I found at the Fine Art America website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

John Woo's Three Kingdoms

Redcliffposter I just discovered to my infinite delight that in two weeks (next week in the US) a film is being released based on the epic battle of Chi Bi ("Red Cliffs"),  directed by Hong Kong action guru John Woo. The original battle took place in 208 AD, and without wanting to spoil the ending of Red Cliff for those who don't know, was one of the greatest battles in history and possesses a truly legendary status in China and many nearby nations. Regulars of Only a Game should be aware by now how much I adore the Three Kingdoms era (and the ridiculous amount of time I spend playing Dynasty Warriors!) and I used to be a big Woo fan before Hollywood swallowed him up. I also love the recent Zhang Yimou Chinese epics such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers and have long wanted a Three Kingdoms story to make it to the big screen. This is the most excited I've been about an upcoming film in years, as indicated by the fact that I actually posted about a movie on my blog for the first time ever! I wish they were releasing the full two-part, four hour version in the West, but I suppose I can make do with the abridgement.

Religion in Science Fiction (7): Firefly

Contains minor spoilers for the TV show Firefly.

Firefly Five centuries into the future, and mankind has spread into space. In another solar system, the Alliance – a political merger of the United States and China – controls the core worlds, where its citizens live in affluence with a wealth of technology, while far from the civilised centre are frontier worlds: barely habitable, struggling to get by with what little they have. Between these diverse planets, the Firefly-class ship Serenity travels, crewed by a band of misfit outlaws and renegades, on the run from both the Alliance and various criminal syndicates, trying to eke out a living doing whatever jobs come their way. This is the setting for Joss Whedon's short-lived TV series Firefly, which consists of just 14 episodes and one movie.

Describing Firefly as “genre busting”, as some have done, is quite misleading. Space Westerns have a long and, frankly, undistinguished history. With the notable exceptions of Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973), and Peter Hyam's Outland (1981) – which is literally High Noon in space – the genre has always been considered quite unrefined. But the relationship between the pulp Western and Space Opera is inescapable since both forms are romantic melodramas, differing primarily in setting and not in tone. (Remember that Gene Roddenberry originally sold Star Trek to the networks as “Wagon Train to the stars”).

The science fiction magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, first published in 1950, attempted to achieve some distance between its stories and Space Opera, and indeed advertised itself in this respect. An ad that ran on the back cover of the early issues had the following copy:

You Won't Find It in Galaxy
Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing... and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand. “Get back from those controls, Bat Durston,” the tall stranger lipped thinly. “You don't know it, but this is your last space trip.”
Hoofs drumming, Bat Durston came galloping down through the narrow pass at Eagle Gulch, a tiny gold colony 400 miles north of Tombstone. He spurred hard for a low overhang of rim-rock... and at that point a tall, lean wrangler stepped out from behind a high boulder, six-shooter in a sun-tanned hand. “Rear back and dismount, Bat Durston,” the tall stranger lipped thinly. “You don't know it, but this is your last saddle-jaunt through these here parts.”

The point being made was that pulp sci-fi had fallen into the same hackneyed tropes as two-bit Western stories, and “serious science fiction” was thus keen to distance itself from the form. From this ad, the term ‘Bat Durston’ was coined as a derogatory term for a bad Space Western, and the sub-genre has for some time been mostly avoided. However, with the arrival of post-modern Western movies epitomised by Unforgiven (1992), the Western was to enjoy something of a miniature revival in modern culture. This revival paved the way for Firefly.

Firefly has been carefully constructed, adapting the elements of the Western to a science fiction context, but also drawing on direct parallels with 19th century history. The frontier worlds are short of resources, and incompletely terraformed, which provides justification for their dusty environments, and the frequent use of horses and other frontier gear. That their bars look like Western saloons is harder to swallow, but just like the twanging theme song, the audience is just asked to swallow their disbelief. The collision of past and future is epitomised in the show's unique lexicon – which includes genuine Western slang terms like doxy and shindig, phrases fashioned in the style of Western slang (like “gorram” for “Goddamn”, and “the black” for space), as well as Chinese phrases and swearing in Mandarin – something truly unique to the show, which helps remind the audience that this really is the future, and not the past.

Prior to developing the show's concept, Whedon had read the novel The Killer Angels, which chronicles the survivors of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. The idea of following the story of people who fought on the losing side, who went on to be pioneers in the wilds, had great appeal to him and formed a central part of the backstory. The two-hour pilot for the show (which was not aired until the end of its run, on account of Fox network executives dissatisfaction with it) begins with Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres) fighting in the Battle of Serenity, as rebel “Browncoats” against the Alliance. They lose, forcing them to attempt to find a new life somewhere far from where the Alliance control is strongest.

Firefly's format of a crew of misfit outlaws has quite a distinguished history in science fiction. The classic archetype is the 1970's British TV show Blake's 7, created by Terry Nation (the man responsible for the Daleks), which featured a crew of six disparate humans – varying from freedom fighter Blake to antihero Avon – and the ship's computer, Zen. Nation credited the war film The Dirty Dozen as an influence, but the legend of Robin Hood also underlies the format. Rockne S. O'Bannon's FarScape (1999-2003) has almost exactly the same set up – prisoners escape and form a crew, once again, a crew of seven. Firefly feels very much in the same vein as these older shows. Whedon pitched his show as “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things”.

Three of the main characters form the basis of the show's interface with religion: the captain, Mal Reynolds, who has lost his faith; Derrial Book (Ron Glass), a Shepherd (the literal translation of ‘Pastor’) who seems to be exploring his Christianity as much as he is preaching it; and Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a Companion – high-society courtesans who are highly respected – and a Buddhist. Captain Reynolds clashes with both of the other characters – Shepherd Book over their conflicting beliefs concerning God, and Inara ostensibly over her career although it is apparent this is a cover for their mutual attraction.

Inara's religious leanings are not well developed during the show's short life. The deduction that she has Buddhist beliefs rests mostly on some of her Chinese dialogue mentioning the Buddha, and certain iconography within her quarters. However, it is clear that her practices as Companion are highly ritualised, and the implication is certainly that the Companions are a spiritual and religious order. Rather than simply offering sex for money, Inara's job seems closer to sex therapist or even psychotherapist. Furthermore, she refers to the shuttle she rents and works from in one episode as a “consecrated place of union”. It seems clear that Whedon has more respect for Inara's beliefs than Book's: in the pilot, a scene is constructed which has Inara provide solace to the Shepherd, who is in considerable distress at his having “fallen in with criminals”. She puts her hand on his head in benediction. It's a clumsy scene, although well played by the cast.

Mal Reynolds, the central character of the show, is shown in the flashback from the pilot as a faithful Christian, talking of God to his troops, and kissing a cross he wears around his neck. Sometime between the Independents losing the war and the time of the show, he loses his ties to religion and his faith in God. Although this is never fully explicated, the implication is that he believed that his side, being just (in his eyes, at least), would win because 'they had God on their side'. Losing the war thus leads to losing his faith, an experience not uncommon among people raised as Christians if they believe in God as a being both motivated and able to intercede in their daily life: when facing tragedy, this God-concept becomes impossible to bear, and so it is abandoned. (More nuanced God-concepts are generally more robust in the face of calamity). Reynolds, however, seems to substitute faith in humanity for faith in God.

Book's faith serves as a point of tension between him and Reynolds. Shortly after the Shepherd joins the crew, Mal pointedly observes: “You're welcome on my boat. God ain't.” Later, as the crew gathers for a meal, Book asks: “Captain, would you mind if I say grace?” to which Mal replies: “Only if you say it out loud”. Thus, Book serves as a vehicle for revealing Reynold's loss of faith, and the bitterness he feels therein. There is a fascinating ambiguity surrounding Book which is never resolved within the show's short space of time. It is made clear that before he became a Shepherd he was a man of violence, but the circumstances behind his 'conversion' never come to light.

Perhaps the most interesting scene concerning Book's Christianity occurs between him and River, the genetically-enhanced walking plot device of the show. River, who has been driven to mental instability after having been the subject of gruesome experiments in the backstory, has found Book's copy of the Bible and is feverishly working through it, making corrections and trying to rationalise it with scientific beliefs. River says: “Bible's broken. Contradictions, faulty logistics – it doesn't make sense...” Book replies: “River! You don't fix the Bible!” She states flatly: “It's broken. It doesn't make sense.” Book replies: “It's not about making sense. It's about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It's about 'faith'. You don't fix faith, River. It fixes you.”

This is not a view of the Bible that many Christians would share, and indeed reads like a non-believer attempting to justify the right for others to believe what they do not. (Ron Glass, who plays Shepherd Book, is a Buddhist, and Whedon an atheist, although as we will see, one with quite nuanced beliefs). However, in terms of Christian-complaints about Firefly, accusations are more likely to be levelled against the portrayal of Christianity in the frontier worlds, where it is practised as if it were still in the nineteenth century – implying a kind of religious devolution over the centuries to come. It is not that this portrayal isn't plausible, but rather that nothing else is provided to counterbalance this perspective except Book's almost academic perspective on faith.

As a result, Christians have been quite divided on the show's portrayal of Christianity. Many are willing to forgive its excesses, being thankful that a science fiction show was willing to allow Christianity and religion a place in both the future and (for that matter) the present. However, others find great fault in the way Christianity is presented in Firefly. One Mormon blogger accused the show of “heavyweight atheist propaganda” (which seems an unfair complaint when compared to, say, Russell T. Davies Doctor Who) noting that:

[Firefly] basically says that people don't believe in religion because it makes sense, they believe in it because they need something to believe in... However, this neglects something very important – from the believer's point of view, it does make sense! Joss Whedon doesn't show that point of view at all!

This kind of complaint lead to Whedon being asked in the press interviews for Firefly's movie sequel, Serenity: “What do you have against being a Christian?” His answer was as follows:

I don't actually have anything against anybody, unless their belief precludes everybody else's. I am an atheist and an absurdist and have been for many, many years. I've actually taken a huge amount of flak for that. People who have faith tend to think that people who don't don't have a belief system and they don't care if they make fun of them. It's actually very difficult: atheists are as a group not really recognised by the American public as people to be taken seriously. This does not mean that I rail against religion, however. The meaning of life, and the meaning of what we do with our lives, is something that is extremely important to me. I have included characters from many different religions particularly in [Firefly], but also in the other shows as well, because I'm interested in the concept. I think faith is an extraordinary thing. I'd like to have some, but I don't and that's just how that works.

In fact, Whedon's beliefs have been heavily influenced by the existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre, and indeed the show's final episode, “Objects in Space”, draws heavily from Sartre's Nausea. In the last part of the response to the interview question quoted above, Whedon draws attention to an episode from one of his other shows, Angel, in which the protagonist is told that “the world is meaningless, nothing matters.” To this, Angel replies: “Well then, this is my statement: nothing matters, so the only thing that matters is what we do”. Whedon stated this is what he believes, that “the only reality is how we treat each other. The morality comes from the absence of any grander scheme, not from the presence of any grander scheme.”

Thus, Whedon's beliefs lie between existentialism and humanism, but by following Sartre's existentialism (rather than, say, Camus) he ends up in a place which is not hostile to faith, yet neither is it truly supportive of it. It is accepted, but it is only barely respected. This (scratchy) video [or this one] of him accepting the 2009 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism at Harvard University on April 10, 2009, summarises his position nicely:

The enemy of humanism is not faith. The enemy of humanism is hate, is fear, is ignorance, is the darker part of man that is in every humanist, every person in the world – that is the thing we have to fight. Faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in God means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary.

That Firefly does not present a vision of Christianity that all Christians are happy with should not, I would suggest, be taken as a mark against the show – it's decision to include Christianity and religion at the centre of its story is in itself a bold contrast from other science fiction shows we have examined. Whedon, like most atheists, has little appreciation for the experience of a life of faith, but unlike many other atheists he is not hostile towards it – and this despite the rather rough ride that many nonbelievers who live in the United States must endure. As an attempt to bridge that gaping divide, the portrayal of religion in Firefly deserves some significant credit.

Next week: Battlestar Galactica

Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.