HerScie 09-01-007

Scientific Mythologies

How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs



James A. Herrick

IVP Academic, 2008, 288 pp., ISBN 978-0-8308-2588-2



James Herrick is Professor of Communication at Hope College in Holland, MI.  He is the author of three other books.  Science fiction has a great capacity to shape both public opinion and scientific opinion. 



More than half of the adult population of the United States believes that contact with 'superior' and 'friendly' space aliens is likely! (15)  "We appear to have entered a second pagan era, complete with a new mythology.  Disturbingly, our mythologies have a way of shaping who we are and what we are becoming. (17)


"Science fiction has emerged as a formidable social force with a worldwide reach and an international audience…." (22)  Science fiction often addresses ultimate questions such as where did we come from, why are we here and is there a God? (23) 


The popular books, movies and TV series, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Alien, Star Trek and The X-Files (and now video gaming) have proselytized people into a new way of believing and gaining religious knowledge. (24)


"Mythologies are transcendent stories that address ultimate questions and that typically also involve the interaction of deities with humanity.  But our modern scientific mythologies are also crafted to be persuasive."  "Our scientific mythologies are a powerful cultural engine for inventing and for propagating a worldview that stands in marked contrast to, and seeks to move its audiences away from, traditional monotheistic religious perspectives, in particular the Judeo-Christian tradition." (27) 


New Myths for a New Age

"Myths are the carriers of our guiding values, the expression of our moral precepts, and the means by which imagination is shaped.  Ideas and values move into the public mind and down the generations by the vehicle of narrative.  A myth is a narrative engaging with timeless themes and seeking to define humanity's place in the larger scheme of things." (30)


Myths shape perceptions of reality.  Today our path to myth lies through our current territory of truth: science and technology.  (33)  Our modern myths develop out of the powerful systems of entertainment and science. (35)  We do not have the option of understanding our strange new quantum world without the use of myths.  (36) 


"The myths shaping the public imagination are often derived by "blending well-substantiated facts with freewheeling speculation, scientific research with straight fiction, and objective observation with subjective worldview peddling." (36)  Works on spirituality move back and forth between theological claims and the latest scientific speculations. Where does science end and fiction begin? (37) 


The Myth of the Extraterrestrial

"Despite their disparate purposes, these mass-media extraterrestrials have one thing in common--all are portrayed as more 'advanced' than the humans they seek….  Regardless of where one resides in the cosmos, evolution reigns supreme." (44)


"Science-fiction portrayals of extraterrestrials have shaped scientists' ideas about likely alien life." (50)  The myth of the Extraterrestrial is deeply entrenched in the Western mind.  We have a strangely unfounded confidence in their desire to help humanity. (51) 


Physicist and author Carl Sagan was extremely influential in propagating the Myth of the Extraterrestrial.  The TV series Cosmos was often a commercial for efforts to communicate with possible extraterrestrial life.  (63)  Some of the aliens imagined by Sagan achieve almost divine status: he postulated there may be 'supercivilization gods,'…." (66)    


"In the dramatic closing scenes of Steven Spielberg's classic UFO film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), alien beings emerge from their gigantic craft bathed in brilliant light.  In this cinematic rendition of the Myth of the Extraterrestrial, all of human history has led up to this moment of revelation: humanity's deliverance has finally arrived from the skies.  One member of the hand-picked crowd of scientists and military personnel approaching the alien craft actually falls on his knees in reverent response to the enormous, illuminated spaceship that resembles a majestic heavenly city.  Upon seeing the craft, another says, 'Oh, my God.'" (68) 


"The extraterrestrials of Close Encounters are angels of a new age, here to take charge of us, to teach us what we need to know…." (69)  Like E.T., their divinity is apparently a result of evolutionary advancement, "the two notions being often conflated in science fiction and thus in the public mind.  …evolution will eventually produce peaceful, godlike beings…" (69)


Orthodox theologian Seraphim Rose has written, "Science fiction has given the images, 'evolution' has produced the philosophy, and the technology of the 'space age' has supplied the plausibility for such encounters." (71)


Author and filmmaker Michael Crichton speaks for a minority when he says, "The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith.  There is not a single shred of evidence…." (72)  But facts and policies tend to organize around stories and the Myth of the Extraterrestrial is a powerful story.


The Myth of Space

Science and science fiction have firmly fixed the idea of Space in the Western imagination.  Conquest of Space, the final frontier, marks the final human escape from the confines of all earthly limitations.  (75)  It is also the place for resolution of ultimate questions.  In science fiction deep spiritual questions are answered in Space. (76) 


Our dreams of space are easily transformed into a mythic quest for omniscience, for divinity.  "Space has become the new heaven, complete with its own gods, its own highly evolved angels, and its distinctive forms of salvation." (78)  "Today the myth remains a component in an emerging spirituality." (79)


SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) "is the scientific quest to answer these great unknowns" according to its website.  It is religious in nature beyond doubt. (92) 


Astrobiology the (rather optimistic) 'study of life on other worlds,' has been a focus of the NASA space program from its beginning in 1958.  (93)  


"Professor J. Richard Gott III of Princeton University has recently written, 'Self-sustaining colonies in space would provide us with a life insurance policy against any catastrophes that might occur on Earth…"  "The goal of the human space-flight should be to increase our survival prospects by colonizing space."  [Whether people are less likely to destroy themselves in space than on earth is not addressed. dlm] (95)


The author comments, "But more to the point, survival is not salvation, and distance is not hope.  No matter how long the human race survives, it will remain in a state of profound spiritual need.  And no matter how far we cast ourselves from the Earth, we will come no closer to God." (95)


The Myth of the New Humanity

Arthur C. Clarke helped to popularize the Myth of the New Humanity, which represents a secular hope for individual and societal salvation, man as he will be in the future.  (98)  The human race will evolve progressively upward toward spiritual as well as physical transformation.  This myth clearly has Darwinian roots.  (99)  Evolution is the engine of our destiny. (100)  Many consider "survival of the fittest" as virtually a law of nature, even the dominant Rule of the Cosmos. (102)  "The Cosmos is creating its own gods by the sure-fire method of evolution, now assisted by various technologies." (103) 


Francis Fukuyama has argued that contemporary biotechnology now raises the possibility of altering human nature and moving us into a 'posthuman' stage of history.  He adds, however, "One of the reasons I am not quite so sanguine is that biotechnology, in contrast to many other scientific advances, mixes obvious benefits with subtle harms in one seamless package."  "In the advocates of a New Humanity, one does detect a determined avoidance of discussing potential dangers inherent in their project." (126)


The Christian tradition elevates the present human as created in the image of God and thereby of inexpressible value.  Thus, this tradition recognizes and protects the weak, the poor and the marginalized as 'neighbor.'  Christianity has nothing to say about supposedly superior human beings…."  As C.S. Lewis said, "the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means…the power of some men to make other men what they please."  Any story suggesting that an improved human is desirable or inevitable challenges the Judeo-Christian theology's conception of both God and humanity.  (127)


"The strange vision of improved people created by unimproved people suggests a deep problem of analysis; Humanity's spiritual need is not addressed in stronger or smarter or morally better people.  It is addressed only in individual spiritual transformation…through the intervening work of God.  The notion that we might achieve spiritual salvation by 'moving beyond' the present human race means attempting a technological end run around the problem we recognize in ourselves.  This strategy… is futile because of our moral state."  "At the top of the escalator is a mirror." (128)


"Indeed, the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity are insistent that God is no respecter of persons and does not favor the rich, the intelligent, the culturally privileged, the artistically gifted or, presumably, the genetically enhanced." (128)


"In the final analysis, each of the Scientific Mythologies discussed in this book imitates and thus seeks to replace a Christian truth." (129)


The Myth of the Future

"The Future often appears in Western popular writing as a scientifically unveiled technospiritual frontier, a New World in search of a New Worldview to guide the use of science's powerful and spiritually suggestive discoveries." (133)  Science is elevated as a source of limitless spiritual insight. (134)


Even serious scientists have come to see The Future and Space as our guarantee of survival.  (155)  "Scientific mythologies constitute, not just isolated components of popular, scientific or religious culture, but also an overarching system of belief that, like a religious vision, can create a unifying worldview capable of bridging the gaps among various cultures.  In this way such mythologies comprise a narrative force powerful enough to change the face of human society on an international scale." (156)


"In the biblical vision, the future, like all of time and space, is under the sovereign control of the God who created all that exists."  "The biblical tradition's insistence that God holds the past, present and future is as uncompromising as is its insistence that God did not arise out of nature."  "The ownership of the future--human or divine?--is perhaps the central point of contention between its Judeo-Christian presentation and the Myth of the Future." (157)


The Myth of the Spiritual Race

"Science fiction has had a long and sometimes uneasy relationship with questions of race." "Racially charged eugenics theories were a virtual preoccupation of late nineteenth-century scientists…"  (161)  "The Myth of the Spiritual Race carries forward the notion that there exists, at one time existed, will someday exist, or ought to be created…an aristocratic race possessing remarkable spiritual insights, powers and purposes."  "A large number of science-fiction narratives incorporate an ancient, highly advanced and remarkably enlightened race." (162)


"Enlightenment and science have often aided in perpetuating racial myths." (164)  "Star Trek is arguably the most popular, long-lasting and influential mass-media phenomenon in history." (179)  "That Star Trek creator Roddenberry spiritualized evolution seems clear."  "The ultimate goal of evolution is, apparently, divinity." (180) 


The Lucas Star Wars films have been as culturally influential as Start Trek.  They are best known for introducing a mysterious cosmic life force, The Force.  Lucas admitted his goals were at least in part spiritual and evangelistic in nature.  He intended to "awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people" he told Time magazine in 1999. (183) 


"The idea that a particular race or group has unusual access to spiritual secrets…has been a persistent--and sometime dangerous--notion in Western culture." (189)


"As the twentieth century opened, two worldviews stood in direct opposition to one another, each telling a different story concerning the human condition and each envisioning a different human future."  (190)  "The Judeo-Christian tradition presents a global picture of both spiritual need and spiritual redemption."  "The Bible also clearly presents a single point of origin for the entire human race, a single set of original human parents, and a single destiny of standing before the creating and redeeming Deity." (191)


Additional myths:

The Myth of Space Religion

The Myth of Alien Gnosis


"Over the past three centuries some popular works of science fiction, speculative science, and the documents of certain religious movements have served as locations for developing and propagating transcendent narratives addressing ultimate questions.  Because of their tendency to seek credibility from a connection to science, whether actual or fabricated, I have chosen to term these narratives 'scientific mythologies.'  Moreover, as these myths have coalesced into a systematic explanation of our existence, nature, predicament, salvation and destiny, we are witnessing the invention of a new religious view in popular culture." (248) 


"Western culture has been trained to place its trust in science.  As a result of our turn toward science, other enterprises have sought to borrow credibility from the laboratory and the lecture hall, the most unexpected example being religion."  "Ultimate authority has shifted, and the shift has been toward nature and away from what claims to stand above nature.  As a result, we have now entered the age of scientific religion."  (248)


"Science fiction now often interprets science's news to a waiting public, a role once played by religious narratives."  "When science found science fiction, it found religion."  "Increasingly science has taken on spiritual functions or weighed in on supernatural questions…" (250)  "Facts require narratives if they are to coalesce into a coherent interpretation of our lived experience.  Thus, we must exercise exceeding care in the choice of our leading narratives." (251)  "…a vivid image is more persuasive than a sound argument, a captivating narrative more compelling than historical evidence." 


The gospel is not so much attacked as obscured by the multiplicity of similar redemptive stories out of science fiction.  "This is the Christian church's challenge today--to reclaim its story and tell it in such a way that it stands out among all the others as authentic, as the Great Story that other stories have often sought to imitate." (252)



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