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The New Mythology of the
Space Age
by Sylvia Engdahl - Page 9 of 16
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16. Religious Aspects of Space Films: Gods from Outer Space

All mythology deals, on its most fundamental level, with religious issues. Anyone who doubts this is using too narrow a definition of “religion.” The dictionary definition I like best is, “Concern over what exists beyond the visible world, differentiated from philosophy in that it operates though faith or intuition rather than reason.” This is not limited to organized religion, which though based on mythic metaphors is not the source of them (at least not in my opinion or that of most modern mythologists). Nor is it limited to myths embodying the concept of personified deities, or to those setting forth moral codes. It encompasses all the big, or ultimate, questions humans deal with through mythopoeic thought.

Contrary to frequently-heard assertions, the function of religion is not “comfort” in the sense of something needed only by individuals unable to confront reality directly. Certainly it is more comfortable to live in a culture that offers mythopoeic answers to metaphysical questions in than one that attempts to ignore those questions—this is the prime reason why mythologies arise. Since encounters with previously unknown environments often make old symbols obsolete, it is also the reason why confrontation with new environments evokes new myths with new symbols. But the key fact is less a need for comfort per se than a need to perceive meaning. Mythology is a symbolic expression of the way a culture views life’s meaning—where we’ve come from, where we’re going, what it’s all about. And this is the realm not of science, but of religion: another reason why in my opinion the term “science fiction” when applied to space fantasy is highly ironic.

Though religion often involves a God or gods, this is by no means an essential characteristic. Many people fail to grasp this; they have no difficulty seeing ancient Greek myths as religious because they were about gods and goddesses, yet not all of them perceive the themes of space films as religious. Though the religious symbolism in many such films, most notably Star Wars and E.T., has not lacked attention from reviewers and other commentators, the attention has usually centered on parallels between this symbolism and that of our culture’s traditional religions. Such parallels are not prerequisite to a religious interpretation of a myth. I wholeheartedly agree with the judge who ruled that humanism is a religion. Many science fiction enthusiasts are humanists not by default, but because they sincerely believe that humanism is life’s ultimate meaning. This is no less a religious conviction than one that derives meaning from a presumed relationship with the superhuman; it is merely different. The superhuman need not be personified in the form of supernatural beings, either, something well demonstrated by space fantasy.

Among the most prevalent myths of our era is the one often referred to as “Gods from Outer Space,” which is most explicitly revealed in a branch of Space Age mythology for the most part separate from science fiction: UFO and “ancient astronaut” lore of the sort common in the 50s through 70s (more recent views of UFOs come in another category, which I will discuss elsewhere). Vast numbers of people who don’t read SF are emotional adherents of this myth, while SF fans generally scorn it, at least in the form typified by Von Daniken’s bestselling Chariots of the Gods. Acceptance of its central concept ranges from the extreme of UFO cultism—which claims actual communication with extraterrestrial beings and generally explains old myths in terms of new, e.g. by the assertion that Jesus Christ was an extraterrestrial and the Star of Bethlehem was the ship in which he arrived—to the far less literal view of astronomers who don’t believe in UFOs, yet nevertheless are attracted by the idea of superior civilizations looking out for our welfare.

Underlying this myth is the fact that mythology has always personified mystery, and psychologically, many people cannot contemplate it at all unless it’s personified. Recent experience with visualisation in therapy, in fact, suggests that the human mind may literally perceive ideas in this way under hypnosis and in similar states of consciousness. So it is not necessarily a bad thing. Although personally I think the Gods from Outer Space idea can be dangerous if it leads people to wait for some external civilization to save us from ourselves, and I’ve devoted several novels to combating that conception of aliens, I guess I’d rather have people think about space in those terms than fail to think about it.

One of the most obvious references to UFO lore in space films is Close Encounters. However, though a strong sense of mystical awe pervades it, it does not portray the aliens as actually godlike or attribute godlike powers to them. Nor does Spielberg’s other UFO film, E.T.—despite the fact that the parallels between the story of E.T. and the story of Christ have been written about at length. (These parallels were unintentional, since Spielberg is Jewish, and according to accounts he was dismayed when they were pointed out to him during filming.) Both show aliens as superior beings, but not, in the tradition of the earlier Day the Earth Stood Still, as saviors of humans from their own folly.

The films 2001 and 2010 are another matter. 2001 is often acknowledged to be about religious questions; however, it’s frequently viewed as an expression of humanism. I can’t see any validity in this interpretation—to me, it’s a clear presentation of the “Gods from Outer Space” myth and implies that we have no responsibility for own destiny. Evolution is shown not as a natural process, but as one controlled by the intelligence behind the monoliths (see lecture 15). As has been observed, what originally led to the evolution of that intelligence is not dealt with, and I think this is one reason why the term popularized by Von Daniken, “gods” as applied to extraterrestrial beings, is an appropriate characterization of the myth. Its various retellings offer all sorts of explanations for human intelligence, from technological ones to mere interbreeding; but if, as is usually stated, natural evolution isn’t explanation enough, then presumably the superior civilization itself had some sort of supernatural origin.

Needless to say this isn’t humanism; the Star Child symbol, despite its assurance that a mysterious transformation awaits humankind, makes plain that this will be the result not of our own progress but of somebody else’s technology. (Human technology, as represented by HAL in 2001 at least, is portrayed as seriously deficient; I will have more to say in a later comment about the various views of technology in space films.) For a mythical expression of humanism, it’s necessary to turn to the Star Trek series.


17. Religious Aspects of Space Films: Humanism vs. “The Force”

Star Trek is often accused of being simply the American Dream transported into a space setting, and of course the crew of the Enterprise does behave as if it were composed of 20th-century Americans rather than of people born into a future age. This, however, is characteristic of all mythology. Greek gods and goddesses and the mythical heroes with whom they interacted behaved like larger-than-life inhabitants of ancient Greece; in both cases, a necessary allowance had to made for the sake of communicating with the audience. (One of the major distinctions between mass-media and literary SF is that the latter makes less allowance.) Myths don’t attempt to portray the real future; they portray what is important to a culture at the time they develop.

We know the people of the 23rd century aren’t going to be just like the Enterprise crew. People drawn deeply into the Star Trek myth, however, do generally share to some degree the views of life’s meaning as portrayed in that myth. And the portrayal shows clearly that there’s no meaning to be found beyond (a) exploration and discovery, (b) ethics, and (c) brotherhood and friendship. Furthermore, this meaning is derived not from some mysterious power external to the human mind, but from human progress itself. These are the tenets of humanism. [I wrote this paragraph on the basis of my own observation and used it in the course for several years before a student’s research for her term paper uncovered the fact that Gene Roddenberry was a member of the American Humanist Association and consciously intended the series to promote humanism, although he did not reveal this to the network.]

I am not saying Star Trek never attempts to deal with the mystical element common to every culture’s mythology—it does, particularly in the motion pictures. Star Trek I was considered entirely too mystical in tone by many fans of the TV series. But notice its conclusion: what starts out seeming to be mystical is really the result of humanity’s own creation, an early space probe. Similarly, II and III centered upon the universal theme of death and rebirth, one of the most truly mythic elements (in terms of the individual psyche) ever included among its plots. But note that again, Spock’s rebirth was shown as a result of human—and Vulcan—activity; no reality in the universe beyond this was involved. Moreover, it is clear that nobody on the Enterprise sees meaning in myths that postulate such a reality. No dialog refers to religious observances. No chaplain of any faith has ever appeared, even at Spock’s funeral. In short, even apart from the explicit rejection of religion in the fifth movie (see lecture 11), Star Trek does not simply ignore the issue, as one might suppose by watching a few episodes. On the contrary, it assumes humanism to be overwhelmingly predominant in the culture of the Federation. This perhaps is why many people like it.

It’s also why many of us prefer the Star Wars universe. For the most part, people who like fantasy are not humanists; that’s why they enjoy fantasy—they crave its symbolic treatment of mysteries beyond human ken. I personally am no more an adherent of humanism than of “Gods from Outer Space” (though I grant it the same status and respect I accord to any religious belief I don’t share). For this reason, despite my enjoyment of Star Trek and my approval of many aspects of the outlook it fosters, its universe seems terribly incomplete to me. “Live long and prosper” is simply not the mythic equivalent of “May the Force be with you”.

The religious symbolism of the Force has been so extensively discussed in print (even in tracts by Christian fundamentalists eager to capitalize on the popular enthusiasm it evoked) that I won’t take space here to discuss its relation to existing symbols. I do want to point out the differences, however. The Force is not merely symbolic of the kind of God traditional in our culture, or even of Eastern religious concepts on which Lucas also drew. It is something else, a mythic expression of the sacred in non-personified terms. This is a symbol many people of the Space Age find more credible than the ancient ones, more compatible with the new environment into which our culture is emerging—hence, I think, the overwhelming box office appeal of Star Wars as compared to other films with similiar special effects. People want a universe in which the Force exists. (I believe this is because something exists, of which the Force is as good a symbol as any; but that is of course a matter of opinion.) It was once suggested to George Lucas that a new real-life religion could be based on the Force, and though this wasn’t meant seriously and he thought it was crazy, I’m not at all sure it couldn’t have happened. [In 2003 the Office for National Statistics in Britain announced that almost 400,000 people wrote “Jedi” as their religion on the 2001 census form, more than listed their faith as Jewish or Buddhist.]

Of course Lucas didn’t want to start a religious cult, and I have wondered if perhaps that was why he de-emphasized “May the Force be with you” in the second and third films of the trilogy. In any case, the Force, which in Star Wars could be interpreted on two levels as a religious symbol or as a form of ESP, lost its dual significance in Return of the Jedi. That was one reason the intended climax fell flat. By Jedi, the Force was ESP and nothing more, for it was made plain that the potential for accessing it was an unusual, inherited trait, not available to anybody left alive except Luke and Leia. Furthermore, Luke could not defend himself against the Emperor’s evil use of the Force and had to be saved (which if the Force is viewed as it was in the first film, would say evil is stronger than good). Everyone I talked to about Jedi said that it didn’t give them the same lift Star Wars did, and that, I think, is the reason. I don’t know if religion was intentionally cut out or if Lucas simply got hung up on the Freudian-symbol aspects of the plot and failed to notice what was happening.

ESP alone, to be sure, is frequently used in science fiction as a symbol of mysteries beyond what our science understands—I have done that in some of my own novels. I believe that’s why it’s so closely associated with space exploration in our growing mythology. In this connection, notice that ESP as a potential for our species is totally absent from the humanistic Star Trek universe; it appears there only as an attribute of aliens, and not one with great impact on their lives. (Can we really imagine that a species with Spock’s mind-meld capability would rely on logic to the utter exclusion of intuition as he does, or that Troi would use her empathic sense as no more than a professional tool?) These “alien” talents got in because it was a known fact that people who like space stories are apt to be interested in ESP, but since humanism doesn’t need symbols of the ineffable, they never really fit.

Another essentially religious contrast between the Star Wars universe and that of Star Trek concerns the nature of good and evil. The Force in Star Wars is no sentimentally-portrayed balm for human suffering; it must be actively employed, and can be invoked not only for good but for evil. When Darth Vader boasts of its power an Imperial admiral scoffs at his “sad devotion to that ancient religion;” yet the war in the story is entirely the result of the Emperor’s commitment to the “dark side of the Force” and his enrollment of Vader as its servant. The victory of good similarly rests on Luke Skywalker’s trust in the Force, his training in its use, and his refusal to be seduced to the dark side. No characters are portrayed as enemies on the basis of their planet or species; it’s entirely a matter of which side individuals choose to serve.

In Star Trek, on the other hand, the Federation is axiomatically good and its enemies—solely on the basis of species—are defined as evil, although after negotiations, the Klingons change status. Humanism, after all, does not acknowledge the existence of cosmic good or evil; it sees such concepts as relative. It judges peoples’ beliefs and actions by the standards of their culture rather than by the kind of cosmic moral standard assumed by most religions and traditional myths, and the result, in mythic stories that aren’t deep character studies, is that the characters tend to be seen as mere representatives of that culture. There are no universal standards by which to differentiate them. Except where such a story involves a traitor, its conflict must arise from conflict between cultures; thus, somewhat ironically in view of humanism’s ostensible tolerance, plots hinge more on group strife than on individual moral choice.

For example, in Star Wars the whole trilogy revolves around the question of whether Luke will turn to the dark side of the Force, which is the same symbolic struggle as the traditional conflict between serving God or the Devil. But in Star Trek it’s never suggested that Kirk, Spock or Picard might choose evil, because they represent the Federation which is the sole standard of “good”—while they often have to decide how best to uphold its ideals, they’re not tempted to betray it and its enemies are by definition their enemies. To put it another way: in Star Wars there is a higher loyalty than loyalty to one’s culture, hence the Rebel Alliance which draws from many cultures. But in Star Trek, can we conceive of any loyalty higher than loyalty to the cultural mores (not necessarily political decisions) of the Federation? Similarly, Darth Vader is a vivid metaphor for the power of evil beyond mere intergroup conflict, yet even Vader is ultimately redeemed through a personally chosen, and personally costly, reversal. The Klingons, on the other hand, turn out to have been innocent citizens of a society with which negotiation is possible—they don’t even have to reform their own government, and evil is thus presented as illusory. In the Star Trek universe there is no metaphor for it; allegiance is to one’s society rather than to the defeat of evil.

To sum up the role of religion in Space Age mythology, never before has so much religious symbolism been seen in popular films intended for the entertainment of mass audiences. And I’d like to suggest that as far as these wide audiences (as distinguished from dedicated science fiction fans) are concerned, it is the factor that differentiates a phenomenally successful film from a routine one. Every one of the big hits, apart from Return of the Jedi which rode on the success of its predecessors, had a strong religious orientation, though not, of course, the same one in all of them. The ones that didn’t become hits were those that ignored or condemned this element of myth and tried to rely solely on science.


Copyright 1995, 2003 by Sylvia Engdahl. All rights reserved.

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