scientific mythologies: are aliens invading your religion?

An MHP Interview with James Herrick
Are there windows in the sky? If you listen to late night radio, the windows are flung wide open. The earthen sky to these true believers (or avid conspirators) is steaming with alien touchdowns and close calls. Are they good, evil, past morality, or even there at all? Most people land at the latter. But there is a growing population that rallies behind the idea of extraterrestrials - people who don't stomp on couches and who aren't necessarily waiting for the mother ship.

In reading James Herrick's new book Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs it's clear that the aliens that populate our imagination have a growing role to play in religion. Certainly we know of Scientology given the goofs of Cruise and Travolta. Less known is the Jedi faith (based in Star Wars) but it's numbers will surprise - 400,000 in a 2000 census in Britain alone.

Herrick starts early with the surprising history of science fiction beginning with BCE speculators like Thales, Democratis and Lucretius who thought earth was one of many worlds. He spends the majority of the book in the last 150 years, where the idea of our world interacting with visitors from other worlds has spurred on both fear and hope. If aliens are bad, maybe they will destroy us. If they're good, perhaps they will advance us into their dimension.

I recently asked Herrick about his book and subjects that span from the newest Indiana Jones film to Jacob's ladder to CERN to where heaven might be physically located.

MHP: First, what is your interpretation of the newest Indiana Jones film in light of your study of this field? Were you able to read the piece that someone wrote in Books & Culture comparing this film that includes aliens with the other films that have religious symbols in the center of the action? The author was not too keen on this latest installment. I wonder what your take is on the film especially in light of the evidences that you bring to light about the Soviet Union's work to find aliens and learn from them - and the idea that this pursuit doesn't seem far off the mark of true spirituality, perhaps...

James Herrick:
I came away from the latest Indiana Jones film feeling that audiences would not have been able to make sense of the story were it not for the propagation over the past fifty years or so of what I term the myth of paleo-contact. This is the narrative argument that early human civilizations were contacted by extraterrestrials who shaped human thought and practice about religion, law, social arrangements, technology, and art. Erich von Daniken’s books such as Chariots of the Gods famously developed the idea in the 1960s and 70s, and it has had its proponents in more recent science fiction such as the various iterations of Star Gate.

My other reaction was that this is the latest Spielberg-Lucas effort to tap the public’s fascination with the spiritual possibilities inherent in the idea of the alien-other, a fascination cultivated by a large number of members of the science and science fiction communities, including, importantly and not surprisingly, Spielberg and Lucas.

Finally, the movie reflects a gnostic impulse at work when it presents “knowledge” as the real treasure of these mysterious extra-dimensional beings. This is one version of our new spiritual hope.

MHP: Paul says to be kind to the stranger because they may be angels unaware. Jesus escapes the earth by way of a cloudy craft and Elijah on a descending and ascending fiery chariot. We see the sky ripped open for fire to drop down, food to be lowered, and brighter lights to hang loose and guide the wise or blind (like Paul on the Damascus Road). This interchange with the heavens appears active in the Jewish and Christian narratives (as you talk about in chapter nine to some degree).

1. A few questions: Could it be that angels are the cause of these sightings that the contemporary world reports? (Thinking here, perhaps, of Jacob's dream.)

2. It appears that Christianity especially has to reconcile the mobility that we hold to with our beliefs and the possibilities that galaxy may brim with life... because God is working from heaven—somewhere outside the bounds of our gravitation. Is this migration similar to the sci-fi hope or need to transcend this world (or planet) and into another?

3. Jesus leaves on a cloud. What is your take on that "magic ship?"

JH: I tend to think that the situation is the other way around. The contemporary reports gain some credibility because of their tendency to imitate supernatural events described in the Bible and elsewhere. Angelic messages and other supernatural manifestations in the Bible tend to occur as part of a meaningful narrative, and not as random events. Moreover, the messages they convey or reinforce are consistent with other messages conveyed by less spectacular means. They are not, in other words, random and indecipherable. Most such contemporary events are both random and indecipherable.

Much of the appeal of science fiction and speculative science, with their continuous reference to outer space and the alien other, reflects the human desire for transcendence. The cosmos that naturalism presents us is devoid of enchantment, of the supernatural, of magic. Much, though certainly not all, science fiction offers a version of transcendence and enchantment, but without God. That, of course, is an important difference from the biblical narratives.

I think this is a way of expressing what Jesus’ ascension looked like to the witnesses present on the scene. It may be the best the gospel writers could provide by way of an analogy—whatever occurred reminded them of a cloud. Any importation of a vehicle is an addition made by modern imaginations prepared by much later narratives to see “ships” in various unlikely places.

MHP: Where is heaven? Is it on a planet somewhere?

JH: I don’t think heaven is located on a planet, though the idea of a transformed earth as playing an important role in the eternal order of things is prominent in the Bible.

I appreciate the context you create for the current fascination with the aliens—that there is a history of thinkers and writers who have wondered what's up there and why the earth is on such a stage. You spend some time explaining why there has been an influx of interest in the skies and various kinds of alien races. If you would, could you summarize your view about why aliens and why now?

JH: A great deal of modern alien fascination, which begins at least as early as the seventeenth century, is due to the desire to find an other-worldly substitute for the God and angels of the Bible who were being forced off the scene by popular English, French, German and Dutch biblical criticism beginning around 1680. The fascination has gained important impetus in the past century or so from visualizations in both written and cinematic science fiction (we started to “see” them), as well as in some speculative science. Alien abduction accounts have also played a role, and these begin in earnest around the time that nuclear weapons, jet flight, and talk of rocket flight to space are beginning. A number of developments, that is, lent plausibility to an idea that was already shaping our corporate imagination. Recent cinema and written fiction have made the extraterrestrial alien as familiar as other exotica such as the frogs of the Amazon rain forest. The fact that the former has never actually been observed is sometimes forgotten.

MHP: Building from the previous question, how does the Shavian Superman of modernity and the omnipresent convergent world of today's post-modernity play into and of out of these ideas of something out there... and ultimately something in us? Do you see some similarities and differences?

JH: The superman of Shaw, Nietzsche, and science fiction writers such as Philip Wylie in his seminal novel Gladiator (1931) is an important character in our dreams of the future, particular as these dreams are about ourselves. Of course, in our own familiar Superman the ideas begin to blend. The Man of Steel is, in fact, a “superior” alien. But, because he is also much like us, he holds out the possibility of a post-human future. This was Wylie’s idea in the first real superman narrative, the one that likely gave rise to the more familiar Clark Kent version. Wylie’s superman—Hugo Danner—was the result of an experiment (by Hugo’s father) in chemical eugenics. Earlier fictional supermen, such as those of Bulwer-Lytton (Coming Race) and Wells (Food of the Gods), are also dreams of a possible human future. Unfortunately, these dreams seldom embrace anything like racial diversity.

MHP: Do you believe in an active God who not only acts inside our planet's history but shapes it for its end? It seems that this hunt for alien life is digging too far in the caves as Tolkien's dwarfs do or building too high a structure like the Babel story of the Bible. Do you feel that these questions are poking out into a galaxy (or the heavens) and demonstrating our godlike behavior in conceited ways (stemmed from the Garden tree)?

JH: I do believe that the God revealed in the Bible was and is sovereign over human history. The biblical narrative is redemptive in nature—God is working for the redemption of humanity as well as of the rest of creation. We have forgotten God, but still hope for redemption. That search has taken a large number of post-Christian artists and scientists into territories that suggest more about human hubris in the absence of Godly restraint than they do about the human future or our capacity to save ourselves. Eden and Babel are very much with us, though now enhanced by digital imagery and spectacular laboratories.

MHP: What are your thoughts on the CERN experiments? Are these products, at least in part, to the sci-fi hunt toward something more scientific?

JH: Christians are not opposed to science. In fact, it was the Christian worldview that made science as we know it possible. CERN is just among the latest and biggest scientific efforts. What is more revealing is the popular discourse about what we might discover via CERN and other technologies. Our guiding narratives always tell the more interesting story, so to speak.

MHP: And on a lighter note... What are your top five best sci-fi films? Books?

JH: Films - The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001, Close Encounters, Contact, The Matrix. Books - The Coming Race (1871), Childhood’s End, VALIS, Dune, Out of the Silent Planet.

(November 2008 | For more information about Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs by James Herrick visit InterVarsity Press. Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid)