As a professor of religious studies, Douglas Cowan explores the human need to seek out meaning in an uncertain universe. But he is as likely to find it in Battlestar Galactica as he is in The Bible. Cowan's new book, Sacred Space: The Quest for Transcendence in Science Fiction Film and Television, pursues ideas of identity, mortality and the divine through the galaxies of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, Contact, and The Matrix. Looking at reality and religion through the lens of "non-human" cultures, he explains, can help us better understand our earthly questions about whether the universe knows who we are—or cares.
Cowan left the ministry for academia but continued "the search for meaning that religion underpins" in such titles as Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen and Cyberhenge: Modern Pagans on the Internet. He spoke to the Atlantic from Renison University College at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
William Gibson speaks of the science fiction toolkit, and how those are the best tools to describe our inherently fantastic present. I find it interesting that as an ordained minister, you seem to be using the same science fiction toolkit to explore transcendental and religious issues.
We always located ourselves in the center of the universe. Nobody tells myths about anybody else. Nobody says, "I belong to the cult down the block," or "We have this great myth that doesn't concern us." We all locate ourselves in this myth of centrality. And part of that is related to the question, Does the universe know who we are?
There is a particular way of looking at things, that the universe doesn't know who you are and, more to the point, doesn't care. In a certain physical sense, that may be true. I'm not smart enough to know. But our religious quest for transcendence, this search that we have for meaning, is underpinned by the belief that we do matter.
Once I realized that all of this stuff was about how do we find meaning in what appears to be meaninglessness, an awful lot more of the science fiction that I was watching started to make sense. And I found myself more and more annoyed by critics who just dismissed it as though religious believers are just gullible, they're duped, they're stupid. Of course, there are believers who are gullible. There are people who use religion for their own selfish end. But that's hardly limited to onscreen life, and it doesn't really tell us anything about what religion or religious faith or what I call the search for transcendence actually means to believers—to people for whom this structures their life.
There is a Deep Space Nine episode you talk about that deals with validating one's faith at the point of death. You mention Revelation 4:11, too, which tells us that God has really created us to worship Him. Those two references seem to bookend a fundamental question about the impulse of faith. Are we genetically engineered to create, conjur and worship a deity? And if so...why?
That's the $64,000 question, isn't it? It's what anthropologists of religion now are arguing in terms of an evolutionary basis for religion, not because there is a God or deity out there who genetically programmed us to worship, but because the kinds of things that religion inculcates—a sense of a primary group, of a community—towards the members of which we have some altruistic concerns, and against the enemies of which we will defend the group. However it came about, it selected those humanoids who developed it for survival over those humanoids who did not develop that sort of intra-group altruism. That's putting it very basically...it served our evolutionary needs.
So it's tribal, really?
Right. The humanoids who did not develop this actually died off in the long, long, long history of evolution. That's one argument.
You've got the whole crop of new atheists who advert to the notion that evolution selected for survival those who created this sense of intra-group altruism, and then for whatever reason gave it some sort of external focus—God. We've been created for a special purpose, we're the Chosen People.
However that evolved, what people like Hitchens and Dawkins and Dennett say is that "Well, we don't need that anymore. It's a part of our history, but we don't need it anymore." And in the sociology of religion, the whole debate about secularization has been raging for about 30 or 40 years is, that we are in fact becoming less religious as a species.
One of the things that I've done in my work on both science fiction and horror is arguing that that's not true at all. We may be becoming differently religious—we need to expand our understanding of what religion is.
As I try to tell my students in every class I teach is, if you get nothing else out of this class, I want to broaden your perspective on what constitutes religion. I'll use science fiction. I don't know if you've ever seen the documentary Trekkies—it's wonderful—because this mythos, this thing that Gene Roddenberry created, the values, the principles, the hopes, the dreams, these actually animate behavior in the real world for these people. That may not be religion but it's certainly the function of what religion does.