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.
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Possibly we are becoming differently religious, as you say. Yet it seems that people can be so blinkered by religious structures they know that they're unable to evaluate or even discuss other forms of faith...or of reality, for that matter.
That's what I talk about towards the end of the book, when I talk about "Christianizing a Galaxy Far, Far Away". People have taken Star Wars and basically just baptized it in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It is just a this equals that way of doing theology, which I, at least, find very unsatisfying. I think it does precisely what you say, it limits our imagination. If this equals that, then how much further do we have to go?
I'm proposing a paper for next year's meeting of our big professional organization, the American Academy of Religion, on putting a moratorium on looking for Jesus in movies. Because if every time you see someone with his or her arms flung out in something that can be construed as a cruciform pose, you can't just say they're all Jesus. Once you do that, everything grinds to a halt.
For me, The Matrix was an interesting allegory, clearly about maya—the world illusion—and how we transcend that. It meshed perfectly with my Vedantic outlook. So I have to admit I was disappointed when you said the film was a tabula rasa—a blank slate onto which we project whatever we believe.
No, what I'm pointing out is not that you should be disappointed but that it means what it means to you because of who you are.
One of the things that I try to get my students to pick up on is this incredible intertextuality that exists among both religion and science fiction. Everything's related, everything's referential. Picking up on those references helps us understand the culture in which we are embedded.
In your book you cited What the Bleep Do We Know, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and The Tao of Physics. One of the fundamental concepts of theoretical physics is that all the complexity of the universe, matter, energy, space, even time itself is just a more expressed manifestation of an underlying unified field.
Exactly. The wholeness of the implicate order—David Bohm.
That's really my measuring stick when I look at something as visionary as science fiction films can be—how deep are they going to go with this thing? Are they going to show, as Deepak Chopra likes to tell us, that as is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm? What are some of the science fiction films and television shows that have dealt most successfully with those sorts of ultimate topics?
The kinds of films I'd mention are not so much science fiction, but they're films that I'm going to talk about in one of the chapters of my next book, Sacred Visions: Fantasy, Film, and the Mythic Imagination. They're films that I think touch on the issue of death.
I deal with that a little bit on the chapter on robots, where I discuss Blade Runner. It seems like our connection to the universe is as much as anything a function of our being able to imagine a universe in which we don't exist. The moment of which is, of course, at least insofar as we know, our death.
Because we humans imagine death, we construct a Self-world and another world—an interior world and an exterior world. It's all basic child developmental psychology. But I think that some science fiction films play very well with that because they ask certain questions about how we know what we know.
The reason I'm sort of hedging on this is because what you've identified is the single hardest concept to try to deal with on film. This is where I think Battlestar Galactica ultimately, for me, failed in the fourth season. It asked big, big, big questions. Is there a plan? Is there a plan that the humans are following to find Earth? There are signs and portents all the way along. Is there a plan that the Cylons have? Who is this Cylon god that has the plan? These are big, big questions that go to the core—is there some sort of matrix underneath what we see?
I think the fact that, for me, it kind of fell apart in the fourth season is a pretty good example of exactly how hard it is to talk about those kinds of questions. I mean, religions have been arguing about those questions for thousands of years. And nobody has come up with one, single definitive statement. What we have a myriad of definitive statements, many of which are contradictory. And my position is that I'm not smart enough to know and don't know that anybody else is, either.