Circular Cruises/Science As Religion

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Science As Religion

16 July 1997

We saw Contact last night - and this article has what people who hang out around electronic forums call spoilers.

In other words, I'm going to talk about the ending. If you haven't seen the movie, go see it, it's good. And don't keep reading until then. The article will still be here when you get back.

- - -

After seeing the movie, my really metaphysical friend and I went to the late-night diner for a sandwich and I said that Jodie Foster's character was positioned to be a messianic figure at the end of the film.

He demanded I justify that.

It has all the elements, I said. A firm but unprovable belief in a quasi-miraculous event, a crowd of loyal followers, antagonism from the existing political establishment ... that sounds like the usual recipe to me.

It makes the Matthew McConaughey character's endorsement of Ellie at the end a predictable, understandable event. It's not just love. He has changed religions. He has gone from the religion of God to the religion of Ellie.

(The usual joke here is that there are substantial numbers, male and female alike, who will join the religion of Jodie Foster in an instant if the opportunity ever arises. Particularly if she's wearing that dress - you know, the one from the party scene? Never mind.)

- - -

If you are reading this online (you'd better be), and were born after World War Two, you are likely to describe yourself as "not especially religious" when the pollsters come to your door. This is what those religious-right folks lament and bemoan when they talk about our moral deterioration et cetera et cetera.

The truth is, most of you (allowing, as ever, that all generalizations are false) have not given up religion. You just have a different god. You may worship the god of Information, the god of Science, the goddess of Sex, and who knows what-all else.

When the bomb fell, a new generation was launched - a generation that not only had been trained in the doctrine of Scientific Progress Above All, but also grew up in the shadow of a catastrophic manmade event which made many doubt that the lid was on, that there was a controlling order to the universe - gave many to doubt anything they could not Prove.

But that, too, is now Old Religion.

- - -

When meeting the Vegans, the Ellie character experiences what looks an awful lot like a religious experience to me - seeing her dead father, a significant locale, all the usual symbolism and claptrap - and she is left with something she cannot Prove.

No doubt you got this point already from the movie - heaven knows they drive it with a large enough sledgehammer - but my point is this:

All religions are dogma sooner or later. Even the religion of Science. I feel like the movie makers have partially undermined Carl Sagan's ideas - from one of the few people who was consistently able to think for himself and not parrot anyone else's dogma - by taking his ideas and turning them into a religious experience, into a leap of faith.

The Ellie character should have been horrified when she left the Capitol and saw those huddled masses of followers. I would have liked it better if she had shouted to them, "Go home! Think for yourselves!"

(In which case, the next logical step would have been the Life of Brian response, with the entire crowd repeating "Yes! Think for yourselves!" without any awareness of the irony.)

Dogma is inevitable.

- - -

I'm not trying to ruin your day. Honest. Nor am I trying to downplay faith. All I'm saying is that there will always be some things you can Prove, some things which you have to accept blindly, and some things which you will not accept at all. And only you should decide the triage. Not the church, not the magazines, not the newscasters, not the scientists, not the president, not your friends, not your family. You.

It's a very modest goal. And yet I don't even succeed in it myself as often as I'd like - I find myself using someone else's conclusions, repeating someone else's categories.

Why is it so hard to do? Can anyone tell me that?

Copyright © July 1997. All rights reserved.

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