“Chariots of the gods”, and Other Pseudo-Rational Myths

[Originally written July 24, 2007]

I have always enjoyed science fiction, and the genre has comprised most of my fiction reading for years. However, I think sometimes I get too deep into it, reading so much of it that it begins to oppress rather than entertain. For example, about six months ago I read in rapid succession the six Dune prequels, each over 500 pages in length. I came away from them feeling “raw” from what amounted to a sustained deluge of anti-supernatural propaganda centered on the notion that all religion is fundamentally irrational and emotional. I do not believe this, of course, but reading so much material at such a fast rate containing this message did have an emotional effect on me, and not a good one.

A similar feeling has prompted this blog entry, because a few months ago I watched the entire 9th season of Stargate SG-1 over a period of only two weeks. Before talking about that, let me offer a few remarks on Stargate itself and my experiences watching it.

For those who may not know, the series revolves around an alien device called a “stargate,” which creates and channels “wormholes,” interdimensional tunnels, between planets and sometimes even between galaxies. People may travel through these wormholes, achieving nearly instantaneous translocation.

The basic religious-philosophical premise of the Stargate series may be summed up by borrowing Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but adding the qualification that there is no such thing as magic because everything that is thought to be magic is simply misunderstood advanced technology.

The main inspiration, however, is surely Erich von Daniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past. This work put forward the idea that ancient Earth civilizations were visited repeatedly by advanced aliens, and, since ancient people were primitive and unenlightened these aliens were mistaken for gods. Advanced technology was thought by the ignorant to be supernatural magic, and religions sprung up around their wielders.

Obviously this premise could not be accepted by a Christian, and I have always rejected it just as I reject the secularism of Star Trek and Babylon 5. Nevertheless, worldview filters firmly in place I watched Seasons 1-8 of Stargate SG-1 a few years ago. For the most part, the show focused its demythologization of religion upon ancient pagan religions, chiefly that of the Egyptians.

Throughout the show’s 10 season run, other pagan religious systems were revealed to be the products of alien influence, but in only one case that I recall–that of Norse mythology–were the aliens, “the Asgard,” benevolent. For the most part, the aliens involved in religious matters were malevolent, and their followers either blind fideists (“believe it just because”) or frightened slaves (“believe it or the god will incinerate you with his magical glove of power”).

In only one story arc that I can recall were any connections with Christianity mentioned, and that was the Season 3 arc concerning the entirely depraved alien Sokar who had, apparently, masqueraded as the Devil on many worlds. The key episode as far as concerns Christianity was “Demons,” in which the SG-1 team finds what looks like a Christian church on the planet they are exploring. Significantly, one of the characters states that in hundreds of missions through the stargate, this is the first time they’ve ever found Christians.1

Apparently peopled by the descendants of Medieval Christians removed from Earth by aliens, the religion of the village has degenerated over at least a thousand years into an outrageously gross caricature of Medieval Catholicism that no one who has more than a passing familiarity with Medieval history could possibly accept.

For instance, these “Christians” believe that the way to handle “the Devil” (really just a parasitical alien) who appears from time to time demanding “sacrifices” (really just host bodies for the parasite) is to offer innocent victims to the monster. Predictably, since Sovereign Science has not arisen thanks to the predominance of Rustic Religion, the people are so ignorant of basic physical reality that they automatically attribute a case of chicken pox to “demon possession” and think it can only be cured by drilling holes in the sick person’s head to let the “spirits” escape. Equally predictably, all the religious power in the village is held by a corrupt bishop-like figure who uses a technological gadget on his finger to do such things as “magically” call down lightning from the sky to punish people he says have “unclean souls.”

All of this is such a gross caricature of Christianity in general, and of Catholicism in particular, that it’s difficult to know where to begin unraveling it. But unraveling the problems with seasons 1-8 or SG-1 is not my point here. Season 9 dares to go “where no Stargate has gone before.” That is, having at last disposed of all the “false gods” they were battling in seasons 1-8, the brave humanistic heroes of Stargate Command accidentally find a new enemy in season 9: incorporeal “ascended beings” called the Ori. “Ascended beings” are, in Stargate physics2 just beings who have reached such a high state of evolution that their physical forms can no longer contain their essences, and so they “ascend” to a realm of pure energy, where, we are told, they become more or less omniscient and omnipotent.

Throughout seasons 1-8 the team was aware of ascended beings, for they had encountered references in various ruins to “the Ancients,” once corporeal and very human-like beings who, after thousands and thousands of years of technological achievement, managed to ascend to the energy realm. When they ascended, the Ancients dropped all corporeal matters into the wastebin of evolution, and in the process, left their relics all over the galaxy in the form of usually still functioning advanced technology.3 The Ancients seemed basically indifferent to the plight of lower beings, and had strict rules in place forbidding interference in the lower realm. However, from time to time an Ancient would disobey the rules and help lower beings on the path to ascension–Stargate‘s version of salvation.

Well, in season 9 the team learns that the Ancients were just one philosophical school of a larger group originating in another galaxy, and that there was another philosophical school, the Ori, who believed quite differently than the Ancients. The philosophical dispute between the groups turned on Religion (the Ori) versus Science (the Ancients). As it turns out, the Ori are power-mad manipulators who can suck energy from people who worship them, thus increasing their own ascended powers. Accordingly, they have created a religion, Origin, to enslave the billions of people in their own galaxy. At some point during the controversy, the Ancients left their own galaxy and came to ours so that they could be free to practice Scientific advancement without interference by the Ori’s Religious intolerance.

This is where season 9 diverges from the first eight seasons, which scarcely ever mentioned, or even implied, anything about Christianity. Unlike, say, the crass superstitions of ancient Egyptian religion, Origin is a Holy Book religion. Extracts from the Book of Origin cited by various characters throughout the season sound like cheap, moralistic imitations of the Bible–but that a “false religion” sounds like the Bible at all, even in caricature, is a new thing for the Stargate series.

Origin comes complete with evangelistic “Priors” who quote the Book of Origin chapter-and-verse and use its precepts to control ignorant, superstitious followers. The Priors also possess staffs which give them “miraculous” powers, such as healing wounds, projecting force fields, calling fire down from the sky, and telekinetic manipulation of external objects. As usual, this is all merely hyper-advanced technology which the untutored sycophants of “the gods” take to be “magic.”

The goal of Origin is for the worshipers to hallow the Ori with such mind-numbing obedience that they will literally do anything the Priors command, including killing all who do not believe in the Ori and the Book of Origin. By hallowing the Ori in this manner, the Book of Origin leads its followers to believe that upon their deaths their gods, the Ori, will ascend them. In reality, as an Ancient tells the SG-1 team during one episode, what awaits the Ori’s worshipers is not ascension but the most pointless sort of death imaginable. The Ori are apparently jealous of their ascended status and will have no other “gods” before them.

And so the stage is set for a replaying in season 9 of Scientific Modernity’s epic battle with the forces of repressive false religion. When the Ori learn of the Milky Way Galaxy at the beginning of the season they immediately see it as a new mission field of “unbelievers” and declare a “crusade” to convert it. Priors begin coming through stargates all over the galaxy, preaching Origin and demanding surrender to its dictates. All who resist are summarily punished, for punishment and death is all that can be given to the hapless followers of the “evil” Ancients who will not embrace “the Truth” of Origin and chant with blind devotion, “Hallowed are the Ori!”

Now, usually blatant secularism in sci-fi doesn’t bother me all that much. I’ve long been innoculated against it, and have a pretty well developed set of “worldview filters” to rely upon as I watch or read various sci-fi universes. Star Trek‘s explicit evolutionary naturalism usually just bores me, Isaac Asimov’s scientific reductionism merely makes me wonder at the capacity of very intelligent men to blind themselves, and Arthur C. Clarke’s attempt to shock people of faith by writing “The doctrine that God made man in his own image is ticking like a time bomb at the heart of every revealed religion,” just makes me laugh. However, by the time I was done watching Stargate Season 9, I felt like I had been rolling around in thick, gooey mud and needed a long hot shower to clean the muck off. The only other time I can recall ever feeling this way after a sci-fi “binge” was, as I mentioned above, the time I read the six Dune prequels back-to-back.

It’s difficult to know where to begin hacking up the stupidity of the premises which made Stargate Season 9 go–there are so many. For one thing, the idea that anyone not already acquainted with advanced technology is, upon encountering an advanced technological product, going to instantly assume it’s “magic” and develop a completely irrational religious fixation upon it is just simply bizarre–the kind of thing you’d only believe, ironically, if you actually were a critical-thought challenged, blitheringly idiotic religious zealot.

Most people–especially most religious people–do not think this way. As C.S. Lewis points out somewhere, St. Joseph was quite aware of how babies were made and therefore, he was naturally skeptical at Mary’s claim to have been divinely-impregnated. He assumed, as most ordinary people would when confronted with a bare claim like Mary’s, that there was a natural explanation. It took quite extraordinary, non-natural means to convince him otherwise. In other words, Joseph, though devoutly religious, was not a mindless moron ready to believe just whatever fantastic claim came down the turnpike.

Normally, religious people are not people who have taken complete leave of their rational faculties and simply jumped off the deep end. Stargate, and all productions that rely on similar assumptions, is not only profoundly wrong about religious people, but also incredibly insulting to them. Poul Anderson’s excellent sci-fi novel The High Crusadewhich I reviewed here, much more accurately reveals how religious people, and Christians in particular, think about the world.

On the contrary, as Lewis also excellently points out (in his book Miracles), real miracles are not things which are contrary to Nature and which thus require goofy leaps of irrational pseudo-logic in order to justify. Miracles are, rather, interventions into the ordinary course of things from beyond the ordinary course of things, and they are almost always immediately taken up into the ordinary course of things. As Lewis puts it, miraculously-produced bread still rots, inspired books still undergo all the normal degenerating processes of textual transmission, and resurrected bodies still die again. “Miracle” is not a meaningless concept you reach for when you see a tornado and it scares you because you just don’t know how it works; “miracle” is the thing which, in an appropriate context, gives the tornado meaning in the first place. As Lewis has one character in put it, knowing how a thing works is not the same thing as knowing what the thing is–or, I would add, why it is.

Now, religious people may sometimes see miracles under every rock and behind every tree, but they are not ordinarily so credulous as to believe that just anything which defies immediate explanation in terms of whatever underdeveloped categories they have at hand must be relegated to the unexplainable realm of the supernatural and be fanatically and irrationally worshiped. On the contrary, it was religious people–and Christian theists at that–who first developed the basic distinction between the ordinary and extraordinary actions of God, such that the physical world is basically intelligible because God ordinarily does things in this way.

The normal religious person does not look at a thunderstorm and go, as the atheist scientist years ago mocked, “The gods must be angry” and then refuse to look at how wind and lightning work. No, the normal religious person is not prevented from inquiring into the workings of the thunderstorm merely because he believes that God made it. Instead, the religious person could be like that great scientist and Christian Kepler, who, when looking through his telescope and making observations, piously said, “O God, I am thinking Your thoughts after you.”

And anyway, as “superstitions” go it’s probably much healthier (though potentially scarier) to believe that a rational person controls lightning than that blind, stupid chance controls it. You might be able, like Abraham, to reason with the Person. You can’t reason with Fate, but only resignedly bow, like the pagan Tashtego in the closing scene of Moby Dick, to its immutable, inscrutable, irrational whim.

On the subject of the “irrationality” of belief in the supernatural, you do not have to look far even in so-called “scientific” and “rational” literature to find men seemingly utterly abandoning their senses and embracing bizarrely wild conjectures and utterly unprovable theories about all manner of things. One thinks of Daniel Dennet’s silly theories about the brute, naturalistic rise of consciousness, or Richard Dawkins’ unswervable faith in “the selfish gene,” or Stephen Jay Gould’s whole cloth invention of “punctuated equilibrium” to save the appearance of mechanistic evolution or the chaos theoretician Kauffman’s childishly enthusiastic glee at his own mental creation of “auto-catalytic sets” of chemical reactions as the explanation for how life began. Holy Book religions haven’t got anything on men like this in terms of fostering superstitious mania for intellectually-blinding prejudices.

There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Who Watches the Watchers,” which amply exemplifies the stupidity of the “religion as stupid people’s reaction to technology” premise. In that episode, one character informs a fanatical member of a “primitive” race who has misinterpreted advanced medical techniques as “magic” wielded by “gods” that the problem with believing in gods is that you never know what they want. Well, could not a similar thing be said of believing in primordial soup or common ancestors or the inevitability of a “rational explanation”? T

hese are the quacks who write learned articles for reputable scientific journals about how adultery is morally acceptable because evolution dictates that the more women a man has sex with the better his chances of passing his genes down the line so that Natural Selection can operate upon them and potentially evolve them into something better.

So then, “The problem with believing in evolution is that you never know where it’s going.” Maybe it’s good to murder your neighbor in his sleep so you can have better access to the resources in your area, thus better ensuring your own survival. And while you’re at it, hey, maybe nobody can tell you otherwise since the unguided collocations of atoms that, billions of years ago in the Big Bang, randomly determined what their thoughts would be also randomly determined what yours would be. It’s all random, so who’s to say this is good and that is bad?

This brings up another way to point out the stupidity of the Stargate assumptions about religion. Since there can be no right or wrong in a world of constant evolutionary change, from whence to the brave warriors of Stargate Command derive the quaint moral notions that the Ori are “evil” and that killing others in the name of religion is atrocious? By subjugating and even killing others, the Ori are merely ensuring the continued propagation of their species–a perfectly acceptable, and quite necessary, activity in, to use Darwin’s memorable phrase, Nature that is “red in tooth and claw.”

It does not matter that they are not really gods, but merely hyper-advanced aliens. All that matters is that they have evolved to a higher state than others and are simply taking care to ensure that they continue to evolve higher than others. Natural Selection by its very nature weeds out those not able to compete, so if 10 million primitives on some backwater world refuse to bow to Origin and the Ori exterminate them, what of it? The gene pool does need a little chlorine every now and then, so why be mad at the pool men? Who died and made Lieutenant Mitchell or Teal’c or Samantha Carter the moral judges of the universe? I thought they believed in chance and evolution.

Beyond such obvious critiques as these, much could be said about the shockingly puerile attempt to mock revealed religion in Stargate Season 9. As I noted, followers of the Ori frequently cite “Scripture” (the Book of Origin) in ways that, I guess, are supposed to make the average semi-religious TV viewer remember how uncomfortable he felt growing up sitting captive every week in the First Self-Righteous Church listening to his ignorant Bible-thumping preacher, mouth flecked with foam, thundering again about “hellfire and brimstone” and the necessity to be “pure” if one wished to “be saved.”

I can feel sorry for folks who grew up with that kind of craziness, but the reality is that it’s not Christianity, so if one wants to mock Christianity one is going to have come up with something a lot better. And certainly if you’re trying to mock the Bible you need to do a lot better than the bowdlerized mish-mash of moralism, mythology, and muddle-headed muckraking that is the Book of Origin. Consider these gems of Ori-inspired wisdom:

“Those who seek the path to enlightenment must not be led astray!”

“Glorious are the Ori, who lead us to salvation, who did fight the evil that would doom us all to mortal sin. Did they defeat the old spirits and cast them out? And now, with the strength of our will, they do call upon us to prevail against the corruption of all unbelievers.”

“Pity not the blind man, for he is hindered not by the visions of this world, but rather pity yourselves, for he will see the light before you do.”

“…then did Tilius say to the people of the low plains: seek not the wickedness amongst your neighbors, lest it find purchase in your own house.”

“So it came to pass that Ver Omesh was gripped by a great famine. So Markon went to the Prophet Articus and asked to go to the forest for food. The prophet bade him be patient, for the Ori provide for all who have faith. But Markon did not believe. So the prophet drew a line in the sand and told him, ‘step across and you may do as you wish.’ So Markon did and left the village and feasted on wild berries.The fruit was bitter. It did not satisfy him. He longed to return to the village, but found that the line had widened to a great chasm. He called out to the Prophet in fear, but the Prophet said, ‘The line has not changed; it is you who have changed. Step across if you truly believe’ So Markon prayed for forgiveness and took the first step and the hands of the Ori enveloped all those who welcomed him back.”

Ooh, ahh, powerful and profound stuff, that. No wonder “rational” people reject “religion,” eh? But perhaps this is one reason why Stargate Season 9 struck me as hard as it did. The deceptions are present on so many levels, and are aimed at an audience that quite likely has very little, if any, ability to critically think through crack-brained pseudo-philosophies presented in television dramas. It takes an ability to think to see through this stuff, but as Neil Postman pointed out years ago in Amusing Ourselves to Death TV has increasingly eroded the ability of its average viewer to think.

How can you stop and think about the nonsense about religion and science that you’re listening to Daniel Jackson feed you when the scenes and perspectives constantly shift from camera to camera and site to site, all the dialogue is in clipped, conversational snippets suitable for hour-long programs, and, at any moment–probably at a most pivotal one–the screen will fade out for a “And now this…” word from the sponsors. And besides, the special effects, especially the space battles, are way cool. It’s just a TV show, Tim. Stop analyzing it so much.

I could keep going, but personally, I think Tolkien’s explanation of ancient non-scientific beliefs is best. In the Silmarillion he describes how the Numenoreans, at the height of their Valar-granted power and wisdom, visited Middle Earth and “left many rumors in the myths and legends of men.” In Tolkien, there’s no need to find a “natural explanation” or a “logical explanation” for strange goings-on. Strange goings-on simply permeate the very nature of reality, and are taken for granted by all the characters as evidence of things both beyond their ken and yet also fully reasonable in their own right, not requiring reduction to purely natural(istic) categories. Aragorn sagely reminds several people that “old wives’ tales” may contain much wisdom that even those who are widely thought today to be “wise” have forgotten. In fact, in a not entirely unjustified reversal of Modern stereotypes, in Tolkien it is Science, particularly in the form of the mechanistic machinations of Mordor and Isengard, that causes the greatest evils to occur.

Similarly, C.S. Lewis magnificently satirizes the stupidity of naturalistic Science in his Space Trilogy. Few things are more humorous, and more hard-hitting, than the scene of that paragon of “rational” men, the scientist Weston, hopping about maniacally before the superbly intelligent and wise angel-like Oyarsa of Mars (whom Weston thinks is an ignorant “witch doctor”) while holding out trinkets and chanting “Pretty, pretty!” and threatening to bring “Puff bangs” (guns) to make the “primitives” do what he wants. In the world of Stargate you’d never encounter an Oyarsa-like being, and so you’d never have to face your own limitations like Weston does.

So instead of simply recognizing a different order of being made by the same God as you and equally beholden to Him, you’d have nothing but vain, speculative babbling about the advanced technology that lets the “evolved alien” Oyarsa seem to exist just on the periphery of your senses, and about how wonderful it would be if you could just determine what sort of “fields” and “particles” he was emitting so that you could master them too and be a “god” just like him. What an impoverished worldview. It makes you wonder if “science” is really all that different from “superstition.”

There is much that could be done for science fiction with the frameworks that Tolkien and Lewis created. In fact, I was sufficiently worked up over Stargate Season 9 that I spent much of my free time for about a month seeing if I could create something similar enough to explore some of the same themes, yet not tainted with asinine naturalistic assumptions about reality. Whether or not it ever sees the light of day, I succeeded in my effort, and that by envisioning the entire enterprise of space exploration through the lens of concepts and categories found in Tolkien and Lewis. Narnia proved indispensable, as did the Silmarillion.

It can be done, and without all the so-called “spiritual” silliness that typically pervades Evangelical attempts to answer secular culture. Even though creations like mine would likely never achieve serious penetration in the sci-fi market, perhaps it’s enough to know it can be done. There’s no reason, then, to get overly worked up over stuff like Stargate Season 9.

  1. I say it is “significant” because I wonder if the writers weren’t aware that they had to tread carefully when dealing with a religion as widespread and culturally influential on probably most television viewers as Christianity has been. There are very few Ra worshipers in the world today, so it’s not quite so offensive to say that Ra was an alien as it would be to say that Jehovah is. []
  2. I say “physics” and not metaphysics because there does not appear to be any metaphysics in Stargate. The highest beings anyone knows about are merely residents of a different sort of “continuum” which has different rules. Regardless of continuum, though, all things appear to be reducible to mere efficient causation–i.e., naturalistic mechanisms–that can be understood through the application of Reason and harnessed by Technology. []
  3. This is where the stargates came from, along with many other devices and rumors and myths of “magic.” []

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