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The rebooted television series Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) was, in this reporter’s opinion, one of the finest serial narratives in the history of the medium (though the Baltimore-set crime drama The Wire, which ran at pretty much the same time, is arguably just as good). It is science fiction, certainly, but as an allegory, the whole series can be read as a long, eliptical meditation about religion and its role in contemporary society.  Battlestar told the story of the conflict between a far-flung human civilisation called the Twelve Colonies of Kobol and a race of genocidal, fundamentalist robots known as ‘Cylons’.  The Cylons, originally created by Colonial scientists to serve as slave labour in the Colonies, eventually launch a devastating war of rebellion and revenge on the Colonies.  The series follows a handful of human survivors as they flee across the galaxy, pursued by the beings that their parents had created.  Though Battlestar ended its run early this year, a new series, Caprica (the name of one of a Colonial homeworld), which will begin its run in 2010, explores the human world of the Colonies at the time of the creation of the original Cylons.  While it toys with familiar science-fiction and horror themes about the creation of life and the terrible responsibility that this act brings with it, there is something that is even more intriguing about the excellent feature-length pilot episode that was released recently on DVD.  While Battlestar Galactica had a good deal to say about religion, and particularly about the ways in which we in the West view Islam, Caprica adds an interesting dimension to the series’ commentary on religion.

Alessandra Toreson as Zoe in Caprica

Caprica: Alessandra Torresani as Zoe

In the Caprica pilot, we learn that the fundamental motivation for the development of the original Cylons was a fear of death and the refusal to accept the death of a loved one.  Daniel Graystone, the man most responsible for the creation of the Cylon technology, is driven by a disquieting mixture of greed, ambition, and grief.  Graystone is, in grand Battlestar tradition, is a deeply flawed and compellingly human character.  There is an interesting and troubling parallel between the way Graystone approaches his research and the way that he treats his human daughter that speaks volumes about the ambivalent place that science occupies in the universe of Battlestar and Caprica.  Early in the pilot, Graystone’s precocious teenage daughter Zoe is killed in a human bombing executed by a member of an underground monotheistic sect (the Colonists are polytheists).  Zoe, a secret member of the same sect, has created an effective and sentient virtual copy of herself that Graystone discovers only after her death.  He forcefully appropriates the virtual Zoe and uses her as the basis for the first working Cylon model.  The pilot ends with a truly chilling image of a hulking metal Cylon Centurion, developed for military use, pleading for help in a halting, adolescent girl’s voice.  Though there are real questions as to Graystone’s ultimate motives, it is obvious that he is deeply affected by Zoe’s death and his initial trials with the virtual Zoe and the Cylon bodies are motivated by a desire to undo her death, to deny the basic fact of mortality.  Graystone is suspect in that he is overly ambitious and unscrupulous, but also because he is a deeply rational man unable to face this one troubling aspect of reality.  His attempts to counter death with technology will end, we know before he begins, is the Cylon-led genocide that almost wipes out the human race only a few decades later.

Though this requires a good deal more study before it is anything more than simple conjecture, it seems that the fear of immortality is an increasingly common theme in contemporary genre fiction.  To cite a not insignificant example, in the Harry Potter books, the main villain, Lord Voldemort, is driven largely by a quest for immortality, or by a fear of death.  Likewise, in the lamentable Star Wars prequels, we learn that the motivation driving Anakin Skywalker, who eventually is transformed into über-villain Darth Vader, is again both the fear of death and the refusal to accept that everything must die.  There is something interesting here for the study of religion in that there are deep connections between ideas of mortality and life after death and the Judeo-Christian religious milieu that these texts have grown out of.  If we are to believe Peter Berger’s classic 1969 study, The Sacred Canopy, religion, at least as he conceived it from a largely Eurocentric and Christian-centred perspective, is tied fundamentally to the spectre of death.  Berger writes of the importance of death in religion, which he sees as a social phenomenon which creates a sort of ‘canopy’ of explanations and motivations that helps people make sense of their world:

Its legitimating power, however, has another important dimension – the integration into a comprehensive nomos of precisely those marginal situations in which the reality of everyday life is put in question …The confrontation with death (be it actually witnessing the death of other or anticipating one’s own death in the imagination) constitutes what is probably the most important marginal situation.  Death radically challenges all socially objectivated definitions of reality – of the world, of others, and of self.  Death radically puts into question the taken-for-granted, ‘business as usual’ attitude in which one exists in everyday life … Insofar as the knowledge of death cannot be avoided in any society, legitimations of the reality of the social world in the face of death are decisive requirements in any society.  The importance of religion in such legitimations is obvious.  Religion, then, maintains the socially defined reality by legitimating marginal situations in terms of an all-encompassing sacred reality.[1]

He concludes, a few pages later:

The world of sacred order, by virtue of being an ongoing human production, is ongoingly confronted with the disordering forces of human existence in time.  The precariousness of every such world is revealed each time men forget or doubt the reality-denying dreams of ‘madness’, and most importantly, each time they consciously encounter death.  Every human society is, in the last resort, man banded together in the face of death.  The power of religion depends, in the last resort, upon the credibility of the banners it puts in the hands of men as they stand before death, or more accurately, as they walk, inevitably, toward it.[2]

Though many scholars have challenged Berger’s ideas (including Berger himself, who came in later decades to disagree with many of his own conclusions), The Sacred Canopy is deservedly a classic in the field.  We have reasons to take him and these ideas seriously.  Though we may be suspect of how reductive his thesis is, there can be little denying that religion and death are in many ways intertwined, especially in the Abrahamic monotheisms.

What does this emerging fear not of mortality but of immortality tell us about the state of religion in the Western world?  It seems odd in an environment that is undergoing something of a religious revival (to use a horribly loose and loaded phrase) that the drive for immortality plays such a destructive role in a number of prominent texts.  If there is indeed a growing suspicion with those who strive for immortality, would this mean that there is also a growing suspicion of a certain kind of religious thought and practice – perhaps reflecting the fact that the writings of some militants from various traditions have given immortality (and its dozens of willing virgin girls or its empty planets to inhabit with one’s innumerable wives) have given the afterlife a bad name?  Or would this mean that contemporary religion is becoming more and more oriented towards this world rather than any other.  Though both of these possibilities likely get to the truth of the matter in different ways, it is the latter suggestion that seems to be more compelling, because there is something profoundly this-worldly about much of modern Western religious practice and its sacralisation (perhaps even divinisation) of the self.  The relentless drive for ‘self-improvement’ or ‘self-realisation’ that is part and parcel of so much of contemporary religious thought and practice, is necessarily a this-worldly matter.  This is an interesting development in that it represents something of a return to the prehistoric religious world that early sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Max Weber described (or, depending on how sympathetic we are to their work, created), which was largely focused on mundane, this-worldly concerns.

This also raises a further question: if this is truly is what is happening out there in world beyond the ivory tower where we in the Dunedin School find ourselves working (though it is in reality not a tower of any sort but a clapped-out two-story house built in the 1920s and later converted into offices with little care or subtlety), what might be driving this change?  Turning again to fictional narrative to approach this question, the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland, in his brilliant 1993 novel, Life After God, speculates on the reasons that his characters are unable or unwilling to think about another world:

Ours was a life lived in paradise and thus it rendered any discussion of transcendental ideas pointless.  Politics, we supposed, existed elsewhere in a televised non-paradise; death was something similar to recycling.  Life was charmed but without politics or religion.  It was the life of the children of the children of pioneers – life after God – a life of earthy salvation on the edge of heaven.  Perhaps this is the finest thing to which we may aspire, the life of peace, the blurring between dream life and real life – and yet I find myself speaking these words with a sense of doubt.  I think there was a trade-off somewhere along the line.  I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched.  And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God.  But then I remind myself we are living creatures – we have religious impulses – we must – and yet into what cracks do these impulses flow in a world without religion?  It is something I think about every day.  Sometimes I think it is the only thing worth thinking about.[3]

In line with the tendency observable in Caprica, Coupland tells us elsewhere that embracing mortality is one of the crucial steps in developing a deeper understanding of the world.  In his Polaroids from the Dead, a collection of essays and journalistic writings, Coupland tells a parabolic story about an ‘enchanted city,’ a city charmed but without rain, and a visit paid to it by a skeleton.  The story is a scathing condemnation of contemporary culture, and particularly its ignorance of the possibility of an afterlife and a purpose to the enigmatic figure of death.  Here Coupland compares the enchanted city, which is in reality a highly disenchanted place, with the genuine enchantment that the interloping skeleton, as both a metaphor for the hidden and as the literal presence of the dead, brings with him.  The skeleton tells the city’s people, who plead for help in making it rain:

‘It is simple … While you live in mortal splendour – with glass elevators and grapes in December – the price you pay for your comfort is a collapsed vision of heaven – the loss of the ability to see pictures in your heads of an afterlife.  You pray for rain, but you also are praying for pictures in your heads that will renew your faith in an afterlife … I am the skeleton that lies deep within each and every one of you.  I am the skeleton just underneath your lips, your eyeballs, your flesh – the skeleton that silently carries both your heart and your mind’.[4]

Quite contrary to Berger’s concept of the ‘sacred canopy’, in which religion plays a role in protecting people from death, Caprica, along with the work of Coupland (and doubtless many others),  suggests that embracing mortality and the spectre of death may in fact be a characteristic religious gesture of our times.

[1] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Press,1969): 42-44.

[2] Berger, Canopy, 51.

[3] Douglas Coupland, Life After God (New York: Pocket Books, 1994): 273-274.

[4] Douglas Coupland, Polaroids from the Dead (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1996): 59-60.  It is worth noting that the vision of the dancing skeleton reappears in somewhat modified from in Coupland’s 2004 novel, Eleanor Rigby (London: Fourth Estate) in the form of a visionary story about a forsaken community of farmers on a vast prairie who face conflicting information from above. Images of bones and intimations of mortality play an important part in the slowly unfolding story of the farmers. See Coupland, Eleanor, 91-92, 98-99, 102, 159-166, and 248.

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