Faith in Space

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When it comes to believing that Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi-horror classic Alien is one of the best movies of its kind ever, I have discovered that I am not alone in the universe. I have also discovered that finding his new, not-quite-a-prequel Prometheus really annoying is also a shared experience. Among its most annoying attributes is the way it deals with issues of faith.

Here’s a quick synopsis. Archeologists find cave paintings in Scotland that are similar to others they’ve found around the world. These images lead them to conclude that human beings were created by an alien race a zillion years ago, and now they want to go and find the aliens. They assemble a rag-tag team of corporate suits, scientists, and working-class types, go to a mysterious moon to make contact with these aliens, and learn that in space, someone can in fact hear you scream.

The film’s first faith-based offense is in the Christian imagery used to represent religion. One of the archeologists walks around with a crucifix on. Look, I’m totally down with Christians and crucifixes, but are we really still at a stage where Christianity is used in films as a proxy for all human religiousness? You’d think that in an increasingly pluralistic world we would mix things up a bit. How about sending a Rastafarian into space for a change? It could be a Bob Marley meets E.T. kind of thing. Or even better, how about an interfaith space odyssey? Imagine a Muslim, Christian, Jew, and Baha’i for instance engaged in inter-religious dialogue as they try to evade being impregnated by aliens with anger issues. There is definitely a movie in there and a few dissertations too, I’d imagine.

The second thing that made me want to pull my hair out (difficult with a crewcut I must say) was the old faith-vs.-reason/science debate. I understand that this remains a culture war issue for some folks, but quite a few of us have gotten over this. It is in fact possible to adhere to the rigors of reason and science and also believe in God. This is certainly how Baha’is approach the issue. ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892 to 1921, explained it this way:

Bahá’u’lláh declared that religion is in complete harmony with science and reason. If religious belief and doctrine is at variance with reason, it proceeds from the limited mind of man and not from God; therefore, it is unworthy of belief and not deserving of attention; the heart finds no rest in it, and real faith is impossible. How can man believe that which he knows to be opposed to reason? Is this possible? Can the heart accept that which reason denies? Reason is the first faculty of man, and the religion of God is in harmony with it.

I would hope that in the late 21st century when Prometheus takes place, humanity would be having a more sophisticated conversation about faith and science. Time will tell, I suppose.

Speaking of faith, this phenomenon is encapsulated in the oft repeated expression “I choose to believe it” whenever an assertion is challenged or questioned in the film. In this version, the touchstone of faith is adhering to belief in spite of the empirical evidence available. In its more extreme forms the strength of faith is measured by the distance between belief and reason. This understanding of faith is the seed of much faith-vs.-reason/science conflict. The Baha’i Faith offers an alternative understanding of faith. ‘Abdu’l-Baha comments:

In divine questions we must not depend entirely upon the heritage of tradition and former human experience; nay, rather, we must exercise reason, analyze and logically examine the facts presented so that confidence will be inspired and faith attained. Then and then only the reality of things will be revealed to us…By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.

This conceptualization of faith is less about what we believe to be true, and more about we come to know to be true through reasoning and scientific investigation. The strength of this kind of faith is measured not by increasing the distance between belief and reason, but closing the distance between knowledge and action. If this way of understanding faith had been represented in the film, the dialogue would have sounded more like “I choose to act in accordance with what I have come to know to be true through reason and investigation.” That’s a movie moment that would make me stand up and cheer. Anybody out there want to make a new kind of faith-in-space movie?

Image courtesy of This file is in the public domain because it was created by NASA.

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About Phillipe Copeland

  • Even in the early 21st century, scientists and scholars in search of an ancient alien civilization are having a more intelligent conversation about it than by all accounts seems to be happening in Prometheus (which I haven’t yet seen).

    I applaud ‘Abdu’l Baha’s defence of reason against religious dogma, but find his conception of faith odd. Faith means precisely that which is not known but is believed in anyway. It is by definition unreasonable.

  • Dr Kuro

    well dreadful as said “Faith means precisely that which is not known but is believed in anyway.” the definition for Faith in the Baha’i faiths means “thought in action”, I don’t know if you ever read the holy Qu’ran before, but in the second book the Al-baqarah, the prophet Mohammed, tells us who is a true believer, the difference between those that claim to be believers or religious people and those that are fanatics and filled with idle fancies, or as Mohammed would say, those who live with their Shaitans.

    Faith, Unity, equality.. al those concepts seem reasonable to you, yet, 100 years ago was unheard of, as Arthur Schopenhauer said ,an idea first is ridiculed, then is accepted and then and only then it becomes common sense.

  • Kuro, faith and belief, while related concepts, are not the same thing.

    For instance, I might believe that Usain Bolt will win the 100 metres at the Olympics, but it wouldn’t necessarily be true to say that I believe it on faith. I believe it because he has measurably demonstrated that he has the ability to run faster than anybody else.

    As for your claim that faith, unity and equality were unknown concepts 100 years ago: that is absurd and blatantly false.

  • Dr. Dreadful, I guess my point is that there are different ways of understanding what faith means including the way you are describing. I think our understanding of faith is in need of a serious upgrade. I hear what you are saying about the difference between faith and belief. Theologically speaking, those concepts are often used interchangeably depending on who you are talking to.

  • It is, in fact, NOT possible to “adhere to the rigors of reason and science and also believe in God”, no matter how much some faithists might desperately want to believe that…

  • Actually it is possible, Chris, due to the fascinating ability of the human mind to compartmentalize itself. We all think rationally at times and irrationally at others.

    Scientific pioneers like Galileo and Newton saw their work as a way to cast new light on the glory of God’s creation. Even Einstein perceived a design, wonder and purpose to the universe, behind which he felt there could only be a god – though not a personal, interventionary deity as depicted in most of the world’s faiths.

    Although, thanks to our discoveries in quantum physics, we now realize that a Creator isn’t necessary to explain how the universe came to be, and although most scientists today are atheists or agnostics of one stripe or another, there are still many – for example Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project – who adhere to a religious faith but nonetheless do excellent and valuable work.

  • I’m not sure that “compartmentalize” isn’t just a posh word for schizophrenic, Doc, which would mean that to believe two things that directly contradict each other you’d have to be at least a little bonkers!

    Galileo and Newton lived in far darker times and even Einstein lived in only the early part of our as yet uncompleted emergence from ignorance and superstition.

    Although it is true that faithists are able to do “excellent and valuable” scientific work, that may not be the case when the fruits of their work could directly undermine their belief system.

    We can never be sure which way they might go under such strong internal conflicts or when the stress of “compartmentalization” might cause them to snap!

  • Perhaps, Chris, although in the case of my example, Collins, there isn’t anything directly contradictory about a belief in the Christian God and a belief that the human genome consists of 46 highly complex DNA molecules.

  • Sure, but that isn’t all he believes, is it? Presumably if he was addressing the origin of DNA it would get more difficult to maintain the compartmentalization…

  • Indeed. I think that the further into the quantum realm a field of science gets, the less likely the religiously-inclined are to be attracted to it.

    There doesn’t seem to have been much research done on the subject, but a Pew poll of scientists conducted about three years ago found, not surprisingly, that physicists and astronomers (with chemists not far behind) were the least likely to believe in a god or other, undefined “higher power”.

  • Eamon

    I almost lost my breakfast out of laughter when I read your third paragraph.

    Some of these futuristic sci-fi movies have vision for things besides technology, and some don’t. My wife and I recently saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, which may be the best movie I’ve ever seen. This movie features American and Russian astronauts cooperating and schmoozing matter-of-factly, which is pretty forward thinking for a movie made in 1968, just a few years after we almost nuked eachother into oblivion. But it would seem reasonable to me that a forward-thinking person in 1968 would conclude that by 2001 we will have probably resolved our differences.

    Unfortunately, there was a terrible sequel made in 1984 (this one not directed by Kubrick), set in 2010 and which features the tension between Russians and Americans as a core feature of the plot. Not only did the makers of this second film overshoot the duration of the Cold War by two decades, but they actually regressed from the first film in terms of how they anticipated the two nations working things out.

  • troll

    You’d think that in an increasingly pluralistic world we would mix things up a bit. How about sending a Rastafarian into space for a change?

    recommendation: rent Buckaroo Banzai and “laugh’a while you can monkeyboy”

    (accompanying preemptive recommendation: anyone who finds my use of that quote politically incorrect in light of Phillipe’s color might consider removing that railroad tie from his arse)

  • We need every Rastafarian we have here on earth, we can’t afford to spare a single sensible human being–even for a short time.

    Why not, instead, send all of the members of Congress into space. I’m sure they represent a few religions, anyway. And if something goes wrong and they don’t come back, it’s all still win-win.

  • troll

    (hi Cindy – having watched a few minutes of their arguments over repeal of husseincare this week I’d say that our congresscritters are quite spaced-out enough)

  • (hiya troll, i remember buckaroo banzai being funny, but i have not seen it in maybe 28 years)

  • Igor

    @13-Cindy: that’s the most sensible thing I’ve read in several weeks. Thank you.

  • troll @ #12:

    I don’t know who you could possibly have had in mind when you wrote that.

  • troll


  • Eamon @ #11:

    Actually, in Kubrick’s film, no cooperation between American and Russian astronauts is shown. There is an exchange between Dr Heywood Floyd and his Soviet counterpart which is cordial but guarded, and their presence together on board the same (commercial) space station implies that US-Russian relations have at least thawed. Nevertheless, Floyd is keeping a momentous secret from his colleague, showing that national interests are still politically paramount in the world of 2001. Even when their countries’ relations were at their worst, US and Soviet scientists considered themselves fellow professionals and part of the same scientific community, and did cooperate to the extent that their governments allowed them to. From this we might infer that in 2001 the Cold War is ongoing, but less tense at that point. This would provide a continuity with the sequel.

    In Hyams’ 2010, relations between the two superpowers are shown to have deteriorated to the point of war. (This conflict is not present in the novel.) This outlook was cynical but not unrealistic: the film was released in 1984, the year before Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and a time when the Cold War was at its frostiest.

  • Phillipe –

    Excellent piece.

    Oh, and thank you for the two hours of my life I won’t spend watching Prometheus.