Salvos The Missionary Position

Barbara Ehrenreich

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Most critics have regarded Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in much the same way that Arthur Miller probably thought of Marilyn Monroe—gorgeous, but intellectually way out of her depth. No one denies the film’s visual glory, which begins the moment a giant chalk-white alien strides out into the Icelandic wasteland, guzzles some gunk from a can, and splits open to release thousands of wriggling worm-like DNA strands into a waterfall. But when it comes to metaphysical coherence, the critical consensus is that Prometheus has nothing to offer. “There are no revelations,” the New York Times opines, “only what are called, in the cynical jargon of commercial storytelling, ‘reveals,’ bits of momentarily surprising information bereft of meaning or resonance.” In its refusal to offer an adequate accounting of the universe and our place in it, the film can even be accused of anti-intellectualism. “We were never really in the realm of working out logical solutions to difficult problems,” Geoffrey O’Brien complains in the New York Review of Books, just a “cauldron” of “juicily irrational ingredients.”

But Prometheus does have a clear-cut metaphysical proposition to offer, one so terrible as to be almost inadmissible. Consider the basic plot, minus the many alien invasions of human flesh, the references to corporate greed and alien WMDs, and the enigma of the devious HAL-like android: Guided by archeological clues found in prehistoric rock art, a group of humans set out on a trillion-dollar expedition to visit the planet (actually a moon) that the giant white alien came from. There, among innumerable horrors, since under its bleak surface this moon seems to be a breeding ground for lethal predators of the dark and squirmy variety, they find a cryogenically preserved clone or sibling of that original alien “creator” who seeded earth with DNA. The humans foolishly awaken him, perhaps expecting some sort of seminar on the purpose of life. Instead, the alien starts knocking heads off and strides away to resume his pre-nap project of traveling to and destroying the planet earth. This, and not the DIY abortion of a squid-like alien fetus, is the emotional climax of the film, the point when Noomi Rapace screams at the homicidal alien, “I need to know why! What did we do wrong? Why do you hate us?”

True, we don’t know whether the big white aliens are gods, manifestations of a single God, or operatives working for some higher power. But just how much theological clarity can you expect from a Hollywood action film? It doesn’t take any great imaginative leap to see that Scott and his writers are confronting us with the possibility that there may be a God, and that He (or She or It or They) is not good.

This is not atheism. It is a strand of religious dissidence that usually flies well under the radar of both philosophers and cultural critics. For example, it took about five years before the critics noticed that Philip Pullman’s popular trilogy His Dark Materials was not just about a dodgy or unreliable God, but about one who is actively malevolent. Atheism has become a respectable intellectual position, in some settings almost de rigueur, but as Bernard Schweizer explains in his enlightening 2010 book Hating God: The Untold Story of Misotheism, morally inspired opposition to God remains almost too radical to acknowledge. How many of Elie Wiesel’s admirers know that he said, “Although I know I will never defeat God, I still fight him”? Or that Rebecca West declaimed that “the human will should [not] be degraded by bowing to this master criminal,” and that she was echoing a sentiment already expressed by Zora Neale Hurston?

Barred from more respectable realms of speculation, the idea of an un-good God has been pretty much left to propagate in the fertile wetlands of science fiction. One of the early sci-fi classics of the twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft’s 1931 At the Mountains of Madness, offers a plotline that eerily prefigures Prometheus. An Antarctic expedition uncovers the ruins of a millions-of-years-old civilization created by extraterrestrial aliens, who awaken and kill most of the explorers. A couple of humans survive to determine, through a careful study of the ruins, that the aliens had “filtered down from the stars and concocted earth life as a joke or mistake.” Not all sci-fi deities are so nasty. C. S. Lewis offered a Christlike lion god in the Narnia series; Battlestar Galactica’s climax featured a vision of a benevolent, and oddly Luddite, god. But many of the great sci-fi epics derive their philosophical frisson from a callous or outright wicked deity: the impertinent Vulcan god of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the tyrannical worm-god of God Emperor of Dune, the trickster sea god of Solaris.

There are less satanic sci-fi gods too—more ethereal, universal, and even intermittently nonviolent. Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 Star Maker ends with its far-traveling human protagonist encountering the eponymous “eternal spirit”: “Here was no pity, no proffer of salvation, no kindly aid. Or here were all pity and all love, but mastered by a frosty ecstasy.” In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” Tibetan monks who have set themselves the task of generating all the possible names of God finally get some assistance from a computer brought to them by Western technicians. As the technicians make their way back down the mountainside from the monastery, they look up at the night sky to see that “without any fuss, the stars were going out.” The monks had been right: the universe existed for the sole purpose of listing the names of God and, once this task was accomplished, there was no reason for the universe to go on. The theme of an über-Being who uses humans for its own inscrutable purposes is developed more fully in Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End, in which an “Overmind” of remote extraterrestrial provenance sets humans on a course toward ecstatic communion with each other—and, somehow, at the same time, with it. When that goal is achieved, the earth blows itself up, along with the last human on it, after which the Overmind presumably moves on to find a fresh planet—and species—to fulfill its peculiar cravings.

The idea of an un-good God, whether indifferent or actively sadistic, flies in the face of at least two thousand years of pro-God PR, much of it irrational and coming from professed “people of faith.” God is perfectly good and loving, they assert with an almost infantile sense of entitlement; he “has a plan” for us, no matter how murky or misguided that plan often seems. Otherwise, they ask, as if evaluating a health care provider, what comfort does he have to offer us? Or they petulantly demand a “perfect” God—all-good, omnipotent, and omniscient—in the name of what amounts to human vanity. If we, the top dogs on our planet, are to worship some invisible Other, he (or it) had better be unimaginably perfect.

But you don’t have to be a theist to insist on the goodness of God. Generations of secular social scientists and others writing in the social-science tradition have insisted that a good God, whether he exists or not, is good for us. The argument takes the form of a historical narrative: in the ancient past—and its seeming equivalent in small-scale or “primitive” societies—deities were plural, female as well as male, and often of no detectable moral valence. The ancient deities of Mediterranean peoples, for example, a pantheon that ranges from Zeus to Yahweh and Baal, were psycho-gods—insatiable consumers of blood sacrifice, abettors of genocide, even, in the case of Zeus, a serial rapist. They offered no rationales for their behavior, and when Job insisted on an explanation for the travails visited upon him, he was told, in effect, “Because I can.” Further back, in prehistory, lurk deities too wild and bloody minded to take fully human form. They were predatory animals like Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of ancient Egypt, and the man-eating goddess Kali, who wears a tiger skin.

Then, the official narrative continues, somewhere between 900 and 200 BCE, the so-called “Axial Age,” God underwent a major makeover. Blood sacrifice was gradually abandoned; diverse and multiple gods fused into a single male entity; a divine concern for peace and order supposedly came to permeate the universe. In the often-told story of divine redemption, Yahweh matures into the kindly shepherd of the Psalms and finally into the all-loving person of Jesus, who is himself offered up as a sacrifice. Comparable changes occur outside the Mediterranean world, including in persistently polytheistic Hinduism, which gives up animal sacrifice and reaches for a sublime über-deity. What brought about this transformation?

If God is an alternative life-form or member of an alien species, then we have no reason to believe that It is (or They are), in any humanly recognizable sense of the word, “good.”

Religious historian Karen Armstrong, probably the best-known living celebrant of axial progress, proposes in her 2006 book The Great Transformation that people simply got tired of the bad old gods’ violence and immorality. Speaking of the late Vedic period in India, she writes that the traditional gods “were beginning to seem crude and unsatisfactory,” leading to the search for a god “who was more worthy of worship.” As people became nicer and more sensitive, they lost interest in the grand spectacles of animal sacrifice that constituted pre-axial religious ritual and sought a more “spiritual” experience. (She also mentions, but only in passing, that in some parts of the world people had a less exalted reason for abandoning blood sacrifice: they were running out of animals to sacrifice.) To Armstrong, the axial transformation had only one flaw—its “indifference to women,” which is a pretty wan way to describe a theological shift that eliminated most of the planet’s goddesses. But she humbly accepts the limits set by patriarchal monotheism: “Precisely because the question of women was so peripheral to the Axial Age, I found that any sustained discussion of this topic was distracting.”

In his 2009 book The Evolution of God, the polymathic scholar Robert Wright offered what promised to be an even more objective and secular explanation for God’s “transformation.” He argues that, for various reasons, people, or at least key peoples, were becoming more cosmopolitan and tolerant, hence in need of a single, universal, morally admirable deity. This seems like a useful approach, until you recall that the ultracosmopolitan and theologically tolerant Romans readily absorbed the gods of conquered peoples into their own polytheistic pantheon. But Wright hardly needs any concrete historical forces, because “moral progress . . . turns out to be embedded in the very logic of religion as mediated by the basic direction of social evolution”—which I suppose is a way of saying that things could only get better, because such is their “logic” and “basic direction.” As Wright informs us, “cultural evolution was all along pushing divinity, and hence humanity, toward moral enlightenment.”

The “New Atheists”—Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett—easily flicked away the argument that God’s axial upgrade was accompanied by a general increase in human goodness and mercy. They note that the new-model deities, with prophets like Jesus and Muhammad, have proved just as effective at abetting cruelty and war as the old ones. If the gods have any of their reputed powers, and if they got nicer while humans did not, then we have to question the depth and sincerity of the gods’ transformation—or whether it occurred at all. Interestingly, though, neither Armstrong nor Wright cedes any power or agency to the God whose growing goodness they applaud: to do so would be to give up their own claims to scholarly detachment. Their God is presented as nothing more than a projection of human needs and desires, an assessment no atheist could disagree with.

There is another theory of how humans became attached to “good” and increasingly monotheistic gods—and one that is refreshingly free of sweetness and optimism. As Jürgen Habermas and, more recently, in rich historical detail, Robert Bellah have pointed out, the “Axial Period” was a time of endemic warfare, intensified by the introduction of iron weapons across Eurasia. The maintenance of armies and the practice of war require strong central authorities—kings and eventually emperors—who discover that it is both risky and inefficient to try to rule their domestic populations entirely by force. Far easier to persuade the public that the king or the emperor is deserving of obedience because the deity he represents, or even embodies, is himself so transcendentally good. The autocrat who rules by divine right—from Constantine to Hirohito, the God-emperor of Japanese State Shintoism—demands not only obedience, but gratitude and love.

The good, post-axial God has not, of course, always been a reliable ally of tyrants. Christianity has again and again helped inspire movements against the powerful, such as, for example, the abolitionists and the twentieth-century Civil Rights movement. But this does not mean that the good God is necessarily good for us, or at least for the downtrodden majority of us. The unforgiveable crime of the post-axial religions is to encourage the conflation of authority and benevolence, of hierarchy and justice. When the pious bow down before the powerful or, in our own time, the megachurches celebrate wealth and its owners, the “good” God is just doing his job of what Habermas called “legitimation.”

In 1974, Philip K. Dick experienced a theophany—a “self-disclosure by the divine”—which deftly summarizes science fiction’s contribution to theology. It was a shattering revelation, leaving him feeling more like “a hit-and-run accident victim than a Buddha.” He disintegrated into mental illness, at least to the point of earning a bed in a locked psychiatric ward for several weeks. As related in his novel Valis, in which the author figures as the protagonist, he fought back by working obsessively to understand and communicate his encounter with a deity of extraterrestrial origin that is “in no way like mortal creatures” (his italics). This deity or deities—for there may be at least a half dozen of them in Dick’s idiosyncratic cosmogony—bear some resemblance to biological creatures: they have their own agendas, and what they seek, through their self-disclosures to humans, is “interspecies symbiosis.”

If God is an alternative life-form or member of an alien species, then we have no reason to believe that It is (or They are), in any humanly recognizable sense of the word, “good.” Human conceptions of morality almost all derive from the intensely social nature of the human species: our young require years of caretaking, and we have, over the course of evolution, depended on each other’s cooperation for mutual defense. Thus we have lived, for most of our existence as a species, in highly interdependent bands that have had good reasons to emphasize the values of loyalty and heroism, even altruism and compassion. But these virtues, if not unique to us, are far from universal in the animal world (or, of course, the human one). Why should a Being whose purview supposedly includes the entire universe share the tribal values of a particular group of terrestrial primates?

Besides, Dick may have been optimistic in suggesting that what the deity hungers for is “interspecies symbiosis.” Symbiosis is not the only possible long-term relationship between different species. Parasitism, as hideously displayed in Ridley Scott’s Alien series, must also be considered, along with its quicker-acting version, predation. In fact, if anything undermines the notion of a benevolent deity, it has to be the ubiquity of predation in the human and non-human animal worlds. Who would a “good” God favor—the antelope or the lion with hungry cubs waiting in its den, the hunter or the fawn? For Charles Darwin, the deal-breaker was the Ichneumon wasp, which stings its prey in order to paralyze them so that they may be eaten alive by the wasp’s larvae. “I cannot persuade myself,” wrote Darwin, “that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” Or, as we may ask more generally: What is kindness or love in a biological world shaped by interspecies predation? “Morality is of the highest importance,” Albert Einstein once said, “but for us, not for God.”

In Prometheus, the first alien releases DNA on earth about five hundred million years ago, on the eve, in many viewers’ interpretation, of what has been called the Precambrian evolutionary explosion. If so, it was not life that the alien initiated on earth, because life predated the Precambrian. What he did may have been far worse; he may have infected the earth with the code or script for interspecies predation. Before the “explosion,” terrestrial life was mostly unicellular and, judging from the low frequency of claws, shells, and other forms of weaponry found in the fossil record, relatively peaceful. Afterwards, living creatures became bigger, more diverse, better armed, and probably either meaner or a lot more frightened: the “arms race” between predator and prey had begun. The causality remains in question here, with scientists still puzzling over the origins of predation and its role in triggering the runaway evolutionary process that led, from the Cambrian on, to humans, to science fiction, and to the idea of God.

If the doughy aliens are not the ultimate deities whose morality we need to assess, then who or what is? Who do these aliens work for—or against? At the end of the movie, with all of their human comrades dead, the android and the Noomi Rapace character rebuild an alien space ship and set off to find the planet that, according to the android’s research, the aliens themselves originally came from. The possibility of a good God or gods, signaled by the cross Noomi wears around her neck, remains open—as it must, of course, for the sequel.

But, contra so many of the critics, we have learned an important lesson from the magnificent muddle of Prometheus: if you see something that looks like a god—say, something descending from the sky in a flaming chariot, accompanied by celestial choir sounds and trailing great clouds of star dust—do not assume that it is either a friend or a savior. Keep a wary eye on the intruder. By all means, do not fall down on your knees.

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