Sci-fi Televangelism – Part 2: A Canon for ET Theism

Fellow science fiction author Dr. Michael Heiser gave a presentation called “Science Fiction: Televangelism for ET Religion” at the 2017 Roswell UFO Festival. Basically, he has set out to demonstrate that sci-fi is isn’t just escapism entertainment but is “deeply theological.”

Heiser began with “Elements of the Extraterrestrial Gospel.” This ET Gospel is based on an emergent ET Theism, which he summarizes as “new gods for a technological, post-Christian age.”

The first element is that New Myths Replace Old Creeds, which is as far as we got in the last post. He basically opines that man is looking for new mythologies to replace the old creeds and that he is primarily drawing from two sources: speculative science and speculative science fiction.

Which brings us to more specific elements of Extraterrestrial Theism.

He begins by noting, by way of another Carl Sagan quote, that the expectation of evolutionists is that intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is inevitable. Of course, this had led to the Fermi Paradox (Where is everybody?) which poses no problem for the Biblical creationists, who notes that God can create life as rare or as common as He pleases.

The next part of his presentation is both his weakest and lamest section. We stare at one text slide for over 5 1/2 insufferable  minutes while Heiser makes sweeping generalizations to assure us that “By the end of the 19th century, the myth of intelligent, moral and benevolent ET was entrenched in Western thought” and that “By the end of the 20th century, ET visitation and displacement of theism (current or ancient) was also entrenched in Western thought” through “official sources (Nasa, military, etc.)” and “unofficial sources (sci-fi writers, film-makers).”

That is a lot of hand-waving and I suspect that he realizes this because the end of this section is pictures of a bunch of books that he claims backs up these statements.

He’s definitely overselling his first point. “Entrenched”? Certainly such aliens are represented by the benign lunar inhabitants of creationist Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1634), the extraterrestrial giant who visits us to impart wisdom in Voltaire’s Micromegas (1752), and possibly the transfigured “alien” soul of Camille Flammarion’s Lumen  (1887).

Flammarion’s mix of sci-fi, science and the spiritual was influential on later writers, like Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Olaf Stapledon. however his ultraterrestrial alien was technically a human who had been reincarnated as such. Furthermore, Lumen is more known for its emphasis of the otherworldly alien. After spending three sections of the book, each a conversation with the book’s namesake ultraterrestrial Lumen, Flammarion gives us look at alien life. He describes life on a planet in the Gamma system in the Virgo constellation:

” On that planet there are animals and vegetables as upon the Earth; their forms bear a similarity to earthly ones, although there is an essential difference in their organisms. Their animal kingdom is analogous to yours; they have fishes in the seas, quadrupeds in the air, in which men can fly without wings, by reason of the extreme density of the atmosphere. The men of this planet possess almost the same form as those on the Earth, but no hair grows upon their heads, and they have three large thin thumbs instead of five fingers on their hands, and three great toes at the heel in place of soles to their feet, the extremities of their arms and legs being supple as india-rubber. They have, nevertheless, two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, which give them their resemblance to earthly beings. They have not two ears, one on each side of the head, but one only, in the shape of a cone, which is placed on the upper part of the skull like a little hat.”

Lumen also describes seeing his doppleganger (if that’s the right term for an alien one is reincarnated into) on this surprisingly sexless planet. “Neither plants, animals, nor human beings have sex. Generation is effected spontaneously” and apparently in a manner deemed too mysterious for Lumen to clearly explain.

A world of Andromeda possessed only animal life including tentacled humanoids resembling sirens of legends though less attractive. A world of the Cygnus constellation was inhabited by only plant life including sentient trees. In a world of Theta Orionis, the inhabitants were cactus-shaped beings with the ability to disintegrate and and reintegrate at will.

He went on to describe various other worlds, but the one that caught my attention was his description of life in the Aldebaran system, where “the vegetables are all composed of a substance analogous to the loadstone, because silica and magnesia predominate in its constitution. The animals feed on this substance only. Most of the beings inhabiting this world are incombustible” and apparently never sleep.

In J.-H Rosny’s novella, Les Xipéhuz (1887), he too suggested mineral-based lifeforms; the extraterrestrials turn out to be non-biological lifeforms that are impossible to communicate with.

The tradition of otherworldly aliens continued in the works of men such as HP Lovecraft.

This tradition of accenting the otherness of aliens continued in the works of sci-fi horror writers like HP Lovecraft.

In note dated July 27, 1927 to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, on resubmission of “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft wrote:

“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold.”

Most recently, the 2016 movie Arrival feature aliens who provide us with no guidance at all, leaving us to figure out their language and intentions. Yet somehow they were here because they need our help sometime far in the future.

We certainly wouldn’t get the impression of an intelligent, moral and benevolent ET from HG Wells’ War of the  Worlds (1897). Intelligent, yes, but benevolent? No. Wells is perhaps the most influential science fiction author of all time. Certainly his vision of malevolent extraterrestrials with large evolved heads and small devolved bodies was popularized in the pulps of the early 20th century. In fact, it has remained the dominant trope in fiction since its introduction.

The sci-fi pulps feature alien invasions and abductions galore. The Shaver Mystery tales (1943-48) of the evil dero,  created by apparently negligent aliens who left the Earth but left behind their technology in secret caverns (including flying saucers) in the hands of these evil beings who used them to kidnap and torture humanity were particularly popular for a time. Shaver Mystery clubs popped up in cities all over the US, considered the precursor to later flying saucer clubs. The Shaver clubs themselves continued into the 50s and the mystery continued to be discussed by flying saucer afficianados well past their hey day.

Perhaps I’m nitpicking. After all, the idea of benevolent aliens was at least entrenched enough for its later resurgence.

I readily admit that ET visitation was an established trope within Heiser’s proposed timetable. A 1930 Buck Rogers comic strip called Tiger Men of Mars even featured most of the major elements of the alien abduction narrative as outlined by Thomas Bullard.

So ET visitation was definitely there, but was an ET displacement of theism entrenched in Western thought? And what does that even mean?

In an April 15, 2017 Naked Bible podcast interview, Heiser elaborates on the concept:

“I care that people don’t get sucked in by what I call “cyber-twaddle” on the internet about the Bible and the ancient world. I care that they don’t swap in extraterrestrials and aliens and psychic this-or-that for theism. I care about that. I care about how science fiction topics like an extraterrestrial reality or transhumanism or artificial intelligence… All these things are actually related.

People who don’t understand that they’re related don’t have their heads in the material, so I guess we can give them a pass for that. But all of these things are related and they’re all attempts to displace theism and Christianity. Science fiction and the paranormal capture the imagination by offering a means to our own divinity and glimpses of other realities. Space is heaven without the biblical God. These are very simple thoughts that propel lots of what people encounter on the internet. They propel major motion pictures and comic books.”

I would agree that these elements were established in Western thought by the end of the 20th century, but the idea that they’ve displaced theism seems like overstatement. There are lots of people who think about these subjects and attach ZERO theological significance to.  To be fair, this isn’t about my personal take on things, so we have to ask if these ideas have become culturally “entrenched.”

The idea that space is heaven without the Biblical God doesn’t really seem to exist outside of UFO cult beliefs and contactee messages, so I’m going to have to call fringe on that one.

Even apart from UFO cults and contactee, some people think of aliens in terms of technological saviors (i.e., alien technology allows us to become gods/aliens are ‘gods’).

The idea of AI being an attempt to displace theism simply confuses the issue, unless he supposes that we fear the idea that we will create god-like beings whom we will fear, be enslaved to and/or be exterminated by. Utopian ideals of AI have long gone by the wayside. Star Wars and other sci-fi shows provide us with visions of sentient robots who are basically metal humans. The very idea of the Singularity is that when AI is achieved it will be so completely beyond us that no one can predict what happens next, much less stop it. It’s basically a technological Pandora’s Box. Even so, his point remains that AI can translate as an alternate theism (i.e., we create gods through technology)

He may be thinking of AI and the Singularity in a transhumanist sense, in which case he’s thinking of cyborg human improvement or even uploading our minds to machines so that we can be immortal. AI in that sense is simply a digitized human mind transferred from the biological brain that birthed it. Transhumanism seeks to eliminate disease, suffering and death through science. It’s easy to see how some atheists would use transhumanism as an alternate theism (i.e., we become gods through technology). Of course, the transhumanists themselves are confused about AI and there is no indication that they comprehend that unleashing the digital Devil would in no wise improve humanity’s future.

So I would concede that these ideas are well established in Western thought but they are not universally accepted. In my opinion, he has also yet to prove that science fiction is an evangelizing force for this ET theism, which is problematic due to the title of his presentation. I think it’s more the case that contactees and UFO cults have incorporated some of these ideas into their teachings, much as they borrow from Christianity, Theosophy, etc. Science fiction is limited in that there must be science of some sort upon which it speculates, even if it has to stoop to pseudoscience. Even so, science fiction has the demonstrable power to predict new technologies, which is to say inspire their actual creation, just as it has the power to warn against possible misuses of future technology. In this sense, perhaps we could concede that sci-fi is an evangelizing force for futurism, but that is not synonymous with an ET theism and there is no consistent ET meme being propagated in sci-fi or even in speculative science. For example, one camp of exobiologists believes that intelligent aliens will be basically humanoid based on the idea of convergent evolution while the other camp believes that they would be completely different from us. There is no consensus on whether aliens would be hostile, benevolent or ambivalent. In other words, there is no clear canon evident for ET Theism.  Rather than being a canon for ET Theism, its probably more accurate to say that speculative science and science fiction inform ET Theism; or that ET Theism borrows elements from speculative science and speculative fiction ala carte, much as it borrows from various other religions and philosophies to make up its canon.

This section of his presentation was disappointing on several counts, but the biggest problem for me was that he didn’t try to make his case beyond a bunch of hand waving and citing a stack of resources at the end which could amount to no more than an appeal to authority. Perhaps he only meant this section as a thesis which he intended to flesh out in the rest of the presentation, given the title of his talk, this point should have been hammered home and well established. Instead Heiser just comes off as lazy. By his failure to account for malevolent and ambivalent aliens in science fiction, he effectively creates a straw man version of sci-fi ETs that is more compatible with his idea of ET Theism.

Still, if he has a better argument, I’d like to hear it.

 

 

 

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