Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs by James A. Herrick
(IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL: 2008) Reviewed by Lee Duigon
[Note: Much of the work in this field was pioneered by R.J. Rushdoony in his 1967 book, The Mythology of Science. Rushdoony didn’t extend his inquiry to science fiction, but rather focused on evolution as the central myth of secular science: not something derived from actual observation of nature, but on an unquestioned, untestable faith statement undergirding all of what we Americans have come to think of as “science.” We find that Herrick’s work builds on Rushdoony’s and reinforces what he said some forty years ago.]
An acquaintance once said to me, in all seriousness, “Jesus was a hybrid. He was half-extraterrestrial. That’s how He was able to do the things He did.”
I laughed it off, then. How many people could believe in such twaddle?
According to James Herrick, quite a few. His subtitle tells us what’s going on: popularized science, and science fiction—in many cases, on purpose—are trying to forge “new religious beliefs” to replace Christianity.
With, I might add with some dismay, the unthinking but enthusiastic participation of many Christians.
We’re Eating It Up
Counting books, movies, TV shows, magazines, and video games, science fiction is an enormously popular form of entertainment, consumed daily by millions of Christians in the Western world. Along with that, there’s the kind of jazzed-up, dumbed-down “science” that wafts into our living rooms via television and the Internet—of which the late Carl Sagan’s popular PBS series, Cosmos (1980), remains, for Herrick, the most enduring benchmark.
Popularized “science” merges with science fiction—in one example, to the point where actor Patrick Stewart, who played Capt. Picard in Star Trek—The Next Generation, hosted and narrated a TV “science” special, From Here to Infinity: The Ultimate Voyage, in 1994 (p. 37). Was “Picard” supposed to lend credibility to the “science”?
In all of this, there seems to be a total absence of the scientific method: observe what actually happens in nature, compile and study the observations, form a hypothesis based on what was been observed, and then experiment, test the hypothesis, modifying it as new information becomes available.
But no one has observed space aliens, life on other planets, highly evolved super races of advanced human beings, or any of the other staples of science fiction. What we get from SF and the descendants of Cosmos is a combination of unbridled speculation based on no evidence, wishful thinking, and a passionate desired to get away from Christianity and the real world as we know it.
Herrick makes his point with innumerable examples, backed up with some six hundred footnotes—and even this is not enough to cover all of science fiction and TV “science.” But it’s certainly enough to prove his point.
I am one of millions of Americans who has enjoyed science fiction all his life, just gobbling it up without thinking about what it’s really saying, or what it really means. Herrick makes me wonder just how much of my own worldview has been shaped by this.
It does seem certain that no one can consume countless hours of this stuff without being influenced by it.
I was almost flattened by the sheer volume of information in this book. It’s not a fast read, but it is a compelling one. I’ve read many of the books and seen many of the movies and TV shows cited here. Chances are that you have, too.
Herrick left me marveling at the vast abundance of hogwash believed in by supposedly well-educated persons with a lot of letters after their names.
What are these mythologies, or myths, which we are fed in such quantity?
The Myth of the Extraterrestrial
It goes something like this.
Outer space contains a staggering number of worlds. And if the central myth of evolution is true—as opposed to the doctrine of purposeful creation by God, as taught in the Bible—some of those worlds, probably many of them, must harbor life. And some of this life, being millions or billions of years older than life on earth, must be intelligent; and some of this intelligent life must be much more advanced than we are.
Voila—super intelligent, super advanced space aliens must exist! If only we keep looking for them, someday we’re bound to make contact with them. It’s inevitable.
And then they will give us the answers to our most important questions.
That no one has actually found any evidence of extraterrestrials is only a minor inconvenience, easily dismissed: somewhere out there, our wise and benevolent Space Brothers must exist.
And if they’re far advanced enough, they will be, for all practical purposes, gods.
The Myth of Space
Space is so vast, it just has to contain, somewhere, the answers to our most important questions—not to mention our evolutionary destiny.
Again, no evidence—but that’s only because we’ve just started to explore space, and eventually we’ll find what we’re looking for, somewhere out there.
This is not a scientific statement. It’s a faith statement, based solely on our own desire. As Charlton Heston said in the original Planet of the Apes, “Somewhere out there, there has to be something better.”
That’s not science: but if you truly believe what Carl Sagan told you in Cosmos, you don’t know the difference anymore between science and hope.
The Myth of the New Humanity
If evolution is true—and don’t you dare say it isn’t, or people will despise you for being “unscientific”—we humans are going to keep evolving until we evolve into something better.
This faith statement goes way back in science fiction, even preceding Darwin. It’s very closely tied up with the pseudoscience of “eugenics”—the belief that we can purposely create a new, improved species of human through selective breeding and weeding out such “undesirables” as the genetically defective, the mentally defective, and “inferior races” by means of abortion and sterilization. Heinrich Himmler was a big booster of eugenics, which is why the word “eugenics” has been replaced by an assortment of euphemisms like “directing the course of evolution,” “reproductive rights,” and “women’s health.”
And so, you see, they’ve got it covered both ways. Even if we never make contact with all-wise, all-knowing ETs of the kind dreamed up by Arthur C. Clarke and other science fiction mavens, we’ll still evolve into such being ourselves.
My wife, Patricia, was another inveterate reader of science fiction. “Without even being aware of it,” she says, “all this reading made me grow up taking it for granted that world government was inevitable—because all those science fiction stories said so.”
Yes, we’re going to use our all-powerful science to create a better humanity. Herrick has a caveat. “But the strange vision of improved people created by unimproved people suggests a deep problem of analysis … We simply are not capable of creating, through any sort of education or technology, a race of people superior to ourselves” (p. 128). This whole cluster of beliefs he sums up as “a pagan apocalypse” (p. 129).
Again, for all of this to work, evolution has to be true—just as Rushdoony pointed out in 1967. Why we should have to “guide” some process that occurs naturally, even inevitably, is just another one of those questions that science fiction doesn’t bother with.
The Myth of the Future
“The future” is science mythology’s great cure-all. We may not have them now, but certainly the future will provide us with the answers to all our most important questions.
There being no way to observe The Future, again we must fall back on faith—faith in the future, in our continuing upward evolution, and in the wise extraterrestrials who are sure to be waiting for us somewhere down the road.
You can’t pin down the future, but never mind—“science” and science fiction say it’s a cornucopia full of goodies beyond our wildest dreams; but not beyond their wildest dreams.
The Myth of the Spiritual Race
Here science mythology merges with Neoplatonism—the belief that divides matter and spirit, with man as a spiritual being imprisoned in his material body in a world of matter.
According to Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and a whole host of other science fiction writers, our evolutionary destiny is finally to escape from the material body and become beings of pure mind, pure spirit. Evidence? Oh, please—it just has to happen. Because they so very much want it to happen.
Indeed, it has already begun to happen: that’s what all those UFO abductions are all about. Wise and powerful human beings—or else wise and powerful space aliens—are experimenting on people to make it happen. You don’t think all those abduction stories are just stories, do you?
Herrick: “The Myth of a Spiritual Race, intolerant of Christian thought and intolerable to Christian thought, must situate itself elsewhere—on pantheistic assumptions about a ‘life force’ propelling nature’s inherent trajectory toward an ‘aristocratic race’” (p. 191). It’s just a gussied-up version of plain, old-fashioned racism, only now it’s racism based on spiritual quality rather than skin pigmentation.
The Myth of Space Religion
From science fiction and TV “science” specials on the inevitability of “contact” one of these days, it’s not such a big jump to forming some kind of UFO cult for the purpose of hurrying matters along, at least for the cult’s members. The folks in the Heaven’s Gate cult got so impatient to become spiritual beings, and hitch a ride on Comet Hale-Bopp back to their “home” in outer space, that in 1997 they all took poison (p. 219). Well, that’s one way to escape from the body.
“Today,” writes Herrick, “a religious claim may be based on little more than the assertion that it has some association with Space” (p. 212). This makes such a religion supposedly more “scientific” than Christianity, and hence more worthy of belief.
Rushdoony: “No more deadly mythology has ever plagued mankind than the mythology of science … According to the mythology of science, science can and will do all things.”1
Was he exaggerating? Consider this gem from The Humanist Manifesto II, a document signed by top scientists from all over the world:
“Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our life-span, significantly modify our behavior, alter the course of human evolution and culture development, unlock vast new powers, and provide humankind with unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life.” All we have to do is discard our “unproved and outmoded faith” in God.2
Neither Rushdoony nor Herrick have exaggerated.
The Myth of Alien Gnosis
Gnosticism, an ancient heresy, is the belief that there is secret, ultimate knowledge of reality, accessible only to the favored very few. Much of science fiction has adopted it.
Science fiction is rife with tales—The Matrix movies, for instance—which proclaim that what most of us perceive as reality is, in fact, an elaborate scam perpetrated by space aliens, a government conspiracy, or what have you. In these stories, some extraordinary individual somehow pierces the deception and becomes the proud possessor of the secret knowledge. And so on.
Quantum physics, higher mathematics, and all that—it’s very hard, the ordinary person can’t hope to understand it. Scientists therefore are revered because they have acquired such highly abstruse knowledge and are smart enough to understand it. It’s easy to go from venerating science to venerating the scientists.
Especially if they’re space aliens who don’t have material bodies anymore.
In this particular mythology, ETs are the only ones who really, truly know the score; but if certain extra-special individuals ask them nicely, the aliens may share their knowledge with these very few, who may then become our teachers, our leaders out of the darkness of ignorance, maybe even our gods.
Stupid Smart People
You never knew smart people were so dumb, did you? If nothing else, Prof. Herrick is to be thanked for making that as plain as the faces on Mount Rushmore.
But his book is valuable in that it can prompt us to think about what we’re being told by our anointed experts. I suppose I’ll still be able to enjoy science fiction, on occasion; but never again will I read it so uncritically. Scientific Mythologies is a real eye-opener.
A final word from Herrick:
“This is the Christian church’s challenge today—to reclaim its story [the gospel] and tell it in such a way that it stands out among all the others as authentic, as the Great Story that other stories have often sought to imitate” (p. 252).
1. R. J. Rushdoony, The Mythology of Science (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1995 ed, 2001), p. 123.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.