Sunday, April 6, 2008

Why the new Battlestar Galactica is more important than "Expelled!" or Vox Day's writings

I've been following the crowd, blogging on some of the same subjects I find that PZ Myers and others are writing about. They've decided subjects like Vox Day's WorldNutDaily articles and his book, "The Irrational Atheist," and the soon upcoming movie, "Expelled!", are deserving of attention and here I am having already decided that I'm not going to watch "Expelled!" merely after reading Ben Stein's and Kevin Miller's writings nor am I going to finish Vox's book after reading one chapter.

Sure, they're probably dangerous propaganda and should be dealt with, but they're also looking to be rather dull and unpleasant experiences. I'm just not that kind of masochist. It isn't a pleasant job to slog through the dull, tendentious and insulting prose of Vox Day or bore myself with media hype for "Expelled!." The more I'm exposed to their drivel, the less I care. An atheist would have to be just as masochistic to deal with that stuff as a liberal would be to watch Fox News (not that watching Battlestar Galactica isn't a bit masochistic too, they love to torture their characters). Besides, PZ and kellym78 are on the job.

I've been following the crowd and I'm beginning to think the blogging crowd is wrong about what is effective and important. I would suggest that for our culture that the new Battlestar Galactica, on the sci-fi channel, is more subtly influential, more accurate a reflection of our society, than most of the flea books, propaganda outfits and stupid partisan websites that have tended to be the subject of my blog so far.

Sure, there are also many blogs and forums already dealing with the show, but they're mostly fannish and going after it from a different angle than the one I'll be taking.

What I'm going to do is look at the issues of atheism versus theism and the role of religion as it is seen through the Battlestar Galactica lens. And this, the show's 4th and final season, looks to be a rich vein considering how it started. From the beginning the show has been morally challenging, psychologically complex and politically controversial and it looks like it will get more so.

In fact, Galactica's contribution to the religious and political debate seems to be the best reason to watch it since when considered as mere drama it's full of apparent plot holes and soap opera level characters.

One thing the show gets right is the way it undercuts the divisive partisanship of the internet religious and political debates. Both sides of the war, Cylons and humans, have their atheists and their theists. In the end the atheists and theists on the human side are working together just to survive, yet the mutually antagonistic feelings are still there. In one episode the president of the colonies, Laura Roslin, starts getting religious visions and heads off with some separatists to find Earth, a place the less religiously literal consider mere myth. Adama says of the separatists, at first, "let them go, we don't need them," and "I can't believe anyone could be that stupid."

Of course, it turns out that Roslin's visions and ancient scroll interpretations do lead to evidence that Earth exists and a clue as to how to find it. Adama changes his mind and that leads to the next more accurate depiction of belief and non-belief in our society: Religious beliefs among the Galactica characters are fluid, just as they are in real life. People change their minds and move back and forth through shades of gray between belief and non-belief. One of the most clear examples of this is the character of Gaius Baltar.

Gaius Baltar starts out as an out spoken atheist, apparently he had written books advocating atheism, perhaps much like Richard Dawkins or at least Carl Sagan. However, he is having some new and strange experiences that have started him on path towards religious belief. I think Baltar is basically getting mindfraked by a Cylon android.

I'll have more to say on that in future posts here as the show progresses. In the meantime here's a brief recap of what they've been doing with Gaius Baltar:

In the very first episodes (miniseries? pilot?) Baltar unintentionally gave the Cylons access to the Colonial defense mainframe and thus he nearly destroyed humanity. At the time he was sexually involved with a tall, beautiful blond that he thought worked for a corporation in the defense industry. Wanting to keep her around he gave her the access codes so her employers would have an illegal advantage in future contract bidding. In exchange, she helped him design a navigation program used by Colonial warships, and she sneaked back-doors in the program that disable all but a few Colonial ships.

The day the attack happens the beautiful blond, Caprica 6, reveals to Baltar that she is a Cylon and that she used the information given to her to shut down the Colonial defenses. Baltar's planet is getting nuked when he eventually finds a Raptor, a small military shuttle type spacecraft, that's willing to take on a few passengers. The pilots use a lottery to decide who gets on, and Baltar doesn't win it. Then one of the pilots, Karl Agathon also known as Helo, recognizes Baltar as a brilliant scientist and gives up his place on the ship feeling that his own life is less important than to get a famed scientist aboard the Battlestar Galactica.

And the guilty secrets they throw on Baltar just keep piling up from there.

Aboard Galactica, Baltar also started "hallucinating" a relationship with Caprica 6. No one but Baltar can see her and she gives him answers to questions Baltar shouldn't know. She has the uncanny ability to know future events. Is she in tune with another plain of existence outside of spacetime? Like God? She plays games with Baltar's head, sometimes claiming to be a chip in his head, sometimes a symptom of his psychosis, sometimes an angel of God. When claiming to speak for God she is often loving but intolerant of Baltar's lack of faith, stern and abusive when he turns from the path laid out by the one true God.

But don't let that Biblical phrase "one true God" throw you. Galactica has not, so far, been a Christian show. The allegorically Christian elements have been there from the start, but the mix was odd and the religion of the characters has tended to be more like ancient, pagan Greek religion. However, that "one true God" may have just popped up in the last show I saw, which was called: "He That Believeth in Me," and performed a miracle.

Still, I doubt if they're going in that direction because if Caprica 6 was really a believer in a monotheistic, Christian-like, God when she helped to nuke humanity then she was the kind of believer whose ethical grounding was similar to future toddle chopper, Vox Day's morals: Morality was what God wanted and there were no humanistic principles involved. The well being of her fellow sentient creatures didn't enter into her morality.

Helo (the guy who sacrificed his means of escaping a nuked planet for Baltar's sake), by contrast, when faced with a similar choice decided to save the Cylons from genocide when the president and Adama tried to infect the Cylons with a virus, (see "A Measure of Salvation") And Helo, as far as I know, has never talked about his religious beliefs. But I sure get the impression that if God herself came down and told Helo to do something like genocide, then Helo would tell God to frak off, unlike Caprica 6 or Vox Day.

Helo's ethical principles seem to be not only above fleet and presidential orders but also above any religious belief he has (if he has any). Also, when Helo saved the Sagittarion refugees from a murderous doctor, in the 3rd season episode "The Woman King," he never cited any religious principles or spoke of any shared beliefs with Mrs. King. In that way he also seems to contrast with Baltar because, apparently being in the atheist and agnostic camp (if he is), Helo and Baltar would represent alternative atheistic moral groundings.

But then again, even though the original Caprica 6 was initially comfortable with the near genocide of humanity, later when she is reawakened in a new body aboard a Cylon ship she is having "hallucinations" of Baltar and suddenly, (out of nowhere and seemingly inconsistently) developing a radically different conception of what God wants -- and she's decided God didn't want humanity to die after all. And the only Jesus figure around is her "hallucinated" version of Gaius Baltar.

Well, if you haven't been watching the series you are probably totally confused by now. Don't worry, you'd still be confused if you had watched the whole series. Still, if you want to understand what looks to be the bulk of my next blog posts you might want to start watching Battlestar Galactica now. If you already are watching it, stay tuned to this blog because I'm going to be speculating in more depth as to why I think the child Balter was willing to die for in "He That Believeth in Me" is the 5th Cylon (hint: the virus that killed the Cylons in "A Measure of Salvation" was lymphocytic encephalitis. Galactica humans are immune, but as I recall that was the same encephalitis that the child had). Why the Cylons attacked humanity in the first place and more.

Battlestar Galactica is several orders of magnitude more useful to the religious debates between theists and atheists than all the partisan propaganda that's spewed by both sides in the blog wars I've covered here so far.


Bob Kowalski said...

You might enjoy tracking down an essay by Hannah Arendt, "Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship." It's short. Maybe 10 pages. I think it can be found in "Responsibility and Judgment. In essence she asks why some people did not collaborate with the Nazis. It turns out that there are people who don't do certain things because these people know that they will have to live with themselves.

Anyway, I hope the connection to Helo is clear without explanation.

normdoering said...

That's interesting, I'll look for it.

It ties into Baltar because he's now learning that he has to live with himself.

Bob Kowalski said...

I hadn't thought of the tie-in to Baltar. But I haven't gotten around to watching the episode all the way through, either.

Anonymous said...

(hint: the virus that killed the Cylons in "A Measure of Salvation" was lymphocytic encephalitis. Galactica humans are immune, but as I recall that was the same encephalitis that the child had).

Whoa, I missed that!

If that turns out to be right, I fully expect you to post triumphantly about it. "You read it here first, folks!" :)

normdoering said...

Evan wrote:
"If that turns out to be right, I fully expect you to post triumphantly about it."

I can't be too triumphant now since I've partially taken it back, here.

I went over to one of the Galactica forums and found that very idea discussed. Turns out that I heard wrong, the boy was only said to have "viral encephalitis," not "lymphocytic encephalitis" which could be a different virus. I also misunderstood how the term encephalitis is used. Encephalitis is a blanket term for inflammation of the brain. Saying all encephalitis is the same is like saying all cancer is the same. Encephalitis is a symptom, not a cause.