Thursday, February 19, 2009

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About God I Learned From Watching "Stargate SG-1"

[The following is re-posted from my old blog at Scriptulicious's request]

Some people just don't get science fiction. They believe sci-fi is escapism for nerds, and they prefer stories that portray "real" characters in "real" conflicts arising from "real" situations. Personally, I love sci-fi, and believe that the majority of science fiction does deal with what's "real". The only difference is sci-fi treats "real" life in an allegorical way. Real issues of the here and now may be projected into a futuristic setting, but they are no less real. Take, for example, one of my all-time favorite sci-fi series: Stargate SG-1.

SG-1 is the story of a top-secret detachment of U.S. Air Force personnel who travel the galaxy through a network of interconnected stargates. These stargates allow instantaneous travel from one point in the galaxy to another by creating a "sub-space wormhole" between two gates. They were created by an ancient race of humans whom we now refer to as The Ancients. The members of SG-1 use the gate system to explore the galaxy, procure alien technologies, and combat the alien enemies of the earth.

The most piquant feature of earth's alien enemies is that they are in the habit of posing as gods. So, you could say that SG-1's prime directive is to protect the earth from false gods. While the false gods of the SG-1 universe included typical pagan deities such as Ra, Athena, Amaterasu, Yu Huang, Ba'al, etc., I propose that, since all gods are false gods, the lessons of SG-1 can be applied to any human religion. Here are some of those lessons:

Miracles Have a Scientific Explanation. Well, at least a science-fictional explanation. I grant you that SG-1, or any other science fiction story for that matter, tends to give some outlandish explanations for improbable things and events. Their scanners will often pick up "strange energy readings" or "an exotic form of radiation"; their laptop computers can interface Windows XP with completely alien operating systems; and, most curiously, the English language evolved identically on hundreds of different planets.

But the point is well taken: there is no magic, there are no miracles. However strange or improbable something might seem, it has a rational explanation. And, given a proper understanding of the scientific principles behind that improbable something, anyone can duplicate its effects. The SG-1 series starts out, in season 1, at a level of technology equal to modern day America. Ten seasons later, after a gradual accumulation of alien science and technology, we earthlings had garnered such miraculous abilities as intergalactic travel, teleportation "beams", force fields, cloaking devices, etc.

A Real God Would Not Concern Himself With Human Affairs. Even heaven is explainable rationally. The Ancients, the race who created the stargates, are conspicuously absent from the SG-1 universe. They were so technologically advanced that they were able to find a way to shed their mortal bodies and exist as energy in another plain of reality. This is a process known as "ascension".

While ascension provided the Ancients with eternal life and extraordinary powers, they followed a strict non-intervention policy with regards to the affairs of us mortals. The key insight of the ascended ancients is that, if all-powerful and all-knowing beings were to meddle in the affairs of ordinary humans, then they would necessarily rob us humans of any freedom to choose our own path. Robbing someone of their free will is immoral, a lesson that Yahweh, Allah, and Jesus seem impervious to.

God Does Not Care About Your Salvation. If ascension is the SG-1 equivalent to heaven, the Ancients, by dint of their no-meddling policy, had no intention of sharing ascension technology with us mortals. But the Ancients are not the only ascended beings in the galaxy. The Ori are another race of ascended beings (read "false gods") in the SG-1 menagerie. Unlike their Ancient cousins, the Ori rather enjoy meddling in human affairs and, what's more, have found a way to augment their power by feeding off the "strange energy" created by human worshippers. So, in order to increase the number of their worshippers, the Ori created a "bible" called The Book of Origin.

The Book of Origin is a collection of charming stories and moral wisdom that promises ascension (heaven) to anyone who follows the Ori religion. This, by the way, is an example of how religion piggybacks our notions of beauty and goodness. By this I mean that art and morality are human creations; but, throughout history, religion has usurped their authorship. Religion attempts to make us believe that god is the source of truth, of goodness, and of beauty.

However, in the hands of a god, truth and beauty have an evil underbelly: they are used as tools to awe and impress and, finally, subjugate humanity. The believer must proselytize her beliefs. If rational non-believers refuse to be proselytized, they are considered enemies of god and must be dealt with severely.

The followers of the Ori crusaded against the heathens in our galaxy. They used superior technology to instill fear and The Book of Origin to instill awe. They murdered those who refused to believe in the Ori as true gods. But the fate of the believer was almost as bad. The Ori had no intentions of ascending their followers.

God Is a Parasite. Not only are false gods not interested in sharing their power with mortals, but belief in god doesn't even benefit humanity. Here we have the most important insight of the SG-1 series: gods are parasites. Besides the Ori, another alien race posing as gods are the Goa'uld. The Goa'uld are a race of intelligent parasites, little snake-like creatures that attach themselves to the base of the brain of a human host and control the host's actions. The idea that a parasite can control the behavior of its host is not a fiction, it actually occurs in nature by means of what's called an extended phenotype.

In his book, The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins shows how an organism's genes can effect not just the organism itself, but the organism's environment as well. We can clearly see this when we look at a beaver dam or a spider's web. But since the environment of a parasite is its host, the parasite's extended phenotype often manifests itself as behavioral changes in its host.

Take, for example the nematomorpha, or horsehair worm. They live in the water as adults, but their larvae must incubate inside the body of a cricket. Once the larva matures, the cricket is driven to drown itself in the nearest body of water where the horsehair worm wriggles out of its host and into its new environment.

Like the Goa'uld, the gods themselves -- or at least the concept of gods -- are like parasites infesting the brains of human hosts and changing their behavior. The beneficiary of this behavioral change is not the host, but the parasite. Like a cricket driven to suicide, the host of a religious belief is driven to deleterious behavior. In the best of circumstances, the host merely wastes time and energy talking to an invisible man, donating hard-earned money to the church, and trolling the internet. But in the worst case scenario, the parasite can drive the host to the ugliest of atrocities: bombing abortion clinics, crusades and jihad, suicide bombings, 9/11.



  1. "Miracles Have a Scientific Explanation."

    I tend to agree. Even miracles that appear unexplainable by science like Moses parting the Red Sea can be explained scientifically. I believe some Russian researchers have the most likely explanation but thats not relevant. I am both scientific minded and religious and I believe that God is also. I do not see any problem with God using science.

  2. consider me a sci-fi nerd, whatever, but I thoroughly enjoy SG-1. It is right up there with Star Trek for me. It starts out promising and becomes, by the fifth season, a show that you do now want to miss (if you like sci-fi).

    This article is excellent. I am convinced more than ever that the metaphors that you develop here were the intentions of the show's originator(s). This show is a worthwhile watch for the fence skeptic who is unsure about what to make about religion. I say this not because it will convince but it will illustrate a different way to view religion than the innocent inheritances of well-intendeds.

  3. Yeah, this was very interesting.

    I've heard that the original Star Trek was full of allegory and social commentary. I enjoy the old Star Trek shows. I'm not a true Trekkie, but I'll watch the original Star Trek if it happens to be on TV.

    I remember when the Star Gate TV series came out. I really liked what little I watched, but was oblivious to any of the allusions. Maybe I didn't follow Star Gate because subliminally, I would experience cognitive dissonance (I was probably really deep into church, then).

    Looks like it's time to add Star Gate to my Netflix queue!

  4. Careful, Uruk, there were 10 seasons - each 20 episodes long. If watched in order, the first 8 seasons are excellent. The last two are ok, but some of the best characters are off the show by then.

  5. >Careful, Uruk, there were 10 seasons - each 20 episodes long.

    I'll watch a little here, a little there.