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Just war theory and the Cylons

William Crawley | 10:16 UK time, Friday, 27 March 2009

cylon.pngThis post could just as easily have been titled 'The Theology of Battlestar Gallactica'. As everyone knows, recent science fiction, even before The Matrix, has drawn heavily on theological themes and developed recognisably Christian allegories. But political questions continue to interest science fiction writers. In the re-made Battlestar Galactica, now in its fourth season in the US, "the gods" are on every other page of the script. This is an imagined future world were religious mysticism and ancient sacred texts still have their place.

Benjamin Plotinsky wonders: 'Now that science fiction again has politics to draw on, will it abandon its religious impulses?' He writes:

'The corny 1978 original mercifully died after a single season. Five years ago, however, the franchise was reborn--first as a three-hour miniseries, then as a weekly show--in a compelling new form. As in the original, the show's heroes, the last remnants of a human civilization destroyed by mechanical beings called Cylons, are fleeing their persecutors and seeking Earth, the legendary planet of their origin. But instead of the clunky robots of the 1978 series, the new Cylons are indistinguishable from human beings--a detail that helps turn the show into an ongoing examination of the War on Terror: Is it ethical to torture Cylons, for example? Other questions also echo our current conflict: How should the show's hero deal with members of a (human) fifth column that has tried to sabotage his ship? How much access to sensitive information should he grant to an apparently hostile reporter? The show declines to answer straightforwardly, instead presenting viewers with a world whose politics, like our own, are filled with moral ambiguities and difficult trade-offs.'


  • Comment number 1.

    I am not a science fiction fan. However, one can reasonably believe, that in a Universe of billions of galaxies and each galaxy comprising billions of stars and planets, the conditions which produced 'intelligent' life on Earth must have happened numerous times.
    I would be interested to hear from some of your regular theological posters how they accommodate the possible existance of other, probably more intelligent life elsewhere i.e. are they created in God's image etc,etc.

  • Comment number 2.

    If they exist, then yes.

    I don't see that there is a problem

  • Comment number 3.

    "I would be interested to hear from some of your regular theological posters how they accommodate the possible existance of other, probably more intelligent life elsewhere i.e. are they created in God's image etc,etc."

    Well I've just woken up here in America, listening to an artist called Mason Jennings on my super-duper sound system, so I'm in just the mood to answer your question.

    Science easily allows for the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, in fact it seems almost likely given what we know about the scale of this place. The bible, on the other hand, is seemingly silent about it (unless one interprets words like "angels" as "aliens" which seems a stretch since at that point we're not talking about the existence of intelligent life elsewhere but the visiting of that life to earth, which is - as far as I'm concerned - in the realm of nutcases). So, how do theologians interpret the bible's silence? If they're me, they say that what the bible says about it doesn't matter an iota. If they're orthodox evangelical, they say that the bible doesn't say there aren't extraterrestrials, so there could be and it's none of our concern.

    So, as far as I know, there are no Christian thinkers who argue against the possibility of ETs for theological reasons.

    So, if the manner in which God created complex life was evolution, then it seems likely ETs may have evolved as part of it. If we know nothing about that, and we don't, then there could be any number of 'arrangements' between God and them as there have been arrangements between God and us, in Christian theology. Maybe they have a covenant too, that involves not eating the meat of the bloopercrawler, not worshipping platinum idols, and an entire 3.14 Commandments laser-etched into some new metal compound.

    The trickiest question is: "Are they created in God's image?" If they are, they look kinda like us. (Gene Roddenberry would be satisfied with that answer.) If they ain't, they look like animals or some other lifeform. Maybe in that case, there's no 'arrangement', anymore than there is for great apes.

  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks for the answer John. I liked it.
    Happy I helped occupy your morning.

  • Comment number 5.

    No, I don't see the problem in intelligent life elsewhere.
    1) Even if they had a different religion or none - it wouldn't mean that our religious experiences were false, and wouldn't as a matter of logic negate the possibility that we had received a revelation that they hadn't.

    In any case, weren't the Cylons Theists?

    2) Intelligence is not necessarily the meaning of God's Image. Being in God's image seems to be a role we play in this part of creation, a dignity that we possess, and the capacity to have a relationship with God.
    Furthermore, I'm more intelligent than a newborn, but we are both equally in God's image.
    Being tied up with roles, rights and relationships, it follows other life forms could be in God's Image.

    3) Would they need redemption? What does this do for the incarnation and the atonement?

    Well, does the fact that Jesus was a Jew, and not Chinese of Inuit, undermine Christian doctrine about the universality of Christs achievement? I can't see how. So why should a universe teeming with other forms of intelligent life undermine those doctrines. I can't see where the logical problems lie.

    4) But I'm not sure that your assumption that intelligent life "must" be out there follows from the paucity of evidence. "Simple life" I'll buy. Intelligent life - who knows?

    5) CS Lewis' seemed to believe in intelligent life elsewhere. And his Space Trilogy shows how it could fit in with a Christian Worldview.
    In any case, Christians have always held that angels exist - intelligent, personal life that isn't human, isn't covered by the atonement, some fallen some not. So what extra challenge would aliens bring? None that I can see.


  • Comment number 6.

    John's answer is good - but God's Image has nothing to do with what we look like (fundamental of the Pentateuch - whatever you can think of, God can't be pictured as something like that).

    Otherwise, thanks for the backup before I even got to post John.


  • Comment number 7.

    For the record -

    I hate the Matrix (sequels) and the new Galactica series. Sci-Phi usually gets the issues all wrong. (As does "Watchmen" - not really sci-phi, but overrated pap just the same.)

    "Bladerunner", "Dark City" and "12 Monkeys" are honourable exceptions to the rule.


  • Comment number 8.

    But what about the Heaven thing. Will the aliens be there? Is Heaven integrated or segregated?
    Some Catholics can't imagine Heaven containing Protestants, and of course vice versa.
    So, are these folk to be confronted with aliens also? Although that may be less shocking to them than the other.

  • Comment number 9.


    post 8

    That's easy to answer as well. If there's life on other planets (Larry Norman anyone?) then I'm quite sure that their bible says that there is neither alien nor earthling...

    I'd be more concerned if there were Protestant aliens and Catholic aliens or Nationalist aliens and Unionist aliens. :-)

  • Comment number 10.

    I can not conceive of God as creator and would consider it impossible that anything is made in His image so obviously extra-terrestrial life-forms pose no problems for me whatsoever.

    If, however, one were to give credence to the proposition I have to speculate - would my favourite ET invention, Douglas Adams' Super-intelligent Shade of the Colour Blue have to be bleu celeste?

    On the title and concluding concerns of the posting, of-course, I would have to note that there is no such thing as a just war. All war is always in all circumstances utterly and intrinsically evil. Likewise there are no circumstances which ever justify the use of torture.

  • Comment number 11.


    I had never thought of Protestant and Catholic aliens before. I guess if they arrived in certain places, they would, like a Hindu or a Jew, have to say what kind of alien.

  • Comment number 12.

    Another film that deals with this philosophy is bladerunner. One of the best films ever made (and not just in the scfi genre). It certainly raises all sorts of philosophical questions about AI. For instance, if we were to able to construct an android, indistinguisable from a human, would it have a soul ?

    The matrix does of course deal with the subject of dreamworld skepticism.

  • Comment number 13.

    I unfortunately know of some Christians (of the six-day Creationist stripe) who argue that life on Earth is unique, because no life off Earth is mentioned in the Bible. (Oddly enough, Fox Mulder of "The X-Files" gave the best refutation of that by referencing the Fourth Commandment...)
    The sole point they would have is that Christ only died for the sins of Adam's race, which would exclude extraterrestrials, unless some of them left Earth. (C. S. Lewis did have some interesting ideas to counter that (or work alongside that) in his Space Trilogy.)

    Of course, there may not be Protestant or Catholic aliens...yet. In the future? Who knows? (Unless of course, they converted after receiving our TV programs...)

    As for Battlestar Galactica, I'd prefer a much less violent, more moral show, with better effects and (according to the Hugos) better writing. In addition, despite being (formerly) produced and (partly) written and (partly) directed by a homosexual atheist, it was nominated for a religious-themed television award and provides a great deal of moral discussions. In short, if you want something better than Battlestar Galactica, watch Doctor Who.

  • Comment number 14.

    I think it is inevitable that the Cylons will have to battle the Daleks for control over the universe. And may the better juggernaught villain win. Funny, you can never find a Jedi Knight when you need one.

    We are the American Borg
    You will be assimilated
    Resistance is futile.
    Will that be fries and a coke with your Big Mac?
    Original recipe or extra crispy?

  • Comment number 15.

    Orvillethird:Many of the Dr. Who episodes were written by an Atheist, Russell T Davis. There are some quite strong Atheistic themes in the show.

  • Comment number 16.

    What made Brit Sci-Fi so very funny in the past was how corny and low budget it was. Special effects? There weren't any. I haven't seen the most recent Dr. Who episodes but the old ones looked like someone drove past a junkyard and got an idea that by salvaging some old scrap metal for the would be masters of the universe, an old policeman's telephone box for a time travel machine, and getting some seamstress to sew a few scarves together for a costume, they invented a plot for a TV series. It looked like it was filmed in someone's basement with a Sony Handycam. It was the funniest thing to come out of Britain, funnier than Fawlty Towers.

  • Comment number 17.

    Much science fiction when depicting the future uses contemporary or historical references, sword play by Jedi Knights, space craft reenacting WW2 dog fights, which seems rather unimaginative.
    My favourite, and a realistic glimpse into the future, was in Space Odyssey, when the crew lose control to the computer HAL.
    Yep, this is the future. Man will one day create a super intelligent and powerful entity and cede control to it.
    The Theists will then really have what they desire, a GOD.

  • Comment number 18.


    "The Theists will then really have what they desire, a GOD."

    There's been a bit of chat about 'in God's image' already on this thread, but this god, in these comments, would be god made in the image of man which wouldn't really be god.

    BTW in this context you may wish to have a look at the movie 'Eagle Eye', pretty superficial, but follows this line of thought.

  • Comment number 19.


    What will theists do when man figures out how to create life from inert matter in a laboratory? What will they do when scientists can create a human being in a lab? They will say it was god's plan all along. They always have a way to rationalize whatever happens. That's because the washing machine spin cycle can be directly accessed at short notice. See how the Vatican finally managed to come to grips with Galileo. Now they have their own astronomical observatory and watch the sky themselves. Maybe they will one day have their own space program and go where no cleric has gone before. Is Galileo still ex-communicated? If they un-excommunicate him the way they did the holocaust denying bishop Williamson was, is that a get out of jail free card for him, a ticket for his soul to go to heaven?

    The thing about real science compared to science fiction is that it is much more interesting by far. It is also a lot of work to study and understand it. Bed time fairy tales are much easier to listen to than solving and understanding equations in calculus. That's one reason the bible is so popular. And probably why so many people can be persuaded by it.

  • Comment number 20.

    "What will theists do when man figures out how to create life from inert matter in a laboratory?"

    I guess we theists will have more to ponder on when mankind creates life outta nowt.

  • Comment number 21.


    More likely, in the near future, will be the creation of a class of superhuman.
    People greatly enhanced by chemical, biological, electronic, interventions. Hybrids of man and technology.
    Imagine instead of having to tap away at our computers, they were inside our heads, and integrated with our thoughts.

  • Comment number 22.

    pm, outa nowt? Even god created Adam out of the dust of the earth and Eve out of Adam's rib.

    rochcarlie, we already have various appliances to enhance life such as implants and prosthetic devices. What you say is entirely plausible and very likely, perhaps not even far off. What will the theists do when scientists understand the aging process and learn to halt it, even reverse it, conquer death as it were? What will Christ have left to do when he comes back? Playing god just won't be the same anymore. Especially when you aren't the first one at the gameboard.

    Derick Bingham didn't think twice about treatment based on the knowledge of medical science such as it is. Where was his faith in the power of prayer? Guess he wasn't taking any chances he might be wrong.

  • Comment number 23.


    We appear to be having another chronology problem!


  • Comment number 24.


    There's an odd faith in scientific progress at work in your posts.

    Now, maybe like some philosophers and scientists you may want to argue that science is the best truth-tracking methos that humans have.

    But you seem to be attributing the power of a deity to Science. It will create gods - in the form of these AI type entities. These "gods" will lead us into to greater knowledge, or replace us, or perhaps we will fuse our consciousness natures with the gods.

    Now, from whence did human reason achieve this sort of power? It doesn't fit with the non-teleological view of the universe that science assumes (or so we're told).

    Why should we assume that humans won't use their scientific knowledge to disastrous ends? That seems to be a real possibilty, and a nuclear exchange or exhaustion of natural resources could put quite a crimp on scientific progress.

    Earlier you complained that much science fiction paid little attention to science. Star Wars etc. counts as Science Fantasy. It has no real interest in Science as such. Science really just functions as a type of magic.

    Now your "god-making" science seems closer to science fantasy than science fiction. I'm curious to know - what motivates the fantasy? Why do you need a "God -substitute" and why dies science play that role?


  • Comment number 25.

    " In short, if you want something better than Battlestar Galactica, watch Doctor Who."

    I quite enjoy Dr Who, but its populist remit precludes much in the way of moral, let alone political, complexity. The Daleks are tautologically evil - because they're Daleks. In BSG cylons have a complex, fissured, world view that is often presented as morally equivalent to that of the humans (Many humans end up embracing the Cylons' monotheistic religion).

    In BSG the Cylon Caprica Six - who is responsible for genocide on a massive scale - is presented as in many ways a better, more sympathetic, person than the amoral Baltar, an inadvertent agent of the Colonies' destruction. President Roslin - a pro-abortion liberal - waives liberal rights against coercion and abortion rights in order to preserve the polity she serves. Is this possibility of arbitrary power intrinsic to liberal polities or a mere inconsistency with liberal norms?

    BSG wasn't perfect but NO other program - not the West Wing, and certainly not Dr Who! - has addressed politics at such a fundamental level. The only thing it has in common with Dr Who, frankly, is its genre.

  • Comment number 26.

    Yep, that's the problem right there. the whole damn series took itself too seriously. You're meant to blow the Cylons up! Not empathise with them. What's the point in that? Where's the fun? The tension? The escapism? I mean, am I meant to be grateful because the writers mention religion - and then get just about everything that is important about religion wrong?

    My goodness, I'd take "The Watchmen" comic over this tripe (and if ever a comic book took itself too seriously! "Nothing ends, Adrian, nothing really ends"...ooh, that's deep!)


  • Comment number 27.

    I mean robots that look just like people ...what a great idea! It's only been hammered to death a squillion times since "BladeRunner." Like the tag says "All of this has happened before; all of this will happen again." IS that a religious philosophy or a scriptwriter's mantra?

    And like, the Cylons, they're preternaturally strong and smart. And they're probably acting in humanities best interest. And they're just like us. And the humans aren't the most moral bunch ... so frankly, after a few episodes, I was rooting for the Cylons. Then I gave up.

  • Comment number 28.

    At least Dr Who knows what it is. Likeable pulp.

    Not that I like Dr Who

  • Comment number 29.

    Well, gveale, if you like your SF to be devoid of much apart from 'stuff blowing up', nothing I'm going to say will persuade you to watch BSG.

    As a rabid atheist, I could have done with a more reductionist approach to the religious elements in BSG, but, hey, nothing's perfect.

    Its escapism derived from its portrayal of complex characters tested to the limits. That involved me. That made me care about how their stories developed - that and the most sublime SFX on TV! Blade Runner was clearly a formative influence on BSG, but that film didn't really deal with the replicants as political actors.

  • Comment number 30.


    The above flame was aimed at BSG, not you.
    People enjoy what they enjoy, and BSG was just too political in its escapism for my tastes.
    And at least BSG was wise enough to limit itself to six series. After what happened to the X-files, that was a wise move.

    Still, it's nice to have a debate about something as inconsequential as light entertainment. Just how light should it be?


  • Comment number 31.

    I know RTD is an Atheist. His shows still have more morals than many American shows. (And, while I may find atheism in some areas, it's worth noting that in "Gridlock", the religious people on the motorway (or even Novice Hame) have passivity and hope- as opposed to those from "The End of the World" (set a few years prior), where "weapons, teleportation and religion" are banned, and the occupants of Platform One have passivity and not much else. Further, while the Doctor's Deus ex Machina in "Last of the Time Lords" may be considered blasphemous by some, and he alter said he didn't want people to remember him (a suggestion that we might not need God?), it is worth noting that the Master was ultimately defeated by, in his own words, "Prayer and Hope". In addition, the Doctor forgave the Master, no matter what he did to him. (Sound familiar?) Finally, while Doctor Who Magazine quoted RTD as praising Richard Dawkins for being a spokesman for atheism, it also quoted him in another issue as saying Jesus was "a wonderful archetype", thus showing he has more use for religion than some might think (Certainly more than Dawkins).

    As for moral conundrums, you should go see, "Genesis of the Daleks" from the old series- or "Boom Town" from the new series.

    And, Marcus, you should see the new series- even if you dislike it. I'm sure that all those on here would agree- the props are much better, as are the filming and the effects.

    As for humans creating life, I'm afraid we will mess things up worse than they are. Look at rabbits in Australia or Kudzu in the Southern US. And, if we create intelligent life, look out. (Go read R.U.R. for that...though some might find the ending a bit of a copout...and too theistic...)

  • Comment number 32.

    Oh, I left out "Dalek". In it, you even get to feel sorry for a Dalek at times... Harry Van Statten was portrayed in less of a favorable light than the Dalek.
    (Incidentally, the BBFC gave it a more restrictive rating because of the Doctor's "torture" of the Dalek...)

  • Comment number 33.

    I thought the quirky props were meant to be part of Dr Whos' "charm"?

  • Comment number 34.

    Orvillethird, in the war between the Cylons and the Daleks...my tin cans can beat your tin cans any day, yeah! I'll just bet your Daleks squeak and need oiling after it rains....just like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. "...if they only had a brain." I saw a Dalek just last week....hiding among galvanized trash cans in a hardware store trying to be inconspicuous. I was surprised they still make them...galvanized trash cans that is, I thought they were all plastic now. Does the new series still have a 20 foot long scarf and a policeman's telephone box as the entrance to the whatchamacallit, oh yeah Tardis thing? I won't watch it without the old familiar props. It just wouldn't be proper, no not proper at all. I'd like a car like that, bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Easy to park in tight spaces, nice and roomy and comfortable to ride in. Why doesn't somebody invent one? Japan had a car whose wheels turn sideways to parallel park and another that becomes vertical to take up less space when it's not in use.

  • Comment number 35.

    No, they don't have a scarf, but they did keep the Police Box. The current doctor (Till Christmas...) has a striped suit, glasses, and thinly-disguised Converse tennis shoes. He's a great guy, combining bits from a number of Doctors. (He's wanted to be the Doctor since he was a kid...) He's a great actor too. (Played Hamlet for the RSC...)


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