Scientific Mythologies by James A. Herrick


We live in an age that describes itself as spiritual, not religious.
In The Making of the New Spirituality (2003), James A. Herrick traced “the historical trajectory in popular religious discourse of a set of religious ideas that, though once considered exotic or even heretical, now hold sway in the Western religious mind.” These ideas included biblical criticism, rationalism, naturalism, evolution, pantheism, Gnosticism, shamanism and pluralism. He called this set of ideas “the New Religious Synthesis” and compared and contrasted it to traditional Christianity, the religion of “the Revealed Word.”
Scientific Mythologies[*] continues the work of The Making of the New Spirituality by focusing on “how science and science fiction forge new religious beliefs,” as the subtitle puts it. Its purpose is “to explore the various ways in which the Western world’s present spiritual needs are being addressed by a new mythology, an emerging canon of transcendent stories that provides meaning to our lives and that organizes and directs our individual and social decisions.” It thus enlarges on the chapters in Making that traced the influence of naturalism and evolution on popular spirituality.
Many Christians associate the word spirituality with traditional Eastern Religions or their ersatz New Age offshoots. One of the great strengths of Herrick’s book is to demonstrate the spiritual implications and aspirations of science and science fiction. These implications and aspirations are not recent, however, but deeply rooted in the scientific revolution of the past four hundred years. Scientific mythologies did not begin with Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, or George Lucas. Rather, they began early as European scientists peered through their telescopes and pondered the existence of life on Mars.
Herrick examines seven specific myths that have arisen from the intersection of science and science fiction, and illustrates them with examples drawn from the works of popular science writers, works of science fiction, and science-fiction movies. They include:
  • the existence of benevolent extraterrestrial beings
  • outer space as the place where human destiny will be achieved
  • a new and better humanity that arises from technologically directed evolution
  • a future of limitless progress that results from scientific knowledge
  • a spiritually superior race of human beings at the vanguard of social evolution
  • an enlightened religion practiced by extraterrestrials
  • an “alien gnosis” that derives from extraterrestrial knowledge of the origin and end of creation
These myths arise from a naturalistic worldview that contradicts traditional Christianity. This natural worldview sees the cosmos as self-contained rather than created. If there is any divinity at all, it is immanent within humanity, not transcendent over humanity. Rather than a fixed created order, nature is an evolving reality. Human beings are not objects of God’s redemptive plan; they are subjects of their own salvation. Many readers of science fiction are simply unaware of the spiritual implications of what they’re reading, proving C.S. Lewis’s statement that “any amount of theology can now be smuggled into the reader’s mind under cover of a good romance, without their knowing it.”
Knowing the spiritual implications and aspirations of science and science fiction, what should Christian readers do? One response is apologetic. We should actively refute the spiritual pretensions of science. But another is cultural. C.S. Lewis responded to the scientism of his day by writing science fiction himself (the so-called Space Trilogy). What people are looking for is not merely an intellectual presentation of the Christian faith, but a spiritually and emotionally resonant one.
Why is this apologetic and cultural strategy so important? Because, as Herrick points out, the stakes are high in the conflict between traditional Christianity and scientific mythologies. “The central question facing us is this: Are the combined forces of science and imaginative narratives of the type found in science fiction and some new religions capable of producing a reliably humane moral outlook from within a sacralized naturalistic framework, an outlook capable of withstanding any amount of commercial, political or social pressure?” Given that scientists and science fiction authors have in the past argued for eugenics, among other evils, the answer to this question is most assuredly no. Indeed, given that evolutionary science explicitly underwrote the eugenics project, we have adequate reason to worry about the triumph of scientific mythologies.
All of us have benefited from the tremendous scientific advances of the past four hundred years. But in the words of Scripture, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Changing the human heart is not the work of scientific technology, nor can it be accomplished by further evolution. Why assume, after all, that the Super-Man will be morally better rather than morally worse?

[*] James A. Herrick, Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008).

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