Thursday, April 5, 2007

Cylon Monotheism: Religion in Battlestar Galactica

There have been a number of recent posts concerning this season of SciFi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica." Over at his blog, Paul writes:
"The opening sequence of episodes in the Fall were among the best of anything I've ever seen on television. Picking up perfectly from the stunning events at the end of the second season, the first shows this past Fall put BSG easily in the company of the best of Star Trek.

The last few minutes of the season finale on Sunday were similarly superb. We'll be talking all summer about how those four people - four! - on Galactica could really be Cylons, and who the fifth still unidentified Cylon really is.”
And in his blog Lance Strate's Blog Time Passing Lance notes that:

“A wonderful touch is that the Cylons are religious--they talk about God, truly believe in God, and their aggressive and violent actions are rooted in their religious convictions.”
I concur that Battlestar Galactica is wonderful, both as Sci-Fi and as television drama of any kind. However, I find the Cyclon's religious affectations confusing and troubling within the total context of the show.

BG humans are portrayed as generally secular and polytheistic. Neither Greek nor Hebrew, but rather both and more, the human characters sport names or appellations like "Adama," "Apollo," "D'Anna" and for the coffee worshippers amongst us "Starbuck." Their twelve colonial worlds correspond to the twelve signs of the zodiac. They say things like "Thank the Gods" and "Gods help us."

The robotic Cylons are monotheistic, fanatical and proselytizing. Despite their claim that their one god is “love,” or perhaps because of it, they bring about the destruction of the twelve human colonies, killing billions of people and then zealously pursue the few survivors. There is one chilling scene from the first season where the Cylon attack is imminent and Number 6 bends over a carriage to kill an infant. It is unclear whether this is an act of mercy or a preemptive strike.

The odd thing is that the Cylons, being robots, have already achieved eternal life. They literally cannot be killed. Or rather, we see them continually dying and then being reborn. Their reincarnation factory vessels are even called “resurrection ships.” A reborn Cylon is not a type or a clone. It is a recreation of the dead individual Cylon, downloaded from the original with memories and emotions intact. In other words, one of the core motivators of many of Earth’s religions is already an integral part of Cylon existence. The only exception to the rule is if a Cylon dies out of range of a resurrection complex. Then they truly die.

If, in spite of being created in the image of their creators, Cylons reject polytheism, how did they stumble across monotheism?

In a 1977 Issue of ETC: The Journal of General Semantics, in an article titled "Alphabet, Mother of Invention," Marshall McLuhan and Robert K. Logan speculate on the possible origin of monotheism:
"Western thought patterns are highly abstract, compared with Eastern. There developed in the West, and only in the West, a group of innovations that constitute the basis of Western thought. These include (in addition to the alphabet) codified law, monotheism, abstract science, formal logic, and individualism. All of these innovations, including the alphabet, arose within the very narrow geographic zone between the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the Aegean Sea, and within the very narrow time frame between 2000 B.C. and 500 B.C. We do not consider this to be an accident. While not suggesting a direct causal connection between the alphabet and the other innovations, we would claim, however, that the phonetic alphabet played a particularly dynamic role within this constellation of events and provided the ground or framework for the mutual development of these innovations."
Perhaps Cylons, while surely literate, as robots are not subject to McLuhan's and Logan's media assertions. One could argue that Battlestar Galactica is not media ecological at all, and therefore need not adhere to the tenants of ME. The humans of BG can develop an advanced civilization without the benefit of alphabetic literacy, or, if their alphabet is phonetic, they can retain their polytheism in spite of it.

Religious robots, while intriging, remain a problem, especially self-ordained monotheistic robots. I believe that the depiction of Cylons as monotheistic in the absence of human mortality or alphabetic literacy can only be seen as a true leap of faith on the part of Battlestar Galactica's creators.

1 comment:

Lance Strate said...

Very interesting, Bob. You've got me thinking, and I've published a response: