I often tell friends that everything I learned about life I learned from Star Trek — the Star Trek original series, that is to say — and I say that only half jokingly.
My exposure to that series when it was in syndication in the 1970’s challenged my world view in many respects. Aside from my World Book Encyclopedia library, which was the late-Baby Boomer’s precursor to the Internet, there really wasn’t much intellectual stimulation available to teenager, especially in small-town northwest Alabama in the late 1970’s
One of the Star Trek Original episodes that has especially stuck with me over the years was “The World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.”
I’ve wondered a time or two how that rather irreligious episode got past the standards department at NBC in the late 1960’s. As memory serves, I viewed that episode for the first time on a Sunday Morning waiting to leave for church with my parents. Talk about a study in cognitive dissonance! I even remember my father, a closeted agnostic who grudgingly went along with Mother’s avid religious enthusiasm, furtively listening in, and, at one point, peering into our den and observing, “Gee, that’s a bit sacrilegious!”
A Spaceship Designed as An Asteroid
The episode centers around an extraterrestrial humanoid species that inhabits a computer-guided spaceship disguised as an asteroid. The ship, known by its inhabitants as Yonada, was designed and launched into space by a long-extinct species known as the Fabrini, whose solar system faced imminent destruction by a supernova. The Yonadans, encased in a spaceship disguised an asteroid, were bound for a new world that the Fabrini had deemed suitable for colonization.
To ensure social cohesion across the long, multigenerational voyage, the Fabrini, invented a religion — a rather wrathful Old Testament-style relgion, I should add — governed by highly sophisticated computer dressed up as an oracle, which communicated with the people via a high priestess. The religion also encompassed a book of sacred scripture known as “The Book of the People,” the mysteries of which would be revealed upon arrival in the new world. Finally, apparently as an extra guarantee against dissent thought and social fraying, each inhabitant was injected with a subcutaneous device known as an “instrument of obedience,” which inflicted intense pain on anyone impudent enough to engage in heretical speech.
The Plan Goes Awry
As it turns out, despite all of the Fabrini’s meticulous planning, the ship’s onboard computer developed a glitch deep into the voyage that not only threw Yonada off its trajectory but also placed it on a collision course with Daran V, an inhabited planet Federation planet.
Alerted to this threat, members of the Enterprise crew — Captain Kirk, Commander Spock and Dr. McCoy — intervene. Despite a couple of violent run-ins with the oracle, they manage to adjust the computer to avoid a planetary collusion and to place the ship back on its predetermined course. But in the course of outwitting the oracle, they have to reveal the secrets of the Fabrini to Natiri, the high priestess.
Natiri, however unwittingly, is forced to embrace the truth about the origins of her faith. She learns that her faith is not so mystical or enchanted at all. It was invented — improvised — by mortals just like her. She is presented with the challenge of imparting moral precepts to her people in a new light, fusing the teachings of the ancient faith with the new and rather jarring discovery that this faith was contrived — conceived by her forebears to ensure that a tiny remnant of their civilization would carry on in spite of the Extinction Level Event that awaited them.
In a very real sense, the Frabrini conceived and designed for their descendants a version of what I’ve come to call the Networked Human Exoskeleton, which I’ve explored in some of my previous writings. They not only designed a spaceship but also an intangible protective covering for the Yonadans — a womb, of sorts — comprised of language, culture, law, technology and, most important of all, religion, to ensure that they reached their final destination safely.
The Value of Science Fiction
“The World is Hollow…” and many similar works are among the many reasons why I value science fiction so much. As I’ve argued before, science fiction is more than mythology: It functions as a sort of improvised add-on to religion to help us contend with challenges for which many, if not most, forms of conventional faith traditions simply are ill-equipped. And in a very real sense, the challenge presented to this fictitious high priestess, Natiri, closely parallels what is transpiring on Earth today in the 21st century, particularly in the increasingly secularized, religiously disenchanted West.
Like the Yonadans, we live out our lives within our own vulnerable ecosystem — Planet Earth. It’s not a hollow ball like Yonada, though we are encased, in a manner of speaking, shielded from the frigid vacuum of space only by a thin and rather fragile layer of atmosphere. Moreover, like the Yonadans, we depend solely on resources available within this fragile ecosystem to sustain us.
Also, like the mythical Yonadans, the resources we depend on to survive not only include food and water but also an intangible protective shroud — the ideals, practices and technologies our forebears have improvised over eons to enhance our chances for survival in a hostile natural world — the human exoskeleton.
Our Own Earthly Confrontation with Reality
And, finally, we, like the Yonadans, have been confronted with our own brush with facts, though, unlike the Yonadans, we’ve not encountered this reality all at once. After some two centuries worth of advances in all manner of knowledge, particularly the insights we have garnered from textual analysis of sacred scripture and new insights into the evolutionary origins of our species and of the cosmos, we have been presented with a reality that many of us still regard as exceedingly painful, if not unbearable: the mundane origins of our religious traditions.
We have been presented with the reality that our forebears invented religion not only to provide themselves with a measure of social cohesion but also to secure a sense of meaning and purpose in a hostile environment.
To be sure, these precepts and beliefs were not invented from scratch. They were not planned and designed by some ancient race like the Frabrini and handed down in toto to future generations.
Religious precepts and beliefs were improvised by human beings in response to all manner of necessity and laid down in imperceptibly thin layers across eons. Indeed, our forebears had no multigenerational master plan in mind. They had no inkling of the shape their religions ultimately would take. For example, some 3,500 years ago, none of the Jewish intellectuals and scribes who conceived Jewish monotheism in Babylon following the defeat and dispossession of their civilization could have imagined that an offshoot of their faith would be practiced many centuries later by Gentiles in structures known as praise centers scattered across the sprawling plains of a yet to be discovered continent.
It’s also now apparent that quite a few religious mystics, including Jesus, were preparing for an anticipated religious apocalypse. They carried on their worldly ministrations assured that the world as they knew it would end shortly. They weren’t concerned with building an intricate, enduring system of religious dogma but rather on saving their people from a cosmic upheaval they regarded as imminent.
Like the Fabrini of Star Trek fame, the founders of our ancient religious faith traditions were mortal human beings, traveling through space on a vulnerable ball of mud, and, though they weren’t aware of it at the time, struggling to eke out a sense of purpose and meaning out of and existence that often seemed random and meaningless.
A Heavy Psychological Burden
Yet, this discovery — this demystification of faith— has imposed a heavy psychological burden on countless millions of us. To be sure, the philosophical and scientific insights that we have gained within the last few hundred years have carried us a long way, certainly in material terms. But they have also worked to fracture society — to impose a sense of disenchantment, normlessness and even a sense of nihilism among many of us.
Many among our intellectual elites are inclined to discount religion for the simple reason that much of it was invented by pre-Enlightenment, often illiterate or, at best, semi-literate peasants whose experiences with the transcendence became permanent facets of faith only because they were shared with others and somehow were regarded as compelling enough to gain traction and to be recorded.
I am reminded of a popular social media meme that derides conventional religion as merely primitive superstitions invented by people who didn’t know where the sun went at night.
There is certainly an element of truth to that, but the advancement of knowledge over the past few hundred years has also revealed another vital truth: that religious faith provided the moral scaffolding upon which human beings, particular Westerners, succeeded in constructing the modern secular foundations on which science, technology and liberal democracy were built.
The religious faith traditions that many of our intellectual elites deride today as pre-literate and unenlightened provided much of the deep, richly nuanced moral scaffolding for the far-flung, highly specialized and technological society that prevails today. And we are in greater need today of well-defined, richly nuanced morality for the simple reason that society is so far-flung and complex.
In very real sense, we are presented with the challenge of the Yonadan high priestess. We must find a way toward what I’ve come to call a new fusion. We must find a way not only to reaffirm the value ancient religious teachings but to fuse these teachings with the deep insights that we have garnered from advances in science and technology within the last few centuries. We must understand that both religious faith and the advancement of knowledge were indispensable in carrying our species out of the dark mists of ignorance into the broad uplands of discovery, deep insight and self-mastery.
To express it another way, we must find a way to bridge the vast distance between Athens and Jerusalem.