Sunday, August 28, 2005

Wrath of a Machine G-d

What manner of G-d do the Cylons worship?

Religion is central in Battlestar Galactica, both old and new. The original series was based on a strongly Mormon worldview, but Mormonism only structured the narrative and was couched underneath vague talk about ancient g-ds and the esoterica of Egyptology. In the new series religion is up front: something that distinguishes the humans from the Cylons.

And it has bugged me. The humans are the polytheists, the Cylons monotheists. Is it that simple? Is humanity the victim of a contrivance to replace natural religion with a domineering patriarch who lives apart from them.

On the surface this looks like some sort of Wiccan persecution complex, not dissimilar to extremist views on the witch trails of the 17th century. The Colonialists are not, however, nature worshipers, but rationalist agnostics for whom the pantheon of the g-ds has been almost universally discarded as antiquated fantasy. Only a small segment of the population (the Gemenons) are considered religious, and only their clerics have extreme spiritual practices. Humanity has only begun to rediscover religion now that they are in flight. Faith was forgotten, regardless of who was worshiped.

Even if the main conflict is between monotheists and polytheists, it cannot be read as the Christians (and the Jews) against the pagans. Ronald Moore, the show’s producer, cleverly mixed elements of Christianity and Greco-Roman paganism to create a canon of spiritual beliefs for the Colonialists. The retention of the Greek Pantheon suggests that they still appreciate a patriarchal g-d as supreme.

The Cylon religion has no obvious human counterpart. Cylons know human religious texts (as well as undisclosed other sources), but those texts are not canonical. They borrow from human religion, but they appropriate and invent to support their political and bio-technical ideology.

I would suggest that the Cylon g-d is: neo-Platonic, bourgeois, and imperialistic. First, the choice of G-d over g-ds is a rational judgement rather than a religious commandment. Greek philosophers were able to establish the necessity of a single, true deity without spiritual discovery. The “one true g-d” of the Cylons, in the absence of other evidence, a logical manifestation.

Second, the moral superiority given to the Cylons gives them political legitimacy. G-d gives them dominion over humanity. I am reminded of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie in Europe, for whom Christianity had become an emblem of their domination. Something for them to produce, others to consume. Cylons argue the immorality and degeneracy of humans has brought them to their end. If they know religious texts, it is mostly to show humanity’s immorality (usually those stories where the g-ds cast out the humans from Kobol and not stories of their redemption).

Third, G-d gives the Cylons the right to replace humans over which they exercise moral superiority. In the old show, Cylons strove to control and eliminate the presence of biological sentience. The new Cylons are technological in the broadest sense, not just mechanical, and rather than exterminating humanity they want to fill all the roles that they did. It reminds me of how, after an eco-system is disrupted, a single animal species will recolonize it and diversify itself to fill all functions within that system. G-d’s plan, always brought to the fore by Number Six, has the Cylons replace the humans.

Ultimately, the struggle between monotheism and polytheism on Galactica is less important than the struggle between extremism and spirituality. There is serious doubt whether they are religious or use religion. The Cylons have crafted a rigid, rationalized, and aggressive faith that harmonizes with their holy war. Their opponent is not reason, but a textual religion that could have easily been monotheistic itself.


At 5:09 PM, Blogger J. Otto Pohl said...

Granted my watching of the program is spotty and now I no longer watch tv. But, my impression is that the Ceylon religion is based loosely upon certain strands of Islam. Certainly the emphasis on Monotheism fits well with all Abrahamic religions, but particularly Islam. The Ceylon Holy War (Jihad) seemed to me to be an obvious metaphor for the theology of certain contemporary factions of political Islam. Or am I reading too much into this?

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

It is a great question, one that got me thinking of the subject to begin with. In part I was concerned how the show might be interpreted as a critique of parts of Judaism.

Jihad was certainly a starting point point, but I don't think that Moore modeled the religious aspects of the show specifically on Islam. Obviously other faiths have had Holy Wars -- wars not just against an enemy, but of purification of self and world. For the most part Jihadists want to remove impure influences from the parts of the world which they believe G-d has given to them. They are not necessarily interested in Islamizing the entire world. Cylons are. If we were to look at monotheism as an indication of a specific faith, Islam would be a better fit than Protestantism or Catholicism, but Judaism prosecutes idolatry more rigorously than all of those.


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