Sunday is Theology Day here at my blog! Here’s another of my columns from The Mote in God’s “I” that I did for SciPhi Journal, may it rest in peace.
We’ve all had that moment of vindication and excitement when the news comes through that finally – finally! – one of our favorite novels (or series) are going to be translated to the screen. Big screen, small screen, it makes little difference. You’re going to see it on the screen!
That wasn’t at all the sensation I had upon learning that the SyFy channel was going to create a television series based on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel, Childhood’s End. Instead, my initial reaction was, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, that this series is going to fly in precisely the same way that bricks don’t. Obviously it’s too early to know whether I’m going to be right about that. I have not watched it. And the main reason for that is because I remember Childhood’s End as one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It’s the atheist equivalent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe , where the great triumph at the end of the work is not the defeat of death, but its celebration. Clarke’s atheism and disdain for religion was legendary during his life, and it is never more on display than here. So I find it very curious that such a great author and thinker seems to have been so trapped by religion. Clarke’s contemporary, the great Robert Heinlein, said in his novel Time Enough For Love, “Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.” Obviously, I disagree. But it strikes me that if Clarke is any example of the improvement an atheist has to offer, then the atheists still have a ways to go before they equal, let alone surpass, their theistic brothers.
The novel truly begins about five years after the Overlords have begun their “benevolent” rule over Earth. It opens with a protest against that rule, led by an ex-clergyman named Wainwright, who presents a petition to Stormgren, the Secretary-General of the UN. Wainwright’s stated objection to the Overlords’ forced Federation of Earth is that humans have lost the “freedom to control our own lives, under God’s guidance.”
This is the only mention of God during the entire exchange, except for Stormgren’s contention that many religious leaders support the Overlords. Yet Stormgren takes this statement of Wainwright’s as proof that “Basically, the conflict is a religious one, however much it may be disguised.” Later, the Overlord administrator Karellen agrees. “You know why Wainwright and his kind fear me, don’t you? You will find men like him in all the world’s religions. They know we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods.”
The whole conflict as presented by Clarke is delicious in its irony: atheists, of all people, ought to believe in the importance of free will in the face of overwhelming authority and force (unless they are determinists who insist free will is an illusion). Conversely, it is people of faith who ought to know better than to demand freedom to live their own lives. Human freedom is sharply limited by God. Clarke is doing a bit of pop psychology here which is very popular at the moment: “It doesn’t matter what you say, you Opponent Of My Goals. Your real motivation is Horribleness, because you are one of Them!”
Well, there’s a pop psychology term for that, and it’s called projection. Stormgren (a stand-in for Clarke) believes that “security, peace and prosperity” are the ultimate achievements of humankind because, in Clarke’s world, people who respect science are atheists, and science produces the desirable results. Therefore, anyone who does not desire those results must be motivated by their contempt for science, i.e. religion. It is further ironic that Wainwright, near the end of the interview bursts out with the line, “I do not know which we resent more – Karellen’s omnipotence, or his secrecy. If he has nothing to hide, why will he never reveal himself? Next time you speak with the Supervisor, Mr. Stormgren, ask him that!”
It is the cry of the frustrated atheist, or the doubting believer, who does not trust God to be benevolent. If he is there, why the mystery? Why does God not show Himself? And how can we trust Him with the power? Wainright turns that cry upon Karellen, who stands in loco Dei, or more accurately, in loco angelorum, moving in mysterious ways as ordered by even more mysterious masters. Of course, it was Arthur C. Clarke that is famous for his Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.” It is therefore not, perhaps, surprising that the aliens mastering such technology would be indistinguishable from gods. But as Karellen himself observes (and as far too many of us have forgotten, in our urge to coexist at the price of, if necessary, integrity) “all the world’s religions cannot be right.” It is of course also true that “all opinions about the nature of God cannot be right.” And atheism’s opinion – that God’s nature is nonexistent – is just as vulnerable to that observation as that of any religion.
Voltaire famously remarked that if God did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. The context of that remark, which is less famous, makes it clear that Voltaire believed that religion served a purpose whether it was true or not. And even Clarke seems to tacitly admit this. In the presence of the Overlords’ revelation, human art and science dry up. In Utopia, there are artists’ colonies, but no great works of art.
Which brings up an interesting point: is it not rather strange that Clarke, openly scornful of religion, cannot simply let the dead dog lie? He brings in aliens with godlike technology, including a time-camera that proves that none of the world’s faiths are correct, and yet, when the secret of the Overlords is revealed, it turns out that even the godlike Overlords do, in fact, have a god of their own: the Overmind. The Overlords are its chosen people. They do not dare disobey it. It has communicated its needs to them, as each of the “child” races (of which man is one) approaches its tipping point in its parapsychological evolution, so that the Overlords can be there, helping the new race join with the pantheistic Overmind “God.”
Mr. Clarke, in all his rejection of the God of Abraham, has not displaced Him, but merely replaced Him with a New Monotheism in which evolution is the guiding principle. A Creator God is superstitious and unscientific, but an Evolved God is supposed to be enlightened, I suppose, because Science. The Overmind-God has its angels (which look like demons, because humanity detected their coming parapsychically across time itself)* and its superstitious rituals which work as badly as prayer ever did. The humans first contact the Overmind via Ouija board, for Ghu’s sake!
Of course, the tragic heroes of the story are not mankind (except for the parents who see their children grow up, not as adult humans, but as strange and alien creatures) but the Overlords, who are enslaved to this Overmind, doing its bidding, but forever denied the “grace” of merging with it. The Overmind is dangerous. It cares for nothing but its own ends. It openly uses the Overlords, and it is implied that defying it is something they “dare not” do. If they will not serve, they will be destroyed. The novel closes on Karellen, dwelling in racial self-pity: “They would serve the Overmind because they had no choice, but even in that service, they would not lose their souls.”
But what souls? According to Clarke, they have none! Not even the “evolved souls” that humanity’s children develop. The only way for Clarke to have a tragedy is to postulate a quality that he has spent the novel (and apparently, would spend his life) denying exists. Far from creating a God superior to humankind, Clarke creates one that is far inferior to the God of the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an. He does it by lobotomizing his God. Clarke’s Overmind possesses, apparently, no wrath, no love, no care for its fellow-creatures, except as they serve to increase itself. It is capable of almost everything… except love. Except noticing that which is beneath it. Even the Overlords are better “gods” than that, for they ban animal cruelty on Earth. But above them is indeed a Being of Satanic self-interest, which simply refuses to care whether it annihilates planets on a whim. Humanity may have emerged from childhood, in Clarke’s novel, but Clarke’s vision has not emerged from a childishness that makes only a poor copy of a Creator that, whether true or not, is much better imagined in the world’s faiths.
*this was one of the more absurd and chauvinistic bits in the novel, of course. Humanity somehow sensed the Overlords in the future as the architects of its doom as a physical species, but I guess only Christian monks and scribes got the memo? See? Christianity IS the best religion, Q.E.D.!