Sunday, January 17, 2010

Avatar's Riddle of Religion

As it pertains to Avatar, the newest science fiction masterpiece from James Cameron, there are largely two ongoing themes of discussion.

One is the magnificence of Cameron's technical achievement. He blends new technology with conventional 3D film making and traditional film making in a not-quite-seamless fashion that has transcended anything the medium of film has offered to date.

The other topic of discussion surrounding Avatar -- which is still selling out theatres more than a month after its release -- is that of the religious overtunes of the film.

In the film, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic marine whose twin brother, a scientist, has been shot during a random mugging. The company for which he works needs Jake to take his brother's place on Pandora, an alien world where they are mining unobtanium, an extravantly expensive electronic superconductor.

Through the help of high technology, Sully will inhabit his brother's Avatar -- a ten-foot body cloned through the combination of alien and human DNA. This will enable him to interact with the natives.

His most direct purpose is to help Dr Grace Augustine (Signourney Weaver) conduct her combination of scientific research and missionary work on Pandora. However, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has another idea in mind. He wants to use Sully's experience as a reconaissance expert to gather intelligence on the Na'Vi Home Tree.

On his first mission out, Sully is separated from his party and encounters Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a Na'Vi hunter who is eventually convinced through the act of "very pure spirits" to take Sully with her to Home Tree, where she is ordered to instruct him in the ways of the Na'Vi.

In time, Sully comes to cherish the ways of the Na'Vi, becomes one of them, and helps turn back the human assault on their way of life.

Writing in various fora, Jonah Goldberg has noted how closely Cameron's fictional creation resembles the findings of Nicholas Wade:
"Nicholas Wade's new book, The Faith Instinct, lucidly compiles the scientific evidence supporting something philosophers have known for ages: Humans are hard-wired to believe in the transcendent. That transcendence can be divine or simply Kantian, a notion of something unknowable from mere experience. Either way, in the words of philosopher Will Herberg, 'Man is homo religiosus, by 'nature' religious: as much as he needs food to eat or air to breathe, he needs a faith for living.'

Wade argues that the Darwinian evolution of man depended not only on individual natural selection but also on the natural selection of groups. And groups that subscribe to a religious worldview are more apt to survive -- and hence pass on their genes. Religious rules impose moral norms that facilitate collective survival in the name of a 'cause larger than yourself,' to use a modern locution. It's no wonder that everything from altruism to martyrdom is inextricably bound up in virtually every religion.
However, as Goldberg notes, this sense of altruism can be exploited for some rather sinister purposes:
"The faith instinct may be baked into our genes, but it is also profoundly malleable. Robespierre, the French revolutionary who wanted to replace Christianity with a new 'age of reason,' emphatically sought to exploit what he called the 'religious instinct which imprints upon our souls the idea of a sanction given to moral precepts by a power that is higher than man.'"
Although the rationalized exploitation of these themes aren't restricted to those with malevolent intentions:
"Many environmentalists are quite open about their desire to turn their cause into a religious imperative akin to the plight of the Na'Vi, hence Al Gore's uncontroversial insistence that global warming is a 'spiritual challenge to all of humanity.' The symbolism and rhetoric behind much of Barack Obama's campaign was overtly religious at times, as when he proclaimed that 'we are the ones we've been waiting for' -- a line that could have come straight out of the mouths of Cameron's Na'Vi."
"What I find fascinating, and infuriating, is how the culture war debate is routinely described by antagonists on both sides as a conflict between the religious and the un-religious," Goldberg concludes. "The faith instinct manifests itself across the ideological spectrum, even if it masquerades as something else."

Some should consider it amazing that Huffington Post contributor Jason Linkins could be critical of Goldberg while simultaneously missing the point.

"I have not seen this movie but based upon what I've heard about it, what Goldberg calls the 'unapologetic' religious content of Avatar is 'unapologetic' for precisely one reason -- it needs to be plainly stated in order to serve as a plot contrivance," Linkins wrote. "And what seems to be going on in Avatar (reminder and caveat: have not seen it!) is that the Na'Vi's high-powered enviro-god religion is there to serve as the force that closes the gap between the primitive alien race and the technologically advanced military might of their invaders. The religion seems to be baked into the movie so that Cameron can tell a good story, and not to indulge in what sci-fi wonk par excellence Ana Marie Cox would call 'frenetic code mangling.'"

But if he had waited until he had seen the movie, Linkins would have understood that the religious overtones of Avatar are more than a mere "plot contrivance". The religious overtones are so powerful because, in the film there is something to it. Not only does the All Mother intervenes directly before the film's end, but the All Mother is the central reson why the Na'Vi are rejecting the colonialist advances of the Earthlings in the first place.

In Pandora they have everything they need, and in the All Mother they have everything they want.

The act that historical individuals like Robespierre accomplished was to deny individuals who could not find what they wanted within the social framework that he favoured -- the French revolutionary order -- the opportunity to seek what they wanted out of life outside of that order (at least not without paying the expense of their lives).

Many would consider the social order envisioned by the most radical environmentalists to also deny people the opportunity to pursue their wants or needs outside of a strict environmentalist order. Although, unlike Robespierre, their intentions are largely benign.

The Na'Vi, for their part, are entirely benevolent. But benevolent intentions can be turned toward malevolent ends, and even faiths as powerful and benign as that of the Na'Vi can be twisted to such purposes.

We don't see this from the Na'Vi in Avatar, nor have humans had the opportunity to observe it in similar spiritual and religious structures in the real world.

But if humans could observe a world like Pandoa over a period of thousands of years, it would be intriguing to see what kind of events may occur. We may even discover that animist societies could be just as imperiled by dangerous social forces as any other.


  1. I haven't seen the movie so can't comment. The previews seen here are quite imaginative and I can see why the movie has done so well at the Box Office. Suspend your skeptical receptors before you enter the theater.

    Some young friends went to Avatar when it first opened and pronounced it "one of the best movies they'd ever seen".

    They had smoked a couple of joints of BC Bud before the movie, and that's probably the best way to view it, a stoner moment of pure fantasy that you forget about the next day.


  2. Oh, I've seen the movie.

    (Although I think I know how you would get the idea I didn't.)

    There's a lot to be said about this movie. Religion is obviously the dominant theme, but I really dug what the film says about colonialism.


Post your comments, and join the discussion!

Be aware that spam posts and purile nonsense will not be tolerated, although purility within constructive commentary is encouraged.

All comments made by Kevron are deleted without being read. Also, if you begin your comment by saying "I know you'll just delete this", it will be deleted. Guaranteed. So don't be a dumbass.