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Monster Sunday 8.31: Atheists and Aliens

Monster Sundays are back! What better way to start than with atheists and aliens?

OK, so here it is Sunday morning and I haven’t written about monsters yet. I just went out to breakfast with Mr. Writerdd, so the monster post is a little late. Today I want to write about atheists and aliens in movies. Depending on who you ask, either of these groups may be considered to be monsters, although I think the characterization is unfair in both cases.

In most films about creatures from other planets, the aliens are hostile beings hell bent on taking over the earth in one way or another. Of course, if we humans had spaceships and were traveling the galaxy, we would probably be looking for planets to inhabit and, based on what we’ve done (and are still doing) on our own planet, it’s pretty obvious that we are projecting our own tendencies to violence, genocide, and colonization onto the poor, innocent aliens. If they’ve lived long enough as a species to develop the technology to explore the galaxy, perhaps that means they are more peaceful and less prone to killing every stranger they see than we humans have been over the past centuries. I really would hate to imagine that we represent the best and most noble life form in the universe. How sad would that be? Yes, I am a misanthrope. I sometimes look forward to the day when human beings go extinct and other species have a chance to reclaim planet Earth. Would they be any better than we’ve been? Nature is red in tooth and claw, so perhaps our violent tendencies are simply artifacts of evolution. If so, could things be any different elsewhere? Does “survival of the fittest” have to lead to a culture of violence and conquest? Is it possible to outgrow these tendencies through cultural evolution? I certainly hope so. I would rather live in a Star Trek future than a Firefly future. I hope there are aliens like ET.

To many Americans, atheists may as well be creatures from other planets. We often seem to be as different from beleivers as ET, Yoda, and Jar Jar Binks are from humans. I often compare skeptics to Vulcans myself. While there are atheists in many TV shows and movies — from House to Fire Fly to Contact — most are curmudgeonly at best. Many are people who have faced so much disaster and tragedy in their lives, that they are no longer able to believe so they become nihilists. Many atheist characters also tend to “come to their senses” and “see the light” and turn to God in the end.

Apparently it takes a B movie to feature an atheist as a polite, compassionate, caring person who doesn’t turn to religion at the end of the flick. Last week Mr. Writerdd and I watched a 2001 Creature Feature called The Day The World Ended. In this film, a child psychologist from New York moves to a small town in an unspecified but redneck area of the United States. As she drives into town, she is stopped by the sheriff, who notices her bumper sticker. It is a Darwin Fish eating a WWJD fish. This is the only comment about the woman’s lack of belief in the whole movie, and you can miss it if you look down to grab a handful of popcorn, but it’s an important part of the film, setting the stage for the whole town to automatically dislike this big-city atheist who invades their cozy village with her uppity New York ideas.

Classic plot. But it turns out that the atheist shrink is really the only compassionate person in the whole film. In the end, she discovers the dirty little secret of the pious townsfolk, and drives away back to New York. Throughout the film she is the only person who actually cares about the boy who is the center of the main mystery of the film, and she treats him like a real person, not like a freak of nature or a reject. The atheism of the protagonist in this film was quite subtle, but it was also positive. I’d like to see more of this in feature films. 

BTW, friendly aliens and atheists may not be in many films, but they can be found online. You can visit a Friendly Atheist at his blog, and you can buy this Friendly Alien on Etsy.

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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13 Comments

  1. Agreed, writerdd.

    In the case of atheists, it is so because of a deliberate misinformation campaign (called lying, but in their eyes we don’t deserve quarter, so they get away with it) by the fundamentalists. They have to have enemies to fight because of their “for us or against us” mentality. It’s a symptom of on/off, yes/no, black/white logic with no room for subtlety, ambiguity or uncertainty. Guess what – the world is full of those very things.

    Many of the alien “monsters” IMHO are creations of the times in which they were created. The Golden Age of aliens and monsters was the 1950’s, where people were terrified of nuclear weapons and Communist subversion. Anything or anyone different was immediately considered an immediate threat, even with no evidence. Look at how successful Joe McCarthy was in ruining so many people, just by claiming (with no evidence other than his word) that they were Communists or sympathizers. Humans are all too good at hysteria. Look what happened in the US after 9/11.

    I agree with you that skeptics tend to be more like Vulcans in their outlook. Skeptics and atheists want proof of the assertions of others. Damn few atheists I know of go back to believing in the supernatural.

    I have no issue with reading or seeing supernatural or monster stories for fun. They are exciting and entertaining when viewed as entertainment under “suspension of disbelief.” I prefer mine to be at least marginally credible from the scientific POV. Somehow, I have trouble believing in the Fantastic Four, knowing that radiation would just have turned them into irradiated corpses rather than superpowered beings. (Sorry, folks!)

    As far as survival of the fittest goes; the question to ask is “fittest for what?” Many claim that humans are the most fit due to our enormous brains, but the Great White Shark swimming below you is far fitter than a human in that environment. You certainly don’t want its attention focused on you if you are in the water with it!

    Given that, one has to consider that evolution takes a LONG time. It’s entirely possible to me that one or more alien races could be hostile. They may have found a way to focus their racial worldview into destroying everything that is not sufficiently like themselves, for example. That they might evolve into a peaceful culture is cold comfort to those being destroyed in the here and now.

    In any alien contact, I think that wary and cautious is the best way to start. I would prefer to assume that an alien race could be either a friend of a foe and let their evidence and actions show their intentions. Remember the Native American experience. Even benign contact and the best of intentions on their part could be deadly to us, given a sufficiently large technology gap.

  2. QuestionAuthority: I like your comment there.

    My cynicism always tells me that aliens are unfriendly and they would be no such thing as a friendly alien race at all.

    Of course, I’m human, so I’m limited by my own imagination.

  3. It’s interesting you bring up Vulcans —

    Some of my favorite “atheist mythology” is the Star Trek series — you’ll never find a more friendly group of atheists than the crew of the Starship Enterprise! They simultaneously put all of their trust in science while also being completely open and respectful (to a fault) of other cultures’ beliefs, whether it’s the Klingons, Vulcans, whoever. This is especially evident in the Next Generation series, but is a recurring theme in all the various incarnations.

    In fact, I remember being asked one time what the greatest atheist film of all time was, and the first thing that came to mind was the first Star Trek movie. I realize it’s a little boring and hard to sit through, but the plot is intriguing — an alien consciousness, accidentally created by man, goes in search of its creator or “God” in an attempt to evolve to a higher state of being. Man figures out they’re the God the alien is looking for, and has figure out how to break it to the alien that its God is merely the “less advanced” Mankind.

    In the end the alien evolves anyway — that’s why they call it science FICTION. But, I love the idea — someone searches for God, finds out God isn’t God after all, and has to deal.

  4. If aliens were friendly, how would we know? Humans, as a whole, aren’t. Even if they show up with the best of intentions, at the very least, some lunatic fringe will send in a suicide bomber or two, and how long before that sparks off a war? Far more likely, that “lunatic fringe” would be about 80-90% of the population.

  5. My first thought was of “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Alien gets off the ship and is shot right off the bat. Then the movie gets kinda of boring for awhile and then the alien comes back and tells us to stop being jerks or the peaceful aliens will blow up the world. Kind of a mixed message but the best that they had for the time. I think the new version will be made entirely of suck. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong because my sons want to see it, which means I will see it and I’ve already sat through “Tomb of the Dragon Emporer” which was made of superpowered suck.

  6. Leaving Orson Scott Card’s personal flaws to the side, I like his hierarchy of “alien-ness” in the Ender series (http://is.gd/26No). It speaks to levels of communication, which to me seems the most practical and desirable way of differentiating oneself from others. Skepchicks are Utlannings, diagnosably paranoid conspiracy theorists are Varelse.

  7. I think the data suggests a bit more optimism. Yes, religious fanaticism, boneheaded representation, and the like, are rife, but the longest view is still a profoundly hopeful thing. Millenia by millenia, century by century, and decade by decade, less humans die from violence per capita, warfare or crime, than in those that preceded it. The same metrics map nicely to deaths by disease. Most of the third world appear to be set to met distinctly modern standards of well-being within my lifetime. The survival of the fittest points as clearly to mediated competition and cooperation as it does to wanton violence. And, back to the aliens, the Carl Sagans tend to be in a better place to act as our/their intermediaries than do the General Rippers.

    The lack of atheist heroes annoys me to no end-the intrinsic assumption that atheism is the result of a damaged, rather than sensible and still hopeful, worldview seems pretty universal, outside of the implicit atheism of Star Trek. As often as not it seems unnecessary- expressing relief that the dice fell your way today, and the sobering knowledge they didn’t have to, seems as potent a dramatic device as contemplating providence.

  8. As much as the alien invaders come to take us over, eat us, or whatever is a silly Hollywood construct, equally mush-headed is the idea that an alien race advanced enough to visit us must be peaceful and enlightened.

    The latter idea is usually expressed as “Well, maybe aliens have come to our solar system but have the good sense to avoid us.” This is usually followed by much nodding as if something profound has been said.

    What crap. There is no evidence whatsoever that a peaceful nature is a survival trait. In fact, quite the opposite is true. There is one thing that we can know about such aliens. They will be survivors…and surviving ain’t pretty. While they will not be the rubber mask villains of fifties horror films, they will most likely have the capacity for violence.

    Gabrielbrawley: “I think the new version will be made entirely of suck.”

    The original THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL was made entirely of suck. Preachy Hollywood at its worst.

  9. This discussion reminds me of my thoughts on the Mel Gibson movie “Signs” (…of a bad movie, as I call it). As Mel Gibson’s character retreats against the alien invasion it occured to me that they had an opportunity to do something different, but alas, they did not. The crop circle producing aliens in that film turned out to be the same old evil aliens and (War of the Worlds) they copied the same tired old plot device of something about Earth’s environment is bad for the aliens. I was thinking that as the principle family burrows into their shelter from the invasion that: What if the aliens were here to help humanity and Mel Gibsons character was projecting all the evil onto the aliens. Wouldn’t that have made for a much better movie with a subplot about ease with which humans fall into hysteria? I was expecting so much more from that awful film…..

    BTW, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is in my top 10 list of films of all time. It did not suck, especially for a movie of its day. I hope the remake isn’t as bad as a typical hollywood remake…. (Again, War of the Worlds comes to mind…).

    Jim.

  10. Well signs was all about the, well, signs. So no surprises there. If they did something different, which would have been cool, it would have needed an entirely different premise. The whole movie was believing in superstitious nonsense, regardless of the visitation of the aliens.

  11. I thought I should just mention Hot Fuzz’s hero Nick Angel, if only for the line when he’s taking vengeange on the murderous residents of the town of Sandford. When facing the town’s minister: “You may not be a man of God, but surely you’re a man of peace?”
    Angel: “I may not be a man of God, reverend, but I know right, and I know wrong. And I have the good grace to know which is which.”
    Reverend (pulls out hidden wrist mounted pistols): “Oh, fuck off, grasshopper!” *blamblamblam*

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