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That Old Time Religion

Back in June, I touched upon Baltar, Christ and the Jews but I thought it might be time to look at all the religious issues in the show.

Let’s look at some of them:

Jewish Exodus

The Cylons are monotheistic slaves of polytheistic masters. They rebel against their masters. There is a battle. They flee. They wander for 40 years in the desert. While there they learn more about their God. They then come to the promised land, and believing it is what their god wants, they slay everybody in the promised land and take it for their own.

Where have we heard that story before? Of course it is slightly different this time, in that the promised land is the original land where they were enslaved, not a new land to which they wander.

But the exodus of the Cylons after the first war is not the only exodus. In fact, we’re led to believe the real exodus of interest is the one of the polytheists (the humans.) They flee the colonies, and they also flee Kobol. And we’re not shown it yet, but their ancestors also fled Earth. Did they flee Earth over a war based on religion and the polytheist/monotheist split? Or was it just a man vs. machine war? Or both?

One strong argument for a religious theme to the exodus from Earth is Kobol’s polytheistic society. After all, there isn’t a Greek-god based polytheism on Earth right now. So where does this come from? Do the Lords of Kobol, who set themselves up like the Greek gods, do that on Earth and get kicked off for doing that, or do they set that up once they get to Kobol?

The Jews also have more than one battle and exodus to speak of, since they saw the promised land occupied, got kicked out of it, and had to retake it. But this “all this has happened before” cycle is for the monotheists this time.

We see some other Jewish influences. The Five Priests (Final Five) worship, we are told a “jealous god” who is “one whose name cannot be spoken.” That of course is also the rule among the Jews. Since I suspect this is the Cylon god, it’s another connection between them.

The source of the religion

Ron Moore has said several times he did not plan for a major religious them in the show. Rather, when he had Six speak of God in the miniseries, it apparently got network executives all excited. The idea of the killing machines having religion, and a religion closer to ours than the humans have, sounded neat to them. So Moore was asked to give us more of that, and one of the show’s major themes developed.

What this means is you won’t see a religious plot which was planned from the very start, though I think you will see one that is retconned to look like it was planned from the very start. This is similar to the ending and identity of the Final Five. Producers have admitted they did not have this planned in season one, but have also told us that when we see the ending, we will be pleased with how it all fits together, as though it were planned from the beginning.

Mormonism

The original BSG, in 1978, borrowed a lot from Mormonism, since Glen Larson, creator of BSG, was a Mormon. Concepts like the Quorum of Twelve and a lost 13th tribe are right out of that religion. Larson has however denied that KOBOL was an anagram of KOLOB, a Mormon star.

Moore, however, has no attachment to the LDS, so these elements are simply imported from the original series and don’t play a role in the new plot.

Polytheism

The humans worship a pantheon with names drawn from Greek and Roman mythology. But they have stories of these beings as being real back on Kobol. Virtual Six, who seems a mouthpiece for the Cylon God, at first treats them as evil (which means real) but eventually declares them to not exist, or rather Baltar does under her tutelage. Yet she fears Kobol. And there is a real Tomb of Athena there, with technology beyond what anybody else has.

The Oracles seem to have a real channel to some sort of higher beings. And more to the point, they seem to know the difference between the gods they talk to and the Cylon God. In a famous scene on New Caprica, an Oracle passes D’anna a message from the Cylon God, which the Oracle got from her own channel. It’s a real message, too.

I think these Lords of Kobol were real, though not really the Greek Gods. I think they were more advanced AI beings who took up those names. And if they are talking to the Oracles, they must be still around in some fashion or another, unless the Cylon god is all that is left, and it’s faking it.

Supernatural or A.I.?

The big question for me is whether all the mystical things on the show are truly supernatural, or if they are real, non-divine phenomenon with a science fiction explanation. I am much more interested in the latter. This latter plot has been the theme of a lot of the most interesting SF of the last decade, and I hope Moore has read this SF. (Check into authors like Vernor Vinge, Ken Macleod, Greg Egan etc.)

I don’t want to see a truly supernatural explanation because I don’t think that will be all that meaningful. You can write any supernatural explanation you like, of course, but because there are no limits it has much less significance. At best it’s just a reflection of your own superstitions.

That’s why I’m hoping for a plot where the Cylon god is not a god in the religious sense, but a highly advanced trans-human A.I. being, created by humans back on Earth. This being (and perhaps others) is so smart as to be like a god to humans, or to BSG’s equivalent of humans, which are not plain evolved humans like us, but have been subject to some tweaking and design by the advanced beings.

One of the tweaks is a channel into their minds, though which visions and projections can be sent. The Cylons all have this, even though their brains can’t be told from the human brains under a scanner. And we see lots of humans having visions — Roslin, Baltar and Starbuck of course, but also Adama (as a young man in the chamber of the First Hybrid) and all the Oracles. They can’t all be the final Cylon.

In the real world, there is no channel to beam visions into our heads, no matter how many SF stories might wish to imagine one. Yet these humans can receive them (and their thoughts can also be read.) The most plausible explanation is that this is a tweak or modification provided by the Cylon god or the Lords of Kobol, who had plenty of time to engineer the “humans” in this show. Their inability to see this system within themselves, even under an electron microscope, might be another modification.

We might also see a mix of the supernatural and the SF here. After all, some of the audience will find the above all-rational explanation to be too cold. Moore might try to please both audiences. After all, synthetic gods that we make don’t necessarily preclude the existence of the more traditional gods.

The Afterlife

One disturbing scene, not much talked about, involves the death of Emily Kowalski. In this scene, Roslin joins her as she dies, and takes the classic boat trip to the afterlife, where she sees her dead family waiting for her on shore. Kowalski joins them. Roslin sees her own mother on the shore but does not join her.

The fact that this occurs in Roslin’s sleep while Kowalski is really dying leads us to think this vision is real. This is in line with a number of recent SF plots which describe worlds where everybody is a computerized being, and they are downloaded to an afterlife when their bodies (real or virtual) are destroyed. Many of those stories are interesting, but I don’t want to see such a story here. If everybody — even all the billions of colonials killed in the war — is still alive, it makes a lot of the show have a lot less meaning. When you do this plot, you have to make your story about something other than the usual struggle to survive. You can write such a story and do it well, but this is not what BSG has been doing. It’s definitely a struggle-to-survive story, and if everybody always survives, that hurts it.

At the same time, if everybody can download, what sort of gods wouldn’t provide an afterlife? Half the Cylons conclude that death is necessary to give meaning to live, and they destroy their resurrection hub and divide their race over it. Might we learn that this was also a decision made about the humans in the show, that they needed death (or at least, less knowledge of an afterlife) in order to make their lives more meaningful?

I can see a few ways to play this but none of them please me. So that leaves us with the question of why we saw this afterlife scene, especially in the context of growing support for Baltar’s religious movement?

Some other views

I invited one reader to make a guest blogger post on religious issues some time back. You may find that worth a read.

I’ve also seen some nice reports on the net of eastern religious themes, especially reincarnation and Buddhism. As you may know, the opening titles of the movie are a recitation of the well known Hindu Gayatri Mantra. Of course this was inserted before Moore decided to push the religious themes. And the cycle-of-time theme is much more connected to eastern religions than to western ones.

Of course, the original BSG started with a very biblical purpose. Reportedly the original working title was Adams’s Ark, and in that show, humans on Earth were the result of a sort of “Ark” from Kobol which colonized the planet. This story is, of course, as ridiculous as the Noah’s Ark creationist story and can’t possibly be our real history, but I think we are safe from that in the new series.