Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs
by James A. Herrick
(Downer's Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2008)
James A. Herrick is almost my evil twin. The subtitle of his book, Scientific Mythologies, is "How science and science fiction forge new religious beliefs," and on the bare facts of that matter we agree—
Herrick structures his book into descriptions of seven "myths" that he believes are drawing modern culture away from its Christian roots: the Myth of the Extraterrestrial, the Myth of Space, the Myth of the New Humanity, the Myth of the Future, the Myth of the Spiritual Race, the Myth of Space Religion, and the Myth of Alien Gnosis. The boundaries and arrangement of these myths are unclear—
Come to think of it, his definition of "Christianity" comes across as a bit shaky, too. It's clear early on that his faith is conservative, but there's no explicit doctrinal disclosure, which renders his blanket statements about "the Judeo-Christian perspective" and "traditional monotheistic religious perspectives" frustratingly vague. Further complicating matters is his citation of some Christian writers, like Russian Orthodox theologian Seraphim Rose, who flatly contradict his own view. Herrick mentions these writers' ideas, but doesn't make any account for how these contradictory ideas fit into "the Judeo-Christian perspective". We're left with the impression that Herrick doesn't think those who disagree with him are really Christian. He may, in fact, believe this, but if he does, it's truly unfortunate.
Similarly frustrating is his discussion of "the Myth of Alien Gnosis", in which he excoriates the idea that there exists salvific knowledge—
Herrick also turns a blind eye to aspects of modern Christianity that fall within the scope of his criticism. For instance, when discussing the desire, on the part of some believers, for science that bolsters religious claims, he complains that "the line between religious narrative and fantastic scientific agenda has blurred." But his example is an obfuscating one: he recounts a secondhand anecdote about Hindu scientists seeking to confirm aspects of the Ramayana, ignoring the much more obvious double-headed beast of creation science and intelligent design. There are a much greater number of better-documented Christian attempts at religion-based science, and one wonders why Herrick chooses so distant an example. This isn�t the only such instance: the book begs an awful lot of questions, and promptly ignores them. Herrick is obsessed with the lack of proof for alien intelligence, but when the question of his own religion's historicity comes up he hurries the matter along, betraying his (willful?) ignorance of Biblical scholarship and criticism.
It's clear from the beginning that Herrick doesn't like science fiction, and that's perfectly acceptable. But what soon becomes clear is that he doesn't respect it either. Scientific Mythologies is filled with errors both large and small. For instance, it's riddled with spelling errors: the villains of Battlestar Galactica are "Cyclons"; the director of 2001 is "Stanley Kubric"; the star of Contact is "Jodi Foster". There are also a number of factual errors regarding the release dates of novels and films. If Herrick can't be bothered to spell "Kubrick" correctly, what does that say for the attention he gives to the actual content of the works he's discussing? Not much, as we see in his discussion of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His interpretation of the final scenes is somewhat odd:
Moreover, these aliens actually vaguely resemble some, though certainly not all, of the members of the gathered and adoring humans. Spielberg's camera lingers on an alien face, and we notice its childlike high forehead, large eyes and small chin. The director's camera now focuses on particular human faces in the crowd. Again we are struck by the large eyes, the high foreheads and the receding chins of these special humans.
Now, I may be mistaken here, but I've seen Close Encounters many, many times, and I never thought that Spielberg was trying to compare Richard Dreyfuss to the briefly-glimpsed grotesque alien in the film's final scene. (If he is, maybe the similar reaction shots in Jurassic Park are intended to suggest that Sam Neill is destined to become a triceratops.) Similarly, he misrepresents the history of Battlestar Galactica: his statement that "the television series, written by veteran television writer and producer Glen Larson, a devout Mormon, began in 1978 and continues in movies, books, video games and on television" is somewhat true, if you ignore the fact that there was a 24-year gap in which there was no Galactica whatsoever...and that the revival's producers claim total ignorance of the influence of Mormonism on the original series. Elsewhere, Herrick makes a bald statement that H.P. Lovecraft's influence on Arthur C. Clarke is "especially evident," something that might come as a surprise to a number of Lovecraft and Clarke scholars. Herrick seems unaware of the existence of serious SF scholarship, and his lack of knowledge about the genre and existing critical work about it casts the entire book in doubt.
Those are hardly the only errors. James McGrath's lengthy review points out a misquote from H.G. Wells that comes as a result of Herrick's reliance on secondary sources for easily-obtainable primary quotes. A more bizarre example is Herrick's apparent reliance on an unpublished paper for all of his information on The Bahá'i faith. Herrick's entire attitude toward quotation and citation is sloppy: whenever he is summarizing a story or an idea, he peppers the paragraph with essentially random, fragmentary quotations until it becomes difficult to discern which ideas originate in the source and which he has added. The book's generally sloppy proofreading adds to the problem: some quotes open but never close. This kind of thing betrays a basic disrespect for everyone involved: SF authors, SF readers, even Herrick's readers. When he's paying so little attention to the SF that is the raison d'être of his book, it leads the reader to wonder if he's being just as sloppy when he discusses theology.
It's not just inattention to detail: Herrick doesn't seem to know much about SF at all. Virtually all of the books he discusses were published before 1960, with a disproportionate amount of pre-Golden Age stories. One assumes Herrick means to be looking to SF's origins, but many of the stories he cites simply weren't very influential—
Even worse, this scattershot treatment leads to some major misrepresentations of the genre. In his section on "the Myth of the New Humanity", Herrick discusses eugenics, genetic modification, the Singularity, and posthumanity. Throughout the discussion, he presents SF as uniformly "suggesting that an improved human is either desirable or inevitable," and failing to examine the ethics of technology. He completely ignores the fact that much, if not most, SF about these matters is entirely driven by ethical questions. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the mold for a plethora of SF about the abuse of scientific knowledge, but Herrick's few brief mentions of that (extremely influential) novel suggest a misreading of the creation of the monster as a good thing. The need for a guiding ethic for technological advancement is a major concern of SF, but Herrick ignores it, opting instead to focus on the less-critical attitude of Golden Age works like Philip Wylie's Gladiator. Given this kind of selective discussion, the entire book is basically an extended straw man argument.
To briefly descend into ad hominem territory, it's worth noting that Herrick's previous work includes books entitled The History and Theory of Rhetoric, Argumentation: Understanding and Shaping Arguments, and Critical Thinking. In that context, Scientific Mythologies is a superbly ironic failure: poorly written, poorly argued, and poorly thought-out.