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"Avatar" And Religion: Jonah Goldberg's Take

First Posted: 03/18/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 04:05 PM ET

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Over at the LA Times, Jonah Goldberg sets about attempting to decode the quasi-religious aspects of James Cameron's "Avatar". I've not seen the movie yet, but Goldberg reliably informs me that it's so ever-present that "even if you haven't seen it, you've seen it." So, OK: let's play!

Frankly, what Goldberg seems to be doing here is stepping off the movie's depiction of the Pandoran Na'Vi race's druidism-on-steroids religion to simply say, "Hey, Nicholas Wade's new book 'The Faith Instinct', is neat." And, indeed, if the book does in fact "lucidly [compile] the scientific evidence" that "humans are hard-wired to believe in the transcendent," it sure sounds neat! And along the way, Goldberg says that he finds it "infuriating" that "the culture war debate is routinely described by antagonists on both sides as a conflict between the religious and the un-religious." I couldn't agree more with that.

This, however, is weird:

The film has been subjected to a sustained assault from many on the right, most notably by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, as an "apologia for pantheism." Douthat's criticisms hit the mark, but the most relevant point was raised by John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard. Cameron wrote "Avatar," says Podhoretz, "not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people."


What would have been controversial is if -- somehow -- Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts.

Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that's the point, isn't it? We live in an age in which it's the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion. If the Na'Vi were Roman Catholics, there would be boycotts and protests. Make the oversized Smurfs Rousseauian noble savages and everyone nods along, save for a few cranky right-wingers.

Yes. Why aren't these aliens from another planet Roman Catholics, somehow? Why can't James Cameron make this movie about some epic battle between interplanetary Space Popes? The answer, of course, is that this would be a stupid movie. And based upon the interesting stuff that Goldberg discusses in the latter half of his piece, deep down I think he knows this to be true.

Furthermore, I think that Goldberg is aware that creators of science fiction have only their knowledge of humanity to work with when they create alien races, so it stands to reason that they'd conceive of other sentient races with "the faith instinct" in mind. Across the sci-fi spectrum, one comes face to face with aliens who are also "hardwired to believe in the transcendant." Star Trek's Klingon race subscribe to a warrior-religion, steeped in strange ritual. The force that binds the multitude of worlds in the Star Wars universe is, well... The Force. The show didn't last long enough to develop the theme fully, but Joss Whedon's "Firefly" clearly intended Christianity, in the form of the frontier pastor Book (yes, his name was literally, "Book") as the moral foil and societal tether of Whedon's gang of libertarian rebel-cowboys.

And in "Battlestar Galactica", the humans worshiped a multitude of gods, who allowed them to swear constantly as they did battle with the Cylons, who believed in one God. And maybe Starbuck was a God, or an angel or something, with some sort of resurrected ghost-fighter spaceship. And maybe Bob Dylan was a God, his "All Along The Watchtower" serving as an illuminated religious-text that lived in the walls of spaceships, singing subliminally to human-robot hybrids. OK, in all honesty, once that show left New Caprica, things got a little muddled.

Again, 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. 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."

That's precisely what Ross Douthat is doing when he says "Avatar" is an "apologia for pantheism." Honestly, can you imagine such a movie? It would probably be written and directed by Lars von Trier, and it would hurt to watch.

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