Sunday, August 13, 2006

Art and Religion Versus Science

... or, why Arthur C. Clarke is not an anthropologist.

This is an essay I wrote for a literature course in Science Fiction. The prompt was for Childhood's End, so you'll understand more if it if you've read it, but the general theme is accessible to anyone.

In Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, the mysterious Overlords bring with them security and luxury … but they also bring the inevitable dark side of these two attributes: stagnation. According to Clarke, the religions of the world cannot endure when faced with the truth behind their own creation. Similarly, creativity is stifled as human wants and desires are met and the need for escapism dwindles. Childhood's End makes it very clear that both religion and creativity are unnecessary and unwanted aspects in a futuristic, technological society. This seems an overly hostile conclusion, particularly from a fiction author - and even the book itself may, perhaps unintentionally, contradict him.

Faith and religion wither on the earth of Childhood’s End when the Overlord history device opens a window on the past and allows humanity to see the true origins of each faith. Confronted with the knowledge that their founders are only human, not embodiments of the divine, the religions lose their strength and staying power. By definition, faith is an attribute that cannot be quantified or proved, but the science of the Overlords does just that: it takes the mystery out of the world. “Beneath the fierce and passionless light of truth, faiths that sustained millions for twice a thousand years vanished like morning dew.” (67) At the same time, scientific progress has built a world without friction or famine, a world where the succor of faith becomes superfluous. Creative endeavors meet the same fate: in a world where wonder is eliminated and all knowledge is obtainable – if not necessarily by humans – it becomes difficult to imagine and invent the unknown. To some degree, all art is a means of escapism, both for artist and consumer. When luxury is common and strife all but non-existent, the pressing need for new artistic endeavors slackens.

Indeed, Clarke seems very emphatic that the advance of technology – even the advance of human evolution – does not need either art or faith, and that the achievement of prosperity through the proper application of technological power renders these endeavors mute and unnecessary. “The end of strife and conflict of all kinds had also meant the virtual end of creative art.” (68) To some extent, he implies that both of these elements exist to comfort a confused and tortured humanity, and that the discovery of the correct facts and the correct way of life frees us from the need for either. The Overlords, at the very pinnacle of technology, have no artwork or decoration at all, exemplifying Clarke’s view. “The architecture of the Overlords was bleakly functional: Jan saw no ornaments, nothing that did not serve a purpose …” (187) To be sure, there is the colony of New Athens which champions the arts – but this small and isolated colony is ignored by the Overlords until it houses the Greggson children, and its artistic influence seems to have had no effect on the transformation of the first new humans.

This conclusion seems particularly ironic coming from the author of an innovative work of fiction: it downplays his own ability to spark new thinking about the world, even the scientific realm. Clarke clearly wrote Childhood’s End to illuminate a possibility, yet fails to recognize the crucial role that such possibilities play in the future of science. In the present day, scientists are beginning to pursue and build devices that were initially seen in the world of entertainment – even the gadgets and machines from Star Trek and Asimov. A traditional attribute of creativity is taking two unrelated ideas and merging them into one – another method that has allowed many scientific inventions and theories to grow and change.

Religion also has its place. Until humans become as logical and straightforward as the machines they build, many will find comfort in the idea of immortal souls and a master plan. These are things that are not subject to empirical proof, yet to many are questions that must be answered. Faith does not mean being blind to science: when the theory of evolution came to light, many believers found it confirmation of God’s plan, a more perfect and ingenius idea than immutable divine creation. Indeed, some sociological theories of religion even believe that it is intimately connected with the birth of science. As the world evolved from polytheism into monotheism, it allowed humans to conceptualize about nature in a new and interconnected way. Instead of believing in a plant god and a sky god, they could recognize that the trees grew because God made it rain. The days in which the Church stamped draconian denials on scientific principles are long over: most religions have recognized that the comfort they provide, no science can take away.

It is interesting to note that within Childhood’s End can be found a hint – perhaps intended by the author, perhaps not – that artistic expression and religion are far more important than they are outwardly portrayed. The Overlords are forever caught in an evolutionary cul-de-sac, while humanity continues into a new and glorious stage. But in what sense are humans superior to their shepherds? In preparing humanity for its evolution, Karellen says, “I am well aware of the fact that we have also inhibited, by the contrast between our civilizations, all other forms of creative achievement as well. But that was a secondary effect, and it is of no importance.” Or is it? Unlike the Overlords, the human race has art and music and literature and faith … it has a sense of wonder.

The Overlords of Childhood’s End engender an era of peace and prosperity, and the promise of evolution to come – but they also, without direct or overt action, destroy the twin worlds of artistic expression and religion. Clarke believes that, once de-mystified by fact, religion has no more purpose, and that creativity is unnecessary in a prosperous and fulfilled world; yet this neglects many of the contributions both have made to humanity over the centuries, and their place in the human mind.

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