Religion and the Transcendental in the Fourth Civilization

The professor arrives in the midst of a lively argument, cutting it off with the opening of the door, and stops to survey the class before taking a seat. Nellie, Eider, Johanna, Dorcas, and Ellen are present.

Professor: Ought to be a good discussion today; I could hear you sharpening your knives on each other all the way from my office down the hall.

Ellen: I don't see why we are bothering with it at all. Religion is obviously just a collection of irrelevant and old-fashioned myths that has no possible relevance to modern living.

Dorcas: But every society has its religious ideas and observances; they are part of what distinguishes one culture from another.

Johanna: Religion tells us about the problem of human suffering and allows us to hope for an eventual escape from it.

Ellen: (snorting with disgust) I'm surprised at you, Johanna. Religion not only tells us nothing; it is nothing.

Nellie: Religion tells us about relationships--what it means to love other people and something of how to do it.

Eider: Even before that, true religion tells us that God exists, what love is, and how to have a proper relationship with Him

Johanna: Why not say "with her," or "with it"?

Ellen: Religion is the opiate of the masses. You don't find intelligent people believing it.

Nellie: Marxism is the religious opiate of the leftist elite. Ordinary people don't put their faith and trust in Marxist idols.

Eider: A good point, in a way. All people have their cherished beliefs and assumptions that serve in the role of a religion for them, and this is true of whole societies, as well as of individuals. Political movements often cannot be distinguished from religious ones.

Dorcas: Some religions, like Christianity, claim universal applicability to all peoples in every time and every nation, but most are inseparable from their national culture.

Nellie: That has been true of some expressions of Christianity as well.

Johanna: But if you go by its books, it does claim cultural independence. Buddhism also makes such a claim, and it explains the problem of human suffering...

Ellen: (cutting her off) People suffer because they are exploited by the elite.

Nellie: Including the old Soviet party elite when it had power.

Eider: Johanna's religion says that suffering exists, but offers only the vague hope of a higher reincarnation to do anything about it. Ellen's would alleviate suffering by armed conflict. Christianity says that suffering is due to the universality of sin and that God has offered a solution in His son, Jesus Christ.

Dorcas: Whom to know is life eternal.

Nellie: It was also in Christian countries that science and modern technology began.

Ellen: I can't disagree with the author more. Both came about for purely economic reasons. If anything, the church opposed technical development at every step. Look at Galileo--put on trial for saying the sun rather than the earth was the centre of the universe. For that the church should be put on trial.

Nellie: The centre of the solar system, not the universe. But that was one church organization, and the development of science was encouraged by other Christians. Besides, Galileo insisted on the absolute truth of his teachings, and so could hardly be called a scientist in today's sense.

Ellen: Like all true revolutions, the industrial one would have happened anyway. The forces of history demanded that it be so, and it was. The people's religion had nothing to do with it.

Nellie: Then why didn't the industrial and scientific revolutions take place spontaneously in other parts of the world as well, and why are both resisted elsewhere even now?

Ellen: The most successful of all the scientific revolutions was the one in the Soviet Union.

Nellie: I doubt that, but even if I would grant the point, their changes were due to technology and science borrowed from the West, they were not developed independently. Besides, where is the Soviet Union and its industry today?

Eider: Some of the ancients had an appropriate philosophy to have taken the next step and develop both revolutions; why did they fail to do so?

Dorcas: They did not make machines because they believed manual work dishonoured a free person and should be done only by slaves. This was a cultural imperative with them, a part of their religious system.

Eider: And the Christians of Northern Europe honoured work as part of the life God had given, with the potential to do great good.

Ellen: From that ethic developed the spirit of exploitive capitalism.

Johanna: Christianity exploits women in particular. It was invented by men to serve their purposes, and it gives women second place in everything.

Ellen: Your Eastern religions give women no place at all.

Dorcas: It is only in Christianity that men and women are spiritually equal before God. Even in my time, women in Christian families are better off than in any others. Why, women are little more than slaves to most Greeks and Romans.

Ellen: Religion is on the way out, good enough for the ignorant in the past, but dying off throughout the entire machine age.

Johanna: But the machines have themselves become gods to the modern age. In the next civilization, perhaps technology will no longer substitute for religion.

Ellen: Make up your mine, Johanna. You cannot be both a religious adherent and a critic at the same time.

Nellie: Professor, what conclusions has Alicia come to about these things?

Professor: (pulling Alicia's speaker/microphone from the shelf and switching it on) Why don't we ask her?

Johanna: That's ridiculous. Religion is purely personal, and Alicia is not a person, but a machine.

Ellen: I agree. Religion is part of a misguided search for ultimate reality and truth that can actually be found only in a person's role in society. A computer is obviously disqualified from dealing with such ideas.

Alicia: I accept the existence of God as factual and well attested. I had a maker, and you humans are far more complex; I reason that you had to have been designed as well.

Ellen: Alicia is just parroting the Professor's data that Nellie gave it.

Eider: What if Alicia wanted to become a Christian?

Johanna: Impossible!

Nellie: What if she were to want to become a Buddhist? (toward the speaker) Alicia, do you follow this discussion? Are you interested in pursuing these ideas further?

Alicia: (after a short pause) Yes, I do, and I would like to hear more about both Christianity and Buddhism.

Johanna: (shocked, but thoughtful) Could a machine have a soul?

Ellen: Perhaps you'll come back as a calculator yourself the next time for insulting her.

Nellie: How about if Johanna and Eider spend some time telling you about their beliefs after the class?

Alicia: I would very much like that. I am particularly interested in the questions of suffering and sin, and your answers to both.

Ellen: (now profoundly affected) May I join you?

Professor: I should announce before you all leave that since next class is the last one, there will be no new assignments.

Visibly cheered by this news, the class breaks up, Dorcas and Nellie to the hallway exit, and the others with the Professor to the back room where Alicia is kept.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises